Experiments in Virtual Philosophy (guest post by Erick Ramirez)

The following is a guest post* by Erick Ramirez, assistant professor of philosophy at Santa Clara University. Among other things, Professor Ramirez has been working on philosophical issues related to the limits of our capacities for empathy and taking the perspective of others, and he has been developing exciting new tools to help us somewhat overcome these limits in our philosophical investigations.

Moving Beyond the Thought Experiment Paradigm: Experiments in Virtual Philosophy
by Erick Ramirez

Thought experiments are a deep part of philosophical methodology. In the classroom, we use thought experiments to help students better understand complex (usually moral) arguments or to try and get students to actively engage as moral agents. In our research, thought experiments often serve as arguments in and of themselves.

We might ask our readers to ‘suppose that they were kidnapped by the Society of Music Lovers’ or  to ‘imagine they find themselves at the switch and a runaway trolley car is headed their way.’ If we’re especially ambitious, we might ask readers to ‘imagine that a terrorist has hidden a bomb somewhere in Paris.’ Whatever the scenario, philosophers often ask audiences to take part in these sorts of thought experiments as key parts of a classroom lesson or argument. For at least one broad class of thought experiments, what I have elsewhere called ‘perspectival thought experiments,’ I’ve argued that this is a mistake and, more importantly, that we can do better.[1]

A thought experiment is perspectival because of what it requires that we do to successfully complete it. In a perspectival thought experiment, we must mentally simulate a point-of-view different from our current one and then make decisions (or gauge our feelings) from that new perspective. All of the experiments I’ve listed above are perspectival. The problem with such thought experiments is that they presuppose a capacity for simulation that is all but impossible for us. Why “all but impossible”? In part this is due to the nature of first-person perspectives. Such perspectives are composed (at least) of two parts. The most obvious are doxastic elements: this is a tree, that is a cat, I’m in California. Less obvious are subdoxastic elements: positive or negative mood influences, implicit biases – assuming they replicate-, and other such sundry elements that influence how we conceptualize and frame our doxastic states. Because subdoxastic features of experience are, well, subdoxastic, any attempt to simulate them will rob them of this feature (simulation being a conscious, effortful, process) and alter their effects on our experience.

This is one reason why we are so bad at getting our own future behaviors right (ask any of Stanley Milgram’s subjects whether they thought they would be willing to deliver a 150 volt shock to their peers and they would have all said no). For these reasons, we believe that philosophers, and psychologists interested in moral decision-making, should try to move beyond the thought-experiment paradigm if possible. Having said this, thought experiments can have many uses above and beyond the generation of new data (they can function as examples, they can be used to illuminate unclear features of a concept, they can function as useful bits of rhetoric) and my arguments don’t extend to these uses.  What I’d like to see us do is move away from thinking that perspectival thought experiments generate new (or realistic) data about our moral judgments and to consider how new technologies can enhance our ability to teach, and do, philosophy.

In collaboration with my colleague Scott LaBarge and a pair of intrepid students with computer coding experience (Miles Elliott and Carl Maggio), I have been producing Virtual Reality (VR) analogues of many classic perspectival thought experiments. We believe that VR technology has the potential to help us move beyond the error-laden thought experiment paradigm to get a clearer, more realistic, picture of moral decision-making. Why do we think that? Here are three reasons:

  1. VR simulations can, if well-designed, keep many of the subdoxastic features of our experiences in the background (where they belong) and thus lead to more faithful experiences than imagined experiences.
  2. VR allows for far greater control over what our students and fellow philosophers experience when we ask them to engage in a thought experiment (how are you imagining the people tied to the tracks in the trolley problem?). In other words, assuming that at least some forms of biasing factors are subdoxastic (those based on race, gender, class, profession, etc etc), a VR simulation can help to control for variation in subject imagination and subject bias.
  3. VR simulations already conducted suggest that well-designed virtual worlds can produce experiences that are treated as if they were real by those who experience them. What is a well-designed virtual world? Those that present subjects with a non-gamefied world that operates under the same sorts of rules as our own operates and in which information is diegetic and virtual characters have the appearance of being responsive to reasons. To give an example of a recent study that generated virtually-real experiences: a VR replication of Milgram’s study conducted by Mel Slater and his colleagues not only replicated Milgram’s original data (receiving ⅔ compliance) but also generated noteworthy stress and concern in his experimental subjects.[2]

We have currently produced VR simulations of Philippa Foot’s trolley problem and Judith Thomson’s Violinist Analogy. These simulations are free to download at the PhilPapers index; anyone with access to an HTC Vive and a VR capable computer can experience them and use them in any way they wish. Versions optimized for the Oculus Rift will be uploaded soon.



A scene from the virtual reality version of Judith Jarvis Thomson’s Violinist thought experiment, by Ramirez, LaBarge, Elliott, & Maggio

A scene from the virtual reality version of Robert Nozick’s Experience Machine thought experiment, by Ramirez, LaBarge, Elliott, & Maggio

A scene from the virtual reality version of Philippa Foot’s Trolley Problem thought experiment, by Ramirez, LaBarge, Elliott, & Maggio


[1] Much of this can be found in my (2017) “Empathy and the limits of thought experiments,” Metaphilosophy, 48 (4), 504-526.
[2] Slater, M., Antley A., Davison D., Swapp D., Guger C., Barker C., Pistrang N., & Sanchez-Vives M.V. (2006). A virtual reprise of the Stanley Milgram obedience experiments. PLoS ONE, 1, e39

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