14 February 2013

Being v. Becoming, Pt. 4: What's in a Name?

 Imagine you are an ancient ship owner. Your personal wooden vessel we'll call the "Theseus".

You launch the Theseus to lead your private fleet in pursuit of adventures all around the world. As time goes by, pieces of the Theseus weaken, erode, or get damaged in various battles and tight squeezes. As each piece gets damaged, you replace it with an identical piece of wood your shipbuilders manage to locate wherever it is you stop to lick your wounds and prepare for your next sally. Traveling in your armada you also have a supply ship. Periodically, it travels back and forth to your native land taking all the booty you've plundered and retrieving your mail and your favorite wines and goats, etc. Each time it returns, it takes the discarded pieces of the ship in its hold as ballast. You've instructed the captain of the supply vessel to store each and every one of these pieces, old masts, boards, ropes, etc. from the Theseus in your warehouse near the docks. By the time you sail back to your home port, you have replaced each and every piece of your original Theseus with new ones. What's more, once you return you discover that your industrious warehouse manager has taken all the pieces you shipped back, restored them, and constructed another ship from them, identical in every respect to the ship in which you first set sail those many years ago.  (See Plutarch, Life of Theseus; Th. Hobbes, De Corpore, 2.11)

Here's the question: Which of the two ships (or both) (or neither) rightly bears the name "Theseus"? Are they the same ship or merely identical copies?

Is the Theseus (a) the refurbished ship in which you sail home, or (b) the reconstructed ship made from all the origninal parts waiting for you in the docks by the warehouse or (c) both or (d) neither?

Philosophers love these sorts of puzzles. Solutions hinge on such things as whether we privilege proper names ("Theseus") or things themselves (any change in which destroys the original identity) or the component parts of whole things (the refurbished ship) or practical functions (what it means to be a ship). It challenges us to question what it means to "be" a "thing" or "the same".

Similarly, seeing Michael Apted's documentary 56 Up reminds me that people change over time. They grow. They degrade. They even change their names sometimes. The molecules composing their bodies change (though not, apparently, the electrons and quantum particles). How are the children in 7 Up the same persons as the near-geezers in 56 Up? What does it mean to "be" a "person"?

One way of looking at it is to think of, say, Suzy as the same person at each temporal interval. Thus "Suzy" has the same personal identity throughout the course of her life's changes. But, in the same way we might say Suzy has changed her hair color or painted her nails red, we say she is 'Suzy at time T1,' 'Suzy at time T2,' ... .

Of course, with living beings, the notion of consciousness throws a bit of a monkey wrench into the gears. We might then want to say that despite all the physical changes she's been through, Suzy's consciousness remains the same over the course of years. Suzy is psychologically continuous. Well, maybe. Fifty-six year old Suzy might be aware of having been through a painful divorce in her 40s—something that profoundly changed her, whereas seven year old Suzy would have no way of knowing this. Fifty-six year old Suzy might know what it means to suffer depression or to experience sexual ecstasy or to feel profound guilt and self-loathing, whereas seven year old Suzy in all likelihood would not. How, it seems prudent to ask, is this continuous?

The problem with this sort of analysis is that it attempts to preserve/privilege the concept of 'Being'. In Heraclitean terms, the river doesn't change, and Suzy is the same no matter at which point we enter her life (or she enters the river). This is handy for such things as language, naming and reference, analysis, understanding, etc. But, as Wittgenstein says, because of this we need to be wary of the things language does to our perceptions and understanding of reality. "Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of our language." (Philosophical Investigations, § 109)

But, it seems to me, it is fundamentally delusional. Phrased another way: How is it that Becoming or Process (rather than Being or Stasis) is not considered the primary mode of existence?

Heraclitus's ancient intuition, a brief and, to my mind, profound insight into the true nature of things, was eventually overshadowed by the more pragmatic Platonic and Aristotelian and Christian notions of ideals and substances and attributes and souls that dominate Western thought to this day. Don't get me wrong, these latter concepts are important. But they have the potential to stand in the way of our recognizing and coming to grips with the true, that is to say fluid, nature of Reality and Becoming.




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