Thought Experiment. On the Power and Limits of Imaginary Cases

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In short, there is no wholly moral action, and this is the point. Many philosophers have used the trolley problem as an example of the ways that real world situations often force individuals to compromise their own moral codes, and that there are times when there is no totally moral course of action.

Later on, the milkman drops by the field to double-check. There is also a large sheet of black and white paper caught in a tree, and it is obvious that the farmer mistook it for his cow.


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The question, then: even though the cow was in the field, was the farmer correct when he said he knew it was there? It also happened to be true, as the milkman later confirmed. But despite all this, the farmer did not truly know the cow was there, because his reasoning for believing it turned out to be based on false premises. Gettier used this experiment, along with a few other examples, as proof of his argument that the definition of knowledge as justified true belief needed to be amended.

It asks you to imagine that a bomb or other weapon of mass destruction is hidden in your city, and the timer on it will soon strike zero. You have in your custody a man with knowledge of where the device is planted. Do you resort to torture in order to get him to give up the information?

Like the trolley problem, the ticking time bomb scenario is an ethical problem that forces one to choose between two morally questionable acts.

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It is most often employed as a counter argument to those who say the use of torture is inexcusable under any circumstances. Thanks to its fictionalized use in television shows like 24 , along with its constant position in political debates , the ticking time bomb scenario has become one of the most frequently repeated thought experiments.

An even more extreme take on the problem was presented in a British news article earlier this year. In his book Autobiographical Notes , Einstein recalls how he once daydreamed about chasing a beam of light as it traveled through space. In truth, no one really knows for sure. Scientists have long debated how this deceivingly simple thought experiment helped Einstein make the massive theoretical leap required to arrive at special relativity theory. One of the oldest of all thought experiments is the paradox known as the Ship of Theseus, which originated in the writings of Plutarch.

It describes a ship that remained seaworthy for hundreds of years thanks to constant repairs and replacement parts. As soon as one plank became old and rotted, it would be replaced, and so on until every working part of the ship was no longer original to it. The question is whether this end product is still the same Ship of Theseus, or something completely new and different. Different institutions can do so in different ways, leveraging their convening power e. Most institutions do not consider this kind of activity a part of their mission, making institutional processes a major constraint for the development of socio-climatic imaginaries.

Jasanoff b, p.


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  • I. Imagining transformational change.
  • This points to a potentially powerful and, so far, not well-understood source of novelty when it comes to the political imagination. Art and cultural phenomena can provide important inputs to or triggers for political imagination processes. Human geographers have long taken an interest in fiction writing too, exploring what they call literary geographies or geographical imaginations — in essence, the role of place in imagined worlds, and what it can tell us about the condition of modern society.

    Among the few authors in this field who are interested in the political implications of such place-based imagination of the future, Strauss studies the spatial relationship between climate fiction and collective imaginations of political transformations Strauss, She usefully points out that all imagination of the future has to be situated in particular places, where both imagined environmental and social dynamics can play out — imagination requires geography. Yusoff and Gabrys are not interested in specific places, but also link imagination to the material world.

    They define , p. These existing approaches to imagination do not engage with the cognitive and political theories I have begun to sketch above. The cognitive power of story and the ability of fiction to provide real-world learning and to facilitate cognitive change i. When political imagination triggered by a fictional storyline is conceived as a process of complex cognition, we can develop a number of hypotheses concerning the kinds of effects a story can have on which kind of reader and why.

    For example, it is possible that politically conservative readers respond differently to a specific utopian climate fiction novel than liberal readers do. For example, readers living in the place of the fictional story e. In addition to these direct cognitive effects of a story on its individual reader, a novel can influence social-political processes in multiple ways.

    It can enter public, political discourse through reactions in print and social media, on radio and television, and in book reviews and commentaries.

    Evaluating and Explaining Climate Science

    Book club discussions and dinner table conversations also contribute to collective processes of discussing, critiquing, adapting, rejecting or embracing the imaginaries presented in a speculative or climate fiction novel. Politics is not only a matter of legislative debates and presidential speeches; it is a part of everyday life.

    Imaginary politics: Climate change and making the future

    Some novels are able to enter this everyday sphere of political deliberation more easily than others. Not only books or stories, but also fiction authors can be conceived of as political agents of change, and not only because representing a possible future in the present is a political act that invites and challenges citizens and decision-makers to respond to these cues.

    Beyond writing and publishing a story that can serve as an ideational resource for the process of societal imaginary-making, authors can and do contribute to public and political discourse. They give public lectures, speeches, and interviews; they write commentaries in newspapers and magazines, and they use social media. These contributions are particularly powerful if the author has reached celebrity status with many thousand followers. Margaret Atwood and Kim Stanley Robinson are good examples for such authors with star power and an environmentally-oriented political agenda.

    However, beyond these various strategies of using their ideational-discursive power, authors and their stories have limited resources and opportunities to influence politics. Importantly, their power is to a large extent constrained by other actors and economic structures that determine which stories are being published, and which ones remain unknown on hard drives and in desk drawers.

    Publishers and editors are the gatekeepers of story power, although self-publishing is increasingly popular. Their policies and decisions are embedded in the global political economy of book markets — a powerful structural constraint on any author.

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    Technology is another important variable that shapes the political power of fiction authors and their stories. For example, changing technologies for distributing and reading stories e. With waning federal influence, the Western states have closed their borders to environmental migrants from the East and are increasingly governed by corporations and militias. The cities of Phoenix and Las Vegas are on very different development paths with the latter increasingly cutting off water from the former. One major difference between the two cities is that one has chosen to rely on long-term data and careful planning, while the other has not.

    However, the success of Las Vegas is not only based on data-smarts, but also on a culture of political corruption and violence. The city engages in intimidation, coercion and even violent activities to appropriate its water from surrounding cities and farmers. Against the backdrop of widening class differences, growing poverty and ecological calamity, the lives of three protagonists intersect when rumors of a vast new water source emerge in Phoenix.

    Lucy Monroe, a gritty East Coast journalist, cannot help but stay put in Phoenix and report on the fate of the city, its inhabitants and victims. Maria Villarosa is a young refugee from Texas, struggling to survive in a parched, hot and increasingly dangerous city.

    While The Water Knife offers a regional-scale narrative, Green Earth is national and even international in scope. Except for the last example, all of these are reminiscent of events in the US over the last five years e. This complicated and often frustrating process of developing solutions to climate change involves not only changing mindsets about climate change and related societal values, but a complicated set of often radical changes in political and scientific institutions, a reallocation of resources, the revamping of organizations and the development of new technologies in particular a range of geo-engineering technologies , a new focus on equity and lots of international cooperation.

    In short, the protagonists are engaged in a process of deliberate transformation, restructuring the existing social, political, institutional and technological fabric. What fuels this utopian scenario is a marriage of science and politics. These two concepts are represented by the two main characters Frank Vanderwal is a scientist from California temporarily seconded to the National Science Foundation NSF and Charlie Quibler is a climate policy advisor to a Democratic Senator running for President , and the story ends with a literal marriage between the Senator, who is elected as President of the United States, and the National Science Advisor he appoints.

    The two books offer two very distinct visions of the future. The world of water knives, arcologies and climate refugees forced into prostitution serves as a warning of possible, but avoidable things to come. It demarcates a place in the future that Americans, especially Arizonans, would want to avoid. The key lessons to be found between the lines of The Water Knife are most relevant for US citizens living in the Southwest, but in particular for city officials, planners and water managers in the region.

    While he cannot control who reads his book, Bacigalupi wants his audience to consider the potential effects of not acting on climate change in the present and the massive future implications for human wellbeing. He shows them around their home city in the not-too-distant future, points to deteriorating class relations, vastly declined human health and happiness when compared with today, and to uncontrolled crime and violence.

    And Phoenix is devastated. Extreme events, such as a major flood of Washington D. In other words, their task is a deliberative transformation of the social-political system at a national, even international scale.

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    Through their use of scientific knowledge and technology, their redirection of existing organizations, as well as their commitments to equity and cooperation, they succeed in coordinating what scholars would call a process of transformational change. Green Earth is a story about human triumph, technological prowess, lots of cooperation and planning, but also reason and rationality.

    Utterly optimistic about the ability of individuals and existing American institutions of science and politics to change the current direction, the author offers lessons about pathway thinking, complex systems, human-nature interactions and social change, all with the aim of showing the reader how the world could get from the present to a sustainable future.

    He mirrors a range of insights from the scholarship on deliberate social-ecological transformations. In an interview with The Atlantic Beauchamp, , Kim Stanley Robinson outlines what he considers the social functions of science or climate fiction:. Thus the famous utopian or dystopian aspects of science fiction. The Water Knife , while thrilling and entertaining to read, subtly works with fear, disgust and concern.