Holy Socks - an Ontological Dichotomy Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Holy Socks - an Ontological Dichotomy

4 Conversations

... Father Mackenzie... darning his socks in the night while there's nobody there...
'Eleanor Rigby', The Beatles

Is the identity of a sock enhanced or diminished by the existence of a hole therein? Perhaps first consider the more fundamental question of what defines the intrinsic identity of the sock.

I'd Rather Be a Hammer than a Snail...

In the first instance, consider a simple hammer, which consists of no more than a wooden handle and a steel head. If the head breaks and is replaced, is the identity of the hammer retained? The logical thought process throughout the operation is:

  • The hammer is broken
  • The hammer needs to be mended
  • The hammer is mended

In essence then, the hammer is still the same hammer, except that to the user it is 'the hammer with the new head'. In fact, its individuality has been enhanced, although its identity as the hammer remains unaltered. Consider then the subsequent position when the wooden handle breaks and also requires replacement... is it still the same hammer, despite consequently consisting of none of its original constituent parts? Reductionist theory might take this further still denying identity entirely. The universe doesn't know that socks and people exist, it only recognises fundamental particles.

George Washington's Chopper

The root question is neither new nor unique. A hypothetical butcher possesses a meat cleaver, which he asserts is the axe that George Washington once used to chop down his father's apocryphal cherry tree. Of course, during the course of time he's 'had to replace the blade... and the handle. It occupies the same space though'. The question repeats itself in real life. In the art world, what about an 'old master' which has been allowed to decay almost to the point of destruction, and has then been restored? Could it still be called an authentic Hieronymous Bosch even though only the canvas and some traces of the original pigment remain?

Theseus' Boat

Most famously, however, is the story of Theseus' Boat. Put simply, Theseus, out sailing, replaces his boat, nail by nail, timber by timber, old for new, until in essence he is sailing a brand new boat. But to observers on shore, and indeed to the sailors on the boat, he returns home on the same boat he left on... or does he?

A Sock Among Sundry Sundries

Thus, back to hosiery. If the sock in question is darned, is the identity of the sock altered? If the workmanship is no more than rudimentary then the sock will retain some unique characteristics that will highlight its individual identity among the other sundries. However, if the hole is repaired by invisible mending, then notwithstanding the unlikely scenario wherein all socks are similarly holed, it will lose its individuality but not its identity as a sock. Further then, as with Theseus' Boat, consider the position many years of wear later when the sock has been 'invisibly mended' to such a degree that absolutely not one iota of the original cloth remains. The quality of the mending throughout the life cycle of the sock to date has been so proficient that the extent of the darning remains imperceptible to the beholder's eye. It is the same sock, or perhaps it could be any one of a number of anonymous physically identical socks, all of which exist solely to hose one's foot. The sock 'lives', or is perceived to exist, even though none of the original fabric of the sock exists and its identity remains unaltered. It is anonymous among its equals and its function is definitive.

Follow the Yellow Brick Road

Perhaps this same philosophy can be applied equally to living objects as well as those inanimates such as socks. A wooden leg does not diminish the essence of a man. Thus, embarking dangerously down a slippery ethical slope, if a man acquires an artificial heart, his identity is not affected by the operation, and if the same man consequently requires replacement of various limbs and other organs, then it is argued that he still remains the same man. Baum's woodman in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz started out as ordinary flesh-and-blood, but after a series of operations that involved replacement of the original body parts with metal equivalents, he became the tin-man through and through. Using the aforementioned sock, axe and hammer analogies, it is to be ventured that the tin-man was indeed the woodman. However, in each case, surely the identity of the man is not changed, however much the physicality of the man is altered. As such, it could be 'ego' or 'soul' (or some such abstract essence) that defines identity.

Six Million Dollar (Pre-inflation) Man

Thus, various philosophical definitions of identity attempt to establish requirements such as memory, self-awareness, conscience, etc. Notably the brain (with its functions) is the common denominator (although, even leaving theology aside, this school of thought is beginning to look somewhat ragged with some evidence to suggest that a human body carries memories in all its cells of its experiences1). Nevertheless, T-cells aside, conventional wisdom suggests that the brain is the lynch-pin of our identity - it houses our soul/ego, following which a living brain without a body could be assumed to possess identity and a dead person has no identity. So, supposing that a woman's live brain is deconstructed and painstakingly accurately reconstructed via nanotechnological surgery, molecule by molecule, neuron by neuron (which evidently is a seven-year cyclical natural process anyway), then surely it must be true that the patient is the same woman after the operation. Further then, if an entire woman is similarly replaced, and the original biological parts are replaced by non-biological parts but which behave, function and respond in precisely the same manner as the original biological parts (so that the consequent wholly synthetic transhuman person - a robot - acts, lives, feels and breeds exactly as the original biological prototype), then it follows that it deserves to be treated as a human being.

Theseus' Boat (Reprise)

This replication of a life is not far removed from cloning, into which the tale of Theseus' Boat also delves. After the original timbers of the boat have been disposed of, a scavenger sailing along behind Theseus collects all the old timbers and nails, and reconstructs with infinitesimal accuracy the original boat. When both scavenger and Theseus sail back to shore an observer will perceive the scavenger is sailing Theseus' Boat. Now, will the real Theseus' Boat please stand up? Likewise, a clone constructed from the original parts via the aforementioned nanotechnological surgery route has as much claim to the original identity as the original being that has been systematically reconstructed using either biological or technological (it doesn't seem to matter which) parts. The problems inherent in cloning, especially with regard to identity are then obvious. Imagine a dozen similar hand-made items, all unique, (ie, each has a unique identifying feature) whose worn out parts are gradually replaced with mass-produced pieces until all 12 are identical. From the perspective of humanity, reference to such Gattacist2 cloning perhaps serves to remind that faults and foibles are fundamental to one's unique identity. Fundamental particles, for example, like electrons are identical and cannot be distinguished one from the other. At the macro level, the only way to tell one brand new Mini Cooper from another is by the number (identification) plate.

So, again reverting to the dichotomy of the erst-mentioned holy sock, it follows that at a fundamental level the identity of the sock remains unaltered by the existence of the hole while at a superficial level its individuality is altered, or enhanced. Likewise, to mend the sock apparently serves both to maintain its long-term identity but to alter its superficial immediate individuality. However, in recognition of the allegorical transhuman parallel it is perhaps better to conclude that it is the fact that a sock develops holes, fate thus consigning it to the dustbin, that defines it as a sock. A sock that is indefinitely a sock is paradoxically not a sock.

1Dr Candace Pert for example has done work with peptides and T-cells and calls them the 'molecules of emotion'.2From Gattaca, a 1997 Andrew Niccol directed film starring Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman, in which genetic engineering is used to ensure that all humanity is 'perfect'.

Bookmark on your Personal Space

Edited Entry


Infinite Improbability Drive

Infinite Improbability Drive

Read a random Edited Entry

Categorised In:


h2g2 Entries

External Links

Not Panicking Ltd is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Write an Entry

"The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is a wholly remarkable book. It has been compiled and recompiled many times and under many different editorships. It contains contributions from countless numbers of travellers and researchers."

Write an entry
Read more