“Thought experiments is just like watching movies”

Conny Mooldijk-van der Maat

You are invited to use your imagination to perform some great thought experiments in the brand new MOOC ‘Thought Experiments: An introduction to philosophy’. A MOOC is a Massive Open Online Course, a free course available online for anyone to enroll. Lecturer Tim De Mey explains what a thought experiment is and why he offers this course for all who are interested.

“Doing philosophy is like seeing a movie and wondering what will happen next, or what you would do in the same situation, or what’s real and what’s merely make-believe”, explains lecturer Tim De Mey. “In a thought experiment, we ask ourselves ‘what if?’ and use our imagination to find out. We do this in everyday life to evaluate and learn from our experiences. Philosophers do it to know what would happen or what one should do in hypothetical situations, and from there on in real situations. We also use it to find out what truth, existence, beauty, justice, knowledge and so on really are. And finally, we use it to come up with possible explanations for our experiences and thus build up and think through a consistent worldview.”

“In a thought experiment, we ask ourselves ‘what if?’ and use our imagination to find out."

Performed in many disciplines

Thought experiments are not only performed in philosophy. Historians, for example, use it when they identify and rank the causes of historical events according to their impact. Major discoveries in biology and medicine are also based on thought experiments, such as William Harvey's discovery of blood circulation. Thought experiments are also prolific in physics. Think of Einstein's lift, Schrodinger's cat, Maxwell's demon, Newton's bucket, and so on.

How to do a thought experiment?

In this MOOC you will learn to perform three kinds of thought experiments. First, you will learn how to use your imaginations to test definitions. For example: what is justice? After that you will develop your own worldview. And finally, since philosophy is not only about interpreting the world, but also about changing it -and hopefully, for the better- you’ll also learn how to use your imagination to evaluate what the right thing to do is in a given situation.

No prior knowledge needed

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are free online courses available for anyone to enroll. They are intended for students and non-students, young and old. Basically, anyone who would like to become better at using their imagination philosophically. “In addition to our own students, this MOOC is intended for a broad, international audience. No prior knowledge is required, only imagination”, says lecturer Tim De Mey.

Tim de Mey offers all his courses as MOOCs

“This academic year, I am offering all my courses as MOOCs. The underlying concept is very similar to ‘flipping the classroom’, but I like to call it ‘convergent learning and divergent assessment’ because that indicates the new, central role of the lecture as the place where different strands converge and from where different strands then depart”, explains De Mey.

“A MOOC is a tightly, modularly, organised course. Because my teaching is always well received, with the exception of course organisation, that is an important motive for me personally.”

More ‘quality time’

Before the lecture, students watch the educational videos, read the readings, and study the glossaries in the MOOC. During the lecture, lecturer De Mey briefly answers their questions, and then there is time for broadening or deepening. After the lecture student do various assignments, some of which are on Coursera, some on Canvas, and they also get to take an exam.

“In my view, there are five good reasons for using MOOCs in this way, or in a similar way, in our educational system”, says De Mey. “A MOOC is a tightly, modularly, organised course. Because my teaching is always well received, with the exception of course organisation, that is an important motive for me personally.” He also mentions flexibility for the students, more ‘quality time’ during the lecture to deepen and broaden the subject matter, higher learning goals and ‘branding’, as a MOOC is also a signpost for the faculty and university, both nationally and internationally.

Thought Experiments: An Introduction to Philosophy

Researcher

dr. Tim De Mey

More information

Want to enroll in the MOOC ‘Thought Experiments: An introduction to philosophy’? You can register here: https://www.coursera.org/learn/thought-experiments

This MOOC was developed in collaboration with the Community for Learning & Innovation (CLI).

Tim De Mey will also give a workshop at the Learning & Innovation Fair on 13 October 'Gradual wickedization: From MOOCs to vlogs and film essays'.

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