By Dustin Millhollen
I want you to imagine that I have a boat. I talk about this boat quite
often. I say things like, “I went out for a sail on my boat today” and
“my boat is 25 feet long.” In all these mentionings of my boat you
have an image of what a boat is. Among its characteristics you think
its first and foremost a physical thing. A thing made of materials
that exist in the real world. A thing that may be touched and felt and
looked upon, and most people would agree with you that this thing that
we call ‘boat’ is a physical thing. That when I point at ‘my boat’ I
am pointing at a physical thing in the physical world. Therefore, ‘my
boat’ denotes one thing and one thing only, namely my boat.
OK. So imagine we’re friends for many years and since you’ve known me
I have had my boat. And over the years some parts on the boat wear out
and I tend to replace these parts. So over a long time I replace the
sail, and the rudder, and the mast, and all the other parts that have
gotten old with time. I take all the old parts to the junk yard and
throw them away because I have no use for old boat parts. But,
unbeknownst to me, each time I throw a part of my boat away someone
else comes along and collects that part. For you see, this someone
(lets call her Mary) is building her own boat out of the old discarded
parts of my boat. I have no idea this is happening and if I did I
wouldn’t care because they’re just old parts that I don’t need anyway.
So time goes by and I replace old parts and Mary collects the old
parts and puts them together until one day I have replaced all the
parts on my boat and as it so happens, Mary can complete her boat too.
So now I have my boat and Mary has her boat…Or does she? Wait, does
Mary have my boat? This is the question: Which boat is mine?
For you see, all this time I’ve been talking about this physical thing
that is my boat. Every time I use the expression ‘my boat’ I think I’m
referring to the physical thing that I sail on and point at and look
at and feel and touch. But if that’s truly the case, then Mary has ‘my
boat.’ And, whose boat do I have? It would seem I actually have two
boats right? Or it would seem that Mary tricked me and has stolen my
boat and replaced it with a newer one. But, why would she do that?
What happened here? It all seemed so simple. I was just replacing the
old pats of that object which I have always referred to as ‘my boat’
and all of a sudden that thing I called ‘my boat’ is no longer mine,
but rather is Mary’s. So what is this other boat, which I have
mistakenly been referring to as ‘my boat?’