Summer Institute: Experiments of the Mind

Dalhousie University, The University of King’s College, and The Situating Science Cluster present:

Experiments of the Mind

A Summer Institute on Scientific Thought Experiments

June 16 and 17, 2010, Halifax, NS, Canada

Whether it be Newton and his bucket experiment, Darwin and his “just-so” stories, or Heisenberg and his microscope, thought experiments—i.e., the experiments played out in the imagination—have played a major role in the discovery and justification of some of our most revolutionary theories.  This stands as fascinating challenge to the belief in the necessity of empirical data to support scientific theories and it forces us to reconsider the role of experiment in the empirical sciences.

How are thought experiments substantially different from empirical experiments? What is their role in science? Can they tell us anything about the world? Are they giving us a special intuition of the laws of nature? Are they models? Are they akin to literary works? Graduate students and junior scholars are invited to explore and discuss such questions with five researchers who have shaped the literature on thought experiments and aesthetics in science: Roy Sorensen, Nancy Nersessian, James McAllister, David Davies, and James R. Brown.

While this summer institute is a comprehensive two-day event, all participants will be welcome to attend, as observers, the June 18-19 workshop Science without Data: The Role of Thought Experiments in Empirical Investigations. This two-day workshop brings together close to 20 philosophers, historians, anthropologists, and scientists for a discussion of their most recent work on the topic.


James R. Brown (University of Toronto)

Dr. Brown’s research focuses on many topics in the philosophy of science and mathematics including visual reasoning, the foundation of physics and thought experiments. He is the author of many books, including The Laboratory of the Mind: Thought Experiments in the Natural Sciences (Routledge 1991, 2010), Philosophy of Mathematics: An Introduction to the World of Proofs and Pictures (Routledge, 1999), and Smoke and Mirrors: How Science Reflects Reality (Routledge, 1994).

David Davies (McGill University)

Working at the intersection of philosophy of art, philosophy of science, and ethics, Dr. Davies has been working on the nature, ontology, and value of art, imagination, and fiction, brining into the thought experiments debate the perspective of the philosopher of art and literature. He is the author of Art as Performance (Wiley-Blackwell, 2004).

James McAllister (Universiteit Leiden)

Dr. McAllister is the author of Beauty and Revolution in Science (Cornell, 1996) and editor of International Studies in the Philosophy of Science. His current work focuses on the relations between patterns in empirical data and structures in the world and on philosophical issues in writing history of science. He has defended a historicist view of the evidential significance of thought experiments in science.

Nancy Nersessian (Georgia Institute of Technology).

Regents’ Professor and Professor of Cognitive Science, Dr. Nersessian explores in her work how the interaction of cognition and culture supports creativity and innovation in science. She is the author of many articles and books, including Creating Scientific Concepts (MIT, 2008) and Faraday to Einstein: Constructing Meaning in Scientific Theories (Kluwer, 1984, 1990).

Roy Sorensen (Washington University in St. Louis)

Professor of Philosophy, Dr. Sorensen’s research interests range from philosophy of language, to epistemology, to metaphysics. He is the author of six books, including Blindspots (Oxford, 1988), Thought Experiments (Oxford, 1992), and Seeing Dark Things: The Philosophy of Shadows (Oxford, 2008).


Dates: Summer Institute: June 16 and 17, 2010 (Summer Institute participants are welcome to attend, as observers, the workshop Science without Data: The Role of Thought Experiments in Empirical Investigations, that will be held on June 18 and 19 at Dalhousie University (there is no workshop fee, but we are unfortunately unable at this time to pay for observers meals or travel expenses).)

Location: University of King’s College/Dalhousie University, Halifax, NS, Canada

Organizers:    Dr. Mélanie Frappier, University of King’s College

Dr. Letitia Meynell, Dalhousie University

Application deadline: May 1, 2010

Application procedure

The programme will consist in a series of seminars exploring the literature on thought experiments. The Institute is designed for graduate students, post-doctoral researchers, and faculty members interested, but new to the research on thought experiments.

To apply, participants need to send a short CV or letter of interest to the Students interested in presenting and discussing their own work on thought experiments during the Summer Institute are encouraged to send, along with their application, a copy of their work (or a long abstract) for review.

A notice of admission, together with a detailed syllabus, will be sent to successful applicants by May 10, 2010.

The programme fee is CDN $300 and includes tuition, coffee breaks and lunches on the two days of the Summer Institute. Affordable accommodations will be available at the residences of Dalhousie University. Payments should be made by cheque or money order upon admission to the programme.

For further information please contact:

Mélanie Frappier (
University of King’s College
6350 Coburg Road
Halifax, NS, Canada
B3H 2A1
(p) 902-422-1271, extension 181
(f) 902-423-3357