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A thought experiment is an experiment that aims to persuade by reflection on its design rather than by its execution. After reviewing the origin of thought experiments and the empiricist-rationalist debate over their effectiveness, this entry concentrates on Ernst Mach's influential account.

History

Actual thought experiments predate the term thought experiment, which was first used by Georg Christoph Lichtenberg in 1793 and only acquired wide currency after Mach's 1897 essay “Gedanken experiment.” Two thousand years before the term was invented, poets imported thought experiments into metaphysical verses about the nature of the universe. In his epic De Rerum Natura, the Roman poet Titus Lucretius supports the infinity of space by having the reader imagine that space has a boundary. If a man threw a spear at the ...

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