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A New Function for Thought Experiments in Science

Whyte, Jennifer (2023) A New Function for Thought Experiments in Science. Doctoral Dissertation, University of Pittsburgh. (Unpublished)

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In this dissertation I propose and defend a new account of thought experiments in science and show that it solves an otherwise outstanding problem in the epistemology of models in science. In the first chapter, I argue that a handful of reasonable premises about the epistemic status of science and its models leads to a challenge: shifts in scientific concepts lead to shifts in scientific models that lead to potential non-empirical incompatibilities between them. The solution I propose is to construe the role of thought experiments in science as non-empirical operational tests of models in a hypothetical context of use – as model engineering, rather than a source of evidence. In the second chapter, I fully elaborate this account, demonstrate its features, and compare it to three of the most prominent alternative accounts of thought experiments within the literature. The final two chapters of this dissertation are case studies that use the model-engineering account of thought experiments to interpret thought experiments drawn from the history of physics. In the third chapter, I present the lottery thought experiment from Ludwig Boltzmann’s 1877 paper ‘On the Relationship Between the Second Fundamental Theorem of Heat and Probability Calculations Regarding the Conditions for Thermal Equilibrium’ and show that my account not only well-explains the case, but also explains the absence of this thought experiment from the many subsequent presentations of Boltzmann’s achievement in this paper. In the fourth chapter I present the Rota Aristotelica, a pseudo-Aristotelian mechanical paradox, and through it discuss the intersection of three topics: thought experiments, paradoxes, and historical variability. I show that my account of thought experiments allows that many paradoxes can be interpreted as thought experiments, and that this way of interpreting them can solve outstanding questions about what it means to be the solution of a paradox.
My aim in this dissertation is to present a complete picture of an account of thought experiments in science, the way that account fits into contemporary discussions of the epistemology of models in science, and how the account can be used to bring light to historical case studies.


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Item Type: University of Pittsburgh ETD
Status: Unpublished
CreatorsEmailPitt UsernameORCID
Whyte, Jenniferjlw198@pitt.edujlw1980000-0002-0288-4597
ETD Committee:
TitleMemberEmail AddressPitt UsernameORCID
Committee ChairNorton, John
Committee MemberMitchell, Sandra
Committee MemberBrown, James
Committee MemberGilton, Marian J.
Date: 23 June 2023
Defense Date: 27 July 2023
Approval Date: 6 September 2023
Submission Date: 5 August 2023
Access Restriction: No restriction; Release the ETD for access worldwide immediately.
Number of Pages: 152
Institution: University of Pittsburgh
Schools and Programs: Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences > History and Philosophy of Science
Degree: PhD - Doctor of Philosophy
Thesis Type: Doctoral Dissertation
Refereed: Yes
Uncontrolled Keywords: Thought Experiments, Scientific Representation, Paradox, History of Physics, Open Texture, Imre Lakatos, The Ogopogo
Date Deposited: 07 Sep 2023 01:32
Last Modified: 07 Sep 2023 01:32


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