What does a sociological rather than philosophical approach to thought experiments look like? The example of the Metaverse

I’m slowly working my way through Reality+ by David Chalmers and its provoking occasional flash backs to being an undergraduate philosophy student. Which ironically was the last time I read Chalmers, at the time in a haze of adolescent adoration because he seemed incredibly cool to me. One of many things which irritated me then which I lacked the conceptual vocabulary to articulate was the methodological status of the thought-experiment. Chalmers describes this as a basically syllogistic process in which one articulates a premise for a thought experiment and then sees what follows from it. There’s a peculiar lack of curiosity about the assumptions loaded into the chain of inferences which enable the thought experiment to be built up from a chosen starting point.

My point is not to shrilly point out this is a narrative process; of course it is and I’m not sure anyone would deny this. Chalmers seemingly wouldn’t given his extended and thoughtful discussion of science fiction. I’m not suggesting it’s arbitrary either; there’s clearly a cognitive content to (adequate) thought experiments which only the most banally positivistic thinker could deny. But there is a methodological complexity to the world building, particularly issues of social ontology and empirical questions which are downstream of them.

To take an example recently, I had a debate with a social theorist I’ve known for a long time about our very different orientations towards policing. It was illuminating, as talking to him often is, leaving me with a sense of how there was both a political and experiential difference between us which shaped the default assumptions we brought to the police. I could imagine if we were constructing thought experiments that for some reason might involve the police, the assumptions we are liable to make would be significantly different. It’s an incredibly specific example but my point is to illustrate how easily implicit sociologies might shape the way we chain together assumptions in building speculative worlds.

My suggestion is that a sociological approach to thought experiments would take the process of world building much more seriously, both in the sense of subjecting its assumptions to scrutiny but also using the ensuing dialogues as a basis for teasing out unexamined assumptions. In this sense the process of constructing the thought experiment would be significant as well as the thought experiment which ensues as an outcome. Furthermore, it would involve historicising past thought experiments and locating present ones in terms of the context in which we are asking them, in the style in which Loic Wacquant imputes to Pierre Bourdieu here:

Take a classical question of philosophy (e.g. where do categories of judgement come from?) and historicise it, by finding a particular setting where that question is raised in terms of the character of that setting and answer it in terms of the character of that setting.

Part of my scepticism about Reality+ is how it naturalises the techno-hype of 2022 concerning ‘the metaverse’, by equivocating between empirically specific technological developments and putative future outgrowths with characteristics which would satisfy the conditions of pre-existing thought experiments. ‘In principle’, ‘we will eventually’ (etc) illustrates how even the equivocations cut across the empirical and logical without paying attention to the difference between them. By bringing the cultural authority of the analytic techno-philosopher to the subject, he’s further inflating a bubble of expectation which conflates the state of the technology now with the world changing implications it may have in the future.

In turn I suspect he’s riding the wave of metaverse hype which preceded the turn towards generative AI as the ‘next big thing’, perhaps buttressed by unexamined aspects of his own life experience as he (seemingly) wrote this book during the pandemic. This makes it a frustrating book for me theoretically but quite a generative one to read as a digital sociologist who increasingly wants to locate techno-hype as imminent to socio-technical innovation, particularly with regards to how all this plays out in sometimes overly credulous education systems. I plan to pay close attention to his thought experiments as I work my way through the rest of this and consider how they might be read through this lens.

I’ve just been skimming this interesting book and there’s a section which looks extremely useful if I want to develop this line of thought:

What are the features common to (sets of) thought experiments? Do different communities draw different divisions between thought experiments, fictions, models and arguments? How contextual are the success criteria for thought experiments, and what causes a community to change them? Answering these questions requires a somewhat broader perspective, and a natural thing to do is to look at fields of inquiry rather than periods and thinkers. For example, what are the sorts of thought experiments used in politics, economics, theology, ethics, physics, biology and mathematics?


It also reminds me of Margaret Archer’s argument in Structure, Agency and the Internal Conversation for the sociological implausibility of an influential thought experiment which imagines that someone who was ‘self-blind’ might still be able to ‘get by in everyday life’. He might but a society full of such people would immediately collapse, if I remember the argument correctly:

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