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7 thought experiments that will make you question everything

From "Thompson's violinist" to the "Experience Machine," these thought experiments will throw your mind for a loop

By | Scotty Hendricks |

Thought experiments are among the most important tools in the intellectual toolbox. Widely used in many disciplines, thought experiments allow for complex situations to be explored, questions to be raised, and complex ideas to be placed in an understandable context. Here are seven thought experiments in philosophy you might not have heard of, complete with explanations of what they mean and what questions they raise.


Written by Donald Davidson in 1987, this thought experiment raises questions about identity.

Suppose a man is out for a walk one day when a bolt of lightning disintegrates him. Simultaneously, a bolt of lightning strikes a marsh and causes a bunch of molecules to spontaneously rearrange into the same pattern that constituted that man a few moments ago. This “Swampman” has an exact copy of the brain, memories, patterns of behavior as he did. It goes about its day, works, interacts with the man’s friends and is otherwise indistinguishable from him.

Question: Is the Swampman the same person as the disintegrated fellow?

Davidson said no. He argues that while they are physically identical and nobody would ever notice the difference, they don’t share a casual history and can’t be the same. For example, while the Swampman would remember the friends of the disintegrated man, it never saw them before. Another person saw them and the Swampman just has his memories.

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