Down the Ontological Rabbit Hole

thought experiments

Philosophy is riddled with thought experiments that abandon our intuitions about reality somewhere between the horizon of a black hole and its singularity. Many of these thought experiments aren’t formal arguments per se; rather, they are equivalent to short-stories that are intended to push a philosophical theory to its limits. So sit back, dear reader, as we travel down the ontological rabbit hole in a series of three thought-provoking thought experiments.

The Mary Argument: Suppose there is a color scientist named Mary. For one reason or another, Mary has never seen color. She has conducted her entire life’s work in a black and white lab. Mary knows everything physical there is to know about the color red, from its various wavelengths to its quantum mechanical constitution. One day, Mary is released from the lab and “sees” red for the first time. Does Mary gain new insights into the color red that is not already accounted for by her epistemic background? Most philosophers are inclined to say yes. However, if it is true that Mary gains new insights into the color red that are not accounted for by her epistemic background, then it follows there is more to know about consciousness than the purely physical.

The Trolley Problem: Suppose there is a runaway trolley. Further down the tracks, five people are bound to the railroad. The reader sits in front of a lever. If the reader pushes the lever, the trolley will derail onto another set of tracks where only one man is bound to the railroad. Most people’s moral intuitions suggest that the reader ought to kill the one man in order to save the five. Essentially, moral considerations boil down to numbers.

Here is where the thought experiment gets interesting. Suppose the reader is on top of a bridge. Once again, there is a runaway trolley that is about to collide with five people bound to the tracks. The reader notices that there is a large fat man on the bridge. If the reader pushes the fat man over the bridge, the weight of the man will crush the trolley, kill the one, save the five. Should the reader push the fat man over the bridge in an effort to save five people? Most people say no. Yet in the first thought experiment, our moral intuitions say yes; kill the one to save the five. So what is the difference between the two thought experiments given that the former produces the same consequences as the latter?

The Teleportation Paradox: Suppose that there exists a teleportation machine that annihilates an individual’s body on Earth, preserves the person’s psychological continuity, and then instantly instills that information onto an exact copy on Mars. Does the person survive the teleportation? Much people are inclined to say yes, since the person’s psychological continuity is preserved. In short, the person on Mars is identical to the person on Earth. Now suppose that the teleportation machine breaks down. The machine makes an exact copy of the individual but fails to annihilate the original person on Earth. In the first thought experiment, most people’s intuitions suggest that the copy is identical to the original person on Earth. In the second thought-experiment, most people are inclined to believe that the copy on Mars is not identical to the person on Earth. So which is it?

Much ink has been spilled over the years in response to these thought experiments. Too much to do justice to within the space allowed. What can be said is that escaping the ontological rabbit hole proves quite difficult. In order to escape the ontological rabbit hole, we must abandon our intuitions about reality and use reason as our compass. Enjoy the trip.

By Nathan Cranford


Encyclopedia of Philosophy
NY Times
The Phantom Self