It takes the crowd-sourced and self-proclaimed encyclopedia, Wikipedia, 21 pages and more than 7,800 words to define, including pages of academic citations and references to other related subjects. It turns out that the concept of a “thought experiment” has been in use for millennia. The ancient Greeks first recorded the notion, followed by a 16th-century astronomer, then a 19th-century Danish physicist and then a 20th-century German philosopher. Suffice it to say, there is a long line of famous thinkers who have used the device.
For most of us, not quite so scholarly, the exercise is more of a parlor game than method of scientific proof. We frame a question as if it were a physical experiment and carry it out only in our imagination. It allows us to explore any number of alternative paths before we commit to one. We might consider the effect if we moved, married, added children, or became better educated. The subjects are endless. Or we might go from the specific and tangible to the moral and metaphysical. Topics could include surviving the zombie apocalypse, reacting to a foreign occupation of America, or knowing the exact time and date of our death.
What if we received a text message that told us our lives would end in 10 days? Not how or where, only when? Would we retreat to loved ones? Would we get our affairs in order? Would we spend everything we’d saved? Would we indulge in our vices? Would we avenge those who’ve transgressed or seek forgiveness for our own failings? Would we blame God, decide him a fiction, or seek him? How we answer might give us insight to the direction of our lives. Are we the people we want to be? Would we consider the text a gift or a curse?