Thought experiments are the best kind of experiment. They take place in the mind where anything is possible. They involve no dangerously combustible chemicals, no finicky data-collection or the wearing of unflattering lab-coats. No animals are harmed in thought experiments – except perhaps in the case of Schrödinger's Cat - and then only very theoretically.
All that is required for a thought experiment is what - if you were telling a joke - would be the set-up, plus some imagination and wild surmising. The set-up can be very simple or mind-bendingly elaborate and aimed at illuminating the farthest shores of philosophical and scientific thought. Apparently Galileo didn’t actually lob tennis balls and refrigerators off the leaning tower of Pisa in order to conclude that that objects fall at the same speed regardless of their weight. He saved himself all the hard yakker by coming to the same conclusion via a thought experiment.
And of course Herr Schrödinger, in his famous thought experiment, only had to lock an imaginary cat in a box with an imaginary Geiger counter, some completely non-existent hydrocyanic acid and a dab of fictitious radioactive material, in order to elucidate his argument about quantum mechanics. Whatever that was.
I’ve devised a few thought experiments of my own – necessarily constrained by the fact that this column is intended for a general readership. So please, come along with me to the Thought Lab and apply your imagination, intuition and reason to the following three thought experiments. The first couple of experiments are pretty straightforward. The last one though … well, let’s just say it allows plenty of room for thought. ...
You go to the supermarket to buy the week’s groceries and are amazed to discover that not one single product in the whole shop is now contained in, or covered by, plastic, polycarbonate or polystyrene. (In the novel world of this thought experiment you will no longer need a hacksaw or a box-cutter to unpack the groceries). Imagine yourself standing at the check-out intent on staving off global warming with the usual fistful of reusable, recyclable shopping bags. Now that everything which you are about to pack into those bags is free of plastic, do you feel more convinced, or less convinced of the planet-saving potential of a few cloth bags?
2. THE COLOUR ME BLUE EXPERIMENT
World-wide, suddenly and without warning the manufacture of hair dye is outlawed. All existing stocks of hair dye are confiscated from supermarkets, chemists and hair salons. What percentage of the female population would turn completely grey wiin the following twelve months? How long would it take for the street value of illicit hair colourants to exceed that of heroin? How would our justice system cope with the exponential rise in female criminal conviction and incarceration rates? How would the lack of legal access to hair dye affect our understanding of the aging process – especially as it applies to women, and the sly male user of Grecian 2000? Would 60 still be the new 40?
3. THE NEITHER CONFIRM OR DENY EXPERIMENT
Begin by imagining that you are a reasonably prudent person of average intelligence. That shouldn’t be too much of an imaginative leap. Now imagine that you are about to enter into a contract of some kind - a hire purchase agreement or a mortgage for example. You decide to ask your lawyer to check the contract before you sign it.
However, you discover that the details of the contract are deemed too sensitive to reveal: you must sign it without examining it first. You don’t know the nature or extent of your obligations under the contract. You don’t know what would constitute a breach of the contract, or what remedies or penalties the other party could impose on you for breaching the contract.
There are only two things which you do know about the contract. Firstly, the conditions of the contract will apply to you, to your children and to your children’s children as well. Secondly, in a contractual dispute the other party will be far more powerful and better resourced to fight about it than you are. Would you sign such a contract under these circumstances? If you did sign the contract would you be considered a) wise or b) completely crazy?
Now for part two of this thought experiment. For this you need to imagine that it’s your government which is keeping you ignorant of the content and implications of the contract, and it is hell-bent on signing the contract on your behalf and without your consent.
Imagine also, that the contract isn’t some piffling hire purchase agreement but something that will govern how your country deals with just about everything: “competition, co-operation and capacity building, cross-border services, customs, e-commerce, environment, financial services, government procurement, intellectual property, investment, labour, legal issues, market access for goods, rules of origin, sanitary and phytosanitary standards, technical barriers to trade, telecommunications, temporary entry, textiles and apparel, and trade remedies”.
Finally, imagine that the contract is called The Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement or TPPA for short. If you allowed your Prime Minister to sign the TPPA without letting you read it first, would you be considered a) wise or b) completely crazy?