- Education and Science
7 Sufficiently Perplexing Thought Experiments
#1: The Trolley Problem
Imagine you are standing next to some train tracks. Some nefarious individual has tied five people to the tracks in some diabolical Snidely Whiplash type scenario. You hear a bellowing whistle in the distance. There is no time to untie them. These people are toast. You then notice there is another set of tracks with just one person tied to them. You are standing at the switch. Do you pull the trigger, killing one person to spare the lives of five? Lenard Nemoy, or rather the character that said, "the needs of many outweigh the needs of the few," would argue you should.
Let's change things up a bit. Now there is only one set of tracks with five people tied down. There is also a person standing closer to the train, right in front of you. If you pushed this person into the train, it would stop in time to save the five people. This is where most people change their answer. Why does this change anything? You are still choosing between saving one life or five. Does the mechanism of the switch allow people to dissociate themselves from the act of killing the one person? Is the act of phycially pushing someone to their death really different than pulling a switch? Why should this matter at all, when it doesn't in all practical application?
#2: The Prisoner's Dilemma
You and an accomplice have been suspected of murder. The interrogator says that if you snitch on the other person, and he remains silent, you will be granted immunity. If you say nothing, and he snitches, you will be given the electric chair. If you both snitch, you both get 30 years. If you both remain silent, you will be serving 3 years.
Obviously, the best choice for the party as a whole is for you both to remain silent. If you were able to talk with the accomplice, this is what you would agree on, but there would be no guarantee. If either of you betrays this trust, the other is going to fry. So here's the question, what do you do? If you remain silent, you are either getting 3 years or the electric chair. If you snitch, you will get immunity or 30 years. Surprisingly, two individuals acting with complete self interest will always choose to snitch and get 30 years. This is ten times more than the mutually beneficial outcome of remaining silent and getting 3 years.
#3: The Experience Machine
This thought experiment was popularized by the 1999 Action/Fantasy film, The Matrix. Here's how it goes. There is a sophisticated neurological attachment that allows you to program and experience anything you want, and it feels indistinguishable from reality. You can realize all of your innermost dreams and desires. While you are hooked up to this machine, you have no knowledge of what is really happening, only what you have programmed yourself to experience.
So here's the question: would you hook into this machine? Your existence would be infinitely better if you did. There would be no suffering, no unhappiness, no death, no loss. There would only be pure, exhilarating joy. Why do we have this need to know what reality is? We already know that our primary senses are flawed, causing us to experience a skewed version already. We have no way of knowing what we view as reality even exists. Why are we so unable to reject reality and submit ourselves to complete existential fulfillment?
#4: Concept of Simultaneity
Now it's time to get into some heavy relativistic physics. One of the fundamental truths about physics is that light moves at a constant velocity. Imagine there is a person on a train. Light on that train moves at the same speed as light for an observer on the ground. Because the person on the train is moving faster, shouldn't his measure of the speed of light be faster? The crazy thing is that it isn't.
Velocity is determined by distance/time. Since the distance traveled by light is less for the guy on the train, that means that time must also be less for him within the same moments. What we have found out is that time is actually dependent on relative velocities. Things that are moving fast experience less time during the same events as things that are moving slowly. This phenomenon gives rise to the twin paradox, which is not really a paradox, but is nonetheless explained below.
#5: The Twin Paradox
Like I said before, this is not really a paradox, it's just the way relativity works. Imagine there is a set of twins. One of these twins is very lucky, because he has become an astronaut. Now, say we put this twin in a spaceship and send him very far, very fast. When he comes back, he will actually be younger than his twin.
For example, if we send the astronaut 4 light years, yes that is a measure of distance, at 80% the speed of light, when he returns 10 Earth-years later, he will be 4 years younger than his twin. This isn't science fiction, this is fact. I'm not just saying that like how some people claim facts, we have actually tested this with hyper-sensitive clocks and supersonic jets. This is the reality we live in on a daily basis.
#6: Dilemma of Free WIll
Our brains are made up of matter and energy, just like everything else. We have even been able to configure matter and energy into computers to do calculations. Now the question is, what separates our brains from computers? They do the same things with the same materials. Information is put into them, and they respond. For every action, there is a cause. We call this system causality. As far as we know, everything works this way.
This has a startling implication for the concept of free will. If free will exists, it will mean that our actions are dictated by something other than causality. We have never been able to prove an event that was not caused. Why would our brains be the exception this rule? We have no reason to believe so. Conversely, if free will does not exist, this means that we are inherently irresponsible for our actions. Nothing that we have done or will do is the result of what we choose to call our selves. So we have to ask, which of these mutually exclusive notions is true?
#7: The Ship of Theseus
Imagine an old wooden ship that is aggressively falling apart. Let's call this The Ship of Theseus. Now, you replace one plank in the ship with a new one, is this still The Ship of Theseus? Of course it is, we're not going to rename the ship every time we replace a beam. Now, over a long period of time, one by one, you replace the planks in this ship until none of the original pieces of wood comprise the ship. Is this still The Ship of Theseus?
This thought experiment is meant to highlight the fallacy of identity. We choose to aggregate individual components of a thing and call that whole thing a thing. This is just a socially constructed way of dealing with macroscopic objects. Now, where things get really freaky is when we analyze the human body. As you may know, we fully recycle the cells in our body slowly over the course of about 7 years. Does that mean that we are an entirely new person after this time period? Are you really who you were 7 years ago?