Who, Or What, Said That?

It isn’t unique to the discipline of philosophy that certain established subject areas or concepts become so entrenched, so axiomatically accepted, that even when substantial errors or problems arise because of them everyone seems blind to that cause. Philosophy is perhaps a contender for worst culprit, especially since it often treats differing viewpoints that do not even admit of the validity of those areas or concepts, and so their attendant problems, with contempt. This is childish. Just as to pose a question does not guarantee the validity of that question or entail there be an answer, so identifying a problem does not guarantee the validity of that problem or entail there be a solution.

An area where philosophy is perennially shackled in this way is the notion of identity, and shackled such that it doesn’t recognise the chains. One ancient formulation of the problem (and it may as well remain the ancient one, since nobody bothers anymore) is that of Theseus’ Ship. The thought experiment goes that, over time, ships timbers are replaced, so too with sails, rigging, the keel etc. Eventually a point comes where a majority, if not all, components of the ship are no longer the original ones. In what sense, then, do we refer to the same thing as ‘Theseus’ Ship’ at those various points? Notice the embedded axiom here? That we do refer to the same thing. Insofar as this is ever questioned it is simply to say any other conception of identity is too great a sacrifice.

Recall that this is philosophy. The sense in which ‘same thing’ is employed here is not the same as when one might say ‘my toothbrush’ in consecutive instances, and all the useful consequences of that such as not using the toothbrushes of others, or retention of a particularly fine exemplar. It is a sense in which we worry about whether it is still my toothbrush, to reprise the above, if the head has been replaced, or, more artificially, if every component atom had been replaced in some unlikely (alright, in isolation they are all ‘unlikely’) quantum tunnelling event, leaving it isomorphic in every way. Typically it would be unquestioned that there is some way it would not be different, because, also unquestioned, is the axiom that there is some sense in which ‘my toothbrush’ is my toothbrush which cannot change.

As useful as the dental hygiene analogy is it may be more illuminating to advance to where the consequences of such thought are more generally applied: human identity. Immediately we can see why there is a lack of questioning at the fundament of the issue. For various reasons – theological, psychological – so many are desperate to retain a sense of identity utterly independent of ostensibly contingent factors. Unsurprisingly I will dismiss the theological: the soul, the hackneyed vessel of this idea, isn’t real, makes no sense and is the most juvenile example of wish fulfilment on this issue. But psychologically (and practically) we want to say that simply because we change jackets, or have a prosthetic limb installed, we have not changed identity. We are less certain when we match our beliefs, motivations, and personality generally, as children against who we are as we become much older, but nevertheless the notion of a persistent ‘I’ somewhere continues unquestioned.

But this is the flawed consequence of the unquestioned axiom. And it is the tension between a laudable pragmatism and an idiotic adherence to something we seem to be admittedly hardwired to do. The pragmatism is easily explained, and at once understood to be a fiction and yet the only element of this subject worth retaining. Say we have named and so identified a river. We continue to refer to the river by its name, despite the fact that it comprises of flowing water which is always different over time, that erosion changes its size, its course, its depth and so on. The flawed understanding of identity has to accept there is some sense in which the river has an identity independent of that, and of course fails to provide one.

If we dispense with that, accept that there is a very pragmatic sense in which we refer to the same river over time, while it usefully stays in the same place, generally goes the same way, can be used in the same manner, without positing any other level of identity, we never encounter the problem.

And similarly with everything. We are not the same thing as we were when we were children, or if we lost a body part (and how do you define such a ‘part’? Where are the lines of demarcation drawn when we continue to accept any discrete entity as persistent?), or when we changed a belief, or shed a skin cell. But that is no bullet to bite, because it is simply a recognition and hopefully a demotion of that thing we are hardwired for: being, over becoming. We have so little mental space for becoming over being. We focus on being: we are, and so we are, in some sense, independently of our constitution and our experiences, even to the level of life and death. We (readers, presumably) are alive, and yet even healthy lifeforms possess dead, non-functional components. Heart-stopped, even braindead, people can be revived over periods which themselves change as techniques change. And yet we persist with clunky, concrete notions such as ‘alive’ and ‘dead’, or ‘that’ and ‘not that’.

Becoming – that is change, flux, evolution, entropy – is a far greater feature of the world than being – that is persistence, unchanging form and the Platonic hangover of ideals. Simply because it is understandable that we find the pragmatism of mesoscopic and meso-temporal entities most natural does not make it excusable to ignore this. Less still to leave it as philosophical bedrock which causes nothing but imagined problems.

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