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Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Ship of Theseus

Two interesting dilemmas are the Ship of Theseus paradox and the Loki's Wager fallacy.

Basically, the ship of Theseus was an important ship in ancient Greece (for reasons that aren't important). This ship was so important that the Athenians decided it needed to be preserved. So, through the years, they would find old, decaying boards and replace them with new boards. Of course, that meant that eventually none of the material that was in the original ship was left. The controversial question among philosophers was deceptively simple: Is it the same ship?

What does this have to do with abortion? Many times the other side will pose a question about cyborgs. Yes, cyborgs. They ask where along the spectrum one draws the line between human and non-human.

It is a question designed to put the abortion opponent in a corner as to what organ or body system is necessary to humanity. If we say "Once the brain is replaced, you've got a robot.", they can say "Aha! So abortion is okay until the brain has formed.".

But this rests upon an unfounded assumption. Consider the following gradient.


At the left border, we have someone who is 100% organic. This entity is a human. On the far right border, we have the 0% organic "robot" category. Regardless of where in between one draws the line between man and machine, the human embryo falls on the leftern border.

This is related to the fallacy of Loki's Wager.

The story goes like this: In Norse mythology, the trickster Loki loses a bet to some dwarves, and, per the terms of the contract, the dwarves get to take his head. Loki tells them that, fine, they could have his head, but insisted that they had absolutely no right to any part of his neck. Though some places were clearly part of his head and some part of his neck, the squabbled endlessly as to where precisely to draw the line, so he kept his head indefinitely.

"Loki's wager" is now used to refer to the logical fallacy that anything that cannot be defined precisely cannot be discussed.

EDIT: Also, I now have administrator privileges, and have bookmarked this blog's spam queue. Hopefully I can check it regularly, and legitimate posts don't get "censored" for too long.

6 comments:

M said...

This is an interesting post, but shouldn't the picture say "100% Robot" on the right?

Another problem with the cyborg question is it fails to take into account future possibilities. Presumably once a person's brain is replaced with that of a robot, it will never have a human brain again. In contrast, a fetus may not have a fully developed human brain, but we know that, given time, it *will*. Future states are important--we determine whether to pull the plug on coma patients largely based on whether they will--in the future--regain their functionality, or will simply remain comatose. We aren't deciding based on whether they are comatose *right now*--if we did, no coma patient would ever have the chance of recovery. We care about their future possibilities in deciding whether they are "dead to us", and a similar line of thought goes for fetal life, and, I guess, cyborgs.

Nulono said...

It should say "0%: Robot". The percentages are all how much organic material is left.

M said...

Ah, I get it.

Simon said...

Never experienced this though I have dealt with the when you are a human/Homo Sapiens/person problem. & my work does deal with cyborgs ;)

You want to expand a little here Nulono this is an area I'm reasonably well acquainted with. Other than the uniformed there isn't much debate on whether we are Humans/Homo Sapiens the question many Liberal philosophers will ask is when we are persons.

BTW you could help me with how does the Problem of Universals, Materialism, Nominalism and Essentialism factor into the personhood of a foetus debate?

I'm having trouble on that one.

Nulono said...

I could help you if you used smaller words.

Simon said...

Forget about them then, when does a human become a person and what is your reasoning for this?