The Ship of Theseus is Not a Paradox
Practicing the Democracy of the Dead: Ancient Wisdom Comes to the Rescue
In Plutarch’s Lives, the following question is posed: If the ship on which Theseus sailed has been so heavily repaired and nearly every part replaced, is it still the same ship — and, if not, at what point did it stop being the same ship? Many, throughout history, have alleged that The Ship of Theseus is a true paradox — one of the oldest and best known — for it seems to pose a difficult and seemingly unanswerable question: is an object that has had all of its components replaced remain fundamentally the same object? Unfortunately, The Ship of Theseus has also been used by people promoting themselves as purveyors of profundity (tongue-twister intended). Such attempts remind me of a hilarious scene from the 1978 movie Animal House.
The Ship of Theseus is not a paradox. Rather, it’s a trap all too often foisted upon others by those who themselves are uninformed and who believe “Wow — that’s cool!” is an intellectually responsible response to something not understood. Nota Bene: such an approach cannot hold a candle to Socrates’s goal of aporia — the state of honestly admitting one does not really know in order to encourage one’s self to pursue truth. Those who are satisfied with remaining in an alleged state of paradox also do intellectual violence to the very first sentence of Aristotle’s Metaphysics: “All men by nature yearn to know.”
At the bottom, what is invariably missed are two crucial distinctions: per se vs. per accidens and “natural things” vs. “artifacts”.
An artifact, by definition, is something that can only come into existence by the action of a rational agent. The artifact can neither act on its own (without some intervention of a rational agent) nor does it “have” a per se (i.e., “by itself”) or essential nature. A natural thing, on the other hand, acts based upon a locus of capacities/abilities unique to it. A rock, for example, acts like a rock limited by the four fundamental forces of nature. A Venus flytrap has additional capacities (nutrition, growth, homeostasis, reproduction, etc.), and so its actions are not shared with rocks. Similarly, an ox has even more (mobility, non-rational thinking, etc.), while a human additionally has the capacities for rationality and free will. Is it in our nature to fly? Yes, but we don’t rely on wings: we rely on our rationality.
In anticipation, this is not the full explanation for the existence of something. It is merely one based on innate capacities for specific actions. One must still come to understand beingness and existence through the perspectives of nature, essence, form, substance… and then one must refer to the Four Causes to complete the story… but I digress.
We must also avoid the nonsense of believing brutes (i.e., non-rational animals) make artifacts — they do not precisely because they are not rational… and, no, the act of thinking does not necessarily imply rationality: brute animals do think, but they do not reason. Rationality is the ability to think abstractly by reflecting back upon thinking about something. Do animals use tools? Only in a remotely analogous sense to the way humans use tools: the brutes can’t reflect upon the idea (concept) of “toolness” at all. (Concepts are not images: they are universals by which we know things. You cannot “see” justice in your mind, but you likely understand it.) Orioles build nests, but they do not use reason to do so: it is an instinctual ability, not a rational one… which is why brute animals can (usually but not always) be trained. But they cannot be taught in the proper sense of the word. Orioles don’t communicate with each other (or other beings) design improvements or aesthetic aspects of their nests… because they can’t: they’re instinctually driven to survive and propagate— not to debate design nuances.
A “nature” (or a natural thing) is a true substance: that which “stands under” the accidents — that which is “under — stood”. A substance exists by itself without being “propped up” by something else, nor does it care what I or anyone think it should be. “Substance is essence to which per se existence is proper” (Summa Theologiae 1a, 3.5 ad 1), and this underscores the absolute and independent character of substance. A substance “has” innate capacities for acts unique to it. Much more needs to be said, but this should suffice for the task at hand.
Artifacts can be named (defined as) anything the maker of the artifact desires (intends), but that definition can never be an essential (as opposed to operational) definition. So, for example, I can design and construct a pencil. And, I can use it as a pencil is normally/commonly used. But what is to stop me from using the pencil as a bridge for hungry ants to cross from an empty table to one containing picnic goodies? Nothing. So be it: it’s a bridge. That is, there is nothing essential about a pencil being used to write any more than there is anything essential about a pencil “acting” as a bridge. It is accidental (per accidens) to the wood, graphite, rubber eraser, metal, and glue whether it’s used as a writing utensil or a bridge for ants. You can’t even do violence to an artifact (violence = acting against the nature of a thing) precisely for the reason is that it has no per se nature. Intentionally smashing an ancient Chinese vase does no violence to the vase (why should the clay and glaze care?), but it does do violence — even if not physical — to the rational agent (designer and maker) of the vase by devaluing their idea/design, their beautiful art(ifact), and their labor.
Can violence be committed against a “nature” (a natural thing)? Of course — unfortunately, all too easily. It is not in the nature of a human to be used as a bridge, so when a Nazi commander of a concentration camp forced Jews to lie in mud so that he could walk over them to not muddy his boots, he was acting viciously — not virtuously — that is, violently against the prisoners.
So, The Ship of Theseus is a non-starter “paradox”: it doesn’t matter how many times or with what material the original ship’s parts were replaced. It is still the Ship of Theseus because the designer and constructor want it to be — that was his or her intention. What if Theseus used a large inflatable raft that got the job done — would that not be the Ship of Theseus? One would be a fool to suggest to Theseus it’s not his ship.
The point is the following: the material substrate of an artifact does not define it. (To think otherwise would be to fall for the failed and self-immolating pseudo-philosophical notion of materialism.) Period. Another example is useful. Let’s say I type using 12-point New York Times, lower-case, black font the word “transfiguration” while a skywriter used his/her plane to write “TRANSFIGURATION” all-caps, Arial font, with 100-meter tall smoke-based letters in the sky. Which word would contain “more” information? Clearly, the sky-written word: it would take substantial computer memory to store property data on each and every particle making up those letters, while it takes very little to store my much smaller word. However, what if I asked, “which work contains more meaning?” Well, the meaning has nothing to do with the material substrate by which it is manifested: both words “have” exactly the same meaning. (I could write one of the words in Ukrainian for all anyone cares — the meaning would be the same.) One cannot remove meaning “in” a word like one might remove dirt “in” a carpet. Moreover, while the “written” words are clearly artifacts, they are also signs, i.e., things that don’t have a substantial reality in and of themselves but point to a reality beyond themselves.
Anticipating another response: could a hurricane, at least in principle (low probability notwithstanding), descend upon a large junkyard to assemble by chance a 747? Nope — never… not even in principle. Let’s lower the stakes: could a hurricane, at least in principle, descend upon a large junkyard to assemble a single pencil? Nope — never… not even in principle. Why? Precisely because a hurricane is not a rational agent, and artifacts require rational agents to bring them into existence. The same reasoning applies to a bunch of monkeys sitting at a bunch of computers: they will never produce the first line of Shakespeare’s 19th Sonnet. (Based on the nature of monkeys, far more likely they would pick up the keyboards, smash them against the computers, remove some of the keys and chew on them, and pee on the keyboards.) Even if the monkeys managed to produce something an English-speaker might recognize as the first line of the 19th Sonnet, it still would not be that line — it would be meaningless because no rational intent (which is the Final Cause) went into producing it. (By the way, this is part of why Intelligent Design is such a dumb idea.)
Other examples abound. If I were carrying a large sack of Scrabble letters but the sack had a hole through which some dropped to the ground (me being totally oblivious to the situation), even if the letters spelled out the word TRANSFIGURATION, it would not be that word. Period. It would merely be the confluence of a number of independent lines of causality — otherwise known as a “chance event.” An English-speaking rational agent walking behind me might come upon this chance event and recognize its alleged meaning, but it’s still not the word: the recognition of the letters as letters and the word as a word does not impart actual meaning.
Yet another example: I plan and hold a party on Cape Cod at the shore behind some large sand dunes. Prior to the event, I communicate to everyone invited that there will be a sign pointing in the direction of the party from the parking lot (about 500 meters away). My buddy John, who is in the habit of arriving fashionably late, parks his car and starts looking for a sign. John approaches the shore and spots three large sticks in the form of an arrow. Naturally, he decides to move in the direction the arrow points thinking it’s the sign. When John arrives at the party, he thanks me for the invitation and compliments me for being “green conscience” on the use of driftwood for a sign. My response is, “Huh?” Just then, Penny, John’s sister, comes running up to inform me she’s fixed the large fluorescent-green cardboard sign that was blown away by the wind. John and I look at each other perplexed… and both of us ask for another glass of Greek brandy. Was the driftwood a sign? Nope: ocean waves are not rational — a chance occurrence of a pattern in driftwood neither imposes meaning nor was the driftwood a rationally constructed sign. In fact, it’s not even an artifact of natural forces — it’s just a pile of driftwood with no meaning apart from what it is.
There are no paradoxes in the real world. The world is ordered — something we should have learned about Creation from Moses. And, because the world is well-ordered, it is understandable by us — rational animals. Unfortunately, there is also ignorance masquerading as profound knowledge, intellectual laziness, will-to-power over others, and the shallowness of entertainment value. 140-character tweets rule the day — not long and difficult commitments to hard work and reflection and changing one’s self before foisting “change” upon others. In other words, there is the human condition. Where is Socrates — a long-dead, white European male — when you need him? Socrates was the wisest man in Athens because he alone was prepared to admit his own ignorance rather than pretend to know something he did not. The truth was something Socrates was willing to die for — at the hands of the Ancient Greek version of that profoundly inane injustice from which we suffer today: “Cancel Culture.”