Putting the ‘Experiment’ back into the ‘Thought Experiment’

Synthese 201 (2):1-36 (2023)
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Philosophers have debated at length the epistemological status of scientific thought experiments. I contend that the literature on this topic still lacks a common conceptual framework, a lacuna that produces radical disagreement among the participants in this debate. To remedy this problem, I suggest focusing on the distinction between the internal and the external validity of an experiment, which is also crucial for thought experiments. I then develop an account of both kinds of validity in the context of thought experiments. I show that we can naturally conceptualise internal validity in terms of games of make-believe. Then, I argue that external validity is best defined as accurate representation of a target system. Finally, I turn back to the current debate on thought experiments and show that my diarchic account provides a general framework that can be shared by the competing philosophical views, as well as a fruitful guide for their reconciliation.

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Lorenzo Sartori
London School of Economics


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