philosophy (4)

AES70 The Ship of Theseus

There is a famous metaphysical thought experiment called the Ship of Theseus. Theseus himself is a figure in greek mythology, a hero who adventured throughout the world before he became the king of Athens. He did many great deeds, but we are here to talk about his boat (note that I use the terms ship and boat interchangeably here).

 

So what’s the deal with this ship and why are we talking about it? Well in his story after Theseus settled down, his ship was permanently docked and was ordered to be preserved. So throughout the years, the shipwrights tried to maintain the ship’s condition, replacing old decaying planks of wood with brand new ones. This continued on for so long until finally, the last original piece of the ship was replaced. 

 

This is where the thought experiment kicks in. If every single piece of the boat was eventually replaced, is it still the same boat as before? If it is, then what is the essence of “boat-ness” that remains even when all the material has changed?

And if you say that it’s not the same boat anymore, when did it change to a different boat? When the first plank was replaced? When half of the ship was replaced? 75%? Don’t worry, there is no right answer here, that’s why it’s a thought experiment, a paradox.

 

The Ship of Theseus can be applied to numerous things in life, including yourself! The cells inside our body constantly replace themselves, and scientists discovered that every seven years, every single cell in your body will have been replaced with newer ones. Depending on your age, you might have fully replaced your body several times over already, now that’s something to think about.

 

There’s a character from a sci-fi movie or video game (I can’t remember exactly) who’s a battle hardened veteran of many wars, and in this future, body parts can be upgraded and replaced easily. But this veteran still has an injured leg, and when questioned why he still has an injured leg even though he can get it replaced instantly. He answered, “Because it is the only original part of me that’s left.” After getting damaged in battle so many times, parts of his body were slowly replaced until finally only his right leg was left. And even though it was eventually injured, he refused to get it replaced because he feels that it would mean he wouldn’t be the same person he was before. He’s holding on to his sense of humanity with that one final link that he has. If only he knew that even his right leg is not really the original anymore, referring back to cells being replaced part earlier.

 

The Ship of Theseus can also be applied in today’s world of interconnectedness, where purposeful misinformation is rampant. Where statements and arguments can be warped using the principles of the Ship of Theseus, replacing the words and rhetoric piece by piece and erasing the context until it conforms with whatever agenda they’re representing. We can find lots of examples for this online if we are aware that this tactic exists.

 

How many words can you change in an argument where it’s not the same argument anymore?

"The Ship of Theseus is a kind of elaborate euphemism: what language they use reveals what they think we care about; what language they won't use reveals what they can and can't say. It's a temperature check for where we are as a society - what things do horrible people feel they can get away with and what things do they have to disguise; but no disguise is perfect, and if you do the fact-checking it will show you where they're weak. People will try to contort the truth... but the truth leaves an essence behind."

 

I’ll end today’s post with a lighthearted and silly approach to a ship of theseus statement.

Q: “Is it true that Grigori Grigorievich Grigoriev won a car in the All Union Championship in Moscow?” 

A: “In principle, yes, but first off, it was not Grigori Grigorievich Grigoriev, but Vassili Vassilievich Vassiliev, second, it was not the All- Union Championship in Moscow, but the collective farm sports festival in Smolensk, third, it was not a car, it was a bicycle, and finally, he did not win it, it was stolen. But in principle you are right.

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AES56 David Hume

“Reason is the slave of passion”

David Hume was an influential 18th century philosopher/historian who is famous for his works developing the early forms of skepticism, empiricism, and inductive reasoning. He was influenced by great thinkers before him like Isaac Newton and John Locke, Hume built his ideas on the foundation laid by these men, that the aim of science is not to achieve an ultimate understanding of everything, nor to attain absolute certainty, which is impossible. All we can work with is probability, what’s the most likely possibility that explains phenomenon occurring in the world around us.

Hume said that we as humans are much more driven by our feelings than any abstract concepts like logic or rationality. A feeling is immediate, intense and all consuming, much more moving and convincing than feeble attempts at supposed rationality. Hume noticed that we tend to use reason in a way that tries to justify our pre-existing beliefs and convictions, rather than using reason as a way to determine the most logical conclusion. 

Hume believed that to convince someone to change their misguided beliefs on a subject, you simply cannot state the facts and argue with them like a university professor would, this is not an effective way to make them change their minds. Instead we must use more emotionally driven techniques such as being sympathetic, understanding, and reassuring to them. 

You cannot reason someone out of a position that they didn’t reason themselves into

Even though he was an empiricist, Hume believed that it’s perfectly acceptable to hold on to our beliefs and convictions, since they are what helps us make sense of the world, and our place within it. Hume thought that the merit of a belief doesn’t come from its logical truth, but from it’s utility and usefulness in our lives. Trying to be 100% rational and skeptical about everything including feelings and emotions is an unreasonable and ultimately fruitless endeavour. This is also why he strongly believed in religious tolerance, even though he was likely not a believer himself. He saw religion not in the framework of logic, facts and evidence, but as a group of emotionally driven people trying to make sense of the world from their own perspective and stories. This is why Hume thought that trying to have a rational argument over religion achieves nothing. They should be left in peace provided their beliefs are not harmful.

“While we are reasoning concerning life, life is gone”

Hume thought that our pursuit in life should be to focus on exercising control over our emotions rather than trying to make our minds as logical as possible. This is because reason is a slave to passion, no matter how much we try to guide ourselves with reason, what’s ultimately in control is our fleeting emotions. But not all feelings are good or even acceptable, Hume also realizes that a person can be incredibly smart and rational, and yet they can be not nice people at all. This is because having great intellectual capacity does not mean you are sensitive to the suffering of others, that you can behave in a gentle way, or are skilled at keeping your temper. This is why Hume advocated for an “Education of the Passions”, where the education system teaches students to develop and control their emotions, teaching them compassion, patience and self-determination, rather than only addressing the narrow academic side of things.

David Hume is a hugely influential figure in philosophy. He inspired many great thinkers that came after him, such as Adam Smith, Jeremy Bentham and Charles Darwin, just to name a few. This writing only encapsulates a tiny bit of his contributions to the world, and there’s much I didn’t have time to cover in this piece. So I’ll end this post with a quote from David Hume;

“Be a philosopher, but amidst all your philosophy, be still a man”

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AES54 The Death of Socrates

“To fear death, gentlemen, is no other than to think oneself wise when one is not, to think one knows what one does not know. No one knows whether death may not be the greatest of all blessings for a man, yet men fear it as if they knew that it is the greatest of evils.” - Socrates

 

This is a famous painting made by french painter Jacques-Louis David in 1987. It shows a story famously written by Plato about the execution of Socrates. This great greek philosopher is one of the most influential intellectuals of all time, his teachings of philosophy are still being read even today. The painting itself is the apex of the Neoclassical art movement of the time, displaying the subjects strongly and severely, and yet it is subtle and beautiful at the same time.

Now for the story of this scene, Socrates was put on trial for supposedly corrupting the Athenian youth with his ideas, and for his refusal to acknowledge the sacred gods of the city. At the conclusion of his trial, he was sentenced to death by consuming hemlock, a deadly poison. Now Socrates could have easily escaped into exile and lived, but he made a choice to stay and teach his students what would be his final lesson, that death is not something to be feared. This painting shows us the execution of Socrates.

Jacques-Louis David didn’t really provide any identification for the characters present in the painting, but it can be picked up from the context alone. The person who stands out the most is Socrates, he is sitting upright in the middle wearing white flowing robes, depicted vividly in stark geometric lines as strong and iron-willed, gesturing defiantly against fear as he reached for the poison that would end his own life. 

His followers to the right side, despairs to see their teacher’s last moments. While Crito, his oldest and most faithful student, clutches at Socrates’ thigh while he looks him in the eye.

The executioner in red robes, shamefully looks away from Socrates as he offers him the goblet filled with poisonous hemlock.

In the left side background we can see Socrates’ wife Xanthippe being escorted out in distress, sparing her the horror of watching her husband’s execution.

But the old man sitting at the edge of the bed is actually the most important part of this painting. That man is Plato, even though he was not present at Socrates’ execution, since he was still a boy at the time. Plato is the person responsible for popularizing Socrates’ teachings, the two are so intertwined that it’s hard to even tell where Socrates’ philosophies ends and Plato’s begins. This can make us look at the rest of the painting in an entirely new perspective. 

This whole scene can be read as taking place in Plato’s head, his idealized reimagination of how it happened. It calls upon the very nature of memory, how we tend to create an ideal in our minds, the imperfections of a scene are smoothed over, giving us a perfect frozen moment in time and reality.

To courageously confront death and stay true to our own ideals. To stand fearlessly in the face of inevitable ruin. This painting shows us a person with moral strength and character to a degree that many of us have never seen before. There’s a lot to appreciate in this painting, and even without knowing the story and context it is still a powerful and beautiful piece of art, withstanding the test of time.

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He has the most who is most content with the least.

-Diogenes of Sinope-

Diogenes was an Ancient Greek Philosopher that is famous for his unusual outlook of life, Cynicism, which sets aside conventional desires for a simple lifestyle. He chose to live like a shameless beggar, criticizing those who have become superficial, delusional and vain.

He lived in a tub in the middle of a marketplace in Athens, and his sole possession was a wooden bowl which he used to eat and drink with, until he saw a young boy drinking from his hands, and he threw away his bowl, staying true to his way of life.

Diogenes would eat and perform ‘bodily functions’ right there in the marketplace, in full view of everyone else, under the full pressure of the current societal norms and conventions. When he was eating, a passerby called him a dog, and Diogenes shot back “It is you who are dogs, standing around and watching me eat my breakfast.”

 

Unassumingly, Diogenes was a very smart man, having a sharp mind that can (and does) challenge and roast the most pompous of scholars and philosophers. He was critical of his philosopher peers, mainly Plato (Socrates’ student).

One time, Plato was trying to define a human being with the simplest term possible, he therefore defined man as a “featherless biped”. Diogenes heard this and hurriedly rushed to Plato’s Academy, brandishing a plucked chicken, exclaiming “Behold, Here is Plato’s man!”

Once Plato was discussing his theories, pointing to the cups on the table, he said that while there are many cups in the world, there is only one `idea’ of a cup, which he defined as a “cupness”

Diogenes was present here, and said “I can see the cups on the table,but I can’t see the ‘cupness’”.

“That’s because you have the eyes to see the cup,” said Plato, “but”, tapping his head with his forefinger, “you don’t have the mind to comprehend the`cupness’.”

Diogenes walked up to the table, picked up a cup, looked inside and asked Plato, “Is it empty?” Plato nodded. “Where is the ’emptiness’ that’s in this empty cup?” asked Diogenes. Plato thought hard for a second, but Diogenes reached over, tapping Plato’s head with his finger, and said “I think you will find the ‘emptiness’ here.”

 

Diogenes was also famous for his cutting satire. When he was asked if he believed in the Gods, Diogenes replied “How can I when I see a god-forsaken wretch like you?”.

Another incident was a man telling Diogenes that he would give him money if he can be persuaded, Diogenes said “If I could have persuaded you, I would have persuaded you to hang yourself”,

and once when Diogenes saw that a prostitute’s son was throwing rocks at a crowd, Diogenes remarked “Careful son, don’t hit your father

He basically does not care at all about what the rest of society thought of him, and uses it to his advantage, making himself known throughout the cities. He is the equivalent of the ultimate internet edgelord in Ancient Greece.

 

Another famous encounter that Diogenes had was with King Alexander the Great, one of history’s most famous bloodthirsty conquerors. Alexander had heard of Diogenes’ reputation, and met him in Corinth. When he saw Diogenes hanging around the marketplace, sitting in his tub, Alexander stood before Diogenes and asked, as a wealthy and powerful ruler, that if there’s anything he can do for him, he needs only to ask,

which Diogenes replied “Yes, stand out of my sunlight

this reply made Alexander respect Diogenes even more, saying “If I was not Alexander, then I should wish to be Diogenes”

and the philosopher quips, “Were I not Diogenes, I would wish to be him as well”.

 

This encounter continues, Diogenes asked the King what his plans are, and Alexander replied “I plan on conquering Greece, then all of Asia Minor, and eventually the whole world”,

“What then?” Diogenes asked.

“I suppose I would relax and enjoy myself,” said Alexander, not expecting the question.

Diogenes remarked, “Why not save yourself a lot of trouble and enjoy yourself now?

 

There is another darker retelling of Alexander the Great and Diogenes, once Diogenes was rummaging around in a pile of human bones, Alexander saw this and asked him what he was doing, Diogenes said “I was searching for the bones of your father but cannot distinguish them from those of a slave”.

 

Diogenes also had an unfortunate run in with pirates, and was captured and made into a slave. He didn’t have much of a problem with this, claiming “lions are not the slaves of those who feed them, but rather those who feed them are at the mercy of the lions

 

When he became old, Diogenes was advised to rest more, to take it easy. Diogenes said “What, if I were running in the stadium, ought I slacken my pace when approaching the goal? Ought I rather put on speed?”

At the end of his life, Diogenes was asked if he would mind if his body was left outside to be devoured by animals, and he replied “Not at all, as long I’m given a stick to defend myself”, the people asked back “How can you use the stick when you lack awareness?”, and Diogenes replied “If I lack awareness, then why should I care what happens to me when I’m dead?” Basically, what he wanted was to be thrown in the trash when he dies.

It’s not known how Diogenes finally died, some say he was bit by a rabid dog, another said he ate raw octopus, the best story I’ve read is that one day, Diogenes just got tired of living, so he held his breath until he died.

Sadly Diogenes spends his days roasting high members of society, and doesn’t spend any time writing down his ideas and thoughts. So does not have any surviving written teachings, most of what we know about him is from other people who have encountered his eccentricity. Diogenes will always be remembered as a crackpot satirical philosopher who challenged social norms and expectancies. He truly lived his own Cynicism philosophy.

 While I don’t agree with Diogenes’ lifestyle and philosophical outlook, I have massive amounts of respect for him because he was so unexpected, a beggar who has the mind of a philosopher, who wasn’t afraid to step out of line and challenge others face to face, intellectually owning them in the process.

 

“Dogs and Philosophers do the greatest good and get the fewest rewards”

-Diogenes of Sinope

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