Thursday 23 February 2023

Geordie versus Geordie's hammer - Beings and continuity through time (Solving the paradox of the Ship of Theseus)

When Time is recognized as part of A Being, then we can also understand how a Being can remain the same Being - even if/when its component elements are all replaced. 

And we can also understand that when an entity is not a Being, and its component parts are all replaced - then what results is no longer the same thing as it was to start with. 

This is the Ship of Theseus paradox from philosophy; but it is more clearly stated by the simpler example of contrasting Geordie the Man, and Geordie's hammer. 

If we suppose that over the course of fifty years every cell in Geordie's body has been replaced (which isn't really true, because some nerve and muscle cells are preserved through the lifespan; but let's assume it)... 

Then, despite that none of his component parts remain from fifty years before - we nonetheless regard Geordie as The Same Person as he was fifty years earlier. 

Whereas, by contrast, we regard Geordie's hammer - which has had three new iron heads and twelve new wooden handles during the fifty years - as Not the same hammer as it was before (even if the replacement heads and handles are always shaped identically to the original). 

Why the difference between Geordie and his hammer? 

Why is the Man regarded as being the same, even if his components are changed, even though he has transformed from child to youth, from young man to old man? Whereas the hammer, which looks and functions identically throughout, is nonetheless a different hammer? 

The difference is that Geordie is a Being, and the hammer is not. 

It is of the nature of Beings that their identity remains, despite whatever repairs, growth, development and transformation that Being has undergone through time - indeed self-repair, growth, development and transformation are actually attributes of a Being. 

Indeed Beings are always changing, they are dynamic; which is one way we recognize they are indeed Beings. 

Being-ness is thus continuous, it never ceases even for a moment. 

There is no paradox here - unless we start assuming that Time can be excluded from our understanding, and/or assuming that Time can be discontinuous (i.e. can stop, and start again - which is another way of assuming that Time can be excluded from the understanding). 

If we try to understand Beingness without reference to Time and continuity, then we are driven to assume that Beingness depends on some unchanged essence. 

If Beingness were wholly material, that would mean that Geordie was no longer himself when all his component parts had been replaced. 

One traditional attempted-solution of this difficulty is to posit an unchanging immaterial spirit, which persists as such even when the body is destroyed, and despite that the soul may change through time (for example, by learning from experience). 

But to say that the real Geordie is something eternal and unchanging, is to render all change to body and soul superficial and irrelevant in a context of eternity. This is to posit a reality in which the eternal essences of all Beings - including all Men - are unchanging. 

And this is (I believe) contradictory to the whole basis of Christianity; which assumes agency, and that our choices matter fundamentally and eternally+. 

(+This tends to lead back to a non-Christian oneness spirituality - where all of reality is assumed to be unified, perfect, unchanging - and all else is illusory. There is no space in such a scheme for God, Jesus or Men as free agents - since all categories entail division, and are thus regarded as ultimately illusory.) 

What of Geordie's hammer? Since the hammer is not a Being - what is it? 

I would say the hammer - as a separable entity with meaning - is a component of Geordie's Being, a part of Geordie's Being. 

The hammer gets meaning from Geordie; but might also be shared by Geordie's friends; or given to another Man (or other Being) - and then would get a somewhat different meaning by becoming part of a different identity. 

In general; not every 'thing' is a Being; and those that are not Beings will get their identity - will be recognizable and understandable and have purpose - from their association with one or many Beings: through being known by other Beings. 

Therefore; if it was possible that Geordie's hammer ceased to be known by any Being (even God) it would simply become assimilated into 'chaos'; that meaningless, purposeless stuff about which nothing can be said (because as soon as something is said of it - it ceases to be chaos).

The un-known hammer - since it is not a Being - would cease to be a part of divine creation.

(But this presumably does not happen, because God - having known the hammer, would always know the hammer.)

Whereas a Being is known to itself, since consciousness (of some kind) is an attribute of Being (other attributes are Life, Purpose, Change*). 

Hence Beings are eternal. 

Even if (as was originally the case, before creation) a Being was unknown to God and had not (or not yet) been included in divine creation, it would nonetheless still continue to be


What all this tells me, is that we should be care-full about how we talk and think about Time - if we wish to avoid incoherence. 

If we start separating Time from Beings (and Being-ness), and start assuming that Time can stop, or is discontinuous; then we create paradoxes when it comes to Being. 

An analogous problem is Zeno's paradox of the Achilles and the tortoise; this incoherence derives from assuming that Time can be understood as discontinuous, and can be broken into discrete segments. 

Similarly; when we try to understand Being, we will run into paradoxes if we try to understand Being in a Time-less fashion.

But if instead we regard Being as a primary aspect of ultimate reality; and recognize that Time is an attribute of Being - then there is no paradox. 

Then Being is understandable using ordinary, innate common sense - something even a child knows, without needing to be told.  


Note: Being is here regarded as a primary category - therefore "A Being" does not, cannot, have a definition. Anything that has a definition is not primary, since it can be further broken down. But Being does have attributes.  


Ilo said...

Is there a cutoff point even in the human being? By this I mean, let's say a person has hip replacement surgery. Surely it is still the same person. But if the transhumanist schemes of man merging with machines goes forward, at which point is the being of a person changed? Can it be changed irreversibly? Maybe it comes down to the choice inherent in the merging, instead of the physical replacement of parts itself. For example, I always felt, even before being a Christian, that there was something instinctively wrong with heart transplants. And now it is not inconceivable that there will be artificial hearts (maybe there are already and I don't know).

Someone said...

I came to the conclusion that the self
1) Is not substantial (it is neither its constituent parts, nor something different from them)
2) Brings subordinate elements into interaction, and also possesses their properties
There are two substantialist theories of what a person really is: either Unconditioned Will or Empty Consciousness. There is also the Buddhist theory of the non-existence of the self. In my opinion they are all wrong. I think that will would be blind without consciousness, and consciousness would be inactive without will, but since these are different things, they simply do not interact by themselves. This problem is solved if we imagine something that has both consciousness and will, but is not reducible to them. This resulting "something" will be able to perceive, think and act, although there is no one specific that would do this. This is the self. We are something like a car that drives itself without a driver. My theory differs from the Buddhist one in that in it the interaction of individual elements occurs through belonging to a non-substantial self, while with them it simply occurs. But if you put vegetables and vinegar side by side, you don't get a salad, just like a salad isn't just chopped vegetables, and a movie isn't a combination of script, acting, etc, otherwise we wouldn't use one word, and evaluate it as if it were one thing, and not just a set of components. My concept differs from the concept of empty consciousness or unconditioned will in that it allows us to speak of people as having differences, including being male or female, because the self has the properties of its constituents

Bruce Charlton said...

@S - You need to account both for how the identity of your "non-substantial self" remains, so that it is still the same self through Time; yet also that it undergoes changes, maturation, development - even transformation.

Christians also need to explain how personal identity persists through resurrection.

That is the 'problem' that is being addressed here.

Alexey said...

Actually Zeno's paradox is not really a paradox, he just made it look like that. Achilles is not ten times faster than the tortoise, they are moving at the same speed, but the tortoise has advantage of one turn at any given time. On the zero turn, she moves a thousand meters, and Achilles stands. This span between them on each next turn will decrease tenfold, like the speed of Achilles and the turtle, but for it to reach zero, the turtle needs to give up the initial advantage in one move, which she has from the start

a_probst said...

"One who has chosen to follow Jesus Christ, cannot be snatched unwilling from His hand."

The concern is he might think he has chosen to follow Him but has not yet reached His hand. I'm told it's a strait path.

Bruce Charlton said...

@a-p - In the end, we need to decide whether the Fourth Gospel is true in its account of Jesus's teachings, OR Matthew - because they say almost opposite things at crucial points. The described path is Not strait in the Fourth Gospel.

Ilo said...

Given the premise of the maturity of consciousness, can't we see the four Gospels as addressed to different stages of this process and hence the discrepancies - with the Fourth being addressed to the fully developed personality and the First to the still community-led consciousness? Just like one understands the same phenomenon in a different way when a toddler, an adolescent, an adult and then a mature person.

Many in the modern world want to be children and 'never leave the nest', because freedom brings responsibility, especially inner freedom. But I suspect that Christians who are serious but still subscribe to a 'civilizational Christianity' are merely worried and hurting because they see no way for the vast majority to save their souls without the training wheels.

Bruce Charlton said...

@IIO - The problem is that in this modern West, one cannot find the training wheels, when even if they exist they are wonky - with a strong leftward list!