Monday, April 5, 2010

On Bicycles and the Ship of Theseus

I have a bicycle that's like the Ship of Theseus. In fact, one could say that I have had an infinite number of such bicycles. Or you could say that I have had just two such bikes, for reasons that will shortly become clear.

I started regularly about ten years ago, as a way of getting around the countryside faster and seeing more of it in a given time (regular readers will know that I spend a lot of my spare time moving through the world in search of beauty). And it's another form of exercise which nicely counterbalances the beer, trimming off my stomach what I put on it, or in it, over dinner the day before.

What has this to do with Theseus, you may wonder (again, regular readers, or at least the more patient ones, will know that we'll be getting there eventually).

I bought a mountain bike, suited to the dusty, rocky hill paths that most of my journeys take me along, and I was away. There was a problem with the bike, however. When in high gear and going uphill or otherwise forcing the mechanism severely, it tended to slip, as though the chain were slipping on the rear gears, or the whole pinwheel were slipping on the wheel shaft. I tried evrything, changing all the parts of the transmission several times. The problem alway recurred, to the bafflement of the mechanic. Since I weigh nearly 100kgs, and work the bike very hard, I also changed most of the other parts over the course of three or four years, until there was hardly an original piece left. Was it the same bike? We shall have to ask Heraclitus, but whether or not it was the same bike, it always had the same problem.

At one point I threw the whole thing away, and bought a new one, most parts of which have also been replaced over the last five years, including the entire transmission several times, and I still have the same problem. This why, despite Heraclitus, I consider it to be still the same bike.

The only piece which is common to all of this infintely multipying bikes is, of course, me, your humble blogging hedgehog. I am big, but there are bigger people who ride bikes. I ride hard, but there are people who ride harder. Perhaps the solution to the problem of the Ship of Theseus, or Trigger's Broom as it's known to English philosophers, is that it's the interested observer who, by giving an identity to the object, also gives it continuity, despite any material changes, however drastic, which might take place.

Or perhaps I should buy a better bike. This last possibility, however, even if it turns out to be true, lacks beauty, and so I prefer the former solution.


Vincent said...

I've always known this paradox as the Irishman's Broom. I believe it is used extensively in the East as a miraculous way to preserve old buildings and - in particular - the Great Wall of China, against the ravages of time.

In motoring, it gives rise to the paradox that a given classic car - say the one Mussolini drove in 1922, or the winner of Le Mans in 1912, can survive in two rival incarnations, each of which has at least 10% of the original components.

I am rather disappointed however that you didn't touch the closely-related topics of Grayling's off the record speeches and the rights of B&B owners. I would have listened!

CIngram said...

I've also heard that the ancient civilizations of Asia give much more importance to the original purpose and historic significance of a building than to the material it's made from, so a temple can be destroyed in war, shattered by an earthquake, burnt to the ground, then rebuilt with new stone to a design that may only be approximately similar, and yet still be considered the same historic temple.

That is not something our western ideas of history and identity could understand.

I may write about Grayling later, if I sort the wheat from the chaff.