Novels of Ideas and Issues

Plato and chips

By Jonathan Derbyshire

by Lucy Eyre

Philosophers have always liked to illuminate problems by making up fictions. Plato compared the situation of ordinary human beings with the predicament of prisoners chained and condemned forever to watch the play of shadows on the wall of a cave. Ever since, vivid analogies or “thought experiments” have been an essential part of the philosopher’s stock-in-trade.

In many cases, the purpose of such fictional devices is not merely didactic – a matter simply of illustrating ideas that have been worked out beforehand; often, they’re an integral part of the working-out itself. If Minds Had Toes, Lucy Eyre’s entertaining and ingenious first novel, contains descriptions of a number of famous thought experiments. But it is itself also an extended thought experiment, one that is designed to raise questions about the nature and purpose of philosophy. Lila Frost, a central character in the book, says thought experiments enable philosophers to “test [our] intuitions about a problem by taking it to imaginary extremes”.

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