A New Broom on the Cutty Sark

Cutty Sark
Image via Wikipedia

The tea clipper known as the Cutty Sark is symbolic of life on the high seas, empire and a bygone age, but David Bain has brought it to the centre of a new philosophical debate. The Cutty Sark, you see, is being renovated. Damaged, burnt and rotten timbers removed and replaced.

Bains asks, in a magazine article entitled David Bain’s Brain Strain, what would happen if someone were to take those timbers from the London siting of the Cutty Sark and rebuild a replica in Glasgow…would we then have two Cutty Sarks?

A similar question applies to the old London Bridge that was dismantled and rebuilt in the Arizona desert by an American businessman. Is it really the London Bridge or just a pile of bricks fashioned into a structure that looks the same.

The most troublesome thought comes when one realizes that the same philosophical questions might be asked about you, as an individual. You may feel like the same human being you were ten years ago, but in physical terms almost every cell, molecule, indeed, atom in your body has been replaced, maybe many times in that period. So are you really still you?

Bain’s viewpoint is an interesting one, although one I’ve considered in late night conversations with friends before as I am sure many others have. The whole issue of cellular renewal has vexed scientists and philosophers for, as to has the notion that every molecule of water you drink passed through the kidneys of Julius Caesar…

But, what Bain’s article reminded me of most was a tale my Dad passed on from his Dad who…had in turned heard it from his Dad. It’s the one about the yard broom that has been in our family for generations. Incredibly, it never seems to wear out not matter how much sweeping it does. Of course, it’s had a few replacement bristle heads in its time, oh and the odd new shank when the old one snapped, but that’s all…same broom?

2 thoughts on “A New Broom on the Cutty Sark”

  1. A ship such as the Cutty Sark, is merely a collection of parts which form a group. It’s called the Cutty Sark, to be able to tell it apart from other ships, or maybe even ships of the same model.

    Just like the cells in our body, molecules are also constantly breaking apart from a group, and molecules fall apart into atoms, &c. Likewise, new molecules can join a structure or organism. The structure as a whole might have changed, but we still call it the same ship, broom, dog, or whatever. Because it is the physical structure, to which we become so attached, we give it a name, an identity, we tell it apart from other structures and/or organisms.

    So if the pieces were removed and replaced one by one, the group of parts might have technically changed, but we still refer to it as the Cutty Sark. In the mean time the original parts are forming a new group. Whether or not the follow the same blueprint, it will be a newly formed group.

    Another way (and maybe a better one; you tell me…) to look at it, is to view it from a space-time perspective. A piece of timber removed from the ship will leave a trail in space-time. Seen from a supposedly higher dimension it would still be the same structure, although in a different form. If we’re zooming into molecules and atoms we can see quite a complex structure emerging: a splinter falls off, in to water a fish eats it, a part of the atoms take part of the fish, and others it’s poo – is the poo still the fish? ;-)).

    You get the picture… Eventually everything will flow together in one giant blur of tiny parts moving through space-time and we find out that the entire idea to have groups of matter was a scam. It’s just a way our brain likes to process data, which is the case with all paradoxes.

    A reader who commented on the article mentioned, recognized this as the Ship of Theseus paradox. A good Wikipedia article on it is found here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ship_of_Theseus

    1. Yes, reality is a scam. All we can know about anything are the electrical inputs from our nerves, we reconstruct what might be out there, whether broom or tea clipper and pass it on to our consciousness, but it’s all just electrical signals however you look at it. It’s a puzzle how we don’t all have synesthesia.

      Moreover, the reality we perceive is locked in the past…the light entering your eye from this screen took a tiny fraction of a nanosecond to reach your retinas and another split second to be processed in your brain and handed up to the bit of your brain that makes you feel aware…

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