Title: The structure of scientific thought experiments
Abstract: In my philosophy dissertation, divided into three parts, I analyze scientific thought experiments (TEs):
In Part I, I defend a functional classification of scientific TEs as refutational and exploratory scientific tools. It is supported by seven case studies taken from the history of physics: Galileo’s Pisa tower, Maxwell’s demon, Einstein’s photon box (and Bohr’s reply), Schrödinger’s cat, Einstein’s elevator, Langevin twins and Newton’s canon ball. I mainly rely on each author’s original text to show the use made of each TE by each scientist.
In Part II, I examine the current epistemic debate on TEs, mainly opposing John D. Norton and James Robert Brown. This debate revolves around Brown’s analysis of Galileo Pisa tower TE. I thus retrace its history and show its true function for Galileo. Contrary to Brown, I argue that the TE per se had only a refutational function for Galileo. This lead me to refute Brown’s account and underline some problems in Norton’s.
In Part III, I briefly examine several epistemic accounts found in the literature and argue that they are too restrictive: most require that the scenario of a successful TE should be realisable in principle (i.e. nomologically possible, that is possibility under certain theory, law or principle), if not the TE fails. To the contrary, I defend that some latitude must be given to the scientist in conceiving his/her scenario: In some cases, TEs involve nologically impossible scenarios and even scenarios whose nomological possibility remains indeterminate (e.g. Maxwell's demon). I finally propose and defend a novel "non-reductive", "non-restrictive" account of scientific TEs. In it, I characterise TEs as inconsistency revealers and eliminators and argue that they share a common general structure. This structure appraises TEs as autonomous, sui generis scientific tool (thus this account is non-reductive) and accounts for unrealisable in principle TEs (thus it is also non-restrictive).