May 24, 2009

Rewording the Ship of Theseus Paradox for Even More Philosophical Catastrophe

The Ship of Theseus problem is incredibly interesting to me, namely because Western proposals to resolve the definition of sameness with other wild and neologistic metaphysical rides are never quite convincing. I don't claim to have a complete answer, but I definitely wouldn't throw a hat to whether things "endure" or "perdure," or whether things "qualitatively" match while they "temporally," "numerically," and "positionally" differ. Ugh! More words when there shouldn't be, I fear!

The problem surely has made a mess of things for metaphysicians, but I want to show that this problem with identity can permeate some major subjects of philosophical interest, and then use those examples to expose some regularly ignored underpinnings that make the Ship of Theseus problem not so problematic when philosophers stick to their guns.
  1. Language's Ship of Theseus:
Here are two numbers:

a.) 2

b.) 2

Are these two numbers identical? "Yes," so many would say. Yet when you say that, how do you know that? "Well, because you wrote the same numeral in both places," they might respond, to which I have only to ask, "Are you sure?" Are you sure that I wrote the same numeral in both places?

Let's muddy the waters a bit (and let's use some Chinese because lots of Americans think that's fancy), shall we?

Here are some Chinese characters:

a.) 已

b.) 己

c.) 午

d.) 牛

e.) 囗

f.) 口

Are any two of these terms identical? "Yes," one may say. Really? But then why are 已 and 己 playing completely different roles in the language? Don't I mean "already" when I use as I do in say, "已經," versus when I use to mean "oneself" as it is in instances of, "自己?" Or "mouth" (口) versus "enclosure" (囗)? Or "noontime" (午) versus "cow" (牛). Now look a bit more closely at the characters. As you can see, such subtleties are actually present, even in the characters, themselves, that differentiate the terms. If you enlarged your screens, you may already notice a little line sticking out of the top of or that is a good bit larger than .

Now have a look at those numbers again. Are you sure that they are the same symbol? Are you sure there's not one just a few pixels lacking or an atom more crooked? What about the time when I wrote them? What about their juxtaposition to certain letters of the alphabet (as if I'm being any more lenient on those!)? That's the sort of muddiness I'm looking for!
  1. Religion's Ship of Theseus:
Is a religion still the same religion if all of its doctrines are altered?

A religion in common practice adapts to fit the needs and demands of its modern society, and much of the traditional ethos, cosmology, and most hilariously, eschatology of a certain religion at the time of its inception dies out or becomes "reinterpreted" to fit somewhat more naturally with notions common to popular knowledge of the sciences, or in secular cases, ideas of goodness and lawfulness. We may appeal to some sense of "essential features" of a religion to handle the above question, but if we describe a religion in this way, what determined an "essential feature" from merely "a feature of a religion that, unlike others in its history, has remained constant?"

Perhaps the religion's "essential feature" is one that, if granted, would disavow the entirety of everything that a certain religion says. Let's say that I want to be the first religious follower to deny the existence of its founder. I want to be a Saivite sans Siva. This sounds like something that I couldn't do in such a straightforward manner, but nothing bars it from being impossible. It's feasible that, if so many alterations become so commonplace that they achieve some certain level of orthodoxy, that I would be plainly able to gradually work around some of the presently "essential" conceptions, give or take a few traditionalists and new converts, into the point where even initially fundamental aspects of a religion, such as its claim to supernatural foundation, and even the existence of a deity of a certain form, can be replaced piece by piece. It's quite common in religious history and even contemporary religious debates, as complaints about "liberalization" of a religion calm down and a new border of "moral and spiritual purity" is born from it, and much of these rattlings deal with problems of interpretation of moral standards and textual interpretations of the beginning or predicted end of the world.
  1. Neurology's and Ethics's Ship of Theseus:
What's an example without a mad scientist?

A mad scientist decides that he doesn't want to remember anything about his life anymore because it causes too much suffering. Well, let's say he devises a contraption that enables him to replace his memories with those of some celebrity, which, we'll say, he downloaded illegally from the internet, and one by one the mad scientist swaps his memories until he he wakes up to believe he's...Michael Douglas (Why not, right?). When the police come to arrest the delusional mad scientist turned Michael Douglas for internet piracy, did they arrest the right person?

We should put it this way. There's no mad scientist left in any neurological sense. All of what would have made the agented portions of the mad scientist flew right out the door, since there is no such motivated individual any longer. All that's left is this Michael Douglas mind clone in a mad scientist's remaining anatomy. Here, the Michael Douglas clone is the same person as the mad scientist. If that's so, then why would we still believe that the Ship of Theseus is the same when we replace all of its planks? However, if he's not the same person, then the mad scientist's technology allows for total chaos, since we could pillage and kill, and then just download ourselves into thinking we're Kurt Russell, Vivian Vance, etc., etc.? Yet who do we punish for use of such a contraption to avoid capture?

And for the pièce de résistance, let's imagine instead that this becomes an underground freeware service where anyone can download his whole memory from any point in time prior to his committing an act, and so with regularity can download himself twenty minutes prior to committing any crime. Is there a criminal still chargeable with the crime?

This is just a strange rendition of the common knowledge that suicide, when successful, cannot be punished by civil law, but in its final end, it reworks such that no one really dies, but instead gets a nice little makeover such that everything is scrapped and reloaded to fresh legal innocence.

If an agent makes an utter transformation, is he still the same agent?

  1. Putnam's Ship of Theseus:

If I give a man Powerade when he asks for Gatorade, but he doesn't taste the difference or become affected by it in any way that draws his attention, did I still satisfy that man's request?


I'm prone to criticize conventional senses of "sameness" for the most part, but my position is more extreme than conventional users of language will really want to have it. It seems that, if certain understandings are made about how "sameness" is determined, then the the first, second, and fourth problems are completely overturned, as is the original Ship of Theseus.

Claim 1: Identity is a convention of definition, and as such, all of the conditions that are both sufficient and necessary for however a term is being defined at a given time is all that needs to be of concern. Once this is clarified, if such a thing can still conceivably exist, then it has all of the components needed for determination adequate reference upon utterance.

Is the Ship of Theseus still the same ship? Well, if you define a ship solely as all of the planks that made the ship when it was so named, then no; and if you wish to define the ship to include some leeway where new planks get "grandfathered in" to become appropriately matching with the ship over time, then yes.

Are the two instances of writing the symbols "2" and "2" indicating a number which is given as equivalent by definition? Well, our symbols have leeway, too. As long as the "2" fits certain angular and proportional specifications within some certain range, then it's fine. Sometimes this regulation is stricter than others, and sometimes may be impossible to tell on writing alone when symbols are too vague. Occasionally, we'll want to make sure that someone who handwrites "lambs" is on the topic of livestock and not poetry.

Am I still an adherent if I totally change the religion? It should be clearer now that I already hinted at the answer. Traditionalists will choose something that states that the past assertions of the text are the correct ones, while non-traditionalists will be open to new insights and support them as their own orthodoxy. However, whether one is "the real religion" or not is a matter of correspondence in definition, and where they insist in the truth of their claims, in the correspondence of what they say with empirical claims.

In ordinary conversation about objects, we usually acquire enough from context to supply satisfactory referents for less strict criteria for adequate reference. I give Powerade to people who don't know the difference between Gatorade and Powerade and don't need to have either one specifically, and they're none the wiser and far from complaint. It's because I made some appropriate assumptions of how they're defining the term in a conversation.

That mad scientist one is a toughy, but what else would I be doing if I wasn't assigning myself busywork?

Claim 2: Pontificating on a term does nothing to clarify its definition.

Have you ever heard people on different ends of the religious or political side fight over something not being "the true Word," or "patriotic," or what have you? Well, one thing you rarely hear is these debaters defining their terms. It's almost sickening. If there's not a common ground of definition, then all of these fights reduce to saying, "Hey, he's supplanting notions that don't fit my definition for some term!" Well, what is the definition for such-and-such a term, and what would motivate anyone else to accept that definition over some other one in which the other's notion fits with it? I guess they just expect people to compensate the former for themselves and take the latter by fiat. It doesn't strike me as very Socratic, nor very pragmatic. It sounds rather the opposite, more Sophistic and rhetorical than anything else. Watch 24-hour news channels and religious broadcasting for examples and cheap, laughable entertainment.

What about philosophers, though? Well, many I've met have been hard at work on exactly this terrain, looking quite Socratically and pragmatically at issues that many others would ignore. At the same time, though, I note a lot of philosophers conceiving other undefined words and then applying them in their explanations, which reads like counterproductive activity that, upon clarifying definitions for those terms originally intended to differentiate said investigated items of discussion, prompts some trimming, and when compromised, some weeding.

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