Think about this:
Science—empirical study of the world—only exists because thought experiments aren’t good enough. Yet.
Philosophers used to figure out how stuff worked just by thinking about it. They would take stuff they knew about how the world worked, and purely by applying intuition, logic and math to it, figure out new stuff. No new observations were needed; with thought alone, new discoveries could be created out of the raw material of old discoveries. Einstein developed a lot of his theories using thought experiments. He imagined gliding clocks to derive special relativity and accelerating elevators to derive general relativity. With thought alone, he figured out many of the fundamental rules of the universe, which were only later verified with observation.
That last step is always needed, because even the greatest human intelligence can’t account for all variables. Einstein’s intuition could not extend to tiny things, so his thought experiments alone could not predict the quantum weirdness that arose from careful observation of the small. Furthermore, human mental capacity is limited. Short-term memory can’t combine all relevant information at once, and even with Google, no human is capable of accessing all relevant pieces of information in long-term memory at the right times.
But what happens when we go beyond human intelligence?
New York as painted by an artificial intelligence
If we can figure out true artificial intelligence, the limitations above could disappear. There is no reason that we can’t give rise to machines with greater-than-human memory and processing power, and we already have the Internet as a repository of most current knowledge. Like the old philosophers on NZT, AI could take the raw material of stuff we currently know and turn it into new discoveries without any empirical observation.
Taken to a distant but plausible extreme, an advanced AI could perfectly simulate a portion of the world and perform a million thought experiments within it, without ever touching or observing the physical world.
We would never need science as we know it again if there were perfect thought experiments. We wouldn’t need to take the time and money required to mess with reality if new discoveries about reality could be derived just by asking Siri.
It solves ethical issues. There are a lot of potentially world-saving scientific discoveries held back by the fact that science requires messing with people’s real lives. AI could just whip up a virtual life to thought-experiment on. Problem solved.
Of course, AI brings up new ethical problems. Is a fully functioning simulated life any less real than a physical one? Should such a simulation be as fleeting as a thought?
As technology advances, there will be a lot to think about.
You may not be aware of this work reported in April 2009: http://scienceblogs.com/notrocketscience/2009/04/02/enter-adam-the-robot-scientist/
There was plenty of AI, but it was connected to lab automation equipment so it empirically checked its hypotheses. This resulted in some genuine novel scientific contributions.
It would be a good thing to develop an ontology that facilitates this cross-fertilization of theoretical and experimental work, so that humans and machines could both contribute on both fronts. If this were done, I think we might find that machines have some complementary intellectual strengths that humans lack, just as humans have areas of strength that the machines will lack.
I wasn’t aware of that article; thanks! I was exaggerating a bit, saying that empiricism would not be necessary at all. At least for the foreseeable future, it’ll be a combination of empirical research with pure calculation, and of human intelligence with machine intelligence. In theory I think machines will eventually replicate all the strengths that are currently unique to humans, but that’ll take a long time.