The Other Side

Two Greek Paradoxes


The Temptations’ Motown classics, “My Girl,” “Get Ready” and “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” were music highlights of my high school years.

The songs were playing on radios everywhere, in our bedrooms and our cars. In living rooms, turntables spun them at 45 and 33-1/3 RPM on console stereos that looked like furniture.

John, Paul, George and Ringo are still famous names, but few could name the five Temptations in a tavern trivia contest. David Ruffin, Otis Williams, Eddie Kendricks, Paul Williams and Melvyn Franklin never were exactly household names.

One of the reasons is that the five Temptations of the mid-60s didn’t stick together as a group. By 1968, David Ruffin was gone, replaced by Dennis Edwards, and a couple of years later Eddie Kendricks had moved on, too. As time passed, singers left, and new ones replaced them.

None of the original Temptations is alive today, except for Otis Williams. If you go to a Temptations concert at the casino, you’ll enjoy the Motown sounds of Otis Williams—and four younger singers. Williams is now the sole owner of the trademarked name The Temptations.

Here’s a question: Is the 2022 group still the Temptations?

Philosophers of Plato’s time didn’t have to bother with questions about the Temps. After all, they had no Motown or Emerald Queen Casino. Those logicians were arguing instead about what has come to be known as “The Ship of Theseus Paradox.”

We have Plutarch to thank for the story.

As you remember, in his account of the mythological character Theseus, Plutarch tells how the hero sailed to Crete to rescue the 14 young Greek captives held for the annual sacrifice to the Minotaur in his labyrinth. After killing the blood-thirsty monster and escaping with beautiful Ariadne’s help, Theseus sailed home to Athens. The grateful hometown Chamber of Commerce preserved Theseus’s ship for generations. As time passed, the city fathers kept it afloat by removing the rotten planks and putting new timbers in their places. According to Plutarch, “The rebuilt ship became a standing controversy among philosophers. Some held that the ship remained the same, and others contended that it was not.”

A simpler and funnier version of the story has been handed down in my family. We retell it as “The Old Colonial Ax.” In our traditional version, the proverbial heirloom first has its wood handle replaced and then the steel blade. Is the refurbished tool still the old colonial ax? Or something else?

Leave it to philosophers to tell more complicated versions.

They have conflicting explanations for what they call temporal persistence. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, there are three competing notions: a three-dimensionalist theory known as endurantism along with two four-dimensionalist theories called perdurantism and exdurantism. It’s really quite simple: “For a perdurantist, all objects are four-dimensional worms that occupy different regions of spacetime.” Got it?

You can’t make this (expletive deleted) up. And who says philosophy can’t be hilarious?

Idle-minded Greeks were always wondering about intellectual puzzles. Who else would have asked “Why is there something rather than nothing?”

Those precursors of Mensa invented another puzzle. They called it sorites, even though it has nothing to do with Greek-letter sororities. For the sorites head-scratcher, imagine a heap of sand. Take away one grain of sand at a time until the heap is gone. Then ask yourself: When did the heap stop being a heap?

A modern instance of the sorites is that all the classic rock and R&B hits you’re listening to on digital platforms have a little note by the title that reads “Remastered.” For those of us who listened to those songs so many times that they’re engraved on the granite of our musical memories, it’s disconcerting to hear remastered songs on Spotify or YouTube. The streaming versions sound different. It is more than just the familiar scratch at the 45-second mark on the vinyl record I played over and over again in smoky dorm rooms that is not the same.

A remastered version is perfect, clear and clean. That’s the whole idea, but it’s no longer the original. Are the old and new versions the same song? When did the remastered copy stop being “Whole Lotta Love”? I want to know.

People have given the puzzle of the heap lots of different names. One of the most memorable is “Boiling a Live Frog.” Journalists call it “The slippery slope” and “Creeping normality.” They use them to talk about things like climate change or the Republican Party.

I call it the “Parent of Teenagers Moment.” That puzzle strikes when you realize that your children’s clothes and tastes in music have become incomprehensible. You ask yourself, “When did I stop being cool?”

Sometimes I think of it as the “Mirror Question.” That’s when I see an elderly fellow in the mirror and wonder, “When did I stop being young?”

Whether or not you’ve spent time philosophizing about yourself as a four-dimensional worm—other than on a Monday morning, I mean—change happens.

Like the Temptations and the Ship of Theseus, time has changed me. So many old planks have been replaced in the leaky maritime museum exhibit I am now.

That’s what time does.

Now if only I could figure out whether I’m still me or someone else.

Dan Clouse is an award-winning columnist. He lives in Lakebay.