Whatever the original intent, the introduction of the term ‘thought experiment’ has proved to be one of the great public relations coups of science writing. For generations of readers of scientific literature, the term has planted the seed of hope that the fragment of text they have just read is more than mundane. Because it was a thought experiment, does it not tap into that infallible font of all wisdom in empiricist science, the experiment? And because it was conducted in thought, does it not miraculously escape the need for the elaborate laboratories and bloated budgets of experimental science?
These questions in effect pose the epistemological problem of thought experiments in the sciences:
Thought experiments are supposed to give us information about our physical world. From where can this information come?
One enticing response to the problem is to imagine that thought experiments draw from some special source of knowledge of the world that transcends our ordinary epistemic resources.