Thought Experiments

Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Beetle in a Box thought experiment is a fantastic analogy to me of the subjectivity of experience and the language we use to describe it. (All of the people in a group have a box with a ‘beetle’ inside. However, they can only look in their own boxes to get an idea of what exactly a beetle is—they cannot look in the others’ boxes. Therefore even using the word ‘beetle’ to describe what is in a box is pretty useless because it is not a universal term and can vary wildly from person to person. Yet people will still use the word.)

I think one hurdle to understanding different philosophies that exists to me is that so many philosophers seem to use terms akin to ‘beetle’ without clearly explaining their terms or acknowledging that they could well be basing their thoughts on their own limited experience. It seems to be a human tendency to assume others think and perceive the way we ourselves do—after all, what else do we have to go on? We can listen to other people present their thought processes, but we never truly experience them, and lived-in experiences seem to influence us and our outlooks more. (Or maybe this is all just me! Maybe there’s some dramatic irony going on because in saying that we perceive things subjectively in this specific way, I am revealing my own subjectivity and habit of doing this!)

I don’t know how objectively it’s even possible to perceive things, but I do try to as much as I can, such as with thought experiments. I try to pull myself out of the entrenched views that I have that I’ve been conditioned to believe.

I try and imagine, for example, what aliens would think about different facets of the planet if they were to visit and observe it: facets of my city, my country, my world. I seem to picture these aliens as being fair-minded and perceptive. I imagine them being quite confused about our customs and the entrenched prejudices and biases that inform them. They would be able to understand the reasons behind our actions that we don’t always consider. I imagine them seeing things more clearly and having questions like:

  • why do they keep separating things into twos? (i.e. binary oppositions)
  • why do they treat those humans poorly when the only observable difference is superficial?
  • why do they lie about their motivations when their motivations are so clear?

I use aliens because they would not have a stake in the matter—they would have no reason to get defensive, so they could see things more honestly. They wouldn’t try to make excuses.

I have thoughts and actions  that are in a blind spot too—i.e. I don’t yet notice the error of my ways. But I find myself growing ever more frustrated in general because I see so much prejudice and injustice in other people’s opinions and behaviour, and they seem to be oblivious. They do not seem to be assessing their viewpoints regularly and thinking critically about their beliefs. It causes so much conflict, confusion, and consternation when people try to communicate with one another.

The problem isn’t having biased views, per se. We all have illogical, inaccurate views. The problem is never examining them and never having the intention to change them if you notice them.

I didn’t always consciously hold challenging assumptions as a priority. I think I’ve always been empathetic, but I didn’t used to exercise as much thought and apply it as much as I do now (and hopefully I’ll exercise even more thought and apply it even more in the future). It is something you must put effort into changing. It has to become important to you. I think the default is to not question and to look at things on a surface level; you must opt in to looking deeper.

I wish that people wouldn’t react so hastily to opposing points of view but instead pause and take time to consider them, even ask questions to better understand them instead of assuming the worst. I wish people would be more skeptical and challenge information more instead of simply accepting it as fact. I guess I just wish people would consider what aliens would think more and adjust their views accordingly.