Sunday, May 7, 2023

Sunday, May 7, 2023, Will Nediger


Some years ago, five maybe?, I took a metaphysics class at the Harvard Extension School. I knew very little about metaphysics at the time, and while I was in the class I disliked it intensely. I thought, These questions are so unnecessary! Why are we wasting our time on this stuff? Well, that was then. Ever since dropping the class, the questions have been popping up in my mind over and over again, and one of the very good ones is the Ship of Theseus. 


The thought experiment runs like this - The people of Athens preserved Theseus's ship for hundreds of years after his death by carefully replacing any rotten boards with new, identical boards. Similarly, other parts were replaced as necessary, always with an exact replica. After a certain amount of time, every single piece of the ship had been replaced with a new piece. Is it still Theseus's ship? For the purposes of the thought experiment, it has never left its spot in the harbor. 

Now consider a wrinkle introduced by Thomas Hobbes. Imagine that all the parts that had to be replaced were collected and put back together in a different place. Would that be Theseus's ship? Would they both be? Would neither be?

Mr. Nediger today starts with the SHIPOFTHESEUS in 22-Across, then slowly removes and replaces every letter before presenting us with the SHIPOFTHESEUS again in 121-Across. Is it the same ship? This time it's physically in two different places, but it's the same ship. Or is it?

Coincidentally, today I write this review from a beach cottage which, just a few years ago, had much of its supporting structure replaced, and all of its cedar shingle siding. And the roof shingles were replaced maybe a decade ago. I don't think anyone would argue that it's not the same house, but it is now missing many of its original elements. 

Consider, too, yourself. There is a common misconception that every cell in the body is replaced every seven years. While this isn't exactly true, it is true that a large percentage of our cells are replaced over time, and it's happening every day. Are you the same person you were yesterday? Ten years ago? Me, I take up a lot more space now than I did when I was a baby. How do I reconcile that difference?

In one way, these questions are pointless to ask, because the answers, if there are any (is that NOSILLY at the end an answer from Mr. Nediger himself?), don't make any practical difference to the way we live. But if you like arguments, they can be a gold mine.

Are they worth having to fill in words like UPPISH, OTIOSITY, and NULLITY? I will CLAMUP and leave that discussion to you.

Frannie takes over tomorrow. I'll see you LATA.

- Horace

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