Question: Two Bicycles
Answer: Ryan Rivas ’15
What we need to solve Fred’s bicycle dilemma are certain distinctions: namely, ontological and temporal distinctions. We are attempting to figure out which bike—Romeo or Juliet—is actually Fred’s “real” bicycle. In response to the problem, I propose that both bicycles are Fred’s real bike. The only difference between the bicycles is temporal.
First, let’s take a look at the Fred’s current bike, Romeo. The present bicycle is composed of numerous different parts, and when taken as a whole, the bike is completely different than it was when Fred first purchased Romeo. Call this current bike, Romeo-present (Rp), and the initial bike, Romeo-initial (Ri). The question is: What is the relationship between Ri and Rp? This question raises concerns about the identity of the bike and identity in general. In order to form a plausible and acceptable theory of identity, we must allow for the identity of an object, in this case the bike, Romeo, to undergo change without changing its essential identity. (This allowance is needed for obvious reasons: Are we the same person we were yesterday? Most would answer “yes,” despite the changes that occur to our person over the course of a day. Thus, the same case must be made for the bicycle.) Here, we need an ontological distinction. We are not looking at the individual parts of Romeo that have changed over time; rather, we are looking at Romeo as a whole. So, the relationship between the identity of Ri and Rp is not the individual parts of the bicycle but the functional use of the object as it persists over time. The bicycle, Romeo, despite having its parts changed on numerous occasions, has served the same purpose over time—namely, taking Fred from one destination to another. Using this functional theory of identity, we can see that Romeo has remained Fred’s real bike the entire time because it has served the same essential purpose for an extended amount of time.
Defining identity in terms of functionality, however, brings up an objection that must be tackled before continuing on. Following my argument, one could claim that Romeo would stop “existing” if a wheel was taken off, rendering the bicycle unusable. And if the wheel was later reattached, then Romeo would “pop back” in to existence. This claim seems metaphysically weird: What happens to Romeo in the time between the wheel being taken off and put back on? It seems as if Romeo would go in and out of existence depending on the functional capability of the bike at present. Without going too much into the metaphysics of time, the answer to the objection is, simply, it depends the circumstances. The identity of Romeo spans a certain temporal distance, starting at Ri, and continuing on until the bike is incapacitated indefinitely, even if that event is in the future (call this event Romeo-final, Rf). Let’s imagine that the present Romeo loses its wheel and is incapable of performing the function that constitutes its identity (being ridden). If at some point in the future the bicycle will be fixed, restoring Romeo’s functionality, then Romeo still exists. Thus, the identity of Romeo spans from Ri to Rf, even if Rf is a future event in relation to the incapacitated Rp. We might not know currently if the bicycle will be repaired at a future date or not, but our epistemic limit does not preclude Romeo’s identity from persisting because identity has a set, specific temporal length.
Now, to the tricky part: What to do about Juliet, the bicycle composed of Romeo’s old parts? Each one of these parts were once attached and used by Fred while riding Romeo, albeit at various times. But the key here is time. These parts aided in constituting the whole of Romeo at different times and consequently represent a piece of Romeo at those different times. While each part, when detached from Romeo, continued to exist apart from Romeo, what we are focusing on here is the ontological entity that arises when all parts comprise one whole. (We could take a look at the identity of each detached part and how that specific part persists over time, but the concern here is the ontology of Romeo, the bike, with separate parts conjoined into one entity.) Consisting of parts taken from Romeo at different time, this new bicycle, Juliet, is a temporally motley Romeo. In other words, each part of Juliet is a piece of Romeo’s identity at specific times in the past.
We established above that Romeo’s identity spans from Ri to ¬Rf. Now consider the changes that Romeo undergoes during its existence. Imagine that at time T1, the bicycle’s wheel was changed and saved by the mechanic; at T2 the handle bars were changed and saved; at T3 the seat was changed and saved; and so on until the present, and all parts of Romeo are different than the original bicycle began with. The mechanic then assembles each of these parts from T1, T2, T3 and so on, creating the new bike he deems “Juliet.” This new bike has the same identity as Romeo, though under a new name, because the bike is a piece of Romeo at T1, a piece of Romeo at T2, and piece of Romeo at T3, but Romeo nonetheless. “Juliet” is merely the mixed, present-time instantiation of past temporal parts of Romeo’s identity (from Ri to Rp). To make the idea somewhat clearer, consider the follow analogy: If a person somehow, say, by some freak time traveling accident, became grotesquely disfigured and arrived in the present time comprised of the arms he had as a child; the body he will have as an old man; the head he has as an adult; and the legs he had as an infant; we would not consider the man a completely different person, or possessing a different identity. Rather, we would say he is the same person only possessing limbs from different times of his life. Juliet is much the same as the disfigured man, only in respect to Romeo. The Juliet bike has the different “limbs” of Romeo from different times but maintains the same identity as Romeo. Thus, “Juliet” is actually Romeo.
After a very roundabout examination, we can finally see that the two separate bikes, Romeo and Juliet, are in fact much the same and can both be considered Fred’s “real” bicycle, sharing the functional identity initially ascribed to Romeo. By making temporal distinctions of Romeo’s identity, we find that Juliet is Romeo from different, specific times but Romeo nevertheless.