Douglas Adams and the Ship of Theseus

Douglas Adam’s always had a remarkably insightful way of looking at the world. One of my favorite quotes, from one of my favorite books where he ponders the Ship of Theseus paradox:

“I remember once, in Japan, having been to see the Gold Pavilion Temple in Kyoto and being mildly surprised at quite how well it had weathered the passage of time since it was first built in the fourteenth century. I was told it hadn’t weathered well at all, and had in fact been burnt to the ground twice in this century.

“So it isn’t the original building?” I had asked my Japanese guide.
“But yes, of course it is,” he insisted, rather surprised at my question.
“But it’s burnt down?”
“Yes. Many times.”
“And rebuilt with completely new materials.”
“But of course. It was burnt down.”
“So how can it be the same building?”
“It is always the same building.”

I had to admit to myself that this was in fact a perfectly rational point of view, it merely started from an unexpected premise. The idea of the building, the intention of it, its design, are all immutable and are the essence of the building. The intention of the original builders is what survives. The wood of which the design is constructed decays and is replaced when necessary. To be overly concerned with the original materials, which are merely sentimental souvenirs of the past, is to fail to see the living building itself.”

- Douglas Adams, Last Chance to See