“This is George Washington’s axe,” the curator said with pride, gesturing toward a worn and rugged thing, locked inside of a glass case, “held in the very hands of the first President of our great nation.”
“Of course,” he said, “we are much more careful about it now than we have in the past. The room we used to store it in wasn’t climate controlled, and the wood rotted, so we had to replace the handle. And one of our interns dropped it one day, and the blade cracked, so we had to replace that, too.”
“But,” a young boy asked, “if the handle has been replaced, and the blade has been replaced, it isn’t really George Washington’s axe anymore, is it?”
The older, more complex version of this is called Theseus’ Paradox, named for a legendary Greek king. The question asked by the ancient philosophers was, if all of the pieces of a thing are replaced, is it still the same thing?
George Washington’s axe, in the above story, is pretty obviously not George Washington’s axe; none of the material was ever held by America’s first President. The question becomes less clear, though, when we talk about more complicated things. If you replace all of the boards which make up a ship, one by one, is it still the same vessel? If so, why? If not, when does it stop being the same ship?
I was looking at my hand – and no, there were no chemicals involved in this, so shut up – thinking about this. My hand has the same shape as it always has, and even the same scars, but the cells are constantly dying and being replaced. The human body, on average, completely replaces itself every ten years. But we’re still the same person, aren’t we? This is still my hand, isn’t it?
In Star Trek, the scriptwriters needed an easy way to get their characters down to the surface of an alien planet, so they invented the transporter. You step in, an extra fiddles a few levers, there’s a light show, and six seconds later, you’re either banging a hot alien chick or getting eaten by a Horta, depending on the color of your shirt.
But the way the transporter works is kind of disturbing. It literally rips apart your atoms, rending you into a trillion microscopic pieces. In that moment, in between stepping into the transporter and meeting the green skinned belly dancer, you’re dead. The fact that you get reassembled on the other end is beside the point.
Transhumanism is one of the up-and-coming philosophies in the tech world. The short version of a long story is that these people are striving for eternal life, but tend to be atheists, and therefore don’t put a whole lot of stock in the immortality of the soul. This crowd generally wants to find a way to transfer their consciousness into a robot or a computer.
This is, obviously, quite a ways away, but what if it were possible? What if you could make a copy of your mind and put it inside of a machine? Would it be you? Would you live on, even though you had died? What makes you, you? Is it the mind, or the body that houses it, or both? Which part of George Washington’s axe is the most important?
December 18th, 2008 by Thomas
Tagged as: Science
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