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Thought Experiment - Solving real problems with imaginary thinking

"How many men?" is a thought experiment used to demonstrate the concept of taxation as theft. The experiment uses a series of questions to posit a difference between criminal acts and majority rule. For example, one version asks, "Is it theft if one man steals a car?" "What if a gang of five men steal the car?" "What if a gang of ten men take a vote (allowing the victim to vote as well) on whether to steal the car before stealing it?" "What if one hundred men take the car and give the victim back a bicycle?" or "What if two hundred men not only give the victim back a bicycle but buy a poor person a bicycle, as well?" The experiment challenges an individual to determine how large a group is required before the taking of an individual's property becomes the "democratic right" of the majority

What is thought experiment?
Thought experiments are devices of the imagination used to investigate the nature of things
Most often thought experiments are communicated in narrative form, frequently with diagrams.

The 17th century saw some of its most brilliant practitioners in Galileo, Descartes, Newton, and Leibniz. And in our own time, the creation of quantum mechanics and relativity are almost unthinkable without the crucial role played by thought experiments

Two common phrases we use are kind of thought experiments only - 

  • Chicken and Egg problem - This paradox leads to the question of origin of life & universe
  • More you know the more questions you have - This paradox advocates the concept of lifelong learning as ideally more I know the more I'll realize that there are many things of which I am unaware. For instance, suppose I know when am I going to die, then I’ll have more questions – can I save myself? If I save myself then what will happen to the events triggered by my death

Types of thought experiments

Prefactual – As the name suggests, these includes experiments which does not involve any facts. They contemplate on future outcomes basis present state. E.g. ‘What will happen if asteroid hits the earth?’

Counterfactual – It includes contemplating the alternate past event. Thinking contrary to past known events E.g. ‘If dot com bubble not busted in 90s then what happened?’

Semi-factual – Thinking of how an alternate action in the past event would still lead to the same. E.g. ‘If instead of Hitler, Germany had some other ruler, then would the World War still happened?’

Prediction– Understanding future outcomes by projecting current state. It can be of near future as well as long term E.g. ‘If it continues to rain like this, then will it be safe for me to go on trekking next month?’

Hindcasting– Running a forecasting model on historical event to confirm the functionality of forecasting model E.g. ‘Could this model have predicted the past 100 years famine?’

Retrodiction – This one is step-graded approach where in small periodic steps move backwards in the past and then try to establish root cause of the current event. E.g. ‘How human beings evolved over the time? Can we predict survival genes from the study?’

Backcasting – Involves establishing the description of a very definite and very specific future situation. It then involves an imaginary moving backwards in time, step-by-step, in as many stages as are considered necessary, from the future to the present to reveal the mechanism through which that particular specified future could be attained from the present. E.g. ‘If ruling government wins the election next year, then what would have caused it?’

 4 Popular thought experiments

The Chinese Room: Imagine a native English speaker sitting in a room, with no knowledge of the Chinese language. In this room, he has a box full of Chinese symbols, and a book for how to use these symbols. There are people outside of the room, who slide Chinese writing under the door. These writings are questions, unbeknownst to the one in the room. Our English speaker uses his book to give the proper response with his symbols. To an outside observer, it may appear as though this person is capable of speaking Chinese, but in reality, he is just following a set of instructions. This thought experiment has implications in the field of artificial intelligence, and is often used as an argument for the inability of machines to gain consciousness

Unexpected Hanging: A man commits a murder, and is sentenced to death by hanging. He is told that his execution will be on one of the five days of the week, but it will be a complete surprise. So, the prisoner is turning it over in his head, and comes to a sudden realization. If it is to be a surprise, then it surely can’t happen on Friday. After all of the days of the week up to Thursday pass, he will know it will come on Friday. With Thursday as the new last day of the week, he uses this same line of reasoning. He then proceeds to use it on every day until he concludes that he will not be executed. Much to his surprise, he was hanged on Wednesday.

The Experience Machine: This one is closely related to the brain in a vat. One day, a technology is created that allows you to upload your brain to a virtual paradise. You will be as happy as you can possibly be. There is a catch though. It is a one-way ticket, and once inside, you forget about your past life. What decision do you make? Do you choose the real world, or the virtual paradise? The reluctance people have to enter the paradise reveals that what we perceive as reality may hold some intrinsic value

The Twin Paradox is one of the biggest debates regarding Einstein’s theory of relativity. In the paradox, we have two identical twins at the start. One twin takes a rocket into space at near the speed of light, while the other remains on Earth and awaits his return. From the perspective of Earth, time is moving more slowly on the spacecraft because of its high velocity. If the round trip were to take five years at 99.9 percent the speed of light, 100 years would have passed on Earth. So, the Earthbound twin would likely be dead of old age, while his twin brother only aged five years

Why we need it? – How thought experiments can shape your thoughts

Let’s create few thought experiments and see how or where they can be used and can we get anything out of them besides the pleasure of solving things in imagination

Thought Experiment - If you had to choose between saving your mother or your wife from drowning, what decision would you make? Since they both represent equally important relationships, this paradox states that a rational decision is impossible

A rational decision cannot be made where no evident pro or con is to be found in either choice

How can it be used? - Starbucks followed this thought process when they started. You can compare coffee taste to coffee taste or maybe prices vs. prices or some of us can go one step deeper by comparing services to services. But how can you compare the aroma? Or the uncommon coffee names with the regular ones? They created the experience in addition to service and coffee at higher price and looking at their current state, it’s safe to say that they were successful

Lesson # 1 – Make your product or services differentiated from the competitors on the non-comparable parameters. If they are better on prices, offer exceptional service. If their service is also good, offer additional warranty and so on

Thought Experiment – What would happen if I am the source of all the bad things in my life? What if everything happening is my fault?

How can it be used? – Whenever things are not going our way, most of us think of them as an external fault. And as we can’t control the external factors so we surrender to these misfortunes and that’ the worse part. Flat tire of the car? Glass pieces were on the road. You couldn’t get preferred time for dental appointment? Doctor must be busy. Meeting didn’t go well? Lot of information is dumped on me last minute. Well yes there will be external circumstances influencing your current situation but not always. Also, once a victim of external circumstances doesn’t mean you’ll continue to suffer. What If everything happening is my fault? My fault of being silent or not taking action or not showing my discomfort. If dental appointment is at inconvenient time then have I checked for alternate options? If too much information is dumped at the last minute then have I showed my discomfort?

Lesson # 2 -  It’s easier to surrender ourselves to external circumstances, but it can be beneficial for us to check what if these ‘external’ circumstances are created internally only

Thought Experiment – Whenever confused between choices, sit back, relax and imagine yourself in future and think - What would happen if you get x? What if I become y?

How can it be used? – All of us faced those decision-making scenarios where we were not sure of which option to pick. During those times, one solution can be future travel (not literally!) That moment, you can ask the questions about the options. To take my example, few years back, I was employed at prestigious global company with decent salary but monotonous work. When things became really intolerable, I envisioned my future – what would happen if I become manager in this company with the same profile? Certainly, money should be good, so should be the reputation but at the cost of the dull work? How would I look? How much contribution I’ll be making to a society? How much closer or far I’ll be from my life goals? After such thought and visions, I wasn’t excited. This helped me in making a decision of job switch

Lesson # 3 – Thought experiments can be used to investigate your motivations. Similarly, you can use them to observe your emotions and reactions to the people or situations

Thought Experiment – What would have person A done in my position?

How can it be used? – Many centuries ago, stoics regularly practiced this technique where they create a role model (real or functional) and then thought what would have that person did in the current scenario? This definitely can be an effective method to handle the rough waters. For instance, Indian cricketer, M.S. Dhoni is considered as a calm and cool person. The same was demonstrated on game field many a times. Now if you consider him as your role model then think what would have done in your situation? Maybe kept his cool, think of alternate options and so on.
I slightly modified this thought experiment where instead of thinking from role model perspective, I consider it from subject matter expert perspective. What would have Tim Ferris done if he has to run a podcast from scratch? How would have Steve Jobs marketed this product? How would have Stephen king written a story?

Lesson # 4 – By wearing a thinking hat of our role model, critic or subject expertise we can come up with the potential questions and answers. To know how I or my product will be evaluated by stakeholders, I should know how my stakeholders think

Thought Experiment – Whenever certain physical misfortune occurs, say breakdown of a car, we hear condolences in the form of – “Everything happens for good cause. In a way, you helped the poor mechanic” Well economically, definitely its good as these misfortunes spread the money within whole economy. But alternate view to it can be the money I gave to poor mechanic might have been gone to poor beggar or poor valet parking guy.

How can it be used? – We can use it to have an argument against the war.
The argument can be made that war is a benefactor to society, since historically it often has focused the use of resources and triggered advances in technology and other areas while reducing unemployment. The increased production and employment associated with war often cause some people to claim that "war is good for the economy." However, the money spent on the war effort, for example, is money that cannot be spent on food, clothing, health care, or other industries

Lesson # 5 - The stimulus felt in one sector of the economy comes at a direct – but hidden – cost to other sectors

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