Monday 7 January 2013

Identical Intuition

Firstly, a happy new year all! Been a while since I had time to post, so as the new year highs fade, it is time that I get motivated while I have a hiatus between studies.

The purpose of this post is an investigation in to our notions of identity, where we can check out if there is any real substance to them. One of the things any fair enquirer needs to do is make a distinction between what is real and what is simply conceptual. 
For instance, if you pick an object where you are now, such as the table leg, evidently you can look at it and say it exists and is made of a substance such as wood, metal, or plastic.

Then, we can make another distinction and point to certain objects and the way we actually categorise them. For instance, a car is made up of complex components such as chassis, engine block, axles, wheels, pistons, microchips, exhaust, seats and whole other multitude of things. 

Rather than list the individual components out each time we want to talk about it we look to the functional role of the machine and apply a concept that captures its description. The term 'car' is a convenient label that represents the machines functional role and is used in our everyday conversations as a label of convenience.

Here, we have two types of identity that we use interchangeably, and this can cause us to flit between the two while conducting first person enquiry in to the nature of what exists. What we really need to do is highlight the differences between these two ideas and look at the intuitions we have regarding the matter. 
Identity is a notoriously troublesome topic in contemporary philosophy, and aside from using a lot of algebra and tedious explanation, there is no real consensus and fractured positions on what constitutes identity. 

For our purposes though, we can simply look at our basic intuitions, and extract some key principles that we can employ to focus on LOOKING. There is no substitute for LOOKING, however, it seems to me that what gets people free is that they do the work themselves and smash the shit out of their own concepts of reality to test them for coherence.

A break down of some belief is useful, but represents only part of the way you need to go to see the fiction of 'self' in real life. For this reason we can start to flush out some of theses preconceptions we have about identity and hold them up to scrutiny in the LOOKING process, which you should ideally have started or are about to embark on. This kind of explanation will not free you and should be used as a guide on how to test a presupposition, rather than instructions for LOOKING itself.

Why is identity so troublesome?

Surely, it is simple to say “I am this body, or I am me”?

Before we can give an answer to this question we have certain presuppositions in place that must be challenged, and for this we require a thought experiment. The most famous example of identity in philosophy is known as the “Ship of Theseus” case.

In this example, the ship of Theseus was preserved over time and as each timber started to decay, it was carefully restored with a new piece. After many years, eventually none of the original parts were left as they had all been replaced, and the question we ask now is whether or not what we see before us is still the ship of Theseus?

"The ship wherein Theseus and the youth of Athens returned [from Crete] had thirty oars, and was preserved by the Athenians down even to the time of Demetrius Phalereus, for they took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their place, insomuch that this ship became a standing example among the philosophers, for the logical question of things that grow; one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending that it was not the same."

Of course, it seems right to say either “it is”, or “it is not” the same ship, simply because it is contradictory to suppose it is both the Theseus and not the Theseus at the same time.

Which is the correct answer?

The answer is not apparent immediately and we must explore the consequences of each answer to see where it gets us. Firstly, if you have ever seen the television show “Only fools and horses”, you may remember the broom sketch.

'In this classic scene, Trigger claims that he's had his road sweeper's broom for 20 years. But then he adds that the broom has had 17 new heads and 14 new handles.

"How can it be the same bloody broom then?" asks Sid the café owner. Trigger produces a picture of him and his broom and asks: "what more proof do you need?" (uktv gold)'.

It is evident then, that the same principle applies to both examples and we could provide a range of cases such as a spade comprising of three parts: handle, stem, and metal plate, all the way up to a ship consisting of many parts. What is true of one of these cases is also true of the other, where all the parts have been replaced, this causes us a problem in how we attribute identity.

Bearing this in mind, with the ship of Theseus case you may have been inclined to say it was the same ship regardless of whether it was made from different material. The new Theseus, even though it has been replaced with new timbers, occupies the same spatial position and has the same name. However, this intuition seems a bit harder to hang on to when we consider the case of Trigger's broom. If we hung up the broom and swapped the head two days later, and then the handle a few days after that, can we still maintain it is the same broom so easily? We will consider this in greater depth later.

Secondly, to make things even more interesting, Thomas Hobbes' alternative thought experiment utilised the same principle as the ship of Theseus case, only this time, he suggested that if he was to collect each old part of the Theseus as it was scrapped, and then he reconstructed the Theseus out of the discarded wood, which one then would be the real Theseus?

Would it be the restored version made of new wood?
Would it be the antique built from the scraps of old wood? 

In this case it seems absurd to suggest that the one built from the scrap components is not the Theseus, while its modern counterpart is actually the real Theseus. This faces a damaging objection because how can the original parts organised in exactly the same original manner no longer be the Theseus?

If we held our intuitions steadfast against this objection and stuck to the claim the ship made from the new components was the Theseus, it's identity would consist for us in the functional role of the Theseus. We would be denying that its identity was reliant on it's actual physical matter.

If we take the opposing view and deny the new ship is still the Theseus once its components have been replaced, we also run in to difficulties. If we take our two ships constructed from new wood and the old scraps, one could commit to the idea that the ship built out of old components is the real Theseus and its modern counterpart is not the real Theseus.

Let us then suppose that the modern Theseus is a sea faring vessel and we are the captain of that ship. As we go through our life we witness each part of the ship is replaced until eventually, we have none of the original components remaining. 
It would seem absurd to suggest to us that it was not the same ship that we had sailed countless times around the world on, we could even provide the legal documentation, insurance certificates, and log book to show our claim that our ship had always been the Theseus, and this claim would have legal weight in the courts. 

In the case of the ship being built out of all the old parts, is it realistic to deny that is the Theseus though? Even though legally speaking the new ship is the Theseus, can we ignore our intuition that the same matter provides its identity?

In the instance we denied that the ship made from new wood was the Theseus, we would be denying that the functional role of the ship constituted its identity. We would be looking to the physical components themselves that manifest an objects identity.

If we were to stick with this physical matter position we face a fatal objection which consists of this challenge. At what point does the Theseus change identity? If we are willing to conjecture that the new ship stops being the Theseus at some point, then we need to be able to explain exactly when this is. In philosophy we cannot use vague concepts to gloss over our problems.

We need to provide a solid chain of reasoning to demonstrate exactly what this change consists in. So, lets try and pick a figure, perhaps when 50% of the original material has been swapped out? Why not 49%, or 25% though? 
The trouble is we cannot provide a chain of reasoning here to distinguish between any percentage and therefore any number we choose is simply arbitrary. 

Consequently no chain of reasoning is sufficient to establish an argument and we are unable to say when this change occurred. If we cannot say when or how this change occurred, then how can we claim there even was a change in the identity of the Theseus?

So, let us sum up where we are at so far. We can either point to the functional role of an object as constituting its identity, or the physical components themselves that constitute identity. 
If we choose one we must necessarily deny the other and we have discovered that if we choose either one we run in to a paradox, which means our simple preconceptions about identity are incoherent with reality. Therefore, we can point to the fact that our notion of identity is inherently flawed somewhere along the line.

From this point, we can start to point out that our life is based on these notions of identity, and as humans, we have built castles in the sand right from the very start of our lives. Hopefully, this will be illuminating for you if you have worked these ideas through and checked their integrity, however, it is not enough to show this paradox alone to dismiss our notions of identity. 
We need to be able to show further problems with our notion of identity and demonstrate how this obtains to ideas about what makes us numerically identical (one and the same thing) over time.

Before we embark further, if we imagine that an object changes its material over time, can we say it is still the same thing? This of course, depends on the position you took in the Theseus case. What relevance has the ship of Theseus to a biological organism?

Part II Here


Anonymous said...

Very nice blog post is this! Are you familiar with fuzzy logic? Bart Kosko wrote a very fine book on how to work with FL which is probably still in print if you're interested. I can't comment on what you are going to say in part 2, but I think much of the mess that arises from the ship of Theseus business can be mopped up (and perhaps it's the only way) by coming at it via FL. BTW happy new year!

Gh0$T V1Ru$ said...

Hi mate, glad you enjoyed it!
The purpose really is to start to challenge the notion of identity itself. When one holds to the claim that they are one thing or another, we find that there is no certainty within these claims, especially when we relate this to how we think about ourselves as beings in the world. The ship of Theseus is a great way to get people to think about continued identity over time and is pop-philosophy that does not require loads of conceptual thinking. The fuzzy logic angle sounds fun but I don't think there is a solution to the Theseus puzzle... for reasons that will hopefully become clear!
Happy new year :)

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