On my Agency adventure, I’ll be collecting and assembling thinking and discussion points.
Buridan’s ass is a fourteenth-century paradox to illustrate why reason or rationality has challenges. I’ve seen this illustrated with hay bails. In deference to Shrek’s donkey, I’m having waffles.
Buridan’s ass is an illustration of a paradox in philosophy in the conception of free will. It refers to a hypothetical situation wherein an ass that is equally hungry and thirsty is placed precisely midway between a stack of hay and a pail of water. Since the paradox assumes the donkey will always go to whichever is closer, it dies of both hunger and thirst since it cannot make any rational decision between the hay and water. A common variant of the paradox substitutes two identical piles of hay for the hay and water; the ass, unable to choose between the two, dies of hunger.
The paradox is named after the 14th-century FrenchphilosopherJean Buridan, whose philosophy of moral determinism it satirizes. Although the illustration is named after Buridan, philosophers have discussed the concept before him, notably Aristotle, who put forward the example of a man equally hungry and thirsty, and Al-Ghazali, who used a man faced with the choice of equally good dates.
A version of this situation appears as metastability in digital electronics, when a circuit must decide between two states based on an input that is in itself undefined (neither zero nor one). Metastability becomes a problem if the circuit spends more time than it should in this “undecided” state, which is usually set by the speed of the clock the system is using.
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.
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.
A particularly overworked trope is that of greater good. ‘Greater good‘ is a Utilitarian concept wrought with the same problems as other specious Enlightenment ideas. I’ve written about this from several perspectives. As with many foundation concepts springing from the Enlightenment, ‘greater good’ is founded more on platitudes and some specious ideal than reality. It’s more wishful thinking for a gullible population.
Philosophy students learn in early ethics classes of the paradox of the Trolley Problem. But there is no paradox; it’s just the result of accepting a faulty framework, and so we left with a host of concepts from politics to economics.
The problem is that there is no consistent definition of good—or at least the value judgment is subjective; there is no accounting for taste—, and there is no measurement of it, a problem with Utility Theory in general.