The Ships of Theseus and Otto Neurath

The Ship of Theseus was a famous vessel

The ship wherein Theseus and the youth of Athens returned had thirty oars, and was preserved by the Athenians down even to the time of Demetrus Phalereus, for they took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their place, insomuch that this ship became a standing example among the philosophers, for the logical question as to things that grow; one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending it was not the same.

In his De CorporeThomas Hobbes followed up an ancient suggestion that the ship’s original planks might have been hoarded by a collector on land and reassembled, once every part had been replaced. Hobbes offered the reassembled ship as the true original. But he may have had his tongue in his cheek about the ambiguous use of language in truth claims. It is the true original, qua material, but not qua a functioning ship.

Information philosophy resolves the paradox

From an information philosophy perspective, the Ship of Theseus is just a quibble about naming. But the full facts of the matter provide the information to name a ship uniquely.

We have perfect information about the constituting planks, especially if they are carefully distinguished and stored for reassembly of the original planks as a museum copy (presumably the ship reassembled from old planks will not be seaworthy).

We have perfectly understandable and meaningful names for all the parts in this problem. We have the original ship. We have for example original plank 224, replacement plank 175, etc. We have the repaired ship with specific replacement planks in position. We can keep a diagram showing where all the planks fit. Finally we have the reassembled ship. We can see two numerically distinct ships (or at least collections of ship parts) at all times

The comparable problem of identifying parts of an organism, – specific cells, even atoms, is extremely difficult if not impossible. The exact boundaries of organs and limbs are vague, etc.

So apart from denials that composite inanimate objects exist at all, where is the deep metaphysical problem?

If it is the problem of identity through time, the information philosophy solution is straightforward.

Otto Neurath was an founding member of the Vienna Circle. Starting in the 1920’s, he developed what he called the Vienna Method of Pictorial Statistics (Wiener Methode der Bildstatistik) in which simple and attractive icons were used to communicate knowledge.

After emigrating from Nazi Germany, while working in London, he renamed the method Isotype (International System Of TYpographic Picture Education) 

The idea of communicating ideas with pictures is a part of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, the early Ludwig Wittgenstein‘s work for Bertrand Russell inspired by logical positivism. And it is the foundation of information philosophy, which analyzes the physical arrangement of material particles in any information structure.

Neurath’s image of knowledge (our SUM) as a ship that must be built while out at sea is his most lasting metaphor.

There is no way to establish fully secured, neat protocol statements as starting points of the sciences. There is no tabula rasa. We are like sailors who have to rebuild their ship on the open sea, without ever being able to dismantle it in dry-dock and reconstruct it from its best components. 

John Martin Fischer and Semi-Compatibilism

John Martin Fischer is best known for the idea of “semicompatibilism” – the idea that moral responsibility is compatible with determinism, whether free will is or is not compatible.

The concept is similar but not identical to Randolph Clarke‘s idea of a “narrow incompatibilist.” A narrow incompatibilist is an incompatibilist on free will and a compatibilist on moral responsibility. Confusingly, this can include those who believe in free will and those who deny free will. Semicompatibilists assert only their belief in moral responsibility. They are agnostic on free will and argue that moral responsibility exists whether determinism or indeterminism is “true.”

A broad incompatibilist sees determinism as incompatible with both free will and moral responsibility. Broad incompatibilists thus include (very confusingly) both those who accept and those who deny free will and moral responsibility. Those who deny one or both are variously called “hard incompatibilists,” “illusionists,” or “impossibilists.”

Here is a taxonomy of determinist and compatibilist positions showing where semicompatibilism fits.

Taxonomy of Determinist Positions

Many of these philosophers reduce free will to the “control condition” for moral responsibility. This is to make freedom dependent on moral responsibility, which we call an ethical fallacy.

As Fischer says:

Some philosophers do not distinguish between freedom and moral responsibility. Put a bit more carefully, they tend to begin with the notion of moral responsibility, and “work back” to a notion of freedom; this notion of freedom is not given independent content (separate from the analysis of moral responsibility). For such philosophers, “freedom” refers to whatever conditions are involved in choosing or acting in such a way as to be morally responsible.

Free will is of course a prerequisite for responsibility. Questions about free will are scientific questions about the physical nature of minds. The question of moral responsibility is a moral and ethical question, not a question for physical science. We must separate the problem of free will from the issue of moral responsibility.

Fischer has written three books on moral responsibility and compiled what is the largest anthology of articles on free will, determinism, and moral responsibility – his four-volume, 46-contributor, 72-entry, 1300+ pages, Free Will, a reference work in the Routledge Critical Concepts in Philosophy series.

Although it is titled “Free Will,” the material is mostly about moral responsibility.

Fischer and his students and colleagues created two important blogs on Free Will and Moral Responsibility:

The Garden of Forking Paths

Flickers of Freedom

The Many Philosophical Positions on the Free Will Problem

Just as there are a large number of conflicting interpretations of quantum mechanics (which we will examine carefully in future lectures), there is an equally large number of positions on the problem of free will defended by modern academic philosophers.

Since their positions are in fundamental disagreement with one another, they cannot possibly all be correct. Perhaps they should just be seen as staking out niches in the continuing verbal jousting that is analytic language philosophy, just a variety of concepts for their claims to teach “clear conceptual analysis”? 

The free will section of the website has links to more than one hundred web pages describing the concepts in the free will debates. and there is a massively hyperlinked glossary that relates the jargon terms to one another.

See and

Finally, I have created a taxonomy of these several positions on free will…

Determinism is the position that every event is caused, the inevitable and necessary consequence of antecedent events, in a chain of events with just one possible future.

Hard” and “soft” determinism are terms invented by William James, who lamented the fact that some determinists were co-opting the term freedom for themselves. He called them “soft” determinists, because, abhoring harsh words like fatality, necessity, and even predetermination, they say determinism’s “real name is freedom; for freedom is only necessity understood, and bondage to the highest is identical with true freedom.”

Hard” determinists deny the existence of free will. “Soft” determinists co-opt the term.

Compatibilism is the most common name used today for James’ category of soft determinism. For compatibilists, free will is compatible with determinism.

Semicompatibilists are agnostic about free will and determinism, but claim that moral responsibility is compatible with determinism. Narrow incompatibilism is a similar concept.

Hard incompatibilists think both free will and moral responsibility are not compatible with determinism (they mean pre-determinism).

Illusionists are hard incompatibilists, who say that free will is an illusion. They usually deny moral responsibility, but some say we can preserve responsibility by maintaining the illusion.

Impossibilists are also hard incompatibilists. They say moral responsibility is impossible.

Incompatibilism is the idea that free will and determinism are incompatible. Incompatibilists include both hard determinists and libertarians. Incompatibilists include both hard determinists and libertarians (both yellow in the taxonomy). This confuses the debate by analytic language philosophers – who are normally committed to clear and unambiguous concepts – and adds difficulties for students of philosophy.

Soft incompatibilists says that free will is incompatible with pre-determinism, and that pre-determinism is not true. Using “soft” is preferable to the loose usage of the term “incompatibilist” to describe a libertarian, since “incompatibilist” is ambiguous and also used for determinists, the “hard” incompatibilists.

Source and Leeway Incompatibilism locate indeterminism in the Actual Sequence or Alternative Sequences. The first in each pair breaks the causal chain in the actual sequence, the last pair provide alternative possibilities in alternative sequences.

Indeterminism is the position that there are random (chance) events in a world of possible futures. The irreducible indeterminism is quantum indeterminacy.

Libertarians believe that indeterminism makes free will possible. Note that there many philosophers who admit indeterminism may be true but that it does not really explain free will (“hard” indeterminists?). See the standard argument against free will – If our actions are determined, we are not free. If they are random, we are not responsible for them. So indeterminism is not enough. We need a limited indeterminism in the first stage and also “adequate determinism” in the second stage of a two-stage model.

Agent-causal indeterminists are libertarians who think that agents have originating causes for their actions that are not events. Actions do not depend on any prior causes. Some call this “metaphysical” freedom.

Non-causal indeterminists simply deny any causes whatsoever for libertarian free will.

Event-causal indeterminists generally accept the view that random events (most likely quantum mechanical events) occur in the world. Whether in the physical world, in the biological world (where they are a key driver of genetic mutations), or in the mind, randomness and uncaused events are real. They introduce the possibility of accidents, novelty, and human creativity.

Soft Causality is the idea that most events are adequately determined by normal causes, but that some events are not precisely predictable from prior events, because there are occasional quantum events that start new causal chains with unpredictable futures. These events are said to be causa sui.

Soft Libertarians accept some indeterminism in the Actual Sequence. They are source incompatibilists.

While microscopic quantum events are powerful enough to deny strict determinism, the magnitude of these events is generally so small, especially for large macroscopic objects, that the world is still overwhelmingly deterministic. We call this “adequate determinism.”

Although random quantum mechanical events break the strictly deterministic causal chain, which has just one possible future, random events are probable causes for later events. They start new causal chains with unpredictable futures. They are said to be causa sui. They need not be the direct cause of human actions, which would make the actions random, but simply provide alternative possibilities for willed actions.

On close examination we find that most of these positions are attempting to defend moral responsibility. They do not see that the question of moral responsibility is a cultural and normative problem. It should be kept separate from the question of human freedom from deterministic laws of nature. This is a scientific question and few philosophers understand science, especially quantum mechanics.

See chapter 20 of my Free Will book on the Separability of Free Will and Moral Responsibility.


The Cosmic Creation Process in Three Stages – Matter, Life, and Mind

We trace the creation of information structures in the universe from the appearance of elementary particles in the first few minutes through the creation and evolution of the galaxies, stars, and planets that began four hundred million years after the origin. All these cosmological information structures are passive, under the control of fundamental physical forces like gravitation, electromagnetism, and the nuclear strong and weak force. Information, per se, is not involved in their creation.

With the emergence of life on Earth, relatively soon after the formation of the Sun, active information structures appeared, which we define as structures using information processing and communication to manage the flow of matter and energy through themselves. Active information structures introduced agency and the appearance of purpose.

From the tiny molecular machines that are the active components of our cells (for example, ATP synthase, the ion pumps in our neurons, the flagella, ribosomes and their chaperones, and the central dogma of DNA > RNA > Protein) up to the thinking human mind, we trace an evolutionary development that depended at every stage 1) on quantum physics as the generator of new possibilities and 2) the radiation away from the new structure of the excess positive entropy, without which the new information (negative entropy) could not survive.

As Claude Shannon has shown, the creation of new information requires alternative possibilities. In a deterministic world, information would be a conserved constant, like the conservation of matter and energy. Information is immaterial. It is neither matter nor energy, and it is not conserved, although it needs matter for its (temporary) embodiment and energy for its communication, for example to other minds or for storage in the external environment.

Despite the physical basis for our work, from cosmology through biology to neuroscience, we strongly argue against current “physicalist” theories in the philosophy of mind, in which chemistry is reduced to physics, biology to chemistry, and the mind/brain reduced to biology.

We attack neurobiological reductionism and strictly determined “bottom-up causation.” At the same time, perhaps counter-intuitively, we defend a supervenient statistical “downward causation” that allows free thoughts (mental events that are not pre-determined) to cause willed actions. Actions are ultimately statistical but “adequately determined” by our motives, reasons, intentions, desires, and feelings, in short, by our character. We offer a two-stage model of free will, one initially seen in the nineteenth century by WiIliam James.

We defend an emergent dualism of mind and matter, subject and object, idealism and materialism. Monists might like the idea that information is a neutral quantity that can ground a triple-aspect monism of matter, life, and mind. Information itself is an emergent that did not exist in the early universe. We will show that information structures emerge in three ways and in a temporal sequence, corresponding respectively to matter, life, and mind.

First is the emergence of “order out of chaos” This has given rise to complexity and chaos theories that try to explain life as a “complex adaptive system.” Ilya Prigogine won a Nobel prize for far-from-equilibrium “dissipative” processes that produce information structures, like Bénard convection cells. He called it “order out of chaos.” These “complex” systems have no internal information processing. They are “dumb” structures. They do, however, exert a gross “downward causation” over their physical parts.

Second is the emergence of “order out of order.” Erwin Schrödinger showed that all life feeds on a stream of negative entropy from the sun. He called this “order out of order.” Biological processes rearrange the information in the negative entropy to create and maintain themselves. They are “information-processing systems.” Their downward causation is extremely fine, meaning they can exert causal control over component atoms and molecules individually.

Third is the emergence of “pure information out of order.” Abstract information is the “stuff of thought.” It is the lingua franca, the currency, the coin of the philosophical realm. Mental processes create and store abstract information in the brain hardware. At the neuron level, atoms and molecules are exquisitely controlled by neurobiology to enable nerve firings and to record (and play back) information.

The core of our informational theory of mind is an experience recorder and reproducer. The ERR stores information in our neural networks about all the perceptual elements (sight, sound, touch, taste, smell) of an experience, along with our emotions during the experience. They are stored in whatever neurons fire together. Later, any new perceptual element that fires the same (or nearby) neurons can activate the neural network to replay the original experience, complete with its emotional content. The unconscious mind is a “blooming, buzzing confusion” of these reproduced experiences, to some of which we focus our attention. We identify four evolutionary stages in the development of an experience recorder and reproducer that exhibits consciousness.

Objective Reality and Entanglement

Here is my four-year-old animation of the entanglement experiment …

Now consider this possible animation of the experiment, which illustrates the assumption that each electron is in a linear combination of up and down spin. It imitates the superposition (or linear combination) with up and down arrows on each electron oscillating quickly.

Notice that if you mouse click on any frame in the timeline, you will see that total spin = 0 is conserved. When one electron is spin up the other is always spin down. But what justifies the assumption that the spin of each electron is in a superposition of up and down? For the Copenhagen Interpretation, it is simply that we do not know which it is.

Since quantum mechanics says we cannot know the spin until it is measured, our best estimate is a 50/50 probability between up and down.

This is the same as assuming Schrödinger’s Cat is 50/50 alive and dead. But what this means of course is simply that if we do a large number of identical experiments, the statistics for live and dead cats will be approximately 50/50%. We never observe/measure a cat that is both dead and alive!

As Einstein noted, QM tells us nothing about individual cats. Quantum mechanics is incomplete in this respect. He is correct, although Bohr and Heisenberg insisted QM is complete, because we cannot know more before we measure, and reality is created (they say) when we do measure.

Despite accepting that a particular value of an “observable” can only be known by a measurement (knowledge is an epistemological problem, Einstein asked whether the particle actually (really, ontologically) has a path and position before we measure it? His answer was yes.

Einstein believed strongly in conservation principles – conservation of energy, momentum, angular momentum, and spin. Once a particle is on a path, with a spin, what could possibly change its spin mid-flight to its detection?

Here is an animation that assumes the two electrons are randomly produced in a spin-up and a spin-down state. Einstein’s objective reality suggest that they remain in those states no matter how far they separate, provided neither interacts (is decohered) until the measurement. Too simple to be true?

Almost every presentation of the EPR paradox begins with something like “Alice observes one particle…” and concludes with the question “How does the second particle get the information needed so that Bob’s measurements correlate perfectly with Alice?”

There is a fundamental asymmetry in this framing of the EPR experiment. It is a surprise that Einstein, who was so good at seeing deep symmetries, did not consider how to remove the asymmetry.

Consider this reframing: Alice’s measurement collapses the two-particle wave function. The two indistinguishable particles simultaneously appear at locations in a space-like separation. The frame of reference in which the source of the two entangled particles and the two experimenters are at rest is a special frame in the following sense.

As Einstein knew very well, there are frames of reference moving with respect to the laboratory frame of the two observers in which the time order of the events can be reversed. In some moving frames Alice measures first, but in others Bob measures first.

If there is a special frame of reference (not a preferred frame in the relativistic sense), surely it is the one in which the origin of the two entangled particles is at rest. Assuming that Alice and Bob are also at rest in this special frame and equidistant from the origin, we arrive at the simple picture in which any measurement that causes the two-particle wave function to collapse makes both particles appear simultaneously at determinate places with fully correlated properties (just those that are needed to conserve energy, momentum, angular momentum, and spin).

Individuation and the Necessity of Identity

Since at least the time of Aristotle, philosophers have debated what it is that constitutes an individual person or thing. What makes it a unity, numerically one? What distinguishes it from everything else?

Individuation is related to the metaphysical problems of constitution, composition, colocation, essentialism, and identity.

Given two equal amounts of matter, they are distinguished by their shape or form. Given two things with identical form, they are individuated by being embodied in different material.

In information philosophy, identity depends on the total information in an object or concept.

We distinguish the intrinsic information inside the object (or concept) from any relational information with respect to other objects that we call extrinsic or external information. We can “pick out” the intrinsic information as that which is “self-identical” in an object. The Greeks called this the πρὸς ἑαυτο – self-relation. or ἰδίος ποιὸν, “peculiar qualifications” of the individual.

Self-identity, then, is the simple fact that the intrinsic information and the extrinsic relational or dispositional information are unique to this single object. No other object can have the same disposition relative to other objects. This is an absolute kind of identity. Some metaphysicians say that such identity is logically necessary. Some say self-identity is the only identity, but we can now support philosophers who argue for a relative identity.

To visualize our concept of information identity, imagine putting yourself in the position of an object. Look out at the world from its vantage point. No other object has that same view, that same relation with the objects around you, especially its relation with you. Now another object could have intrinsic information identicality. We will identify a very large number of objects and concepts in the world that are intrinsically identical, including natural and artifactual kinds, which we may call digital kinds, since they are identical, bit for bit. This is relative identity.

In 1947, Ruth C. Barcan (later Ruth Barcan Marcus) wrote an article on “The Identity of Individuals.” It was the first assertion of the so-called “necessity of identity.” Her work was written in the dense expressions of symbolic logic, with little explanation.

Five years later, Marcus’s thesis adviser, Frederic B. Fitch, published his book, Symbolic Logic, which contained the simplest proof ever of the necessity of identity, by the simple mathematical substitution of b for a in the necessity of self-identity statement (2).


(1) a = b,

(2) ☐[a = a], then

(3) ☐[a = b], by identity elimination. 

René Descartes: The Origins of the Mind-Body Problem

In his 1644 Principles of Philosophy, Descartes identified freedom with actions that are not pre-determined, even by the existence of divine foreknowledge.

Descartes was the origin of the Mind-Body Problem. He famously divided the world into mind (the ideal realm of thoughts) and body (the material world). For him, the physical world was a deterministic machine, but our ideas and thoughts could be free (undetermined) and could change things in the material world (through the pineal gland in the brain, he thought).

Here are the relevant sections in Descartes’ Principles.

37. The supreme perfection of man is that he acts freely or voluntarily, and it is this which makes him deserve praise or blame.The extremely broad scope of the will is part of its very nature. And it is a supreme perfection in man that he acts voluntarily, that is, freely; this makes him in a special way the author of his actions and deserving of praise for what he does. We do not praise automatons for accurately producing all the movements they were designed to perform, because the production of these movements occurs necessarily. It is the designer who is praised for constructing such carefully-made devices; for in constructing them he acted not out of necessity but freely. By the same principle, when we embrace the truth, our doing so voluntarily is much more to our credit than would be the case if we could not do otherwise.

39. The freedom of the will is self-evident.

There is freedom in our will, and that we have power in many cases or withhold our assent at will, is so evident that it must be counted among the first and most common notions that are innate in us. This was obvious earlier on when, in our attempt to doubt everything, we went so far as to make the supposition of some supremely powerful author of our being who was attempting to deceive us in every possible way. For in spite of that supposition, the freedom which we experienced within us was nonetheless so great as to enable us to abstain from believing whatever was not quite certain or fully examined. And what we saw to be beyond doubt even during the period of that supposition is as self-evident and as transparently clear as anything can be.

40. It is also certain that everything was preordained by God.

But now that we have come to know God, we perceive in him a power so immeasurable that we regard it as impious to suppose that we could ever do anything which was not already preordained by him. And we can easily get ourselves into great difficulties if we attempt to reconcile this divine preordination with the freedom of our will, or attempt to grasp both these things at once.

41. How to reconcile the freedom of our will with divine preordination.But we shall get out of these difficulties if we remember that our mind is finite, while the power of God is infinite — the power by which he not only knew from eternity whatever is or can be, but also willed it and preordained it. We may attain sufficient knowledge of this power to perceive clearly and distinctly that God possesses it; but we cannot get sufficient grasp of it to see how it leaves the free actions of men undetermined. Nonetheless, we have such close awareness of the freedom and indifference1 which is in us, that there is nothing we can grasp evidently or more perfectly. And it would be absurd, simply because we do not grasp one thing, which we know must by its very nature be beyond our comprehension, to doubt something else of which we have intimate grasp and which we experience within ourselves.

42. Although we do not want to go wrong, nevertheless we go wrong by our own will.

Now that we know that all our errors depend on the will, it may surprising that we should ever go wrong, since there is no one who wants to go wrong. But there is a great difference between choosing to go wrong and choosing to give one’s assent in matters where, as it happens, error is to be found. And although there is in fact no one who expressly wishes to go wrong, there is scarcely anyone who does not often wish to assent to something which, though he does not know it, contains some error. Indeed, precisely because of their eagerness to find the truth, people who do not know the right method of finding it often pass judgement on things of which they lack perception, and this is why they fall into error.

If Descartes did equate freedom and indeterminacy with the mind, and determinism with the body, it would anticipate and be consistent with Kant‘s later view that the realm of freedom is noumenal, where phenomena are determined, for Kant by Newton’s deterministic laws of nature.