Thursday, May 19, 2011

Theseus in Nova Scotia

You'll know it if you've ever looked at a Canadian dime: the Bluenose, the schooner that became a symbol of Nova Scotia and Canada eighty years ago. It's been sixty-five years since she sank in the Caribbean, but her legacy lives on with the Bluenose II, a replica of the original based in Lunenberg, originally built as a marketing stunt for a beer company - in other words, deeply Canadian.

As a replica, Bluenose II was built out of wood - and the thing about wood is that it tends to degrade over time. So, since last summer Bluenose II has been in drydock undergoing a heavy rebuild to extend its life - but at the cost of putting much of the ship's original materials through a wood chipper, with practically the entire hull being rebuilt and only the masts, sails, and another one-fifth of the original materials remaining.

The Globe and Mail ran a story about this yesterday. Its thrust is simple, and boots criticisms and complaints that seem to have been circulating in Nova Scotia for a while now; given the profundity of this refit, when all is said and done will that ship in Lunenberg still be the Blunose II, or just some new ship that happens to incorporate pieces of the Bluenose II?

Of all the things I expected to encounter in the mainstream media, a real life example of the Ship of Theseus problem is not it.

I can't find any photos of an actual sailing ship to illustrate this article, so this one of the side of a West Vancouver Transit bus will have to do. It's full of... ship-ly goodness.

The Ship of Theseus problem, if you've never heard of it, is a long-standing philosophical issue that boils down to this: if you take an object and replace everything material about that object, is it still the same object or is it something new? This is one of those things that will never be satisfactorily answered until there's only one being left who cares about it, and only then because there would be no one around to disagree - that kind of identity is extrinsic, assigned by the observers around what's being identified, and not an intrinsic part of the wood itself. The planks don't care whether or not they're part of the Bluenose II.

The problem also has bearing in terms of human uploading, and whether or not a person's consciousness uploaded into a computer is a continuity of the consciousness as it was in the body, or just a sophisticated computer that has been given all the memories of a person and carefully taught to think exactly as they had. In fact, I think that questions such as this may well become significantly more important in coming years; even if mind-to-machine uploading isn't possible for a while if ever, I can certainly see some people electing to become total cyborgs - that is, installing their brains in robot bodies. I'm sure there are no shortage of folks who would love to use that as an opportunity to officially define total cyborgs as being "less than human." That's just one of the wonderful things we may look forward to in years yet to come!

As for the Bluenose II - well, it comes down to physical continuity versus spiritual continuity. When I've thought about consciousness uploading, no matter how much I believe that the uploaded consciousness would be another being with another viewpoint that just happens to have memory of everything that happened before the upload, the fact of the matter is that nobody else can tell the difference. Ideally, that is. The same can be true for ships. The materials may be new, but they were placed into the pre-existing template that we call Bluenose II, and even if everything that once made up the ship is gone, the idea of the ship remains. It's not really that hard to imagine - we look at cities the same way. Today, for example, there are only a few scattered bits and pieces of the New Westminster of 1871 standing, but you don't have people claiming that New Westminster of 1871 and New Westminster of 2011 are entirely different cities.

In the end, it's all about the ideas. Everything else is just hydrogen.

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