Perspective on Theseus

Chump in Chief* wrote a piece on dementia using analogue of the ship of Theseus. As a topic, Hobbes’** Theseus thought experiment has been well-covered, but that’s never stopped me before.

This is all about identity. Essentially, there are two perspectives. To an observer not on the ship or aware of the transformation, they would be none the wiser. For all intents and purposes, if they had ever seen the ship before, it’s the same. But what about those on the ship?

For nearly all of these observers, it’s almost unquestionably still the same ship. In a manner paralleling a person’s cells being sloughed off every 7 years, the cells in place at the start aren’t there after 7 years. Most will not doubt that you are the same person.

the average human cell is about 7 to 10 years old

As cells are continually dying and replacing themselves, for an adult the average human cell is about 7 to 10 years old, which might be interpreted as saying in the fashion of Theses’ ship that a person is anew each 7 to 10 years. Let’s ignore that this is an average, and many cells have a lifespan of only a few days whilst others—cerebral cells in particular—are here from the start and so are as old as the person.

Another perspective is to consider the replacement parts: would it matter if the colour of the parts changed in the process? What about the materials? What about the underlying architecture? What if the departing sloop arrived a schooner? Weight? What then?

My favourite extension of this thought experiment is to ask the question two-fold: Not only do we ask if this ship built with new materials is still Theseus’ ship—which to be fair is more a question of ownership than of identity—, but what if I reconstruct the original ship with the original materials. Are these both Theseus’ ships? Can we continue this exercise with new material ad infinitum?

As far as I know, we can’t repurpose cells in this fashion, but what if we could? There are many such Star Trek transporter mishap thought experiments, or the Duplicates Paradox.

In these experiments, a transporting device disintegrates the subject, and replicates the subject at a distance—but this replication presumably uses different atoms and cells, and so what if a duplicate copy is made rather than the replacement copy? Who’s identity prevails? Is it murder to eliminate one of the duplicates? Similar questions have played out in the science fiction / fantasy space.

Locke and others suggest that for people, memory and the continuity of thought are key, but your thoughts of me are not the same as my thoughts of me. This is why an amnesiac may no longer maintain some original identity, and yet to the familiar outside observer, this shell of a person remains intact. This is pretty much how it plays out with zombies and dementia patients. This sense of identity is projected upon the person rather than exuded from them.

So what is my perspective? Rather than a paradox, it is more a problem of vaguity or ambiguity and how we’re defining sameness. There are many dimensions to similarity. I can present you a red square, a green square, a blue triangle, and a green triangle and play the Sesame Street ‘one of these things is not like the other game.

Is the sameness the colour, the shape, or the number? Could one be comparing area or perimeter?

So, I’ve gone off the reservation. I don’t put a lot of weight in notion of identity. It has evolutionary merit and is an effect of humans’ nature (as it were) to categorise and taxonomise.

* This Chief Chump charge may be unwarranted or even understated, as I don’t know this bloke.
** This is the same Hobbes with the ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’ claim to fame.

On Property

We take property for granted. John Locke espoused life, liberty, and property. Rousseau observed that “The first man who, having fenced in a piece of land, said “This is mine”, and found people naïve enough to believe him, that man was the true founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars, and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows: Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody.”

The first man who, having fenced in a piece of land, said “This is mine,” and found people naïve enough to believe him, that man was the true founder of civil society.

But property and its defence is nothing more than some accepted rhetoric. Libertarians presume this to be some inviolable right, and Anarchists and Socialists believe that property—well, private property anyway; real property—is a common good.

I have an issue with ownership of real property, though I don’t have such a strong opinion on possession. In reality, this is more of a practical matter than a defensible philosophical position. It has emotivist roots. As Hobbes noted (or I’ll paraphrase liberally), even animals in his state of nature have possessions, but there is no right to these possessions (which belong to the monarch anyway in society); there is only the ability to try to retain ownership through force.

In practice, this is what society does. Insomuch as the force is more potential than kinetic, allowing the state or community to exercise this force by proxy, it is not dissimilar to our consumption of meat products at arm’s length by sheltering the violent reality by intermediary grocers.

And we shelter ourselves through language. We don’t eat cows and pigs, we eat beef and pork, chateaubriand and bacon.

Returning to property, real property, it’s yours as long as you possess it, but it is not yours from a distance, and it’s not yours to bequeath. If we are to embrace capitalism—which I don’t, but for the sake of argument—, we should allow the property to go to the purpose that will provide the greatest utility. History as a judge demonstrates that it is unlikely to happen to be the someone’s heirs.

Property Rights — Possession

Who else loses sleep over how property rights can be derived legitimately?

I don’t need to argue the existence of God or gods or goddesses—not here anyway—, but I am willing to posit that if there were these deities, no human in privy to their word or desires in a sort of biblical way. Therefore any basis for scriptural law is illegitimate.

In the beginning…

I think it is useful to distinguish between the concepts of possession and property, so I’ll begin there. In the beginning, there was the earth—the land—; and there were people. (I’m taking liberties here, and skipping leaps and bounds.)

In the beginning, there was the earth—the land—; and there were people. (I’m taking liberties here, and skipping leaps and bounds.)  Nature, which is to say ‘bounties of the earth’, ‘produces’ natural resources, raw materials:  rocks, trees, chemicals, what have you. These belong to the earth and are inherently social goods.

The first people sustained themselves with these goods. Taking, say, a stick, I might fashion a makeshift club, and I might then possess this club. I have no inherent right to keep this stick. I may discard it of my own volition (or lose it) or it may be taken from me.

I understand the desire to claim ownership. Territorial animals lay claim to, well, territory; but this claim is defended through violence or the threat thereof and, to some extent, agency, for other allied animals to defend the claim (for myriad reasons). And territorial claims extend only to what one can actively monitor, so if I am a lion, I might possess a territory on the Savannah, but I do not coincidently also possess territory in London. Property rights attempt to extend this relationship, to possess something at arm’s length.

What is missing is the right to possess something. We can go back to Locke and—ignoring that nature and other living entities cannot participate in this system—enter into an accord, a social contract, one where if I possess a good not otherwise claimed by another, it’s mine to possess. As all potential parties have no say, one could argue that there is no legitimate manner to transfer from nature to person. The only defence is one of violence, as noted previously. We can define this transfer as legitimate, but simply saying something does not make it necessarily so. Nonetheless, let’s go from here, from a Hobbesian state of nature, where I can defend myself and possessions through a mechanism described by Rousseau: a social compact: I found it first—and it is useful and potentially this use or utility may be desired by others—, so I get to keep it—in exchange to ceding this privilege to others in my group. To extend this privilege is to extend the accord to other groups.

This is all well and good, but if one’s ability to maintain use of an item is limited by, say, distance or quantity, do I still have a right to possess it? If I possess 20 clubs and my clan has none, what is my claim? The claim of primacy—that I was there first—is weak. It would likely be in my interest (if not in communal interest) to share and give up possession, but having not established a right to that possession as property, how do I lay claim to these? Should I be able to? Should it be a right?

Let’s use a less simple example: a plot of land to farm. I’ve cleared the land, tilled the soil, sowed and tended seeds, and I plan to harvest the fruits of my labour. Many people might say that I am entitled to the fruits. This is debatable, but what if I possess more land than I can cultivate? Do I have a right to let the land lay fallow or otherwise uncultivated?

So current paradigms contest that, having applied labour to modify this natural good, I can hold it, possess it. Presuming that no one else has claimed ownership—a concept not yet introduced—, how does one extend possession? This should also address whether one can possess something at arm’s length.

Bedtime. Posting an incomplete, unedited draft with no citations or links…because it’s past 4 AM. Updates and extensions to follow. Hopefully, I’ll fall asleep and get some rest.

Fais dodo.