A gallery of unique scenarios for solving serious problems (Book Review)

Title: The Infinite Tortoise – The Curious Thought Experiments of History’s Great Thinkers; Author: Joel Levy; Publisher: Michael O’Mara Books Ltd/Hachette India ; Pages: 190; Price: Rs 250

A crime requires a criminal intent as well as the act. But if we could discern what crime someone may commit in the future, is it valid to act against them when they might not have any such intention or even expertise now. Such ‘pre-emptive justice’, which has cropped up here out of justifications for killing escaped terror suspects, is however already been under debate and can be understood as a “Minority Report” scenario.

Using the 2001 Tom Cruise film, where such a state of affairs is visualised, and this key issue affecting security of the state and society, and human rights is by no means a trivialisation but part of a gamut of vividly imaginative scenarios, freely using paradoxes and fanciful analogies, to answer big questions about us and our universe.

And in this book, writer and journalist Joel Levy presents a wide spectrum of such “curious thought experiments” through which the world’s greatest scientists and philosophers have tried to understand the mysteries of the human condition and existence, of the natural world and phenomenon, and more.

“The Prisoner’s Dilemma” about cooperation may be familiar as well as the case of the donkey who starves while deciding between the two piles of hay before him, while “The Ship of Theseus” on when an object, whose parts are being replaced, stops being the original, occurs in various forms. Those who know their philosophy will know of Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” while those who remember their science and maths will know of “Achilles and the Tortoise”, “Newton’s Cannon”, the “Demons” of Laplace and Maxwell, the “Grandfather Paradox”, and “Schrodinger’s Cat” familiar.

But what about “The Teleporter Duplicate Paradox”, “The Trolley Problem” or the people who have the problem of ‘atemnophilia’ or “Body Integrity Identity Disorder”?

And why are such fanciful ‘experiments’ needed at all, and don’t they complicate matters, rather than simplifying them?

Levy however notes the use of this approach can enable people to come up with “creative responses, challenge received notions, overcome prejudices and pre-conceptions”.

“One way is to use the problem itself and frame it in such a way that it affords creative and insightful solutions, brings clarity in place of confusion and makes accessible the obscure,” he contends.

And while experiments, as we understand them, “implies a practical operation physically carried out in the real world, probably concerning science”, Levy argues they “can also have a much broader definition, encompassing a way of thinking that remains entirely intellectual and imaginary”.

“(Albert) Einstein called them them Gedankenexperiment, or thought experiments,” he says, adding he uses the term to encompass “paradoxes and analogies; scenarios used to illustrate, test and tease out arguments and hypotheses, to make plain logical contradictions and push theories to breaking points”.

Levy, author of over a dozen books dealing with science and history including “The Little Book of Conspiracies”, “Scientific Feuds: From Galileo to the Human Genome Project” and “Freudian Slips: All the Psychology You Need to Know”, then goes on to who explains a whole raft of such experiments concisely but clearly.

He also goes on cite their advantages and drawbacks, cross-referencing them with other similar ventures, or those which have advanced or refuted their conclusions, The selection is divided in five parts – “The Natural World” concerned with natural phenomenon especially light, gravity, time and entropy; “How Does the Mind Work” on perception, and thought and our brain’s limitations and possibilities; “How to be Good” dealing with questions of ethics, morality, faith, justice and rights; and “What Can We Know” on knowledge, especially its acquisition.

Finally “What Makes Us Who We Are?” on identity, and being, and including such questions how many entities you need to remove from pile before it stops being a pile, and Theseus’s ship, which Levy enlivens with more scenarios.

Not only “intellectual parlour games or curiousities”, these thought experiments also teach us how difficult it is to understand our complex world and our equally complex minds. And there is no easy route to this goal, or single truthful explanation for anything, which is the real lesson.

(Vikas Datta can be contacted at vikas.d@ians.in)

–IANS

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