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Volume 36 Issue 3 (April 2005), Pages 259-411


Abstract: This article seeks to explain how thought experiments work, and also the reasons why they can fail. It is divided into four sections. The first argues that thought experiments in philosophy and science should be treated together. The second examines existing accounts of thought experiments and shows why they are inadequate. The third proposes a better account of thought experiments. According to this account, a thought experimenter manipulates her worldview in accord with the “what if” questions posed by a thought experiment. When all necessary manipulations are carried through, the result is either a consistent model or a contradiction. If a consistent model is achieved, the thought experimenter can conclude that the scenario is possible; if a consistent model cannot be constructed, then the scenario is not possible. The fourth section of the article uses this account to shed light on the circumstances in which thought experiments fail.

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