Uncluttering our minds

Hoarding can also occur in our heads

Avi Kotzer

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Photo by Dim Hou on Unsplash

More than a century ago — in 1905, to be precise — famed physicist and future Nobel Prize winner Albert Einstein published four papers in Annalen der Physik, the prestigious German scientific journal. One of the papers, “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies”, focused on special relativity and introduced the world to the concept of spacetime. (Before this word entered our zeitgeist, scientists used two separate theories to explain the motion of massive objects and the properties of light.)

Spacetime is also a philosophical concept. Four-dimensionalism (also known as the doctrine of temporal parts) states that an object’s existence throughout time is akin to its extension through space. This view helps address the paradox known as “the ship of Theseus”, which asks whether or not an object that has all of its parts slowly and continuously replaced over time is still the same object.

Three-dimensionalism’s answer — almost by definition — has to be “no”; adding the fourth dimension of time to an object, or even a person, introduces the concept of “temporal parts”, or parts of an object that exist in separate time periods. Thus, in the case of a wooden ship whose planks have been replaced one by one over the years, all the stages in which it had one part replaced can be seen as a single space-time unit and, therefore, as the same object.

If four-dimensionalism and spacetime can be applied to physical objects, can they also be be brought into play when considering non-material things? Namely, can temporal parts be used to describe the mind? If so, how would that work? When people say they “have changed” or “become a new person” or “are not like they used to be”, they are usually talking about non-physical aspects, such as their minds or personalities.

But if we dissect the mind over many single space-time units, can we also arrive at the conclusion that, overall, our consciousness has remained unchanged as a whole?

In Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet, Sherlock Holmes explains to Watson that “a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose.” This in reference to the fact that Holmes refuses to clutter his mind with knowledge he deems…

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Avi Kotzer

“I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.” ― Albert Einstein ▹ My column: https://medium.com/silly-little-dictionaryavionmedium@gmail.com