The Parable of the Thermostat

“So, an argument is sound when it is valid and actually has all true premises. Any of that stuff about deduction need any clarification or are there any questions or stuff?”

“Professor, it is too warm in the room. Can you turn up the AC?”

“I cannot. But, this will probably be the most important lesson you get in this class: see the thermostat there?”

“Um, yeah.”

“It isn’t a thermostat. It is just an empty plastic shell screwed to the wall.”

“No way.”

“Way. Here, I’ll show you….see, just an empty shell.”

“But why? Why would they do that to us?”

“It is so people feel they have some control. What we have here is what some folks like to call a ‘teaching moment.’ So, wipe that sweat from your eyes because we are about to have a moment: life is like this empty shell. We think we are in control, but we are just fiddling.


I was a very curious kid, in that I asked (too) many questions and went so far as taking apart almost anything that 1) could be taken apart and 2) was unguarded. This curiosity led me to graduate school and then to the classroom where the above described thermostat incident occurred. It also provided me with the knowledge that the thermostats in most college buildings are just empty shells intended to provide people with the illusion of control. Apparently, fiddling with the thermostat does have a placebo effect on some folks—by changing the setting they “feel” that they become warmer or cooler, as the case might be. I was not fooled by the placebo effect—which led to the first time I took a fake thermostat apart. After learning that little secret, I got into the habit of checking the thermostats in college buildings and found, not surprisingly, that they were almost always fakes.

When I first revealed the secret to the class, most students were surprised. Students today seem much more familiar with this—when a room is too hot or too cold, they know that the thermostat does nothing, so they usually just go to the dean’s office to complain. However, back in those ancient days, it did make for a real teaching moment.

Right away, the fake thermostat teaches a valuable, albeit obvious, lesson: an exterior might hide an unexpected interior, so it is wise to look beyond the surface. This applies not only to devices like thermostats, but also to ideas and people. This lesson is especially appropriate for philosophy, which is usually involved at getting beneath the realm of appearance to the truth of the matter. Plato, with his discussion of the lovers of sights and sounds, made a similar sort of point long ago.

A somewhat deeper lesson is not directly about the thermostat, but about people. Specifically about the sort of people who would think to have fake thermostats installed. On the one hand, these people might be regarded as benign or at least not malign. Faced with the challenge of maintaining a general temperature for everyone, yet also aware that people will be upset if they do not feel empowered, they solved these problems with the placebo thermostat. Thus, people cannot really mess with the temperature, yet they feel better for thinking they have some control. This can be regarded as some small evidence that people are sort-of-nice.

On the other hand, the installation of the fake thermostats can be regarded as something of an insult. This is because those who have them installed presumably assume that most people are incapable of figuring out that they are inefficacious shells and that most people will be mollified by the placebo effect. This can be taken as some small evidence that the folks in charge are patronizing and have a rather low opinion of the masses.

Since the thermostat is supposed to serve role in a parable, there is also an even deeper lesson that is not about thermostats specifically. Rather, it is about the matter of control and power. The empty thermostat is an obvious metaphor for any system that serves to make people feel that they have influence and control, when they actually do not.

In the more cynical and pro-anarchy days of my troubled youth, I took the thermostat as a splendid metaphor for voting: casting a vote gives a person the feeling that she has some degree of control, yet it is but the illusion of control. It is like trying to change the temperature with the thermostat shell. Thoreau made a somewhat similar point when he noted that “Even voting for the right is doing nothing for it. It is only expressing to men feebly your desire that it should prevail.”

While I am less cynical and anarchistic now, I still like the metaphor. For most citizens, the political machinery they can access is like the empty thermostat shell: they can fiddle with the fake controls and think it has some effect, but the real controls are in the hands of the folks who are really running things. That the voters rarely get what they want seems to have been rather clearly shown by recent research into the workings of the American political system. While people fiddle with the levers of the voting machines, the real decisions seem to be made by the oligarchs.

The metaphor is not perfect: with the fake thermostat, the actions of those fiddling with it has no effect at all on the temperature (except for whatever heat their efforts might generate). In the case of politics, the masses do have some slight chance of influence, albeit a very low chance. Some more cynical than I might respond by noting that if the voters get what they want, it is just a matter of coincidence. Going with the thermostat analogy, a person fiddling with the empty shell might find that her fiddling matches a change caused by the real controls—so her “success” is a matter of lucky coincidence.

In any case, the thermostat shell makes an excellent metaphor for many things and teaches that one should always consider what lies beneath the surface, especially when trying to determine if one really has some control or not.


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  1. “Right away, the fake thermostat teaches a valuable, albeit obvious, lesson: an exterior might hide an unexpected interior, so it is wise to look beyond the surface. This applies not only to devices like thermostats, but also to ideas and people.”

    Empiricism. Science. Done.

    The rest? Philosophy: how to get your knickers in a twist and learn nothing more about the world* but convince yourself you have.

    *Reminder: people are part of the world.

  2. Apologies. It’s late and I’ve had a drink, but I just had to set the record straight.

  3. “Some more cynical than I might respond by noting that if the voters get what they want, it is just a matter of coincidence.”

    Voters, collectively, get what they deserve. And even if there is no voting, and it’s a dictatorship, the people deserve that too. And we could say in hindsight, that the much maligned statesman; Saddam Hussein, gave the people of Iraq even more than they deserved.

    Thomas Szasz, (he’s on Wikipedia…If you’re too lazy to look him up, don’t blame me for being too lazy to define him). Szasz, has a political theory that the elites project a political structures downwards, down to the atoms of the family. But having analysed Szasz’s theory, you could be left (as I was) thinking, that equally, the structures of family could be projected upwards. An off the cuff remark I heard in a talk recently, in relation to America’s failure to spread democracy. America had attempted to spread democracy to countries where there wasn’t even democracy in the family.

    A major problem for democracy, is many people do not want control, they wish to be controlled; like toddlers. Hitler was democratically elected.

    Collectively, we get what we deserve.

  4. Ron Murphy,

    Good point, which nicely raises the question about discerning between philosophy and science. Checking the thermostat itself would presumably be as you say, empirical science. But, not all investigations of metaphorical thermostats would fall under science. To use an historical example, investigating the components of reality was a matter of philosophy-so Democritus and Heraclitus were philosophers doing philosophy. Once the field is developed enough to be its own thing, then it is a science.

    In any case, that people do such investigations is more important than what it is called.

  5. JMRC,

    There is, as you say, a certain truth to the claim that people get the government they deserve. But, there is still the matter of those who try to resist bad governments-though perhaps it could be argued they deserve what they get because they are too weak to resist. That comes with some problems, though.

  6. s. wallerstein

    That people get the government that they deserve might be true in countries with elected governments. After all, the government they get is the one that they voted for or weren’t persuasive enough to convince others not to for. And if they don’t bother to vote, they deserve the government they get to because they didn’t make an effort to prevent it by voting for the other candidate or party. Finally, if they were deceived by the candidates, well, they should have informed themselves better about what the candidates actually represented and who they are and not have believed generally vapid and inane campaign slogans.

    In dictatorships it seems otherwise. For example, did the opposition people tortured or murdered by the Pinochet dictatorship deserve that? What’s more, Pinochet was in power for 17 years. Let’s say that someone was 5 years old when Pinochet came to power. Could we say that 17 years later, that person, now 22 years old, deserved their government?

  7. s. wallerstein,

    “In dictatorships it seems otherwise. For example, did the opposition people tortured or murdered by the Pinochet dictatorship deserve that?”

    The responsibility requires an important qualifier. In any country or society, when all actions, inactions and positions are summed, your result is the collective responsibility. The people tortured and murdered by Pinochet, would have been less responsible for what happened in Chile, but again it’s incorrect to say they were tortured and murdered by Pinochet, as he did not do all the torturing and murdering himself. And it is not just a handful of henchmen and Pinochet. The entire product is something that immerges from the collective.

    From my perspective (the cultural, historical, and political processes instrumental in the formation of my personhood), Pinochet, Franco, and Trujillo, appear immediately and patently absurd. Examined independently these people seem deeply idiosyncratic, bearing all the hall marks of florid psychosis, with their chestfulls of medals (which appear to have been awarded for imaginary military campaigns), and elaborate feathered caps. But when examined together (and you may as well throw in Castro), the idiosyncrasies have a commonality, and appear to have been transmitted from somewhere.

    Dominican children could see through the absurdity of Trujillo, collecting bottle tops to award themselves for their own imaginary triumphs. And many Dominican adults would have seen him as absurd, apocryphally; his assassin shouting “this is the end, Bottle Tops”, just before he shot him. But enough Dominicans were enthralled to his ludicrous pomposity, that he was never placed where he actually belonged; the secure unit of a psychiatric facility.

    We can laugh at a bare chested Putin on horseback, but for many Russians it reaches into something beyond their intellect, into something they intuit. They then consciously rationalise this visceral agitation as something spiritual. A sense of calm, serenity, and physical security being a higher spiritual state, confusion, doubt and unease being a lower spiritual state. Did Stalin’s brutality terrify the Russia people or did it put them at ease; the strong Russian father who would beat his children, but with love. Was Stalin replicating the model of the Russian family on a national scale. And was it not the case that the Russian people did not just acquiesce to Stalin, but they demanded a dictator; a father.

    Who is responsible for these collective forces. It’s obviously the collective. They’re not always necessarily negative, but they often are. The function of reaching a “spiritually” serene state in societies, often requires creating outgroups, and scapegoats, projecting the sins of the society onto them, then persecuting them to purge the sin.

    With the ‘illusion of control’ also comes the anxiety that action is necessary to avoid catastrophe. And this anxiety makes people eager to sacrifice what they perceive as their personal control, to someone who seems decisive.

    The ‘illusion of control’ has its’ inverse, which is ‘learned helplessness’. Generally it needs to be induced, with people and animals through some form of unpredictable torment. But once induced, the subject is depressed and believes There Is No Alternative to their situation.

  8. s. wallerstein


    I don’t know about Putin or Stalin, but Pinochet never had the support of the majority of the Chilean people. The one reasonably fair election that he was involved in, the 1988 plebiscite, he lost, getting 44% of the vote, although he controlled all the mainstream media, including television and outspent the opposition campaign.

    Pinochet was a class product, that is, a figure backed by the Chilean wealthy classes and by international finance and the fact that he ruled for the rich, the banks and big business was clear enough that he never won over either the poor or much of the middle class. I’d wager that it was pretty much the same for Franco.

    That Pinochet appealed to some factor deep in the Chilean psyche undoubtedly is true and this (Chile) is an authoritarian country, no doubt.

    As to Fidel Castro, he spent too long in power. I see him as a benevolent despot, who did enough positive things for Cuba, standing up to U.S. imperialism, throwing the mafia out of Cuba, giving people first class healthcare and education, so that besides the attraction of the big man in uniform (which undoubtedly exists) there are lots of rational reasons why many Cubans might support him or might have supported him for many years, although, I said, he did not know when to hang up the gloves and retire.

  9. The fake thermostat could highlight the illusions of control in both science and philosophy.

    Modern philosophy has mostly focused on reason and analysis. If wisdom is the reconciliation of opposites, then modern philosophy has done little to reconcile or even ameliorate opposites. It can contribute to extremism and fragmentation by over-rationalizing. Over-rationalization does not correspond to Aristotle’s avoidance of extremes.

    If what is inchoate is not balanced with what is rational;if it has little chance to evolve peacefully in an overly fact-based culture, where empiricism is the only thing validated, it could evolve through violence.

    The fake thermostat gives an illusion of control. Life on the other hand should not give a similar illusion. In “getting beneath the realm of appearances to the truth of the matter” caution should be taken in not assuming that the outcomes of science will not be dual; a mix or good and bad. Or thinking that what philosophy excludes, fragments, or rationalizes gives control, when instead it only gives an illusion of control.

  10. Doris Wrench Eisler

    The fake thermostat is an insult, clearly, like most placebos. The vote in North America is only an indirect and potential tool of the people these days when corporations rule, but has power because it is perceived as having power. Obviously, the perception of democracy is very important in various ways to those that rule and some concessions can be gained by playing off one party against another. But there is power in not voting, especially if organized, and thus threatening to remove the all-important perception, for propaganda purposes and order, of democracy.
    Which makes me believe that all the thought and scheming ordinary people have always had to
    employ against elites in order to live has made them smarter. But then, those who vote in a certain way because, well, it’s traditional, are missing the point. And there are the special interests groups, and those who believe only their own concerns matter, democracy or no.
    However, in the end, the people will be served or “business’ will not be “as usual”.

  11. Mike;
    The fake thermostat story points in a great way to our misperceptions around how much we can control in our daily lives and in our society. But isn’t it expectable to have a limited control? A society has too many people with different opinions, points of view, how much control should we actually expect? In the best case scenario I and you are a single vote in ~ 150 million votes.
    And perhaps this is the crux of the problem, it is our expectation that our vote or influence in the process will be 1/total number of voters, and we expect that to matter. But we found out it is not or it might not matter as much.
    It is becoming clear for more americans every day that people with very high income, the so called 0.01% have an incredible influence on the political process; beyond our expectations and beyond what anyone can consider fair. It is no a new event in history, in fact is the common event in history: a minority have a very significant control of the political power in a society. And this has been consistently terrible, because this minority abuse its power benefiting itself with complete and total disregard- sometimes blunt out cruel-for the majority.
    Democracy or our representative government was created with the expectation to solve this problem, but is it going to succeed this time?
    I believe in our individualist society our major challenge is to change our mindset; not to live only for our own benefit but also for the benefits of others, and accept that the government has a very pivotal role in balancing the different interests and opinions.

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