An Argument Against the Use of Thought Experiments in Personal Identity

Thought experiments have traditionally played an important role when seeking answers about personal identity. Though common and widely used, some philosophers have questioned the legitimacy of many of these thought experiments. In this paper I engage with the works of two such people, Kathleen Wilkes and Paul Thagard. Wilkes argues that thought experiments used in personal identity are often so fantastical and under-described that they lead to poor conclusions. Thagard claims that cognitive science gives us reasons to doubt the intuitions we employ when reasoning through thought experiments, and therefore any conclusions we reach are unreliable. I am sympathetic with these views, and use this work as a foundation from which I argue that there are good reasons to abandon the use of most thought experiments when theorizing about personal identity. However, this does not mean we should exclude all personal identity thought experiments. Some of these thought experiments can provide valuable insights when they are designed to reveal inconsistencies in existing theories, when they are used as a means of mapping logical space, or when they are used in clarifying concepts.


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