The Ship of Theseus

_jgvg on July 23, 2018 | next [–]

This reminds me of someone who once told me that the vast majority of philosophical problems are self-inflicted and caused by the intentional use of vague and ambiguous definitions, and therefore could be solved trivially simply by agreeing on a definition for something.

One example given was the Theseu’s Paradox (or The Ship of Theseus).

The entire problem only exists because you’re intentionally using a vague term in the problem, therefore causing the problem itself.

At least that was the commentary, I’m not an expert in the subject, and I’m sure many will disagree. But then, even the disagreeing is just pointlessly creating a problem for the sake of the discussion.

zukzuk on July 23, 2018 | parent | next [–]

I think you’re missing something really profound here. I wrote my masters thesis on identity problems in version control systems (Git, Mercurial, Subversion, and the like). These systems are forced to take a stance on the Ship of Theseus problem — they’re tracking the identity of files/documents whose entire contents, name, and format may change over time.

Different systems have chosen to take very different stances on this. As it turns out, taking a stance on what makes a file a file (or a ship a ship) — being explicit rather than vague — does not solve the problem. Not even close. In fact, one of the many little things that make Git a brilliant piece of software is that it refuses to take a stance on identity. Git is intentionally vague about what makes a file a file. It doesn’t actually track it at all — file identity is determined retroactively. It’s a question for which Git intentionally doesn’t have a straight answer.

What I think is really fascinating about all of this is that computers are forcing us to deal with age-old philosophical problems head on. These are not just interesting riddles anymore. They’re real problems that need concrete solutions. Event more interestingly, there is something in this that establishes computing as categorically different from just pure mathematics. Computing forces us to bridge abstraction with the real world — to answer questions like what is the relationship between an abstract model and the thing that is being modelled. This to me is really exciting, and what follows from it can’t be easily dismissed with a comment like “most philosophical problems only exist because language is vague”.

— Was Wittgenstein Right? (2013)

— Hacker News

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