snubnosed in alpha

Christian reflections on the way the world is and ways the world might be

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Theseus' ship, Neurath's boat and the H.M.S Calvin

A classic problem of metaphysics concerns Theseus’ ship being repaired at sea. Theseus embarks on a long voyage and along the way he has to replace the planks of his ship one by one as they become damaged by rot, barnacles and so forth. But, so the story goes, by the time Theseus reaches his port of call he has replaced all of the planks of his ship. The question is: Is the ship in which Theseus arrived the same ship as the one in which he set out? The ship is no longer composed of any of the same pieces out of which it was originally composed. It’s still a ship, to be sure. But is it the same ship? Is the fact that Theseus owns the ship or the fact that this ship has been carrying Theseus along sufficient to make it the same ship as the one in which Theseus first shoved off? Some say ‘yes’. Some say ‘no’. Is the historical continuity between the ships different stages the locus of its identity or is it the ships material constitution or what?
Now consider this puzzle in connection with respects to noetic structures. What if Theseus were sailing in one of Neurath’s boats? Otto Neurath describes the way in which we form our worldviews as being like sailors making repairs at sea. “We cannot start from a tabula rasa as Descartes thought we could. We have to make do with words and concepts that we find when our reflections begin. [Pierre] Duhem has shown with special emphasis that every statement about any happening is saturated with hypotheses of all sorts and that these in the end are derived from our whole worldview. We are like sailors who on the open sea must reconstruct their ship but are never able to start afresh from the bottom. Where a beam is taken away a new one must at once be put there, and for this the rest of the ship is used as support. In this way, by using the old beams and driftwood, the ship can be shaped entirely anew, but only by gradual reconstruction.” But that raises the question, if the ship has been constructed entirely anew, is it still the same ship? If every belief has been altered, every plank been replaced, have we the same worldview as when we began our reflections?
I puzzle over this question a great deal as I wrestle with what it means to say that I am part of a certain theological tradition, namely, the Reformed tradition. Now, while it is true that I may not have replaced every plank of the boat I purchased from Calvin (the keel, “He is risen,” remains as firmly fixed as ever) the hull and deck have certainly undergone a fair amount of repair and retooling. But how much reshaping can my Reformed worldview undergo before it is no longer a Reformed worldview?
Now of course the Reformed tradition has always taken a number of different forms. The theological, exegetical and methodological differences between Abraham Kuyper and B.B. Warfield, between Herman Ridderbos and Jonathan Edwards, John Calvin and Geerhardus Vos are not to be underestimated. Each of them had markedly different doctrinal formulations on major subjects, different exegeses of many important passages and often thoroughly different epistemological and methodological approaches. The Reformed tradition has always been changing out some boards, reshaping others while on this voyage to the far green country.
But how many planks may one adjust before we find ourselves in a different ship? Or is it even the planks, the material or doctrinal constitution, of the ship that matter ultimately? Perhaps one’s worldview is within the bounds of “the Reformed tradition” if one’s ideas are largely informed and shaped by figures we can all readily identify as being “within the tradition,” such as Calvin, Owen, Bavinck and the like, while seeing the tradition itself as being an amorphous abstract notion vaguely defined by historical institutional continuity with and continued veneration of, although not, per impossible, point for point agreement with, those great figures who are “within the tradition” and adherence to a few theological distinctives common to them all, such as adherence to the catholic creeds, a high view of God’s sovereignty over all that comes to pass, a belief in Scripture (demarcated as the Protestant Canon) as the principium theologia (however you define that), and so forth. Maybe. Maybe not.
So Theseus purchases a boat from Otto Neurath, the H.M.S. Calvin, and shoves off in the 16th century and docks in the 21st having made extensive repairs, replaced lots of planks, and having even redesigned portions of the hull, sails and deck throughout his voyage. Is the ship in which he ends his journey the same as the ship in which he began?


Blogger Joel said...

What if "Reformed" is something less like a ship and more like an organism or a genealogy or a narrative?

7:12 PM  
Blogger jkirklin said...

Sounds like "naval gazing" to me.

Er . . .

7:31 PM  
Blogger jkirklin said...

But seriously David, I am asking some questions about being confessional on my friend's blog, prompted by some comments he made about Reformed identity based on confessionalism:

It'd be great if you weighed in over there with some of your ideas.

7:34 PM  
Blogger snubnosed in alpha said...

Hey Joel,
I think that the narrative and genealogy models of what it is to be "Reformed" sound a bit like the historical-continuity definition of what constitutes the identity of a ship. But I may be missing how you're thinking of using those analogies.
I wonder if another analogy that can cash in on some of the salient features of all these analogies is that of "Reformed" as a fleet of Neurath's boats?
Jason, thanks for the link. No thanks for the pun ;)

10:59 PM  
Blogger Joel said...

I was thinking more that perhaps it's not all analogies are equally helpful for thinking about identity over time.

Why should we think the identity conditions for the ongoing existence of a ship parallel those of an organism or a symphony or an angel? Perhaps they do; perhaps they don't. But the point would have to be argued since for some of those kinds of things, change seems to be essential to diachronic identity.

So, part of the question is whether ships and boats are the most apt analogy for a theological tradition, or whether we might cast about for other, potentially more useful analogies.

6:39 PM  
Blogger snubnosed in alpha said...

Yeah, Joel, the identity conditions of a theological tradition are probably not much like those of a ship. I mainly chose the example of Theseus' ship as a way of raising the question of what are an object's identity conditions and because I thought it would be a neat-o thought experiment to connect it with Neurath's boat/worldview analogy. Basically, I meant the analogy to provocatively raise the question rather than to serve as a plausible answer.

4:39 PM  

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