Thought Experiments and Religion
Summary and Keywords
Thought experiments are basically imagined scenarios with a significant experimental character. Some of them justify claims about the world outside of the imagination. Originally they were a topic of scholarly interest exclusively in philosophy of science. Indeed, a closer look at the history of science strongly suggests that sometimes thought experiments have more than merely entertainment, heuristic, or pedagogic value. But thought experiments matter not only in science. The scope of scholarly interest has widened over the years, and today we know that thought experiments play an important role in many areas other than science, such as philosophy, history, and mathematics. Thought experiments are also linked to religion in a number of ways. Highlighted in this article are those links that pertain to the core of religions (first link), the relationship between science and religion in historical and systematic respects (second link), the way theology is conducted (third link), and the relationship between literature and religion (fourth link).
Thirty years of philosophical debate over the merits and perils of thought experiments have not produced a widely accepted definition of this moot epistemic device. This is due to a general failure of traditional conceptual analysis and the concern that a definition could prejudge the outcome of an investigation into thought experiments. In consequence, any discussion of thought experiments must begin with a closer look at examples. The most often discussed example is ascribed to Galileo.1 It brings us back to the period when the foundations of modern physics were laid. James R. Brown has advanced a startling reading of it:
Galileo asks us to imagine a heavy ball attached by a string to a light ball … What would happen if they were released together? Reasoning in the Aristotelian fashion leads to an absurdity. The lighter ball would slow up the heavy one, so the speed of the combined balls would be slower than the heavy ball alone (i.e., H + L < H). However, since the combined balls are heavier than the heavy ball alone, the combined object should fall faster than the heavy one (i.e., H < H + L). We have a straightforward contradiction; the old theory is destroyed. Moreover, the new theory is established; the question of which falls faster is obviously resolved by having all objects fall at the same speed. Here we have a transition from one theory to another which is quite remarkable. There has been no new empirical evidence. The old theory was rationally believed before the thought experiment but was shown to be absurd by it. The thought experiment established rational belief in a new theory.2
The example and Brown’s reading of it have no direct relation to the topic of this entry. Their relevance is more indirect, and the remainder of this introduction will bring out its importance, including its significance for the ongoing philosophical debate over scientific thought experiments.
Brown’s central claim is that Galileo’s thought experiment is exemplary of those that help us learn new things about the world. He rightly disregards the intriguing debate about the role played by real-world experiments in Galileo’s thought, because his epistemology is not committed to the view that experiments outside of the imagination were irrelevant in Galileo’s refutation of Aristotelian physics. Brown is also not committed to the view that experience does not play any role whatsoever in learning through thought experiments generally. Both physical experiments outside of the imagination and experience with the mind-independent world do matter in science, but they do not replace the role that scientific thought experiments play. More specifically, with respect to the Galileo example, Brown claims that the thought experiment in question provides an important justificatory step in moving away from Aristotle’s theory toward a new theory of motion. We do not need anything but the thought experiment to see that Galileo was right in rejecting Aristotle’s view of motion. Brown’s position does not imply the historical claim that the thought experiment exhausts the evidence Galileo made available to support his theory of motion. It also does not imply the systematic claim that thought experiments could ever amount to evidence sufficient enough to justify a theory change. What Brown claims is that the thought experiment has epistemic power beyond merely helping improve our understanding of complex states of affairs, or illustrating an insight gained through experiments outside of the imagination. The thought experiment itself facilitates an insight. If that insight can be gained by other means as well, all the better. The more sources of evidence that can be employed to support a scientific claim, the better it is. There is no need to read Brown’s Platonism in terms of a thought-experiment chauvinism. Thought experiments have a unique source of evidence, compared to other scientific methods, and Brown uses the conceptual resources of Platonism to characterize it.
The epistemic power of thought experiments is due to a Platonic intuition. When we conduct Galileo’s thought experiment, for example, we come to see that the Aristotelian view of motion is simply self-contradictory, contends Brown. He describes that intuition positively as analogous to vision. Comparable to the way we are able to see things accessible to vision, the mind has the ability to grasp abstract states of affairs. Metaphorically, they are located in “Plato's heaven” because the intuition in question is characterized as Platonic by Brown. Negatively, this Platonic intuition is qualified by arguing against the possibility of reducing the cognitive processes it involves to inferences by means of propositional reasoning. The new theory of motion is not the result of inferences. Of course, we can reconstruct the steps of the intuition using familiar schemes of inferences. But this is after-the-fact reconstruction, and should not be confused with the Platonic intuition that explains the cognitive power of Galileo’s thought experiment. Every real-world experiment can be subjected to a reconstruction in terms of established schemes of inferences. Scientific textbooks contain those reconstructions. But nobody would say that the reconstructed inferential steps are what happens when real-world experiments are conducted.
Brown has not a single follower in current discussions on thought experiments, even though his work is arguably the most inspiring in the history of the philosophical investigation into the cognitive role of the imagination in science. Most of his central claims lack popularity, and the empiricist and naturalist alternatives seem more attractive.3 In particular, nobody wants to follow Brown in his proposition that sometimes thought experiments help us to “peek into Plato's heaven.” This is a place beyond space and time, and in this respect similar to the place where God resides, according to some religious traditions. Brown is a very committed atheist, and he rests content with a heavenly ontology that includes only universals, such as redness, sharpness, roundness, or justice. Of central interest to Brown are the relations among those universals, especially the necessity relations. Those relations are discerned by the mind in the case of Galileo’s thought experiment. It is this operation of the human mind that allows us to turn empirical regularities into actual laws of nature. We should not be surprised, therefore, that Galileo’s thought experiments enabled the discovery of a new law of nature.
Brown’s Platonic account of thought experiments is undoubtedly demanding, although a significant number of practicing scientists are more inclined to accept his epistemology than are most philosophers of science.4 In fact, the proposed epistemology is less problematic than often stated. The three common objections are relatively weak, relative to the epistemological challenge that thought experiments pose. The first objection is ontological, and concerns Brown’s assumption that universals exist mind-independently. That claim is said to violate the principle of ontological parsimony. But that principle is of little philosophical merit. The principle of ontological parsimony states that a theory is the better the fewer entities it postulates. If you have two theories, one postulating less than the other, we should go with the one that is committing to less. Philosophically more plausible, however, is to demand that a theory postulate only as many entities as necessary, and that any assessment of the necessity in question depends on the theory under consideration relative to the overall explanatory value. The principle of ontological parsimony is most certainly useless as a criterion to judge a theory’s quality, for whatever is eliminated by this principle can be reintroduced by an inference to the best explanation.5 Epistemologically, and this brings us to the second objection, Brown’s account assumes an unexplainable capability of the mind to get in touch with those universals. The unexplainability is a problem, but not a severe one, since it is not unique to Brown’s Platonism. Among philosophers and scientists, it is a very common theoretical strategy to attribute capabilities to the mind to explain the workings of the mind, without providing an explanation for the capabilities themselves. In other words, Brown’s Platonism certainly satisfies established patterns of theoretical procedure. Moreover, he does not assume the most epistemologically demanding theory of the mind that is available today. Good examples for epistemologies that are more demanding in this respect are those implied in theories of “Emotional Intelligence”6 and “Evolutionary Psychology.”7 The third objection is metaphysical. Brown assumes that laws of nature basically capture the relationship among universals. The controversy about the nature of the laws of nature is so intricate, however, that little can be gained from it to dismiss Brown’s Platonism as metaphysically unsupportable. To appreciate the complexity that surrounds the discussion about laws of nature, one need only recall Richard Swinburne’s objection that a Platonic theory of laws of nature is metaphysically too demanding even to be taken seriously as a philosophical account of laws of nature. At the same time, Swinburne defends classical theism. Brown is rightfully surprised by Swinburne’s objection to his Platonic account of laws of nature, given the fact that classical theism is arguably the most metaphysically demanding theory in contemporary philosophy of religion.8
The relative poverty of the objections might explain why Brown’s account of thought experiments continues to be subjected to scrutiny. Another likely reason is the fact that there is widespread agreement with Brown that thought experiments played an important role in the history of science, and that sometimes we can actually learn new things about the world by means of thought experiments.9 In conjunction with the prima-facie plausibility of Brown’s empowerment of the mind, this agreement among the contributors to the field is of great significance in the present context because it instills optimism that there is more to the relationship between thought experiments and religion than a shared heroic flight into fantasy.10 That is not the way to go in relating the two. Naturalistic conceptions of the mind and empiricist theories of its capabilities are not without serious alternatives. The fact that the mind is “not just an afterthought or an accident or an add-on, but a basic aspect of nature”11 has important consequences for religion and thought experiments, including their relationship. In particular, we have reason to be critical about claims that the only link between them is that both follow in an irrational manner illusions of the mind. Indeed, there are more interesting ways to relate them. At least four links can be identified. The first concerns the core of religions; the second, the relationship between science and religion in both historical and systematic perspectives. The way theology is conducted provides a third, and the relationship between literature and religion a fourth link.
First Link (A): Beyond Platonism toward Religious Thought Experiments
As to the first link, it seems that all religions tell a story about the world as it could be or could have been if certain things did not or had not happened. The world as we know it is imagined as very different, in either its origins or its future, or both. A good example is the narrative about Adam and Eve in the Jewish and Christian scriptural canon. Arguably at its center is a transgression that led to the expulsion of humanity from Paradise. Of course, there is much more to the story than that. The aspect of a transgression with significant consequences for humanity is one of many aspects the narrative brings to light. The biblical text inevitably fuels the imagination about the original state of human nature. The reader learns that Adam and Eve are humans the way God wanted humanity to be. For those to whom the narrative is part of a sacred text and who hold a cognitive interest in humanity’s original condition, the text must disappoint, however. Little if anything is really revealed about the original state of humanity. The text reveals very little if taken by the letter. If you are interested in the sex life of humanity as originally created, the use of the imagination is inevitable. Did they have genitals? If so, why? Were they mortal and needed to procreate so that humanity would survive, or was sex meant to be more than a means to survival? Or you might wonder if Adam and Eve enjoyed food. If so, why? Only mortal bodies need food. Was eating meant to do more than simply nourish the body? Many more questions could be, and have been, asked, and this with different aims and answers in mind.12 For example, Stephen J. Gould reminds us of the work of the 19th-century English naturalist and popularizer of science Henry Gosse, and his view that God gave Adam a navel in order to give the appearance of preexistence. Gosse “labeled as ‘prochronic’, or occurring outside of time those appearances of pre-existence actually fashioned by God at the moment of creation but seeming to mark earlier stages in the circle of life. Subsequent events occurring after creation, und unfolding in conventional time, he called ‘diachronic’. Adam's navel was prochronic, the 930 years of his earthly life diachronic.”13 Accordingly, “Gosse could accept strata and fossils as illusory and still advocate their study because he did not regard the prochronic part of a cycle as any less ‘true’ or informative than its conventional diachronic segment.”14 According to Gosse’s prochronism, those strata and fossils are prochronic in the same way as Adam’s navel. This was Gosse’s way of reconciling Christianity, on the one hand, and the emerging theories about the evolution of organisms and the age of the earth in the 19th-century, on the other. Other examples of ways in which the story of Adam and Eve inspired the imagination can be found in the midrashim—playful biblical commentaries that became part of the Jewish tradition. They reflect the rich imagination of rabbinical Judaism in dealing with the texts of the Torah.15
It is obvious why the imagination takes precedence over empirical investigation in religious interpretations of the story of Adam and Eve. Experience cannot help the faithful to answer important questions about the original state of humanity. According to the same biblical text, Paradise is lost, and thus inaccessible. That is not to say, however, that experience would not matter in raising the questions that inspired the use of the imagination. On the contrary, experience with the postlapsarian human condition is indispensable for the proper operation of the imagination in addressing questions that are considered crucial in a religious tradition, such as those pertaining to the anatomy of Adam and Eve. Since we know about the postlapsarian state of human nature, we are in a position to wonder about the similarities to and differences from its prelapsarian state. The results of the inquiry by imagination can then inform religious discourse about central epistemological issues (Did Adam and Eve know everything humans can possibly know?), ethical ones (Is sex only for the sake of procreation?), and metaphysical ones (Is redemption the reconstitution of original humanity?).
Obviously, such an approach to the biblical text inevitably goes beyond it. This fact could provoke the objection that we should distinguish between the biblical story as written down and thought experiments that were devised by careful readers of the text in dealing with its theological implications. Such a distinction seems unsupported from the perspective of biblical hermeneutics.16 From the point of view of the discussion about thought experiments, the distinction comes short, insofar as thought experiments are never identical with a particular narrative. A narrative is only one of many means by which a thought experiment is communicated. For example, there are thought experiments in mathematics that are conveyed by means of a diagram.17 Such examples show that thought experiments actually happen primarily in the mind. Accordingly, some have referred to the method of thought experiments as a “laboratory of the mind.” Similarly, a biblical passage can be claimed to be a thought experiment in the sense that it conveys a thought experiment that may or may not take place in the mind of the readers. To be noted also is the fact that there is quite a variety in the literary expression of thought experiments. For example, there was a time when aphorisms were used to convey thought experiments, not polished narratives as is most common today.18 That is, we should not expect biblical thought experiments to have the same literary structure as today’s thought experiments, and on the ground of that expectation dismiss the idea of biblical thought experiments. In a nutshell, the thought experiments developed in response to the biblical text must not necessarily be extrinsic to that text, but could be an echo of thought experiments that led to the text in the first place.19
A third reason against the distinction in question concerns the aim of thought experiments that lie at the core of a religion. With respect to the story of Adam and Eve, the biblical text is obviously part of a myth of origin and aims at a better understanding of the world as we know it. This brings the religious person into a situation that is similar to the situation of those scientists who inquire about states of affairs that are inaccessible by empirical means, and yet empirical in nature, such as those pertaining to the evolutionary past of humanity or the cosmological past of our universe. The evolutionary past of today’s species is long gone, and we cannot go back and observe, for example, the evolution of the first humans. This partly explains the frequent use of thought experiments by Charles Darwin in The Origin of Species to advance his theory of natural selection.20 As for physical cosmology, thought experiments are frequently employed in this area, and any attempt at realizing them seems pointless.21 This is so for a number of reasons. Among other things, they aim at a better understanding of our universe insofar as it has been shaped by particular laws and constants of nature. To that effect, it is imagined that certain constants have different values than they actually have, or that particular laws of nature are suspended. What if the value of this or that constant of nature had been slightly different? Would we have ended up with the same universe? If anything, what exactly would have changed? Unless we find a way to suspend the laws and constants of nature, a realization outside of the imagination of the thought experiments addressing those questions seems obviously pointless. Similarly, empirical investigation is not an option when it comes to Paradise lost, nor is exclusive reliance on the written testimony of divine revelation. In a way, then, in addition to the non-empirical aspects of religious truths in general, the missing details in the biblical text about Adam and Eve (comparable to missing information in science about aspects of a particular domain of investigation) force the mind to find answers about the nature of the reality in question by oscillating between facts about the reality as we know it and religious doctrines regarding a fallen world. Thereby, thought experiments may contribute to shaping the core of a religion. What exactly is it that changed as a result of Adam’s Fall, and in what ways ought a religious life reflect an awareness of that change?
The claim of primary concern in this section is not that all religious narratives are actually thought experiments, although some probably are, such as the story of Adam and Eve. It is a constitutive thought experiment for Christianity and Judaism. Problematic in any case is a strict distinction between religious stories and thought experiments resulting from them in the reader’s mind. But more important, what seems undeniable is that religions are rooted in the mind’s capability to conduct thought experiments. Facts about the world are turned upside down in the imagination, and by means of careful variation the mind is drawn to a religious view of the world. This is not meant as a simplistic genealogical statement about religions, marginalizing historical work about the rise of particular religious traditions. The crucial point is that it does not seem to be the case that thought experiments are, above all, about propositional lines of reasoning following established schemata of inference.22 Accordingly, religions are not primarily about inferences, but about “invitations to contemplate a way the world might (have) be(en)”—to quote Tamar Gendler slightly out of context.23 Both thought experiments and religions owe their cognitive efficacy to the mind’s proneness to accept those invitations.
Finally, it is important to note that some religious thought experiments are more central to a religion than are others. Some of them are constitutive, which is not to say that all constitutive stories of a religion are thought experiments. It is beyond doubt that the story of Adam and Eve is a constitutive religious thought experiment in Judaism and Christianity. It contributed significantly to a long process of shaping the core of those religions, and continues to do so.
With that observation we conclude the discussion of the first aspect and move on to a second aspect of the first link between thought experiments and religion.
First Link (B): Judaism Is Not Submission to a Deity
Thought experiments that can be deemed constitutive for Judaism and Christianity do not have to be biblical in its normative scope. Rabbinical Judaism, for example, is full of talmudic explorations of bold challenges of God, and those explorations involve many intriguing thought experiments. A famous case is Abraham’s thought experiment about the righteous who do not deserve to be destroyed with the wicked of Sodom, presented to God to challenge God’s intention to bring about full destruction to that city (Genesis 18:16–33). Noteworthy in this context is the proposal that Rabbinical Judaism is not about submission to God, but about a kind of critical attitude that is modeled on the biblical dialogues between Abraham, and more importantly Moses, and God, with the former questioning divine authority. As Menachem Fisch has written, “The stance believers are required piously to adopt toward all four main sources of religious authority—Scripture, the halakic tradition, the halakic authorities, and the Almighty himself—is confrontational rather than submissive. One’s religious obligation is to constantly hold the rulings and teachings of all four in review and to question and dispute them whenever one deems them to be religiously inappropriate or morally wrong.”24 Given the role played by thought experiments in that kind of critical attitude, the claim that Judaism is not about submission supports the idea that thought experiments are an important aspect to consider when thinking about the core of a religion. The talmudic voice that rejects the idea of religiosity as submission suggests that God himself can learn from the challenges and thought experiments presented to him! Among the textual evidence from the Talmud presented in support of the view that Rabbinical Judaism is not about submission in the first place is the following piece:
This is one of three things said by Moses to the Holy One, blessed be He, to which the latter replied: ‘You have taught Me something!’ … when the Holy One, blessed be He, said to him: ‘Make war with Sihon. Even though he does not seek to interfere with you, you must provoke war with him’… Moses did not do so, but, as it is written further down, ‘sent messengers [… with words of peace].’ The Holy One, blessed be He, said to him ‘By your life! You have spoken well! You have taught Me something! And I shall thereby cancel My words and adopt yours’; hence it is written: ‘When thou comest near to a city to fight against it, then proclaim peace unto it’ [Deut 20:10].25
To conclude our discussion of the first link between thought experiments and religion: thought experiments can be linked to the core of religion in three ways. (1) A religious view of the world is possible owing to an ability of the mind to conduct thought experiments, which is a function of its capability to imagine. (2) Insofar as some of the central stories of a religion are thought experiments, particular thought experiments are constitutive of a particular religion.26 (3) Insofar as religions are not exclusively about pious submission but about critical engagement with a deity, thought experiments seem essential to religions. All three ways together constitute the most general link between thought experiments and religion.
Second Link (A): Theological Thought Experiments and the Rise of Modern Science
Galileo’s cannonballs thought experiment is only one of many that the history of science offers. His use of thought experiments is not exceptional in the context of early modern science. Among the pioneers of modern science, Galileo is also not alone in his creative endeavor to find theological arguments in support of their emerging enterprise.27 In fact, he was an excellent theologian. The Roman-Catholic- Church recognized his theological talents when it “rehabilitated” Galileo in 1992. Arguably the most intriguing theologian among the significant protagonists of the so-called scientific revolution28 is, however, Isaac Newton. But we are more interested in the discussions about the foundations of modern science that precede his contributions. His impressive reconciliation of religious faith in the Christian tradition with modern science29 marks the end of a remarkable period of extensive discourse on the Fall of Adam in the search for the foundations of science.30 In light of the results of the previous section of this essay, this discourse lends itself to exemplifying the important role that theological thought experimentation played in the emergence of modern science.
The historiography of the scientific revolution has been changing significantly since the mid-1980s. This is especially true regarding the interaction of science and religion. Historians of science overcame grave misconceptions about the relationship between science and religion, misconceptions that arose in the 19th century and shaped the discipline continually until the 1980s.31
Among those unsupportable views is that science and religion have always been in conflict throughout Western history. But neither the category of conflict nor that of harmony is adequate to capture a pattern in the interaction of science and religion in the past.32 Even the very idea of a universal pattern of interaction seems problematic. If there is any generalization admissible, it is probably complexity.33
Some historians argue for the view that the Reformation is an important factor in all that complexity, and that special consideration of it is needed to account for the rise of modern science in terms of the many religious aspects that characterized it in its infancy. For example, Protestantism led to a “focused attention on the human mind and its limitations.”34 This was due to a turning away from epistemic optimism about the operations of the mind and toward skepticism about knowledge rooted in Augustinian anthropology.35 This development relates to the rise of modern science insofar as it provoked an extensive discourse about the cognitive effects of Adam’s Fall to determine the foundations of human knowledge.
In that discourse, the biblical figure of Adam metamorphosed into an “icon” of knowledge—to develop an idea of Ian Hacking. The discursive traces of the related imaginary exercises in the context of early modern discussions about the differences between pre- and postlapsarian human cognition do not amount to polished thought experiments as they are common today (“icons” in Hacking’s sense36). They reveal Adam as an icon of knowledge, however, in the sense of a non-propositional representation of Adam’s cognitive situation. That icon carried epistemological authority to the beholder insofar as it supported particular views about the nature of science and technology. As such, Adam stood for the abilities that “had been lost to human nature at the Fall,” but also for “the power over nature that might be reinstated if only the specific causes of cognitive depredations could be correctly identified and neutralised.”37 To put this in perspective, the text of the first chapters of the biblical book of Genesis has nothing whatsoever to offer in terms of explicit statements about Adam’s cognitive abilities. Accordingly, discursive efforts to capture one’s particular perspective as developed by thought experiments about Adam as an icon of knowledge were considerable in this respect.
Thought experimentation involves two crucial steps. In a first step, the central scenario of the thought experiment is set up in the mind. Some refer to that step as the establishment of the phenomenon in the imagination.38 A second step consists in inferences from that phenomenon. For example, in the case of Galileo’s two-cannonballs thought experiment, the phenomenon is the impossibility that the two balls will hit the ground faster and slower than the heavy ball alone would. The inference to the unsupportability of Aristotle’s view of motion and the introduction of a new theory of motion is part of the second step. Those thought experiments whose results have been challenged by means of a thought experiment to undermine the establishment of the phenomenon in the imagination are called “counter thought experiments.”39 They amount to the most serious kind of challenge a thought experiment can face. They don’t target primarily the inferences of the thought experiment that is being countered. Of course, the inferences are affected, once the phenomenon from which they are developed is called into question. But instead of directly targeting directly the inferences, counter thought experiments attempt to undermine the very phenomenon from which the inferences are drawn. Remarkable is the fact that the challenge of challenging a thought experiment’s phenomenon is accomplished by means of a thought experiment. Often, counter thought experimentation is brought about by minor changes to the central scenario of the thought experiment whose results are being challenged. A wonderful example is Ernst Mach’s counter thought experiment to Isaac Newton’s bucket thought experiment.40
Another good example of counter thought experimentation in the encounter of science and religion are the explorations in imagination of Adam’s knowledge in order to determine the foundations of science in the early modern period. A central figure in that enterprise is Francis Bacon. Many considered the significant influence of Aristotle’s work detrimental to the scientific enterprise.41 Accordingly, Bacon claimed that Aristotle’s logic was not the right remedy for the human mind to overcome its many epistemic shortcomings.42 Bacon argues that only those advocate it as the right tool of the mind to acquire knowledge, Bacon argued, who have not understood the true cause of the feebleness of the human mind, and therefore fail to realize that more than one tool is required to arrive at knowledge. To support his epistemology, he invites us to imagine Adam as an icon of perfect knowledge, with; ideal sense perception, impeccable memory, in possession of an ideal language, master of his passions and affections, surrounded by a well-ordered natural environment. Bacon is eager to establish in our imagination an epistemological superhero. He does so to bring out a contrast. In consequence of the Fall, Adam’s sense perception was weakened, his memory began to fail, and the ideal language he was using gave way to a plurality of languages that which, each and all taken together, do not represent accurately things in the world and which disable proper conceptual memory. Moreover, the passions and affections began to rule over reason, and nature became unruly. We are ending up with quite a devastating image of our own, postlapsarian epistemic situation. The postlapsarian human mind is incapable of discerning the truth. Even more devastating is that, according to Bacon, the Fall’s impact is so significant that Adam’s capacity to grasp the truth as an individual will never be recovered. The time for epistemic superheroes has come to an end with the Fall. With that image in mind, one cannot but follow Bacon in his conclusion that the search for the truth is inevitably a task for a community—but not just any kind of community. We need a community that has sufficient political power to impose methodological principles designed to aid the human mind. Part of the prescribed methodology is experimentation. To put this proposal in perspective, Bacon presented it at a time when the influence of Aristotle resulted in doubts about the epistemic power of experiments. Experiments interfere with the natural course of the domain that is under scientific investigation. Thus, from the Aristotelian perspective, they create artificial situations with doubtful resemblance to nature, and are thus therefore of problematic evidential significance. In Bacon’s view, however, the unruliness of nature makes it necessary to subject it to a kind of violence, that which we see reflected in the artificial situations that experiments create. In this way, Bacon’s image of Adam’s Fall led him to a challenge of a fundamental Aristotelian metaphysical assumption, namely that nature’s intelligibility answers the human desire for knowledge. Due to As a result of the Fall, nature has lost its intelligibility, and only by means of rigorous experimentation can we hope to grasp truths about the natural world—as a community, with the help of a rigorous method.
Among the critics of Bacon’s Adam was Robert Boyle.43 His reluctance to imagine an Adam of perfect knowledge was informed by a close study of the biblical names Adam gave to the animals God created. What that study revealed was a significant lack of zoological knowledge compared to what was known about them at the time of Bacon and Boyle. Thus, Boyle imagined Adam’s epistemic situation quite differently than Bacon did. He did not imagine an epistemic superhero, and saw a less significant divide between pre- and postlapsarian humanity than did Bacon, with respect to cognitive abilities. Boyle’s icon of Adam was no superhuman in matters of knowledge, but very human. Boyle’s Adam was already one of limited cognitive capacities, and our attention is directed to Adam’s embodiment to account for that limitation. Having a body results necessarily in an epistemically limited mind. And it is this limitation that Boyle considered responsible for the Fall. Already in Adam we find a tendency to poor judgment. That tendency only grew only stronger after the Fall, and only in this respect do Adam and postlapsarian humanity differ. The difference is only a matter of degree in the limitations that characterize human cognition. If that is the case, the chances are low that a state of perfect knowledge will ever be attainable to by humanity. Thus, Boyle considered religious faith inevitable imperative to gaining perfection in knowledge. Only at the time of the resurrection Second Coming will humanity assume a state of perfect knowledge. In other words, science and religion both contribute significantly toward the search for the ultimate truth.
A contemporary defender of that view is John Polkinghorne, although for different reasons than Boyle.44 Of more importance in the present context is the fact that Polkinghorne was the first to claim that the use of thought experiments both in quantum physics and the Bible shows how closely related science and religion are45; they are “cousins”—a bold claim, in many respects. And yet, it is undeniable that thought experiments are as important in Christian theology as in science. This brings us to a more systematic link between thought experiments and religion.
Third Link (A): Thought Experiments in Philosophical Theology
One central aspect of this link concerns the use of thought experiments in philosophical theology.46 Philosophy would be severely impoverished without thought experiments. The critics of this methodological fact offer good objections, but no alternatives to replace the important role thought experiments play in philosophy.47 Philosophical theology is full of wonderful examples.
For instance, Richard Swinburne has us imagining the best of all possible worlds in order to demonstrate its inconceivability. This world could contain a finite or infinite number of conscious beings, he explains. We are asked to imagine further that the imagined best of all possible worlds contains not Richard Swinburne as we know him from the actual world, but a counterpart of his with pretty much the same properties. The point of this exercise in imagination is to assess whether we have good reasons to consider the actual world to be ontologically inferior to the imagined best of all possible worlds. Swinburne’s answer is negative. We don’t have such reasons: “Surely not.” And, from this it follows that “there will be no unique best of all possible worlds that God could create. If there could be a best of all possible worlds that God could create, that is, a world such that no world is better than it (although other worlds may be equally good), then it would be an equal best act to create such a world.”48 In turn, the imperfections of the world we inhabit should not be taken to weaken the explanatory power of so-called classical theism in accounting for our world, and thus the a priori possibility of a God as affirmed by classical theism, namely as a being that is omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly free, and eternal—; an omnipresent spirit, perfectly good, and the creator of all things. Swinburne argues that such a being has good reasons to create something, and that we can use theism in its classical version to explain the existence of the world as we know it. The fact that many worlds seem equally good to this world—with no best of all possible worlds—supports the belief that any world resulting from God’s creation should not be expected to be the best of all possible worlds, because the existence of such a world seems implausible to begin with. God had a choice in creating our world, and much of Swinburne’s work in philosophical theology results from his attempt to decipher those reasons, in order to defend the rationality of Christian faith, despite all the bad things of the present world and the impossibility of the best of all possible worlds.
Another wonderful example of the important role thought experiments play in philosophical theology is the exchange between among Antony Flew, R. M. Hare, and Basil Mitchell on the falsifiability of theism’s central claim that there is a God who sustains everything there is. Flew argues that its unfalsifiability is reason enough to consider the claim meaningless.49 The epistemological situation we face in assessing the claim’s semantic status is comparable, argues Flew, to the situation of two explorers coming upon a clearing in the jungle with many flowers and many weeds growing, and wondering if there is a gardener tending the garden. One of them believes there must be a gardener who keeps the weeds at bay and lets the flowers strive thrive. His companion disagrees. So they decide to pitch their tents and set their watches. As time passes without the appearance of a gardener, they consider the possibility that the gardener might be invisible. So they set up an electrified barbed-wire fence—electrified, and patrol the area with bloodhounds, assuming that the invisible gardner is not only detectable by touch but also fine by smell. The attempt to detect an invisible gardener fails, as well. And, yet, the one who believes in the gardener interprets their failure as positive evidence to define the nature of the gardener—invisible, intangible, insensible to electric shocks, a gardener who has no scent and makes no sound, a gardener who comes secretly to look after the garden which she loves. His companion disagrees, and Flew has great sympathies for this kind of skepticism, because such a gardener is simply indistinguishable from a fictional gardener. The theist’s claim that there is a God who sustains everything there is fares no better, argues Flew. In both cases, the existence claim in question is meaningless. Even worse, all theological statements share this fate of meaninglessness, concludes Flew.
Hare concedes that much, but—interestingly enough—counters with a thought experiment of his own to demonstrate that Flew in his analysis of theological assertions misses the point of what it actually means to be religious. He wants us to imagine a lunatic who is haunted by the fear that all Oxford dons are after him to murder him. Many dons are introduced to him who give no appearance of wanting to murder him. They are mild, and respectable, and seem to be of high moral integrity. But the lunatic keeps believing that all of them want to murder him, and that their appearance is part of a diabolical plan. While the lunatic’s conviction seems unfalsifiable in Flew’s sense, it does not “follow that there is no difference between what he thinks about dons and what most of us think about them—otherwise we should not call him a lunatic and ourselves sane, and dons would have no reason to feel uneasy about his presence in Oxford.”50 So in what way do we, the sane, who call the lunatic insane, differ from the lunatic? According to Flew, the difference is a function of different bliks (unfalsifiable views according to which a worldview is established). And differences between bliks about the world cannot be settled by observations of what happens in the world. Concerns of falsifiability are, therefore, beside the point. Observations depend on bliks: “Suppose we believed that everything that happened, happened by pure chance. This would not of course be an assertion; for it is compatible with anything happening or not happening, and so, incidentally, is its contradictory. But if we had this belief, we should not be able to explain or predict or plan anything. Thus, although we should not be asserting anything different from those of a more normal belief, there would be a great difference between us; and this is the sort of difference that there is between those who really believe in God and those who really disbelieve in him.”51 Flew’s ignorance of the importance of bliks is reflected in the thought experiment he is using. The two explorers of the garden are detached from the garden; they are interested but not concerned. Therefore, this way the bliks cannot enter the discussion. In other words, Hare questions the thought experiment’s value in thinking about the crucial point of religion.52 Noteworthy, of course, in the present context is that Hare does not simply dismiss the method of thought experiments. He takes the challenge that Flew’s thought experiments poses seriously, and answers with a thought experiment of his own. Thought experiment stands against thought experiment. We would end up with an impasse if Hare didn’t also observe blind-spots in Flew’s thought experiment in order to make a case for his own position.
Mitchell proceeds in a very similar way in order to navigate a middle ground between Flew and Hare. He agrees with Hare’s claim that those who are religious believers are moved by concern. At the same time, he agrees with Flew that assertions do matter in a religion. Like Flew and Hare, he makes use of a thought experiment to make his case. This time we are invited to imagine an encounter of two people during time of war, in an occupied country. We are to imagine the scenario from the perspective of someone who is a member of the resistance. He encounters a stranger. They spend the night together in conversation. The stranger tells the partisan that
he himself is on the side of the resistance—indeed that he is in command of it, and urges the partisan to have faith in him no matter what happens. The partisan is utterly convinced at that meeting of the Stranger's sincerity and constancy and undertakes to trust him. They never meet in conditions of intimacy again. But sometimes the Stranger is seen helping members of the resistance, and the partisan is grateful and says to his friends, ‘He is on our side.’ Sometimes he is seen in the uniform of the police handing over patriots to the occupying power. On these occasions his friends murmur against him; but the partisan still says, ‘He is on our side.’ He still believes that, in spite of appearances, the Stranger did not deceive him. Sometimes he asks the Stranger for help and receives it. He is then thankful. Sometimes he asks and does not receive it. Then he says, ‘The Stranger knows best.’ Sometimes his friends, in exasperation, say, ‘Well, what would he have to do for you to admit that you were wrong and that he is not on our side?’ But the partisan refuses to answer. He will not consent to put the Stranger to the test. And sometimes his friends complain, ‘Well, if that's what you mean by him being on our side, the sooner he goes over to the other side the better.53
It is difficult, argues Mitchell, to say in advance how long the partisan can uphold his beliefs about the Stranger without appearing irrational or insane. There is agreement with Hare that assertions and observations depend on something like a blik. Yet, “the partisan admits that many things may and do count against his belief.”54 This amounts to an agreement with Flew, and brings us back to the original problem that Flew’s analysis of theological language raises.
Unfortunately, Mitchell has not much to offer to meet the challenge of the unfalsifiability of religious language. More helpful is John Hick’s notion of eschatological verification.55 Hick thinks that there is evidential support for theological claims, but that it is inaccessible until the time of the eschaton. This is not an ad hoc adjustment in light of Flew’s challenge. The idea of eschatological verification has always been a constitutive part of Christianity. The basic idea of Hick’s response to Flew’s challenge “is that the theistic conception of the universe, and of what is going on in human life, is capable of experiential verification, although according to Christianity the verifying situation lies in the final fulfilment of God's purpose for us beyond this present life.”56 And, proving the point once more about the importance of thought experiments in philosophical theology, Hick offers the following story to support his rejoinder to worries about the falsifiability of theological claims. This time we are to imagine two men
travelling together along a road. One of them believes that it leads to a Celestial City, the other that it leads nowhere; but since it is the only road there is, both must travel it. Neither has been this way before, and therefore neither is able to say what they will find around each next corner. During their journey they meet both with moments of refreshment and delight, and with moments of hardship and danger. All the time one of them thinks of his journey as a pilgrimage to the Celestial City, and interprets the pleasant parts as encouragements, and the obstacles as trials of his purpose and lessons in endurance, prepared by the king of that city and designed to make of him a worthy citizen of the place when at last he arrives there. The other, however, believes none of this and sees their journey as an unavoidable and aimless ramble. Since he has no choice in the matter, he enjoys the good and endures the bad. But for him there is no Celestial City to be reached, no all-encompassing purpose ordaining their journey; only the road itself and the luck of the road in good weather and in bad. During the course of the journey the issue between them is not an experimental one. They do not entertain different expectations about the coming details of the road, but only about its ultimate destination. And yet when they do turn the last corner it will be apparent that one of them has been right all the time and the other wrong. Thus although the issue between them has not been experimental, it has nevertheless from the start been a real issue. They have not merely felt differently about the road; for one was feeling appropriately and the other inappropriately in relation to the actual state of affairs. Their opposed interpretations of the road constituted genuinely rival assertions, though assertions whose assertion-status has the peculiar characteristic of being guaranteed retrospectively by a future crux.57
What is remarkable and noteworthy about this juxtaposition of thought experiments is the fact that its context is analytic philosophy of religion, a philosophical movement that had difficulties for a long time to recognize non-propositional ways of cognition. More generally, it is an interesting fact about the history of philosophical investigations into thought experiments that analytic philosophy had failed to make thought experiments a subject of proper analysis until the work of James R. Brown and Roy A. Sorensen at the end of the 1980s—and this despite the heavy use of thought experiments in analytic philosophy itself and in the sciences, which are held in such high esteem by analytic philosophers!58
To conclude this section, it is undeniable that philosophical theology in the Christian tradition, like all good philosophy, has numerous impressive thought experiments to offer. This has been stated often since thought experiments began to attract the interest of numerous philosophers starting in the 1990s. Almost never noticed, however, is that the same is true for revealed theology in that same religious tradition.
Third Link (B): Thought Experiments in Christian Theology
Probably the most beautiful thought experiment of revealed theology that the Christian tradition has to offer goes back to Augustine.59 Once more we are coming back to Adam, but this time in Eve’s company. The thought experiment to be introduced played a very important role in the revision of Augustine’s claim that human sexuality, as we know it, is an effect of the Fall. To appreciate the significance of the thought experiment, it is important to note that the prelapsarian situation of mankind is of methodological significance in Augustine’s thought. The state of humanity before the Fall is the result of a divine plan. It is of normative significance, therefore, since it provides guidance for theology to determine in what respects humanity is in need of the redemption that a life in Christian fellowship can offer. Postlapsarian humanity is greatly affected by the sin of Adam and Eve. The Fall impacted human nature. Expressions of postlapsarian human nature have to be viewed with suspicion, therefore, as they cannot prima facie be considered to be reflections of the will of humanity’s beneficent creator, unlike prelapsarian human nature.
Augustine’s initial position was that only mortal bodies need to procreate in order to sustain the human species. What could be the point of procreation for immortal humans? Assuming that sex’s main purpose is procreation, the presence of sexual desire in postlapsarian human nature must be an effect of the Fall. In dealing with the first chapters of the book of Genesis, Augustine came to revise this view. It took him a while to see the need for revisions. The tardiness is explained by the fact that the Bible neither talks about sexual intercourse between Adam and Eve, nor about details concerning their anatomy. In the absence of such information in the biblical text, the imagination follows what is familiar. Important to note here is that it was not a projection of a sexual binarism onto prelapsarian human nature that guided Augustine toward a revision of his views about human sexuality. So, he did not try to find a reason for an assumed prelapsarian sexual binarism. What is the point of such binarism if not sexual intercourse? Instead, in picturing the situation in the garden of Eden, Augustine’s attention came to rest on the biblical text’s mentioning that God provided Adam and Eve with food. This fact astonished Augustine, because he also believed that only mortal bodies need food. So he came to see that human bodies before and after the Fall must not be assumed to be that different after all. In light of this possibility, and coupled with a relatively positive view of human sexuality,60 Augustine revised his views about the prelapsarian nature of human sexuality. Leaving aside the question of whether or not Adam and Eve actually had sex, Augustine came to believe that there was something like prelapsarian human sexuality. The difference before and after the Fall regarding human sexuality was less one of ontological dichotomy than one of degree. Before the Fall, human sexuality was well-ordered. The Fall caused disruption to that order. Prelapsarian sexuality was such that sexual desire did not exercise any power over body and mind. It was controlled by insight into the proper use of the genitals, namely procreation of human kind. Such procreation, Augustine explains, was necessary for a number of reasons. For example, the recently created world needed to be populated. What changed due to the Fall, then, is a disorder in the relationship between reason and sexual desire. Sexual desire began to rule over body and mind, resulting in a range of unacceptable sexual acts, such as same-sex intercourse.61
Another wonderful example of thought experiments of revealed theology in the Christian tradition relates to the scenario that Adam and Eve remained without sin. Imagine that they did not succumb to the transgression the book of Genesis tells us about. What we have instead is obedience to God in all respects. Of course, this scenario amounts to a counterfactual scenario from the biblical perspective. Irenaeus was the first to perform the thought experiment,62 and he did so in the context of the debate over Docetism, according to which the human nature of Jesus Christ was an illusion: it only seemed as if Jesus was human. Docetism was a view not yet declared heresy, but an important player in early Christianity’s struggle to make sense of the teaching of and about Jesus, especially in light of the Jewish scriptures. In response to Docetism, Irenaeus argued that Christ had to assume human nature due to because of Adam and Eve’s original transgression. The point of the incarnation was redemption from that sin, and the redemption to be accomplished thereby required that Christ assumed human nature. If Christ’s human nature had been only an illusion, his incarnation would have fallen short ontologically to bring about redemption. That is, to say that it would have not “reached” that which required redemption, namely human nature. Hence, without the original sin of Adam and Eve, Christ would not have become human. His incarnation is a function of the nature of original sin. Thomas Aquinas followed this view, and thus it became known as the Thomistic view about on the incarnation.63 It is extremely implausible, though. Why assume an ontological equivalence in matters soteriological, if in so many other matters the assumed equivalence principle doesn’t seem a reasonable requirement. Veterinarians don’t have to assume the nature of an animal they are treating with the aim to save that animal’s life. Nor do they have to perform an act that comes close in quality to that which makes the medical intervention in question necessary, such as a bite from another animal. On the contrary, what is required is a genuinely human act, an act that is on a higher ontological level. That act is enabled by the human nature of the veterinarian, exemplified in her capability to go to medical school, read books, grasp complex matters, etc. In analogy, it doesn’t seem plausible that an exclusively divine act would have fallen short ontologically to reach human nature in order to bring about redemption. What follows is that the biblical fact of Adam and Eve’s transgression did not make the incarnation necessary in God’s plan for human redemption. The thought experiment helps to bring out that much in the theological imagination. An incarnation for other reasons than original sin remains conceivable nevertheless. That is the position taken in the Scotian view. According to John Duns Scotus, it is the absolute ontological primacy of Christ that explains the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ. In the incarnation, creation reaches its summit and perfection. What God began in Adam and Eve reached its culmination point in Jesus Christ. This position has proven highly fertile in the context of the encounter between Christianity and science.64
This theological example of thought experimentation demonstrates, once more, that we are dealing, generally speaking, more with a mental activity than with a particular narrative when it comes to the “laboratory of the mind.” That explains the plasticity of thought experiments. They can be easily rethought, and this may result in quite diverse insights regarding the same subject matter.65 This fact about thought experiments should caution us to think of thought experiments as one particular piece of narrative, a specific diagram, or whatever medium is used to convey a thought experiment. We are dealing primarily with a mental activity that relies heavily on the imagination in order to compensate for a lack of details or, knowledge, or for sheer inaccessibility to the realm to which the subject matter of a thought experiment relates. The next example from the theological laboratory of the mind illustrates another important feature of thought experimentation’s plasticity, namely its transdisciplinarity. The same thought experiment can be used in different disciplines, which in turn proves true the claim true that we need to pay attention to the aim of a thought experiment when assessing it,66 be it with respect to its particular function or to its degree of success.
In the fifteenth chapter of the first letter to the Corinthians, Paul argues that the Christian faith is empty without belief in the resurrection of Christ. The crucifixion plays no role in Paul’s rebuttal to those in the Corinthian ecclesia who deny the belief in a resurrection from the dead, and thus challenge what is for Paul the central Christian doctrine. Despite the presence of a remarkably complex theology of the Cross in Paul, this fact evokes the question whether or not the crucifixion was a contingent aspect of what Paul claims to be the main mission of Jesus, namely to justify sinful humanity. In the historical novel The Last Temptation (by Nikos Kazantzakis, 1953), and then also in the film The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) that is based on the novel, we see a thought experiment developed that emerges from this simple question. In these fictional stories, Jesus doesn’t die on the cross but continuous his life as a family father, first as husband to Mary Magdalene, and then, after her sudden death, as husband to the sisters of Lazarus, Mary and Martha. Of course, this is fiction in that it is in clear contradiction to historical facts and far removed from a careful exegesis of the relevant scriptural passages. Yet, when put to service in the theological context, it helps to bring out important questions and insights regarding the meaning of the Cross.67 And outside of the theological context, it has served to address the most fascinating question: whether or not Christianity would have arisen even without the crucifixion of Jesus.68 In light of what we know about the social context of Jesus’ preaching, it is safe to say that the kind of universalization of one stream in Judaism—, namely the Pharisaic Judaism that Christianity ultimately came to represent universally69,—would have happened without the crucifixion of Jesus. That is to claim that it didn’t need the Cross for Christianity to arise as a new religion.70 This coheres with a trend in Christian theology to de-emphasize the Cross, and elevate the resurrection to the most essential element in fulfillment of the mission of Jesus. The violent death at on the Cross is deemed an unfortunate side effect of that mission.71 Of course, one can think of the crucifixion as inevitable insofar as the violence and cruelty it reflects were likely to happen in light of certain sociological and psychological parameters of the cultural context of Jesus’ preaching. For example, we know that those who were perceived as possible leaders of a revolution drew upon themselves the hostility of the representatives of the Roman Empire. This coheres with the more general fact about human cultures that all perceived threats to existing forms of institutional power are always met with resistance. But, all these facts do not render the view theologically implausible the view that Jesus could have died after a long, good life of preaching, and still fulfilled his mission that culminated in the resurrection from that death. What happens too often in theological discourse about the need for a crucifixion in the divine plan of salvation is a conflation of different kinds of necessity, a theological and a sociological/anthropological necessity. The latter is extremely weak, and given free will it evaporates into a possibility. We know of individuals who were able to challenge institutions and successfully change society in important respects. Jesus is not one of them, and Christian theology has been struggling ever since to account for that fact, despite the impact Christianity had on history.
The scenario of a Jesus dying a natural death at in old age, as family father and husband, provides us with an example of thought experimentation that conceals, more than the other examples that we discussed, that there is a dependence on revelation when it comes to the theological laboratory of the mind. The dependency is very broadly conceived (dependent on scriptural texts, church tradition, facts about the life of Jesus). This dependence relation distinguishes them such experiments from the examples of theological thought experimentation that are more philosophical in nature, such as John Hick’s two travellers on the imagined road to the Celestial City. The dependence relation is relative to the aim of a thought experiment, because the aim of a thought experiment determines its accessibility, as stated previously. For example, insofar as a thought experiment is ascribed cognitive efficacy (instead of being ascribed heuristic or entertainment value), revelation is the crucial factor in bringing about that epistemic power. The details of the dependency relationship in question are too technical to be addressed in the present context. The basic idea, however, is that whatever accounts for the cognitive efficacy of a thought experiment (be it intuition, mental modeling, propositional lines of reasoning, etc.) depends on states of affairs that were made accessible through revelation, such as the Fall of mankind and the incarnation of Jesus, whereby the dependency is relative to the aim of the thought experiment insofar as those states of affairs are rendered relevant for the cognitive success of the thought experiment.
With those examples of thought experiments in revealed theology in the Christian tradition, we conclude the discussion of the third link between thought experiments and religion. That leaves us with a link that emerges relative to literary fiction.
Fourth Link (A): Novels and Thought Experiments
We will utilize an actual novel to facilitate our discussion of a first aspect of the link between thought experiments and religion in their relationship to literary fiction, namely The End of Mr. Y by Scarlett Thomas.72 Can novels be theological thought experiments? Yes, or so it seems, at least, as Thomas’s novel reads as such. More precisely, it reads as a thought experiment about thought experiments endorsing a theoretical framework that is reminiscent of the philosophy of both poststructuralism and German Romanticism. The novel suggests that the literary characters of thought experiments play an important role in thought experimentation.
One of the main characters of this novel is a “mouse-hybrid of some sort,” named “Apollo Smintheus … eight feet tall, standing on his hind legs. He has a quiver full of arrows slung across his shoulder. His pointed mouse-face is covered in grey fur, and he has whiskers” (p. 190). He is a “god” who will come to help all those who ever “helped a mouse” (p. 190). This includes the hero of the story and first- person narrator of The End of Mr. Y, Ariel Manto, who is a PhD student working on a dissertation on Thomas E. Lumas, a 19th- century writer. Lumas “used his fiction mainly as a way of working out his philosophical ideas. Most of his ideas were about the development and nature of thought, particularly scientific thought, and he often described his fictional work as ‘experiments of the mind’” (p. 14).
One of his books is entitled The End of Mr. Y and has the reputation of being cursed. It was published in 1894, and only by sheer accident Ariel gets access to a copy of it. She finds it in a second-hand book store. That finding is the beginning of an adventure that will turn her life upside down. In the end, Ariel will be physically dead, and will find herself united with her friend Adam in Paradise: “The most perfect garden that I have ever seen … And there is one tree, standing by the river, and we walk towards it. And then I understand” (p. 399). The path to Paradise is long and adventurous. The reader participates in Ariel’s incremental withdrawal from the physical world into the “troposphere,” which is “consciousness itself … Everyone’s thoughts, everyone’s consciousness” (p. 296). And it is here that Ariel meets Apollo Smintheus.
He is “made from prayer” (p. 232), which makes sense in the poststructuralist ontology that the novel adopts. The world is “made from language … a system of existence with no signifieds; only signifiers.” (p. 297) Humans create this world (see p. 195), in a way. Apollo Smintheus exists because of the prayers of “six people” (p. 197). The more people pray to a god, the more powerful is that god. Obviously, Apollo Smintheus is not a very powerful deity. But like all other gods, he shares their status as a “simulacrum”—“a copy without an original” (p. 34), as defined by Jean Baudrillard (see p. 223). Theology then is “a closed system just like mathematics, where everything only makes sense because it isn’t something else. The numeral 2 only means something because it is not 1 or 3” (p. 297). That is not to say gods and numbers are unreal. On the contrary, they are very real “if thought and matter are made of the same stuff” (p. 346). At this point in the novel-long thought experiment, the poststructuralist ontology is combined with an ontological monism that is reminiscent of the intriguing claim of the German Romantic thinker Novalis (1772–1801) that world and mind are each other’s representations, with nothing ontologically more primary beyond that mutual relationship of representation.73 That is to say that any attempt to go beyond this relationship of mutual representation in order to find ontological primacies is the result of a metaphysical illusion. Why think of the physical world as ontologically primary to the mental realm? Why think of the objective facts as the foundation of the subjective facts? Accordingly, the troposphere and the physical world should not be related in terms of ontological primacies: “… there was never any a priori existence: no sense that matter was anything or obeyed any laws until there was consciousness to perceive it. But, because consciousness is also made from the same matter, the two areas that we always think are different—the human mind, and the world of things—started working together to create, refine, and mold each other” (p. 353). The moment one follows the metaphysical illusion of ontological primaries, puzzles obtain that seem unsolvable, such as those concerning the reality of numbers and gods, or those pertaining to the origin of a divine creator. Resisting that kind of metaphysics means to realize that “the question isn’t whether or not Apollo Smintheus exists, but what existence is” (p. 354). Existence is not exemplified, according to Novalis, in those entities that we deem objective and mind-independent, because it is more appropriate to think that the mind externalizes itself into the mind-independent world, and that this world, in turn, internalizes itself into the mind. Both are expression of a creative living force, Novalis ventured to say. That force does not enjoy independence of that which is brought about by it, and thus it is not of ontological primacy. Accordingly, he insisted that literary imagination and experimental science are not to be separated. There is, as it were, “poetry” in nature itself, which the poet comprehends and expresses. Even more, poetry is a kind of participation in the constant creative reinvention of nature. It is not the case that the words of literary fiction capture thoughts in the mind that precede linguistic expression far removed from the external world. Thinking and words are simultaneous. What follows for Novalis is that writing can be an important way of discovering thoughts through the exploration of language and, therefore, of parts of reality. For thoughts are expressions of a mind that is conceived of as developed from the same matter which is expressed in physical reality and accessible to experimental science. What follows, therefore, is an equality between experimental writing and experimental science, between literary fiction and science, when it comes to knowledge about the world. It goes without saying that Novalis’s view of the relationship between science and literature has fierce competition.
Fourth Link (B): On the Cognitive Efficacy of Literary Fiction
The second aspect of the link between thought experiments and religion as both relate to literary fiction concerns the debate surrounding the cognitive dimension of literary fiction. Novalis’s philosophy grants literary fiction cognitive efficacy, and this extends to thought experiments and religion in their literary aspects. Plato, however, was of the opinion that literary fiction is detrimental to cognition.74 It is an obstacle. Advocates of post-structuralism share Plato’s negative view of literature’s cognitive capacity, although for very different reasons. Unlike Plato, they do not believe that there is something like truth, objectivity, and knowledge to begin with. Scarlett’s novel The End of Mr. Y highlights these characteristics of poststructuralism very well, although it doesn’t endorse it but rather saves the cognitivity of thought experiments in terms of Novalis’s philosophy. According to poststructuralists, what literature and science have in common is participation in a conspiracy to create the illusion of truth, objectivity, and knowledge. This does not make sense from Novalis’s perspective because illusion requires an absolute point of reference, and Novalis is unwilling to accept such an absolute point of reference as because he thinks that it implies a commitment to metaphysical primacies. In other words, what Plato and post-structuralists have in common is to questioning the cognitive efficacy of literary fiction in four respects: literary fiction doesn’t enhance understanding, cannot help us to find the truth, lacks objectivity, and plays no role in gaining knowledge. But Plato and poststructuralists disagree as to why literary fiction lacks cognitive efficacy in these four respects.
Like the post-structuralists, a third group of thinkers have has a problem with the traditional notions of truth, objectivity, and knowledge, but would not go so far as to deny that there isn’t anything like genuine understanding, truth, objectivity, and knowledge. Thinkers belonging to this group are called “revisionists” because they aim for a revision of the traditional philosophical concepts of understanding, truth, objectivity, and knowledge. Like Novalis, revisionists see a cognitive value of literary fiction in that it facilitates a kind of knowledge acquisition comparable, although not identical, to the kind that is considered to be facilitated by science. Broadly speaking, revisionists are not prepared to introduce a dichotomy in human cognition in order to keep science and literature/art at arm’s length. This dichotomy is highly relevant for discussions of the relationship between science and religion. Very popular in those discussions is the dichotomy of explaining and understanding. Science explains, religions understand.75 A complete picture of the world requires both explaining and understanding, and we need both science and religion to develop such a picture. Revisionists, although not necessarily religion-friendly, welcome the idea that not only science contributes to a complete picture of the world, but they question the appropriateness of epistemological dichotomies, such as the one of understanding and explaining. Defenders of that dichotomy, however, employ it because it enables us to appreciate theoretically the complexity of reality, whose richness cannot be fully reduced to scientific models of the world. Literature, like religion, thus can become an equal partner in the quest for knowledge. Not all defenders of that dichotomy would go that far, however. Some focus on the illustrative power of literary fiction and find that it can compensate only for the high degree of abstraction that is characteristic of the sciences today. Thus literature has some cognitive value for our grasp of reality, but it is by no means equal to that of the sciences. Again others strive for a compromise between equality of literature and with science in matters of truth, on the one hand, and a mere illustrative function for literature, on the other. The compromise is to regard literature as a way of doing something similar to what the social sciences do. Advocates of this view allow, thereby, literary fiction to encroach on the territory of truth and objective cognition, while accepting the primacy of the natural sciences in matters of truth and cognition, which is are unattainable by means of literary fiction. Only a few consider literature and art of epistemic importance even in the natural sciences, although only for the development of scientific hypotheses.
There is obviously a wide spectrum of views about the relationship between science and literature. Each view has different implications for the way in which to model the relationship among the three parameters we are interested in at present, namely religion, science, and thought experiments. Work on the literary aspects of scientific thought experiments is still in its infancy. There is no consensus on even the most fundamental questions, despite a clear trend away from an art/science dichotomy. Because any thought experiments are is conveyed in form of a narratives, the following questions have arisen in discussion of scientific thought experiments. Do these narratives contribute in significant ways to the cognitive power that some of those thought experiments obviously have? Or are narratives exclusively a medium of communication? In light of their indispensability, should we consider them media of reason?76 There are novels that appear to be very long thought experiments, such as The End of Mr. Y. But isn’t the point of thought experiments their brevity? Can novels be thought experiments? There are noteworthy literary aspects of scientific practice. Metaphors, for example, play a very important cognitive role in science. Is that fact a good entry point for a closer investigation into the cognitive value of scientific thought experiments? Do we need to explain the cognitive power of thought experiments in terms of the cognitive power of literary fiction, or rather the other way around? Depending on the answers to these and many other highly intriguing questions, different models arise as to how to relate for relating literature, science, and religion. To date, there are no models that consider all three parameters. There are available, however, two models about dealing with the relationship between literary fiction and scientific thought experiments that can be extended to include religion, or so it is argued in the following section.
Fourth Link (C): The Evolution of Storytelling
The third aspect of the fourth link between thought experiments and religion concerns the evolution of storytelling. There are two models about of the relationship between literature and thought experiments in science that suggest promising ways to establish links to religion. The first model explains the cognitive efficacy of literature in terms of an evolutionary account of the epistemic power of thought experiments. Accounts of human cognition in terms of evolution by natural selection are inadequate by themselves.77 Religion (as a body of knowledge and a set of rituals) is certainly not a human trait that can be explained fully by Darwinian evolution, because there “are no known brain areas dedicated specifically to religious beliefs and practices, and no animal precursors of these areas. Being deficient in religiosity does not seem, at least in the current world environment, to impede the ability of people to survive and reproduce.”78 But that does not mean that Darwinism is irrelevant for a satisfactory explanation of religion, because religiosity (the disposition to adopt a religion) could still be a by-product of other traits for which a Darwinian account seems more plausible.79 One likely candidate is storytelling.80 It creates a positive link to the topic of thought experiments, and facilitates, thereby, an encounter between, science, religion, and literature, especially in light of the importance of narratives and storytelling in religious discourse. This is true, of course, only if we rightly assume that literature and thought experiments owe their cognitive efficacy to humans’ capability of storytelling. The basic idea is to reduce part of the cognitive efficacy of religious and scientific discourse to the epistemic power of literary fiction, which in turn is explained in terms of an evolutionary account of thought experiments insofar as it reflects the human trait of storytelling as a prominent means for counterfactual reasoning. The central claim is that literary fiction loses its mysterious epistemological character as an epistemic tool once we realize that it has its roots in the human capability of storytelling, which “confers a distinct adaptive advantage … Hypotheticals, and further downstream, thought experiments are […] cheap and efficient ways of dealing with the unknown.”81 Storytelling exploits intuitions about all kinds of possibilities. The intuitions in question are best described “as mental propositional attitudes which are accompanied by a strong feeling of certainty.”82 They are the result of interactions with both the natural and the social environments. Accordingly, the “a priori knowledge injected into all of us before birth is really a posteriori knowledge encoded in the individuals whose lineage we continue.”83 Some intuitions that humans share as members of the same biological species are more stable and resistant to change than those we acquire as members of particular scientific communities.84
In conclusion, it seems a viable proposal to link thought experiments and religion along the lines of a model that accounts for the epistemic power of literary fiction in terms of the cognitive efficacy of thought experimentation, which in turn can be explained as an exaptation—an evolutionary by-product—of the adaptive human trait of hypothetical reasoning that exploits intuitions in cognitively meaningful ways. The epistemic significance of thought experiments and religion alike is a result from of causal interactions with the natural and social environments. Therefore, it is legitimate to treat religious texts as literary fiction even from a faith perspective.85
Fourth Link (D): Exemplification
With the second proposal as for how to model the relationship between literary fiction and scientific thought experiments, a fourth aspect of the link between thought experiments and religion comes to the fore. It centres on the notion of “exemplification.” The claim is that both thought experiments and literary fiction, including religious texts of a fictional character, afford epistemic access to facts.86 Fiction and thought experiments alike do not realize physically the phenomena they evoke, and yet generate new insights about them. That distinguishes them in a significant way from real-world experiments. What they have in common with the latter, however, is “that they exemplify, and thereby provide epistemic access to features of the real world.”87 Real-world experiments are the result of simplifying natural phenomena to enable focused attention to on particular aspects of those phenomena. Experiments are, as it were, an extension of an automaticity in human sense perception. We are only able to see a forest because we ignore automatically its individual trees when seeing a forest. The more hidden or subtle the phenomenon under investigation, the more demanding becomes the experimental set up that enables us to focus on particular aspects that natural entities actually mask. This process of complexity reduction in the design of experiments can involve the creation and addition of items that are artificial; they cannot be found anywhere in nature, such as genetically identical laboratory mice, or pure forms of chemicals. These artificial elements can be crucial for the goal of exemplification, which is defined as follows:
… the relation of a sample, example, or other exemplar to whatever it is a sample or example of … A fabric swatch exemplifies an available pattern of cloth; a textbook example exemplifies a logical inference. Exemplification involves a dual referential relationship. An exemplar directly refers to a property or pattern it instantiates or a relation it stands in, and thereby refers indirectly to other items that instantiate that property or pattern, or stand in that relation. An exemplar typifies an extension when it exemplifies a property common to all and only members of that extension. In highlighting, displaying, or making manifest certain of its properties, patterns, and relations, an exemplar provides epistemic access to them. By instantiating and referring to its shade, a splotch on a paint sample card exemplifies teal blue. By typifying teal blue, it aids in the selection of paint. Not being fire engine red, the splotch cannot exemplify fire engine red; it affords no epistemic access to that color.88
In its success, exemplification is both selective and relative to its intended use. It succeeds if it makes a property, pattern, or relation salient. The main obstacle of successful exemplification is that some properties “commingle in such a way that it is hard to point to an instance of one without simultaneously pointing to an instance of the other. To use Quine’s example, every creature naturally endowed with a heart is also naturally endowed with kidneys.”89 The quality of an experiment can be determined, therefore, by the degree of success in exemplification. This is true for both real-world and scientific thought experiments. There are more commonalities between the two types of experimentation that directly relate them to literary fiction. They share a “narrative structure.” They both have a well-defined beginning, middle, and end. They are both set against a background of established science, including accepted facts and assumptions shared by a relevant group of scientists. That is, like fiction, they have their own frame of reference without knowledge of which they are very difficult to grasp. And, like fiction, they both produce results that require careful interpretation, although experimental results should be and are often more univocal than fiction. In any case, experimental results are not self-explanatory. The interpretative efforts have to take into account the background of established science, which brings us back to the frame of reference that contextualizes every experiment and piece of fiction.
Both the exemplification character of experiments and the indispensability of careful interpretation relative to a frame of reference of experimental results support the view that there is a considerable gap between experiments and the realm of phenomena under investigation—even in cases of real-world experiments. The suggestion seems right, therefore, that “the gulf between fact and fiction may be narrower than is typically supposed.”90 Of course, a notable difference remains. The properties, patterns, and relations that are made salient by real-world experiments do actually occur in the process of the experiment. That is not the case in literary fiction and thought experiments. This fact, however, amounts to an epistemological problem only if we have good reasons to call into question the trustworthiness of the representation that literary fiction and thought experiments accomplish. In the absence of such reasons, the difference between real-world experiments and thought experiments is simply a matter of degree. In both cases, the human mind undertakes a considerable departure from reality in order to study reality. In one case, the partly artificial experimental settings are constrained by the real world, and in the other, by self-imposed rules that help to guide the imagination. To see how close thought experiments and real-world experiments actually are, one need only needs to recall the fact that many instances of the latter began as thought experiments. Sometimes, the thought experiment seems so powerful that it doesn’t seem necessary to conduct it outside of the imagination. In other cases, there is no way it could be realized, for ethical, practical, or physical reasons. In a nutshell, a “thought experiment is a representation—a re-presentation—of abstract features, an imaginative re-embodiment of them.”91 And such a method is acceptable in science, because we have no reason to think that science must be exclusively about questions that can be answered by direct appeal to observational evidence.92
Overall, it seems reasonable to think of thought experiments as “tightly constrained, highly focused, minimalist fictions, like some of the works of Jorge Luis Borges. If the minimalist stories of Borges are genuine fictions, there seems no reason to deny that thought experiments are too.”93 And, in turn, there is no reason to not consider some novels as very elaborate thought experiments, such as The End of Mr. Y. “They afford epistemic access to aspects of the world that are normally inaccessible—in particular, to the normative, psychological and metaphysical aspects”94 of the world. In the case of novels we are dealing directly less with exemplification than with instantiation of abstract properties that are becoming concrete in human agents, such as psychological features. Interactions in a novel are re-embodiments of those abstract patterns an author was able to abstract from factual instantiations of them in real people’s interactions. A novel can afford access to exactly that pattern, and it can do so much more successfully than real life with all its rich and complex human interactions.
Accordingly, the parables of Jesus, such as the parable of the lost prodigal son (Luke 15:11–32), can be considered thought experiments as much as entire biblical books, such as the book of Job, whose fictional character does not—to repeat a point made earlier from a very different perspective—undermine claims about the cognitive efficacy of sacred texts. On the contrary, “fictions advance understanding of the actual world. Fictions also exemplify abstract features and patterns, affording direct evidence of them, and indirect evidence that their real-world instantiation is possible.”95 Insofar as austerity is a literary virtue, those thought experiments that are short seem more appealing. But there is no reason to exclude biblical books or novels from the set of thought experiments. The length of the thought experiment is most likely a function of the topic it addresses. Suffering of the innocent and good is a very complex issue; the book of Job addresses it from multiple perspectives, and remains noncommittal toward a number of answers that are suggested in the course of the narrative. In contrast, to bring out an inconsistency in a religious view requires less narration. For example, when the Sadducees confront Jesus on the belief in resurrection and invite him to consider, in light of the law of Moses commanding a man to marry the wife of his deceased, childless brother, the scenario that there are seven brothers. One after the other dies, childless. We end up with seven marriages involving one woman. Who will be her rightful husband in the life after death? Jesus chooses to solve the apparent puzzle by opting for a limit to the time a marital bond lasts in God’s eyes, and supports belief in life after death by the revelation that there will not be marriages in heaven (Matthew 22:23–30).
The presented account of the relationship between literary fiction and scientific thought experiments allows us to draw two further conclusions. First, it underlines the need for good historical-critical work on sacred texts, and this in spite of suggestions that this method is overused and clouds the religious aspect of the text. To enable proper interpretation of the religious thought experiments sacred texts contain, historical-critical work is of great importance. Otherwise there is a risk of missing the original aim and frame of reference of a thought experiment. This would effect negatively the ability of religions to apply that thought experiment in the context of today’s culture as it embeds a life that is committed to the religious tradition from which the thought experiment originally stems. It is in any case misleading to put a historical-critical approach and a religious approach to sacred texts side by side. As the notion of exemplification suggests, their relationship must be much closer, insofar as sacred texts and their thought experiments are taken to be about the domain outside of the imagination.
Second, the kind of understanding and exemplification that thought experiments, science, and religion are claimed to facilitate are not necessarily accomplished. We are not dealing with success terms. Thus, the possibility is real that there are religious texts conveying a thought experiment which fail to advance understanding of the real world or to exemplify the abstract features and patterns they address.
Fourth Link (E): Composition, Creativity, and Divine Inspiration
Another intriguing aspect of the link between literary fiction, scientific thought experiments, and religion, and the last to be discussed, pertains to the category of divine inspiration, which is so central in Christian theology, and to the notion of creativity, which is so important in philosophy of science. Both are referentially extremely indeterminate.96
Creativity escapes in significant ways the algorithmic notions of scientific rationality, and powerfully suggests that a focus on the logic of scientific theories falls extremely short in capturing the richness of scientific practice. This fact can help explain the significant changes in the way history and philosophy of science and technology have been conducted since the 1960s.
Divine inspiration imports a moment of irrationality into a discourse about the origins of sacred texts that aspires to follow principles of the Enlightenment under the constraints of modern science, and it confronts us with challenging ideas, such as that of unquestionable authority (that God enjoys), a privileged first-person perspective (that human persons have), and non-propositional semantic content (such as that pertaining to mysticism).
Given the lack of conceptual clarity about the category of divine inspiration and the notion of creativity, the suggestion seems extremely noteworthy that thought experimentation might be the bridge connecting the irrational and the rational in occurrences of creativity that lead to the composition of sacred texts. This suggestion does not imply that the resulting text has to take the form of a thought experiment: “Looking at all writing as one, fiction and non-fiction, it is evident that if writers are not going to write wholly at the dictation of the muse, but must write partly by the trial and error methods used by science, then writers must learn from their own works as they write them. They must learn, as scientists learn, by evaluating what they have tried, rejecting errors and trying again. One method writers can use to do this learning is thought experiment.”97 98
The idea is not to provide a tool for a more accurate description of what writers thought they were doing when undergoing processes that resulted in sacred texts. Instead, the intention is to provide an analytical tool for a better understanding as to of why sacred texts escape, in their epistemic power, the cognitive boundaries of established forms of composition. The parables of Jesus are, of course, parables and satisfy established criteria of a literary genre. An interpretation of those parables as parables is, therefore, not only simply legitimate but an important prerequisite for good biblical theology.99 At the same time, such an interpretative attitude comes falls necessarily short insofar as the fictional truth of biblical texts does not only poses the challenge to understand its relation not only to factual truth, but also to a truth that transcends any attempt both at reduction (of everything there is) and unification (of everything we know), using exclusively scientific language. Accordingly, there is a good reason why art is the most powerful way of advancing a cognitive dualism, and not only in matters religious, while admitting the ontological priority of science: “God disappears from the world, as soon as we address it with the ‘why?’ of explanation, just as human persons disappear from the world, when we look for the neurological explanation of their acts.”100 Analogously, music and visual art disappears as such, the moment we lift them out of the Lebenswelt to position them in the scientific realm. Melodies are not a new object, but a different way of relating to the same object, which is nothing but a sequence of sounds—from a scientific perspective. Accordingly, music requires interpretation, not merely information processing, and “interpreting is a process that we do, in drawing conclusions, retrieving information that, and seeing what is there before us.”101
Sacred texts are results of such acts of interpretation, forcing us to take a particular perspective on the world. The proposal is to see those interpretations facilitated by thought experiments—at times—repositioning the same object again and again in order to reveal an aspect of that object that transcends the natural order of things. “On this view, composing works by a bootstrap process: the writer beings [sic!, probably means: begins] writing, gets ideas from what he has written, writes more, sees conflicts in what he has written, either strikes out, or resolves (or ignores) the conflicts, and so on, getting a better idea of how his finished composition will look as he goes along. Learning from thought experiments readily provides such a bootstrap process for composing.”102 Of course, in the case of sacred texts we are dealing with an accomplishment of a religious community. That makes the involved thought experiments even more interesting, and it confirms once more the idea to dissociate the narrative of a thought experiment and the thought experiment itself. What makes this proposal especially attractive in the present context is “that it explains how writers can create things which, when they started, [they] did not conceive of.”103 This is all the more true when we are dealing with a community effort. In a way, the proposal makes appealing Novalis’s idea appealing to think of experimental writing and experimental science as complementary because thoughts and words are simultaneous and both are made from the same “stuff” as the physical world studied by science.104
Links to Visual and Digital Materials
The most comprehensive review of the field that is dedicated to the study of thought experiments is provided by,
Brown, James R., Brown and Yiftach Fehige in their entry to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “Thought Experiments”, in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, is the most comprehensive review of the field.
Links to non-textual material: Six Famous Thought Experiments Explained Quickly, The Open University, video.
Daniel Dennett Dissects a Bad Thought Experiment, Big Think, video.
Norton, John D. “Chasing a Beam of Light: Einstein's Most Famous Thought Experiment.” December 2014.
Brief mentioning or discussions of some central issues related to the relationship between thought experiments and religion can be found in,
Fehige, Yiftach. “Thought Experimenting with God: Revisiting the Ontological Argument.” Neue Zeitschrift für Systematische Theologie und Religionsphilosophie 51 (2009): 249–267.Find this resource:
Fehige, Yiftach. “Gedankenexperimente in der Offenbarungstheologie? Eine erste Annäherung.” Deutsche Zeitschrift für Philosophie 59 (2011): 109–129.Find this resource:
Fehige, Yiftach. “Quantum Physics and Theology: John Polkinghorne on Thought Experiments.” Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science 47 (2012): 256–288.Find this resource:
Fehige, Yiftach. “Intellectual Tennis without a Net? Thought Experiments and Theology.” Theology and Science 12 (2013): 378–395.Find this resource:
Geach, Paul. God and the Soul. London: Routledge & K. Paul, 1969. Esp. 128.Find this resource:
Gregersen, Niels H. “The Role of Thought Experiments in Science and Religion.” In The Science and Religion Dialogue, edited by Michael Welker, 130–140. Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 2014.Find this resource:
Polkinghorne, John. Quantum Physics and Theology: An Unexpected Kinship. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007. Esp. 93–94.Find this resource:
Sorensen, Roy. Thought Experiments. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991. Esp. 138, 159.Find this resource:
Thagard, Paul. The Brain and the Meaning of Life. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010. Esp. 13–41.Find this resource:
(1.) Galileo, Two New Sciences, translated by Stillman Drake (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1974), 65–69.
(2.) James R. Brown, “Thought Experiments since the Scientific Revolution,” International Studies in the Philosophy of Science 1 (1986): 1–15, here 9–10.
(3.) For a comprehensive overview of the different theories to account for the cognitive power of thought experiments see James R. Brown and Yiftach Fehige, “Thought Experiments,” in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2014).
(4.) See, for instance, Paul Davies, The Mind of God (New York: Penguin, 2008), 73–160, an endorsement of Platonism that is unrelated to the discussion of thought experiments, but related to important issues concerning the interaction of science and religion in physical cosmology. See also Max Tegmak, Our Mathematical Universe: My Quest for the Ultimate Nature of Reality (New York: Alfred Knopf, 2014). I should add that Brown’s, Davies’s, and Texmark’s Platonism have little to do with Plato’s views, and that all these neo-Platonic proposals differ significantly from one another.
(5.) See Uwe Meixner, “On Some Realisms Most Realists Don’t Like,” Metaphysica (2000): 73–94.
(6.) See Nicole C. Karafyllis and Gotlind Olshöfer, eds., Sexualized Brains: Emotional Intelligence: Scientific Modelling of Emotional Intelligence from a Cultural Perspective, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008), 1–49.
(7.) See Roger Scruton, The Soul of the World (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014), 27–75.
(8.) See Richard Swinburne, The Existence of God (2d ed.; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 32–33; James R. Brown, “Swinburne on God and Simplicity,” Jahrbuch für Religionsphilosophie 11 (2011): 195–204.
(9.) For a comprehensive review of the debate over thought experiments and a discussion of their most controversial aspects see Brown and Fehige, “Thought Experiments.”
(10.) This is the position taken by Paul Thagard, first in his The Brain and the Meaning of Life (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010), 13–41. It was suggested before Thagard by Jeane Peijnenburg and David Atkinson, “When Are Thought Experiments Poor Ones?” Journal for General Philosophy of Science 34 (2003): 305–322, here 318.
(11.) Thomas Nagel, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly Wrong (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 16.
(12.) Stephen J. Gould, Adam’s Navel and Other Essays (London and New York: Penguin, 1995), 1–14. See also Michael Sims, Adam’s Navel: A Natural and Cultural History of the Human Form (New York: Viking, 2003).
(13.) Gould, Adam’s Navel, 5.
(14.) Gould, Adam’s Navel, 9–10.
(15.) A succinct introduction to the idea of a Midrash is offered by Adin Steinsaltz, The Essential Talmud, translated by Chaya Galai (New York: Basic Books, 1976), 221–226.
(16.) See Thomas Söding, Einheit der Heiligen Schrift? Zur Theologie des biblischen Kanons (Freiburg i. Br.: Herder, 2005).
(17.) See Eduard Glas, “Thought Experimentation and Mathematical Innovation,” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 30 (1999): 1–19.
(18.) See Yiftach Fehige and Michael T. Stuart, “On the Origins of the Philosophy of Thought Experiments: The Forerun,” Perspectives on Science 22 (2014): 179–220.
(19.) See Edward Davenport, “Literature as Thought Experiment (On Aiding and Abetting the Muse),” Philosophy of the Social Sciences 13 (1983): 279–306, here 292–298.
(20.) See James G. Lennox, “Darwinian Thought Experiments: A Function for Just-So Stories,” in Thought Experiments in Science and Philosophy, edited by Tamara Horowitz and Gerald Massey (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1991), 223–245).
(21.) A wonderful example in this context is the cosmologist Edward Harrison’s thought experiment to “answer … the question of why our universe looks so fine-tuned: it is. Our universe is conducive to the emergence of life and is, in turn, comprehensible to the intelligent beings who emerge therein because the universe was created by intelligent beings like us … who carefully set the parameters so that planets and stars and beings like us might eventually come along and decode the secrets of the universe.” Mary-Jane Rubenstein, World Without End: The Many Lives of the Multiverse (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014), 195.
(22.) Those will find the link that I am establishing here implausible who follow John D. Norton in his identification of thought experiments with arguments—a view that “follows from” (334), is a “consequence of” (334), “derives from a conservative, empiricist philosophy of science” (335), although “not equivalent to empiricism … because one may hold the argument view without any commitments concerning the origin of the premises used in the arguments and their connection with experience” (336–337). See John D. Norton, “Are Thought Experiments Just What You Thought?,” Canadian Journal of Philosophy 26 (1996): 333–366. I am afraid that Norton’s view suffers from too many shortcomings to make it the benchmark for relating thought experiments and religion. See, e.g., Tamar Gendler, “Galileo and the Indispensability of Scientific Thought Experiment,” British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 49 (1998): 397–424.
(23.) Gendler, “Galileo,” 399.
(24.) Menachem Fisch, “Science, Religion, and Rationality: A Neo-Hegelian Approach,” Toronto Journal of Theology 29 (2013): 319–336, here 328.
(25.) Quoted in Fisch, “Science, Religion and Rationality,” 329–330.
(26.) For example, from the perspective of Alvin Plantinga’s apologetics, the biblical narrative of the creation of humanity and its Fall is definitely constitutive for the Christian religion; Alvin Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000). Insofar as it is rightly considered a biblical thought experiment, Plantinga’s defense of the rationality of Christian faith is based on biblical thought experimentation. According to Plantinga, “God has created us human beings in his own image: this centrally involves our resembling God in being persons—that is, beings with intellect and will … we human beings have fallen into sin, a calamitous condition from which we require salvation … our fall into sin has had cataclysmic consequences, both affective and cognitive … Original sin involves both intellect and will … The most serious noetic effects of sin have to do with our knowledge of God … ” (204–216). The ultimate remedy is Christ, belief in whom restores the original cognitive and affective abilities to the point that Christianity cannot but have warrant, i.e. encompass beliefs that “are produced … by a belief-producing process that is functioning properly in an appropriate cognitive environment, according to a design plan successfully aimed at the production of true beliefs” (246). Noteworthy in the present context is that Plantinga’s sharp mind gets carried away the more he allows the image of Adam’s Fall to guide him in addressing the question of how such a cognitive catastrophe like the Fall was possible in the first place. Was God’s design plan flawed? We are offered a mysterious “complicated many-sided, dialectical relationship between intellect and will … Somehow there arises a sneaking desire to be like God, indeed to be equal like him” (212). This can hardly count as a better explanation for the cognitive condition of humans than the one naturalism has to offer, as Plantinga claims (227–240), disregarding the difficult question as to how to account for truth from the perspective of naturalistic Darwinism.
(27.) Galileo, Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina of Tuscany (1615), in Discoveries and Opinions of Galileo, translated by Stillman Drake (New York: Doubleday, 1957), 175–216. I am reading this letter as support for the enterprise of modern science in light of Mario Biagioli, Galileo Courtier: The Practice of Science in the Culture of Absolutism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993). Biagioli argues that “the court contributed to the cognitive legitimation of the new science by providing venues for the social legitimation of its practitioners, and this, in turn, boosted the epistemological status of their discipline” (2). Galileo’s letter to Christina is an important element of that story.
(28.) From the historical perspective, the notion of a “scientific revolution” leading to the rise of modern science in the 17th century is problematic. For example, the search for a new foundation of knowledge that characterizes the time from Copernicus to Newton did not result in the establishment of “science” but in a new way of doing “natural philosophy.” It is not until the 19th century that our current usage of the word “science” becomes normative when referring to systematic-methodological inquiries into nature independently of academic philosophy. Accordingly, Galileo and Newton were not “scientists” but “natural philosophers,” and we are dealing rather with a philosophical, and less with a scientific revolution. Among the most influential contemporary historians of science, it is Steven Shapin who is most critical in writing about the “scientific revolution” as an historical category. See Steven Shapin, The Scientific Revolution (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996).
(29.) See Andrew Janiak, Newton as Philosopher (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2008). Janiak argues that we find in Newton two different kinds of metaphysics: a metaphysics that relates directly to Newton’s physics, called “mundane metaphysics,” and by contrast, Newton’s “divine metaphysics.” With respect to mundane metaphysics, Newton pioneers an innovative new way of thinking about traditional metaphysical topics, such as the nature of space and time. This new way of thinking, however, is embedded in a particular view of God’s nature and God’s relation to the universe. The important point is that we cannot disconnect Newton’s mundane and divine physics, and thus theology and science in Newton. It is not as if Newton’s theological reflections are absolutely independent from the mundane metaphysics that informs directly his innovative approach to nature. Both kinds of metaphysics must be considered in order to understand Newton’s physics. For example, Newton’s resistance to action at a distance is to a significant degree a result of his view that God is a spatio-temporal entity. There is a direct link between mundane metaphysics and physics, and an indirect link between divine metaphysics and physics. It is the subtle link between mundane and divine physics that causes so much confusion among Newton scholars regarding Newton’s stance on metaphysics.
(30.) In what follows I am relying heavily on Peter Harrison, The Fall of Man and the Foundations of Science (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2007).
(31.) See Margaret J. Osler, “Religion and the Changing Historiography of the Scientific Revolution,” in Science and Religion: New Historical Perspectives, edited by Thomas Dixon, Geoffrey Cantor, and Stephen Pumfrey (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 86.
(32.) To be carefully noted is that a historical case against the myth of a perennial conflict between science and religion does not play out in favor of a perennial harmony between the two: “The idea that science and theology had always been in conflict was widespread, despite contrary scholarship and despite the countervailing thesis favoured by religious apologists that, when both were properly understood, there need be no conflict at all. But neither an essential conflict nor an essential harmony thesis captured the richness, diversity and complexity of the interpretation of scientific and religious thought in the history of Western philosophy. Curiously … [the] challenge to the harmonizers has received little attention,” John H. Brooke, “Living with Theology and Science: From Past to Present,” Theology and Science 12 (2014): 307–323, here 318. A good example is Peter Harrison, who claims that in so far “as there is any general trend, it is that for much of the time religion has facilitated scientific endeavour and has done so in various ways.” See his introduction to The Cambridge Companion to Science and Religion, edited By Peter Harrison (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 1–17, here 4.
(33.) See John H. Brooke, Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1991).
(34.) Harrison, Fall of Man, 65.
(35.) In contrast: “The great movement of liberation which started in the Renaissance and led through the many vicissitudes of the reformation and the religious and revolutionary wars to the free societies which the English speaking peoples are privileged to live, this movement was inspired throughout by an unparalleled epistemological optimism; by a most optimistic view of man’s power to discern the truth and to acquire knowledge … The birth of modern science and modern technology was inspired by this optimistic epistemology whose main spokesmen were Bacon and Descartes,” Karl Popper Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge (New York: Routledge, 2002 ), 6–7.
(36.) Ian Hacking, “Do Thought Experiments Have a Life of Their Own? Comments on James Brown, Nancy Nersessian and David Gooding,” in Proceedings of the Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association, vol. 2, Symposia and Invited Papers, edited by Micky Forbes et al. (East Lansing, MI: Philosophy of Science Association, 1992), 302–308.
(37.) Harrison, Adam’s Fall, 88.
(38.) Brown, “Thought Experiments since the Scientific Revolution,” 4.
(39.) James R. Brown, “Counter Thought Experiments,” Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement 61 (2007): 155–177.
(40.) Brown, “Counter Thought Experiments,” 162–165, offers a brief summary of original thought experiment and counter thought experiment. The paper offers other wonderful examples of counter thought experiments.
(41.) See Margaret J. Osler, Reconfiguring the World: Nature, God, and Human Understanding from the Middle Ages to Early Modern Europe (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2010), 30–60.
(42.) What follows is informed by Harrison, Adam’s Fall, 172–185.
(43.) What follows is informed by Harrison, Adam’s Fall, 217–220.
(44.) “The unity of knowledge and the unity of God are closely related. I believe in both.” John Polkinghorne, The Faith of a Physicist (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996), 47.
(45.) John Polkinghorne, Quantum Physics and Theology: An Unexpected Kinship (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007), 93–94.
(46.) Christian theology, in my understanding, is the scholarly enterprise that comprises a study of God by means of reasoning about publicly available evidence (“Christian Philosophy,” “Philosophical Theology,” “Fundamental Theology,” “Analytic Theology,” etc.) in conjunction with an interpretation of tradition and scripture (“Church History,” “Biblical Studies,” “Systematic Theology,” etc.).
(47.) See Roy Sorensen, Thought Experiments (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 15–20.
(48.) Richard Swinburne, The Existence of God (2d ed.; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 115.
(49.) See Basil Mitchell, ed., The Philosophy of Religion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971), 13–22.
(52.) Harry Frankfurt’s defense of the rationality of religiosity is comparable to Hare’s, although he uses the notions of care and love to capture the practical rationality that characterizes a religious person, defined both by his or her love of God and by his or her worship of a deity that is essentially love. See Harry Frankfurt, The Reasons of Love (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004).
(53.) Mitchell, Philosophy of Religion, 18–19.
(55.) First formulated in John Hick, Faith and Knowledge (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1957), and then repeated a bit more elaborated form in John Hick, “Theology and Verification,” Theology Today 17 (1960): 12–31.
(56.) John Hick, “Eschatological Verification Reconsidered,” Religious Studies 13 (1977): 189–202, here 190.
(58.) The first to complain about that ignorance about thought experiments in the analytic tradition was Mason C. Myers, “Analytical Thought Experiments,” Metaphilosophy 17 (1986): 109–118.
(59.) See De Genesi Contra Manicheos 1,19.30; 2.11.25, and De Genesi Ad Litteram Libri Duodecim 3,21.33; 9,3.6; 9,9.14; 9,10.16–18.
(60.) I agree with Simon Blackburn’s assessment of Augustine’s place in the history of Western philosophy of human sexuality, claiming that Augustine had a much more positive view of sexuality than was common at the time. See Simon Blackburn, Lust (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 49–63.
(61.) Augustine’s thought experiment is of ongoing theoretical significance in moral theology. See Gilbert Mailaender, “Sweet Necessities: Food, Sex, and Saint Augustine,” Journal of Religious Ethics 29 (2001): 3–18.
(62.) See Adversus Haereses 5,14.
(63.) See Jeremy Moiser, “Why Did the Son of God Become Man?” The Thomist 37 (1973): 288–305, for a more comprehensive discussion of the different views the Christian tradition has to offer on the matter under discussion.
(64.) For example in the work of Teilhard de Chardin. See Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Phenomenon of Man (New York: Harper Perennial, 1976).
(65.) See Alisa Bokulich, “Rethinking Thought Experiments,” Perspectives on Science 9 (2001): 285–307.
(66.) See Sheldon Krimsky, “The Use and Misuse of Critical Gedankenexperimente,” Zeitschrift für allgemeine Wissenschaftstheorie 4 (1973): 323–334.
(67.) See David Brondos, “Why Was Jesus Crucified? Theology, History, and the Story of Redemption,” Scottish Journal of Theology 54 (2001): 484–503.
(68.) See Carlos M. Eire, “The Quest for a Counterfactual Jesus,” in Unmaking the West, edited by Philip E. Tetlock et al. (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press), 119–142.
(69.) See David Novak, Talking with Christians: Musings of a Jewish Theologian (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005), 48.
(70.) I find this very plausible, since I believe that discontinuation of the observance of Jewish law was the most important factor in the theological division that emerged between Christianity and Judaism. Accordingly, insofar as Judaism has dogma, it is not a dogma in Judaism that the law will not be abrogated in the coming future. See Novak, Talking with Christians, 64.
(71.) See Peter Knauer, Der Glaube kommt vom Hören Ökumenische Fundamentaltheologie (Freiburg i. Br.: Herder, 1991).
(72.) Scarlett Thomas, The End of Mr. Y (Orlando, FL: Harcourt, 2006).
(73.) See Yiftach Fehige, “Poems of Productive Imagination: Thought Experiments, Christianity, and Science in Novalis,” Neue Zeitschrift für Systematische Theologie und Religionsphilosophie 55 (2013): 54–83. For a contemporary defender of such a view see Hilary Putnam, The Many Faces of Realism (LaSalle, IL: Open Court, 1987).
(74.) I adapted the overview that follows from Peter Swirski, Of Literature and Knowledge: Explorations in Narrative Thought Experiments, Evolution and Game Theory (London and New York: Routledge, 2007), 14–40.
(75.) A good example is Roger Scruton’s recent endorsement of this dichotomy to defend a religious view of world. Roger Scruton, The Soul of the World (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014), 34–40.
(76.) “Media of reason” is used here as a technical term, as defined by Matthias Vogel, Media of Reasons: A Theory of Rationality, translated by Darrel Arnold (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012).
(77.) See Alvin Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief(New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 227–240.
(78.) See Paul Thagard, “The Emotional Coherence of Religion,” Journal of Cognition and Culture 5 (2005): 58–74, here 70.
(79.) For a non-technical brief discussion of this view, and an overview of competing Darwinian approaches to religion, see David S. Wilson, Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin’s Theory Can Change the Way We Think about our Lives (New York: Delacorte, 2007), 233–253.
(80.) See Peter Swirski, Of Literature and Knowledge: Explorations in Narrative Thought Experiments, Evolution and Game Theory (London and New York: Routledge, 2007), 4, 6, 69, 72, 92, 99, and 108–109. It is the most recent of the evolutionary accounts of thought experiments, building on its predecessors, including the two most prominent, Mach and Sorensen. See Ernst Mach, “Über Gedankenexperimente,” Zeitschrift für den physikalischen und chemischen Unterricht 10 (1897): 1–5; Sorensen, Thought Experiments, 186–215. For an excellent critique of Mach’s views see Sorensen, Thought Experiments, 51–75. For a critique of Sorensen’s account see James Maffie, “Just-so Stories about ‘Inner Cognitive Africa’: Some Doubts about Sorensen's Evolutionary Epistemology of Thought Experiments,” Biology and Philosophy 12 (1997): 207–224.
(81.) Swirski, Of Literature and Knowledge, 73.
(82.) Elke Brendel, “Intuition Pumps and the Proper Use of Thought Experiments,” Dialectica 58 (2004): 88–108.
(83.) Swirski, f Literature and Knowledge, 85.
(84.) For a good reply to the rationalistic objection that a naturalistic account rests on an implausible phenomenology of intuitions see Nenad Miščević, “The Explainability of Intuitions,” Dialectica 58 (2004): 43–70.
(85.) To avoid a likely misunderstanding of the proposal in the context of this entry, with a particular focus on the proposed definition of theological thought experiments in revealed theology in terms of dependence on divine revelation: it is not incoherent to propose a naturalistic account of intuitions to deal with the epistemological problems regarding thought experimentation, and to affirm supernaturalism with respect to divine revelation. For example, one can be a realist about scientific matters and an anti-realist about mathematics. To avoid incoherence one needs to affirm a naturalistic account of intuitions also in the theological context. The human mind does not access the supernatural realm of divine truth via thought experimentation. But the intuitions that are constitutive for thought experimentation in the theological context (as opposed to the philosophical context, for example) have their origin in events, texts, and traditions that are brought about by divine intervention.
(86.) See Catherine Elgin, “Fiction as Thought Experiment,” Perspectives on Science 22 (2014): 221–241.
(92.) This is not true only as a rejoinder to logical positivism, but also as a rejoinder to the falsificationism that is much more popular today. See Sven O. Hansson,\ “Falsificationism Falsified,” Foundations of Science 11 (2006): 275–286. For example, all exploratory scientific practice would have to be ruled out as unscientific.
(93.) Elgin, “Fiction as Thought Experiment,” 230. Critical of this view in discussions of thought experiments are David Davies and Roy Sorensen. See David Davies, “Learning through Fictional Narratives in Art and Science,” in Beyond Mimesis and Convention, edited by Roman Frigg and Matthew C. Hunter (Dordrecht: Springer, 2010), 51–70. Sorensen’s views are to be found in his Thought Experiments, 222–224.
(94.) Elgin, “Fiction as Thought Experiment,” 232.
(96.) I know of hardly any good recent work on divine inspiration in Christian theology, and creativity in philosophy of science. The situation regarding divine inspiration is worse than with respect to creativity, and most likely the result of the debilitating insight that the traditional notion of divine intervention seems unsupportable today.
(97.) See Edward Davenport, “Literature as Thought Experiment (On Aiding and Abetting the Muse),” Philosophy of the Social Sciences/Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 13 (1983): 279–306, here 294–295.
(98.) As unlikely as such a conflict is, given the little knowledge we have about the intentions of biblical authors, or redactors—with considerable methodological consequences for the project of a canonical biblical theology. See Walter Gross, “Ist biblisch-theologische Auslegung ein integrierender Methodenschritt?” in Wieviel Systematik erlaubt die Schrift? Auf der Suche nach einer gesamtbiblischen Theologie, edited by F.-L. Hossfeld (Quaestiones disputatae 185; Freiburg: Herder, 2001), 110–149.
(99.) Among the pioneers of studying the Bible as literature I appreciate greatly the work of Robert Alter, especially his seminal The Art of Biblical Narrative(rev. ed.; New York: Basic Books, 2011).
(100.) Scruton, Soul of the World, 70.
(102.) Davenport, Literature as Thought Experiment, 295.
(104.) See Fehige, “Poems of Productive Imagination,” 67–71.