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Keywords:

  • Scientific thinking;
  • Imagery;
  • Mental simulation;
  • Embodied cognition;
  • Reasoning;
  • Creativity

Abstract

Interest in thought experiments (TEs) derives from the paradox: “How can findings that carry conviction result from a new experiment conducted entirely within the head?” Historical studies have established the importance of TEs in science but have proposed disparate hypotheses concerning the source of knowledge in TEs, ranging from empiricist to rationalist accounts. This article analyzes TEs in think-aloud protocols of scientifically trained experts to examine more fine-grained information about their use. Some TEs appear powerful enough to discredit an existing theory—a disconfirmatory purpose. In addition, confirmatory and generative purposes were identified for other TEs. One can also use details in transcript data, including imagery reports and gestures, to provide evidence for a central role played by imagistic simulations in many TEs, and to suggest that these simulations can generate new knowledge using several sources, including the “extended application” of perceptual motor schemas, implicit prior knowledge, and spatial reasoning operations, in contrast to formal arguments. These sources suggest what it means for TEs to be grounded in embodied processes that can begin to explain the paradox above. This leads to a rationalistic view of TEs as using productive internal reasoning, but the view also acknowledges the historical role that experience with the world can play in forming certain schemas used in TEs. Understanding such processes could help provide a foundation for developing a larger model of scientific investigation processes grounded on imagistic simulation (Clement, 2008).