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7 Sufficiently Perplexing Thought Experiments

Updated on April 21, 2015

#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?


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    • Luke M Simmons profile image

      Luke M. Simmons 3 years ago from Encinitas, California

      That is a very interesting metaphor Tuesday. Maybe it's possible that we exist within a caused framework that is partially augmentable by quantum fluctuation? Perhaps these fluctuations can be influenced by what we call self? I personally think this is the last shred of hope for meaningful sentience. It would be great if more people were plagued by this type of postulation... great for us at least, maybe not them.

    • Tuesday75 profile image

      Tuesday75 3 years ago from Omaha, NE

      There is a TED talk on sociopaths and they use the same example showing the value in sociopaths. Typically they find a sociopath with have no problem pushing the one person directly into the line of danger to save others whereas others do have problems fulfilling that task because it requires them to physically push someone into the way of danger.

      I believe in free will to a certain degree. Just like atoms on a periodic table, each person has natural boundaries where they can make choices. An alkali earth is an alkali earth metal and will never be a noble gas or a metalloid. You are what you are and you can make choices within that structure.

    • Luke M Simmons profile image

      Luke M. Simmons 3 years ago from Encinitas, California

      Thanks everybody. Tuesday, do sociopaths choose to maximize the group's utility by pulling the switch... or would they maximize their own by simply walking away. Dr. PsyTech, the idea of free will is super interesting to me. I have written more about this topic in The Universe is Absurd: Does Free Will Exist? found here:

    • Tuesday75 profile image

      Tuesday75 3 years ago from Omaha, NE

      Interesting! The first one is commonly used to identify sociopaths.

    • Dr PsyTech profile image

      Travis S Patterson PhD 3 years ago from San Antonio, TX

      These are great scenerios and applied several of these in college courses I have taught.

      On the notion of 'free will', it becomes a deeper question to some and simplistic percpective by others. B. F. Skinner did not believe humans have free will, as we all behave as reaction to a stimulus. Skinner also thought he could eventually create a society that is controllable and predictable...

      On the other hand, religion holds an irony within its own context (not for all). To have free will is to choose our actions, behaviors, attitudes, etc... Yet, if 'god' has a pre-destined plan or fate and one must follow the word of god, how is this considered free will?

    • Spirit Whisperer profile image

      Xavier Nathan 3 years ago from Isle of Man

      What a fabulous collection and each one with an important message that cannot but raise the awareness of the reader to a higher level albeit subliminally for many. Tweeted.

    • Luke M Simmons profile image

      Luke M. Simmons 3 years ago from Encinitas, California

      Thanks kidgrifter, will do.

    • kidgrifter profile image

      kidgrifter 3 years ago from So Cal

      Great stuff! Very interesting read. Keep up the great work.

    • Luke M Simmons profile image

      Luke M. Simmons 3 years ago from Encinitas, California

      I concede that our ideal of time is a manmade construct, but it still has implications for the course of the Universe and all the matter and energy in it. The way we think about time as a constant is incorect, that's all I'm saying. Time is able to be warped, just like everything else.

      I do know a bit about ZPE... it is actually the concept that even vacuous space has a positive energy at its lowest energy state. This has been suggested to account for some of the accelerating expansion of the Universe that we cannot otherwise explain. When virtual particles pop in and out of existence is a separate concept, but they can do so in the aforementioned vacuous space. Either of these ideas could potentially give rise to a net energy gain. That's the idea, at least.

    • Austinstar profile image

      Lela 3 years ago from Somewhere in the universe

      Luke, Time is a man-made construct. Time is a tool for measuring the concept of time. Time itself is meaningless to the universe. Our dates, watches and GPS gizmos are all just a way to mark a spot on a "universe" map. Once you even look at your watch, that time has passed already. Yes, I am aware of the "proof" that time slows down at faster speeds. But I maintain that it is the way we MEASURE time that slows down. That's my theory and I'm sticking to it. (Actual "time" is constant).

      Have you done any research on Zero Point Energy? As I understand it, it is the spontaneous appearance and disappearance of unlimited (infinite) matter/energy particles in any quadrant of space/time. ZPE would provide limitless energy to anyone who can figure out how to harness it, right?

    • Venkatachari M profile image

      Venkatachari M 3 years ago from Hyderabad, India

      Very difficult and perplexing dilemmas. I hope, the train can be stopped by weaving your shirt in the air. That can be one alternative to be considered instead of pushing a person.

      We should try to solve them without inflicting risk to yourself or others' lives.

    • Luke M Simmons profile image

      Luke M. Simmons 3 years ago from Encinitas, California

      @AS: I really like your answer to The Ship of Theseus. I agree that technically the only things that can have meaningful identity are quantum particles (not atoms, close tho) since they are supposed to be indivisible. I mean, we did used to think atoms were "that which can't be split," so it's possble the same is true of quantum particles, but I doubt it.

      On relativity, we fully know that time is malleable. If we didn't account for general relativity in satellites, the GPS in our phones wouldn't work at all. Again, we have tested this with actual clocks and jets. I'm not just saying these things, they are wholly verifiable by even the most cursory internet search. It's super hard to accept, but that doesn't mean it isn't true. For me, the evidence outweighs my desire to more easily understand the cosmos.

    • Austinstar profile image

      Lela 3 years ago from Somewhere in the universe

      These are indeed thought provoking and intriguing problems to ponder. But the only one we really need is, "I think, therefore, I am". Thanks for the smiles.

      BTW, I would definitely push the one person in front of the train to save the five. LOL

      And if I am EVER arrested by the cops, I will keep my mouth SHUT! except to say, "lawyer".

      No, I don't want the perfect "experience" unless I can turn it on and off at will.

      I think Einstien's theory of time slowing down is wrong. We don't age at different speeds, we just go faster and farther in the same time period.

      As for free will, everyone is fooling themselves about that. We don't have much of a choice at all really. We are born, we live, we die. The only thing we control is the middle part.

      On the Theseus ship, even if one atom is changed, it is no longer the same ship. On a beach, if one grain of sand is subtracted, it is no longer the same beach. So, no, we are not the same people after seven years, even after seven seconds. Life goes on....

    • Luke M Simmons profile image

      Luke M. Simmons 3 years ago from Encinitas, California

      @Jodah: thank you very much.

    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 3 years ago from Queensland Australia

      Wow Luke. These are really thought provoking and intriguing scenarios. What an amazing hub. Voted up and shared,


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