The Finch Formerly Known As Gold

1 July 2006

George Washington's axe

I haven't actually seen it, but I'm guessing it might be in a museum somewhere. Over the years, the blade has been replaced three times, the handle four times, and — wait a minute.

What is an axe? A blade with a handle.

And if you've changed both the blade and the handle, several times yet, does the resulting object, obviously never once touched by George Washington, still qualify as George Washington's axe?

This question is far more serious than you think. Francis W. Porretto would say that it does:

[M]etaphysically, it spotlights the nature of identity as men understand it.

The undefined abstraction we call identity is inseparable from continuity.

And he throws a counterquestion into the mix: were you to find the original blade and (less likely, wood being rather impermanent stuff) the original handle and combine them into a unit, could you legitimately call the resulting object "George Washington's axe"?

Push this into the future. Right before you die, the contents of your brain are uploaded into a computerized storage facility of some sort. Time passes, as time is wont to do; eventually someone downloads those contents into an independent and, let's say, ambulatory, or at least self-propelled, container.

Is that you there?

And does it make any difference if time hadn't passed, if the transfer from the dying body to the new vessel had been instantaneous?

The robot R. Daneel Olivaw, in Asimov's Foundation and Earth, said that over the centuries, every part of him had been replaced and/or upgraded, and that he'd used version n of his brain to design version n+1, which was then activated in place of the older one.

This question goes back as least as far as Plutarch, which tells me that it's more than just a mere museum piece.

Posted at 2:22 PM to Immaterial Witness


More to the point: what if you can record all of the information that makes up your personality, and record it into multiple copies of yourself?

Are the copies any less you, simply because you pre-date them?

Posted by: McGehee at 9:41 AM on 2 July 2006