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Thursday, May 07, 2009

10 Famous Thought Experiments That Just Boggle Your Mind Part 5

Read Part 4: Einstein's Light Beam

6. The Ship of Theseus

One of the oldest of all thought experiments is the paradox known as the Ship of Theseus, which originated in the writings of Plutarch. It describes a ship that remained seaworthy for hundreds of years thanks to constant repairs and replacement parts. As soon as one plank became old and rotted, it would be replaced, and so on until every working part of the ship was no longer original to it. The question is whether this end product is still the same Ship of Theseus, or something completely new and different. If it’s not, at what point did it stop being the same ship? The Philosopher Thomas Hobbes would later take the problem even further: if one were to take all the old parts removed from the Ship of Theseus and build a new ship from them, then which of the two vessels is the real Ship of Theseus? For philosophers, the story of the Ship of Theseus is used as a means of exploring the nature of identity, specifically the question of whether objects are more than just the sum of their parts.


I couldn't help but think of the story about Steve Jobs and his Mercedes Benz. Steve was able to exploit a hole in Californian law and roved the Silicon Valley in a Mercedes without license plates:

It turns out there's a provision in California regulations that give one six months to get license plates for a new car, and Jobs took advantage of it. Yes, he leased a silver Mercedes SL55 AMG, said Callas -- and every six months he traded it in for a new one.
So to Steve, the car was still The Car of Jobs, but to the Californian DMV, the car was a different one.

It might not matter too much if this thing we talk about is just a physical thing like Steve Jobs' car. What if it is an intangible object, for example, a song. If we move up or down the pitch of all notes in the song, is it still the same song? If you think the answer is yes, then what if we move the pitch to a range where human can no longer distinguish them?

Now let's think about robots. US Soldiers in Afghanistan have being using remotely-controlled robots to detonate road-side bombs. As unintelligent as these robots are, many soldiers have developed close affection toward these devices. When damaged robots are sent in for repair, the normal procedure is to simply send back a replacement unit because it is most time-efficient and cost-efficient. However, many soldiers demanded the exact same unit or robotics device to be repaired and sent back because they have assigned a personal identity to the robot as a teammate and friend.

Let's think one step further. With robots that are more intelligent, especially ones that learn from past experience, it is still possible for us to duplicate the programs and memory of the robot (with the exception of Johnny 5) and then load the same programs and memory into an identical robot. Now we run into a real identity crisis -- both for the robots and the users. Both robots will think they are the original robot, and to the user, both robots are the original robots with the same memory, same logic, and same appearance. (Why do I keep thinking of the movie The 6th Day?) What problems will this create?

I also can't help but think of all the protagonists in these reincarnation novels (like the Joy of Life story I am translating, for example). Are these persons still the same persons? Probably not! But why not?

That's enough philosophical discussion for today! Have a good day!


Read part 6: Galileo's Gravity Experiment


Video of the Day:

Enjoy this beautiful song The Velocity of Love, and the beautiful video while you struggle with philosophical thought experiments!