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IDEA: The Ship of Theseus

In exploring the next phase of our old boat Eileen‘s renovation we’ve thought long and hard about the use we’ve made of the spaces within the boat, and we soon recognised that there were many spaces that were being significantly under-used and others that were challenging pinch-points. To help ensure that in future we make better use of the space we’re planning – not surprisingly – to increase the use of the under-utilised spaces and reduce the number of pinch-points.

Essentially this will mean that the roll-top bath is going and the space used for a bunk-room; the toilet’s moving; the bunks in the long cabin are removed to create a larger space for free-standing furniture and a folding table, and most radically the front end of the long cabin will be ‘opened up’ to create an outside deck, which might change her look from this:

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to this:

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Any proposed changes to the boat inevitably causes me to think again about the renovation tipping point ie. that point when Eileen might cease to be Eileen and become materially a different or ‘new’ boat. Would it happen when 50% of the original material is replaced, or less or more??? Is it anything to do with material at all?

A man falls in love with an old 1930s sailing yacht down on her luck, sitting in a field somewhere with weeds growing through the planks. He puts it on a low-loader, drives it to a boatyard and asks the boat builder to restore the apple of his eye to her original glory. The boat builder starts by replacing the leaky old deck, discovers the mast is rotten too, so he makes another to the same template in similar timber – ‘replacing like with like’ in the solid jargon of the boat builder. He has new sails cut. Then he starts on the planking of the hull, removing and replacing one at a time. All the while, he is tossing bits of the old boat onto a pile nearby. Another boat builder takes a look at the pile of old wood and decides the first man was a bit hasty; the wood’s not that bad at all. So he starts using it to build a second version to exactly the same design. Eventually, both boats are complete and looking great, all new paint, varnished wood and gleaming bronze. Our customer returns to collect his boat and when he arrives, he hears the story of the two yachts. The question then is: which one is his boat. Or to put it another way, does a thing’s identity live in its design and purpose or in its physical substance? If you want a very long conversation with a man restoring a boat, I recommend you tell him the story of Theseus’s Ship. The answer lies within our own bodies, which nearly entirely regenerate every decade or so. Very little of you or me is ‘original’ so clearly identity lies in design rather than substance. So it is with […boats…] which were also refitted regularly, each time losing original fabric, constantly regenerating themselves…

p. 248-49 Circle Line by Steffan Meyric Hughes

Such thoughts aren’t new, every renovator/restorer addresses them, and seeks to answer The Ship of Theseus or Theseus’ paradox.

The Theseus Paradox was a thought experiment that raised the question of whether an object that has had all of its components replaced remains fundamentally the same object.

Plutarch (Vita Thesei, 22-23): “The ship wherein Theseus and the youth of Athens returned had thirty oars, and was preserved by the Athenians down even to the time of Demetrius Phalereus, for they took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their place, insomuch that this ship became a standing example among the philosophers, for the logical question of things that grow; one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending that it was not the same.”

The paradox was discussed by other ancient philosophers such as Heraclitus and Plato and later by Thomas Hobbes and John Locke.

In Locke’s Sock for example Locke proposed a scenario regarding a favorite sock that develops a hole. He pondered whether the sock would still be the same after a patch was applied to the hole, and if it would be the same sock, would it still be the same sock after a second patch was applied, and a third, etc., until all of the material of the original sock has been replaced with patches.

Hobbes, for his part, introduced a further puzzle, wondering what would happen if the original planks were gathered up after they were replaced, and used to build a second ship. Hobbes asked which ship, if either, would be the original Ship of Theseus.

Other variants include the grandfather’s axe which has had both head and handle replaced; and in popular culture Only Fools & Horses “Trigger’s Broom”. In the show, Trigger a road sweeper of 20 years discusses his broom, noting that he, “Maintained it for 20 years. This old broom’s had 17 new heads and 14 new handles in its time,” to which another character retorts, “How the hell can it be the same bloody broom then?”

An Aristotelian philosophical system of causes, describing an object, went some way towards answering the paradox. They also provide reassurance today that what we’re proposing for Eileen is essentially cosmetic and doesn’t fundamentally alter the essential boaty-ness of the boat.

The formal cause or ‘form’ (the what-it-is or the essential design of the object) – in Eileen’s case, she’s a boat (specifically a flat-bottomed, wooden elum & rudder steered narrow boat, built for the inland waterways). Any subsequent changes that have taken place and altered her superstructure have been undertaken within the footprint of her original hull and have not, in any way, altered her essential design in that, she remains a narrow boat.

The material cause (the constitution or what-an-object-is-made-of) – in Eileen’s case, she was a single-ended, metal-hulled narrow boat and she remains a single-ended, metal-hulled narrow boat. Although over time her material cause is evolving with welded steel piecemeal replacing riveted iron plate.

The efficient cause (how-the-changes-are-made and by whom) – in Eileen’s case she was made by highly skilled metalworkers at the Iron Boat Dock, Tipton; subsequent work has also been undertaken by skilled metal workers, working from docks built alongside the canals, working with the same raw materials.

The ‘end’ or final cause (the intended purpose of the object). Eileen’s intended purpose was to provide efficient and safe transportation of goods across the inland waterways; this remains a constant, it’s simply her cargo that has altered, from iron bar and coal, to people…

I also like the idea that Ted Sider and others proposed which considers objects as extending across time as a four-dimensional causal series of three-dimensional time-slices. With each time-slice and the four-dimensional object remaining integrated and numerically identical to themselves, while allowing individual time-slices to differ from each other.

In Eileen’s case this would allow for her continuing to be a four-dimensional boat; with three-dimensional time splices that include:

  • horse-drawn single-ended open BCN day boat
  • 62′ converted motor in the 1960’
  • camping boat in the 1970’s
  • a powered, then unpowered houseboat in the 1980’s
  • a ‘re-born’ working motor in the 1990’s
  • a ‘lavender’ boat, then a houseboat in the noughties
  • a family boat into 21st century

Taking the Aristotelian causes and Sider’s theory together I’d like to think we’re on safe ground and that the changes we’re considering will enhance everyone’s experience of Eileen/BCN18686 as she nears her 114th year on the Midland waterways.

 

A version of this post first appeared in July 2013.

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