The worst thought experiments imaginable
While the rest of us do good, honest work like podcasting and influence, there is a group of “thinkers” who conduct horrible experiments. They conjure pedantic monsters, murder countless cats, and put humans inside computers.
Of course, these “thought experiments” are all in their heads. But that’s how it starts. First you don’t know if the cat is dead or alive, then a demon opens the box and we’re all in the matrix.
Unfortunately, there are only two ways to fight science and philosophy:
- With more science and philosophy
- With the criticism
So we’ll arm ourselves with the collective knowledge of those who’ve come before us (ahem, Google Scholar) and critique so sarcastically they might tank a Netflix Original. And we’ll decide once and for all which big, bright ideas are the worst.
The Worst Scientific Thought Experiment Ever
What if I told you there was a club that offered free lunch every time it was opened? Some of you are reading this and thinking “Is Neural Suggesting We Eat Dead Cats?”
No. I’m talking about a different box from a different thought experiment. Erwin Schrödinger’s cat actually appeared some 68 years after James Clerk Maxwell’s demon.
In Maxwell’s Demon we have a box with a door in the middle separating its contents (a bunch of particles) into two sides. Outside the box is what Maxwell calls a be finished (which other scientists later inexplicably decided was a demon) who acts as a guardian.
So this “demon being” controls which particles go from one side of the box to the other. And, because particle behavior varies at different temperatures, that means the demon is able to harness physics to harness the energy of the universe’s tendency toward entropy.
This particular thought experiment is horrible. A sin: it’s terribly good to be awesome!
Maxwell’s demon has managed to stand the test of time and, a century and a half later, it is at the heart of the quantum computing industry. It might be the best science thought experiment ever.
the worse is actually Szilard’s engine. But you have to go through Maxwell’s Demon to get there. For in Szilard’s box, rather than Maxwell’s Demon exploiting the trends of the universe, the universe exploits Maxwell’s Demon.
Szilard’s work imagines a single-molecule motor inside the box that results in a system where entropy works differently than it does in Maxwell’s experiment.
This difference of opinion on the effectiveness of entropy has caused a mess.
It all started when scientists came up with the second law of thermodynamics, which simply says that if you drop an ice cube into a pot of boiling water, it won’t make the water hotter.
Well, Maxwell’s Daemon is basically saying “sure, but what if we’re talking about really tiny things undergoing somewhat quantum interactions?” It made a lot of sense and led to many breakthroughs in the field of quantum physics.
But then Szilard comes in and says, “Oh yeah, what if the system only had one molecule and, like, the demon was really bored?”
Those are probably not their exact words. I am, admittedly, guessing. The thing is, Szilard’s Engine was hard to swallow when he wrote it in 1929, and it’s only come under more scrutiny since.
Don’t take my word for it. It’s so horrific that John D. Norton, a scientist in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Pittsburgh, once wrote a comprehensive research paper describing it as “the worst thought experiment.”
In their review, Norton wrote:
In its ability to engender mischief and confusion, Szilard’s thought experiment is unmatched. This is the worst thought experiment I know of in science. Let me count the ways he misled us.
It’s borderline hate poetry and I love it. The only criticism I have to add is that it’s absurd that Szilard didn’t reinvent everything as “Szilard’s lizard”.
The missed opportunity alone earns it our “worst scientific thought experiment” seal.
The Worst Philosophical Thought Experiment Ever
Honestly, I would say René Descartes’ “cogito ergo sum” is the worst thought experiment of all time. But there is not much to discuss.
Have you ever met someone who, if they started a sentence with “I think”, you would want to interrupt them to disagree? Imagine that, but at the level of the multiverse.
Accepting Descartes’ premise requires two leaps of faith in just three words and I’m not prepared to give anyone that much credit.
But, of course, these are fruits at hand. So let’s throw another twist in this article and discuss my favorite newspaper of all time because it is also worst philosophical thought experiment ever.
Nick Bostrom’s “Simulation Argument” sits at the intersection of lazy physics and brilliant philosophy. It’s like the Han Solo of thought experiments: you love it because it’s so simple, not despite that.
It goes like this: What if, like, we lived inside a computer?
In fairness, here’s how Bostrom puts it:
This article argues that at least one of the following is true: (1) the human species is very likely to become extinct before reaching a “posthuman” stage; (2) a posthuman civilization is extremely unlikely to run a significant number of simulations of its evolutionary history (or variations thereof); (3) we almost certainly live in a computer simulation.
Think about it for a second.
Do? Good. It doesn’t go any further. It’s really fair, What if it was all just a dream? But instead of a dream, we are digital entities in a computer simulation.
It’s uh, kinda stupid, isn’t it?
But that’s not to say Bostrom’s article isn’t important. I think it’s the most influential thought experiment since Descartes’ off-putting insistence on his own existence (self involved a lot D?)
Bostrom’s a master philosopher because he understands that the heart of explanation is not to weigh down a reader with a non-essential thought, but to strip him down. He understands perfection like Antoine de Saint Exupéry when he declared that it was achieved “not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing more to take away.
Bostrom whittled the mock argument down with Occam’s razor until it became an article capable of outsmarting your biggest “yes but, what about…”. questions before you can think about it.
Yet you don’t have to be the head of the philosophy department at Oxford to wonder if life is anything but a dream.
The worst thought experiment(s) of all time
There’s no official name for this one, so we’ll just call it “This time the people who built the A-bomb must have spent a few hours wondering if they were about to put the fire to the atmosphere before deciding that the math looked good and it was all going to be okay.”
A close runner-up for this award is “That time the Nazis’ most famous quantum physicist was asked if it was possible that Germany’s weapons could blow up the Earth setting all the oceans on fire and he answered : lol, maybe.”
If I can channel our friend John D. Norton from above: these thought experiments are the worst. Let me list the ways I hate them.
The Axis and the Allies were not far apart in their respective efforts to create a weapon of mass destruction during World War II.
Of course, we know how things happened: the Germans never got there and the United States managed to avoid burning down the planet by dropping atomic bombs on the civilian populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
In reality, Albert Einstein and company on the Allied side and Warner Heisenberg and his crew on the Axis side were never concerned with setting off a globally catastrophic chain reaction by detonating an atomic bomb. Both parties had done the math and determined that it wasn’t really a problem.
Unfortunately, the reason we are aware of this is that both parties were keen to talk to strangers as well. Heisenberg made a famous joke of it to a German politician. And Arthur Compton, who had worked with Einstein and others on The Manhattan Project, gave a now infamous interview in which he made it sound like the possibility of such a tragic event was far greater than it realized. was actually.
This is our pick for the worst thought experiment(s) ever, because clearly the Axis and Allies were pretty far along in the process of building atomic bombs before anyone stopped and thought “hey guys, are we going to blow up the planet if we do this?”
That’s the tip of the day one right there. This is a question you should have to answer during orientation. You don’t start building a real atomic bomb and then hold a general meeting to dig the whole kill all life thing.
We can do better
These are all great examples of terrible thought experiments. For scientists and philosophers anyway. But everyone knows the worst ideas come from journalists.
I think I can come up with a terrible thought experiment that will outweigh each of the points above. All I have to do is reverse engineer someone else’s work and rephrase it with some extra nonsense (hey, that worked for Szilard, didn’t it?).
So let’s do that. The most important part of any thought experiment is its title. We need to combine the name of a important scientist with a scientific creature if we want to be taken seriously like “Maxwell” and his “Demon” or “Schrödinger” and his “Cat”.
And, while substance isn’t really what we’re looking for here, we still need a real problem that remains unsolved, that can be solved with a vapid premise, and that’s accessible to intellects of all levels.
So, without further ado, I present to you:Ogre of Ogre,” a thought experiment that uses all the best ideas from the dumb ideas mentioned above but contains none of their weaknesses (like math and the scientific method).
Unlike those theories, Ogre’s Ogre doesn’t require you to understand or know anything. It’s just quietly coaxing you into a natural state of curiosity.
In short, the Ogre of Ogre is not a gifted like the others. Where Maxwell’s Daemon demonizes particles by maximizing entropy bias, and Szilar’s engine only engages in entropy in isolated incidents, Ogre’s Ogre blatantly accepts all contingencies.
It goes like this: “And if CAT was really written dog?”