Taming theory with thought experiments: Understanding and scientific progress

Michael T. Stuart*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

23 Scopus citations


I claim that one way thought experiments contribute to scientific progress is by increasing scientific understanding. Understanding does not have a currently accepted characterization in the philosophical literature, but I argue that we already have ways to test for it. For instance, current pedagogical practice often requires that students demonstrate being in either or both of the following two states: 1) Having grasped the meaning of some relevant theory, concept, law or model, 2) Being able to apply that theory, concept, law or model fruitfully to new instances. Three thought experiments are presented which have been important historically in helping us pass these tests, and two others that cause us to fail. Then I use this operationalization of understanding to clarify the relationships between scientific thought experiments, the understanding they produce, and the progress they enable. I conclude that while no specific instance of understanding (thus conceived) is necessary for scientific progress, understanding in general is.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)24-33
Number of pages10
JournalStudies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A
StatePublished - 1 Aug 2016


  • Darwin's vertebrate eye
  • Einstein's clock in the box
  • Maxwell's demon
  • Scientific progress
  • Scientific understanding
  • Thought experiments


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