Identity and the threat of Theseus

Theseus’ ship: at time X, the craft is fashioned of wood, cloth and metal. Its journey spans oceans, across trading routes, re-routed by the winds of economic flux;  it survives pirates and wars. It gets pretty beaten up, weather worn, and is repaired along the way. Sails are mended, then replaced entirely; its hull refashioned from fir to pine; its ribs revamped from pine to cedar. It is repainted from green to gold. Eventually, at some time Y, nothing of the original ship’s material remains.

If one were to compare two photographs of the ship at X and Y, one would say they are different. Yet at any one point in its journey from X to Y, this cannot be said not to be Theseus’ ship. When one sail is patched, between time X.n and X.(n+1), it’s not a different ship, it’s just a minor repair. When its hull gets fixed at time X.(n+2), it’s just an improvement to the same ship at X.(n+1).

The paradox of Theseus’ ship: between each incremental repair, the vessel maintains its identity. Yet, ignoring this continuity, ship X and ship Y are different.

But we still consider them the same Theseus’ ship.

What property of the ship constitutes its identity? It cannot be its material. Not one atom of X remains within the body of Y. Therefore identity is invariant over matter. The atoms of the ship are unimportant to its sameness: there’s something else that makes it the same over time.

If Theseus’ brother were to purchase a copy of the ship, a simulacrum precise to the minutest detail, and stand it side by side with the original — we’d say they are not identical — one is a copy of the other, because they are clearly materially distinct. There is no lineage or traceability of identity from one ship to the other. They were created separately and, while similar, are not the same because the one ship did not, so to speak, evolve from the other. The simulacra are not like Theseus’ ships X and Y, where Y is traceable from X: we have a continuous trace, a temporal record of each step-by-step change to its life.

So it must be temporal continuity of material change to the original that must be inherent to the property of identity.

The Star Trek teletransporter thought experiment. In the distant future, humans develop a technology to transport ourselves from one point in space (point X, say Melbourne, Australia) to another point (point Y, say Mars) at the speed of  computer network transmission. The technology works by means of two stations. At X, one station digitises the makeup of a person’s body to the smallest atomic detail, up to and including a snapshot of their brain and each electrical impulse running through its neutrons. The body is then painlessly vaporised. The data snapshot of the person’s body and mind is transported at the speed of light to be recreated, atom by atom, by a station at point Y.

Captain Will Riker departs at point X with some random thought about work and what to buy for dinner, his pain in his left side. He is teletransported to Y with the same thoughts, the same pain, the same body. It feels to Riker as though he has not travelled at all, but now he sees red sands of Mars through the window, as opposed to the coffee shops of Melbourne. Riker at Y feels himself to be himself, he has no doubt as to his identity in his thoughts. Of course he believes he is the same Riker who just stepped into the station at X: he remembers standing there a moment before and in the the blink of an eye he now stands here, with no experiential disruption to his sense of being. The only difference between Riker at X and Y is in a difference of atoms.
Is Riker X identical to Riker Y? Is Y deceived in his belief that he is the same as X? Is X dead and Y merely a copy? But if we are to follow through with our conclusion above, matter does not constitute identity. The fact they are made of different atoms is not a problem to their sameness.

If identity is understood as the temporal continuity of material change to an original, then Riker Y must be the same person as Riker X. There was no discontinuity: the teletransportation was as seamless a physical transformation for the person as stepping into a bath and washing off dead cells. Even less of a mental discontinuity than falling asleep and waking up, as their thoughts, their very neural activity remained continuous from departure from X and reinstantiation at Y.  Awakening from slumber, we emerge with different thoughts, our selfhood has transformed more significantly than entering the teletransporter. So X and Y must be identical.

But what if the transporter malfunctions. Upon digitising at X, the Riker’s body is not painlessly vaporised, it remains at point X. The digital copy is sent to station Y and Rikers’s body and mind are recreated as before. Now there are two William Rikers. Each one believes in its identity, in material continuity with the Riker at the moment of digitisation. When they meet up, each would assert that they are the “real” Will Riker while the other is a mere copy.

Do we say Riker X is “more” identical than Riker Y, because his matter remains the same? Well then, matter must be inherent to identity. But the paradox of Theseus showed us matter is irrelevant to identity. And anyway, Riker Y would beg to differ — what gives you the right to say he is a mere simulacrum just because his atoms are different from those of X. Some were changed in a nanosecond at X, biology dictates. In 5 years’ time, Riker X will naturally age and his cells will regenerate and his atoms will be entirely different from now, just like Theseus’ boat. But Riker X in 5 years will still assert the continuity of his identity as Riker.

So what does this bifurcation mean? Perhaps it means that, in extreme cases, identity is not singular: that continuity is all that counts, and in some situations we can have two identical Rikers. Or maybe it means … And so the metaphysicians speculate …

Richard Rorty, one of the sole bridges between Ango-American metaphysics and modern Continental philosophy, would take an almost Buddhist or yogic or psychedelic perspective. That these thought experiments are physical extrema that present a metaphysical breaking point of identity. Like nirvana, or an acid trip, or a Shivasana, they present to us an indisputable dissolution of ego. Riker 1 looks upon Riker 2 and realises his ego is an illusion: they are not the same, they are not identifiable, because identity itself was an attachment, an illusion or mara of the world.

Wittgenstein in contrast (note my “in contrast”) would assert that the speculation above is an absurd waste of time, typical redundant metaphysics.
The philosophical question “What is identity” is meaningless as the term is not considered within a given language game, context, utility. We can talk about identity in practical situations like identical twins in biology, or identical cars in car salesmanship, or identifying yourself as a person for the purposes of your tax claim. Language is a human tool, just like a sword or a hammer or a machine: it is designed to serve functions of utility. The term “identity” is not meaningful, without a usage or functional purpose. The two thought experiments above are typically of metaphysical philosophy’s abuse of language — to take a term out of a useful, functional context and create a “paradox” when there is none.

Theseus’ ship has identity inasmuch as, say, it is useful for people to identify his ownership of the ship (a taxman, dock hands, sailors, Theseus’ himself) over time. Riker’s “identity” is meaningful inasmuch as “identity” is something useful for him/his linguistic community to manage (his taxman, his girlfriend, etc). If there are now two Riker’s, it means nothing to talk about which one is “really” him, or what “identity” is metaphysically — identity will only be useful as a concept when restricted to the two Rikers’ decision as to who gets a new tax number, who needs to take a new job, and which of them his girlfriend wants to continue a relationship with. These are particular decisions that hinge on the term that are useful and make the term useful. But these decisions, and usage of the term, are in no way dependent on the answer to some broader metaphysical question of “what is identity” — that question is meaningless as it does not have a usage-context to quality it.

Wittgenstein and the Buddhist Rorty seem to arrive at the same conclusion: “identity” is an illusion. But Wittgenstein’s logic is more complicated and epistemic — the Buddhist perspective remains metaphysical, albeit nihilistic and reductionist, to the extent that it confronts the primacy of Wittgensteinian epistemics: the thought experiment shows that, not only is Riker’s philosophical, spiritual sense of selfhood is an illusion, but it also intimates his sense of continuous being in other, pragmatic/utilitarian contexts, is equally deception. “Riker” as a taxpayer, “Riker” as a lover: all attachments to a concept that has no meaning in face of the Real, attachments to a momentary flicker of a concept, rendered smoke and mirrors within the magic of the thought experiment.

There is the metaphysical perspective, including its Rortian extreme, then there is the Wittgensteinian epistemic argument. All valid, but their ontological and epistemic primacy exists at the expense of a third suppressed term in the trinity of the philosophy of identity: drama. It’s like the Father of Metaphysics and Son of Reductionist ultilarian epistemology ganging up against the Holy Ghost of human emotion. Which is not surprising as the tomes of philosophy are written by rather INTJ type personalities. Yeah, I admit it, guys just like me. But  I’ve learned a bit about emotion, so hear me out.

The thought experiments have an emotional impact on the reader. Read through the thought experiments above and revisit keywords: Riker feels the same, his girlfriend will have to choose between X and Y, intimating one Riker will dramatically dispute with the other as to who is authentic and who is the simulacrum. When we are confronted with Theseus’ ship or the Teletransporter narrative, we react emotionally to scenarios. “If it were my body in place of the ship, or my mind in place of Riker’s, how would I feel?”. Am “I” real, really real, or am I an illusion, just Adorno’s simulacrum to simulacrum to simulacrum, like some bloody Warhol iteration? Every stoned philosophy major has gone through this after their first year’s metaphysics 101 class.


Let’s not discount the emotional response to these thought experiments. Or the rest of them: what is Descartes’ meditations if not an extreme thought experiment that brings into question the existence of the entire universe, apart from ego. These things are designed to freak us out, to employ a hippie/raver venaculure. “Do I even exist?” “Do others even exist or do I imagine them?”

This is my point: Theseus’ ship is a threat to being, viewed not as a philosophical possibility, but as drama. It is not merely a meditation upon material continuity, but an act of philosophy as theatre whose objective is to displace emotionally our handle on selfhood. The teletransporter example, similarly: the imaginary mechanics of the teletransporter technology is a dramatic threat to us-as-Riker. We are rooting for Riker, but he inevitably loses, classical tragedy style like an Oedipus. I don’t mean he loses to the fate of ego dissolution. Rather, his emotional, narrative plight is suppression to the Mother of Cartesian Metaphysics, to the Father of Wittgensteinian Epistmology. Philosophy pretends it is not a text that makes people feel and react: fictional characters like Riker or Descartes’ ego, or real animals like you and me. But without this reaction, without this empathy response, philosophy would not exist.

Philosophy is a trinity of ontology, epistmology and drama. Since the dawn of time. You just didn’t realise it. Philosophy’s purpose is not to determine what individuality is, but to determine if you are an individual, within the ontological/epistemic/emotive nexus-narrative of your ego drama.

These thought experiments constitute an empathy test: like a strange loop, from philosophy into fiction, from fiction into philosophy, the ironic threat of the simulacrum to the identity of the self fictionalizing the self-as-fiction. Or maybe the self-as-fiction fictionalizing the self’s conflict with identity. Maybe both at the same time.

More Hip-Hop Flava In Yo Ear from tha CBW God, Biyatch

It’s 2 in the morning
Mind unburdened
Calm the fuck down you gotta keep on earning
These days are desperate times call for desperate warnings
Shame you sucker man damned when you were born and
Gamed by hand in the face the dawn and
Like your record was like your darkness was like the fires of the night cause … Ritual burning

She walking out of here son
Oh fuck like a newborn I’m stumbling into speech, hon
Never said I was done gotta reach into the red reflection staring blackly back need a cigarette
Painted panthers champagne pound the place like raw and
Teach your tigers well lesson Luciferian
Blood upon your brow, the crown of thawns is showing
Losing inner peace, hell … I’m citalopraming

“Kiss my aura, Dora”

Oh my god and

“It’s real angora”

Oh my god and

“Do you wanna?”

Oh my god and

No life from me but letting life run through through me
Just keeping a clasp on my clerical oozy
There’s hundred dollar bills so corrupt so contained
Dudes so dense he don’t determine
No one told him The lights had changed
The age of reason is a poor path of pain
Wanna higher ground i just found that star spangled fruit fix …
Raise our fists in salute, bitch.

The Eternal Art

A fat funky funky fruit with frenetical friction

Base rhyme so dope diabolical diction

Ground control to the c b w, there’s no other who

Could cut precision master flex

Simply the best

Setting the test

With mad fx

Wrecking the rest

Ruining the rest

Bring it on to the next

Fire fist form frozen freestyle pneumatic

Poetry pump curse cause low ride earth sea style

Do a line rhyme binding time now to deny

Shining beneath eternal bond into Z mind

Shrill augers hold the flag of destiny

Cry constantly your whole clue clan is a chain

And you’re to blame until I came

To unlock the door

Dragon did before

scientifically and mystically


You’re dead to me

Siren scream in the night done left and right

Now you think you possess?

No way you process!

Still I seen and still I been

On this journey like a dog bound to a cart:

You thought I was done with the eternal art?

Boogie Woogie Glamourpuss Drama Queen

Boogie boogie baby

Boogie don’t say maybe

You had a swift shock

Mental deadlock

Ideals they flip flop

Just don’t get caught

She was the boogie woogie fruity loopy drama queen 

The epitome glamorpuss star of the screen

She rolled into the town wanna do her own thing

Strictly hardcore tracks and not a new jack swing 

She looked both ways, to the left to the right

Ensure she had the gamey game locked down tight

Slippery sources reign within mental collective

Projective prey upon her sleepy selective

She talking bout soul, metaphorical angst

She a slave yet rank above the blankety banks

Stacking plenteuous papes, pimpin pay that rent

She’s the wicky wack winter of discontent

Can’t believe you said that!

Believe it babe I said that

You on some strange shit

Yeah I’m some strange shit

It’s the fourth round now church recognise 

Law’s a rhyme, a beat for an I 

Yeah I gotta put this story all up in your grill 

Bout this little man, if I can, pussy popped this pill

His name was cyborgWittgenstein 

A D escargot, damn dude drinking this wine

His head was like a wasp, taming tounge to your tale

As in life so in art he could not bail


What motivates men to ritual?

There’s the participant in the ritual, the initiate who embodies the ritual, who lives and breathes it, who’s body is marked, constrained, freed, transcended via the ritual. The motivation of the participant is clear: ritual is primordial to our beginnings, it’s a tribal thing. The original Moon Goddess, those monthly fertility rites (who’s genetic archeology is present within language, hidden in scripture, marked upon the menstrual cycles of our otherwise civilised ladies): this was the cult that made aman of the primate. And ritual, of any religion, is an echo (possibly reactionary) of that original, formative religion.

But what motivates the man – the singular prophet, from Muhammed to Joseph Smith – to bring a new ritual, one that renders previous rituals obsolete?

We could say, God. But who’s God, that is providing this physical revelation?

We make some observations:

1) New rituals, like new revelation, always have a lineage back to their predecessors. In the case of a strong ritual, the lineage is Freudian: the members of the new religion must shun the actions of the predecessors. But there are always common actions, from dua of the Muslim and Christian to weaker Masonic lineage in the Mormon rites.

2) There is the temptation to intellectualize the ritual by those who do not belong to the religion. But its real meaning, its real power, lies in a gambit to control and harness the hidden transitive lineage, the full genetic trace, back to our ancestors’ fertility rites.

3) Harnessing is the key word in ritual innovation. But by harnessing we do not imply conscious intension, we mean shaping to context, unconscious shaping. Religious ritual, its primordial power, is mutated by the innovator’s context. Because new religions are defined in new times, times succeeding the death of the Moon goddess. One prophet is a military leader, so ritual is infused with a martial character. Another prophet is concerned with fantasies of lost/secret primordiality and the new world, so draws upon that new world secret, Masonry, and this grounds his ritual.

Harnessing doesn’t have a point: it’s not about conscious control of people. It’s about filtering the primordial shamanic spirit through the prism of today’s prophet. It’s instinctive on the part of Prophecy, harnessing of the primordial to Prophecy’s incarnated, current, character.

Because the role of the shaman takes many forms, shamanism is forced upon the shaman, it is not a career choice. And what motivates the modern shaman is physical instinct, his unconscious = their dream, projected onto a thousand willing, pliant primates, desiring transformation into humanity.

Love 8: Religion

Religion, when properly exercised at a personal level, has very little to do with truth or God or metaphysics or psychology. It is a psychology, it is a truth, it is a “God”, but embodied, lived out as code, as organic discipline, a discipline of the organism, a heart, an engine, a comportment, a set of manners.

He who turns his back on religion completely plays a dangerous game. Hell is real, it does exist … It’s the fire that consumes he who rejects religion, the fire that awaits the man who rejects religion.

Most of us live a religion, in some form or another. We abide by a code, we worship particular gods, our organism is regulated, disciplined, mannered by some set of law. Madmen and clerks alike, we are regulated creatures of habit. We are all born into religion, and most of us retain that.

We’ve discussed love’s relationship to philosophy and to religion, with the voice of a philosopher, from a psychoanalytic historical perspective.

But that discourse itself was at the expense of religious love. From a religious perspective, the discourse was one of hellfire, because it turned its back on legal embodiment in favour of metaphysical biosemiotics. It tranagressed, and, as a discourse, was deeply unfaithful. And so destined for the punishment of apostasy, which is nothing more nor less than the fire of hell.

Religious love is intimate with discipline of the heart: its anathema is the intellectual side show of historical deconstruction, its anathema is philosophy in and of itself, even if that philosophy is one of love,

Beg your gods forgiveness: the tree of knowledge is real, hellfire is real, and apostasy deserves what it gets. This is core to our embodiment, that rhe punishment of the philosopher is inevitable if the philosopher is flesh and blood.