Thought-experiment August: (6) The Church and the Ship of Neurath

August went by too fast! But we still have time for one more thought experiment. It’s a short one, but it has many uses in philosophy of science.

Consider the ship of Neurath. It was introduced by a member of the Vienna Circle named Otto Neurath (the Vienna Circle was an early 20th Century group known for their view that no metaphysical conceptions were allowed into science). He compared the way that scientific knowledge is built up, to a ship being refitted at sea. When repairs are necessary, new planks have to be added in such a way that the functionality of the ship is maintained.

One question is, ‘When all the pieces of the ship are replaced, is it the same ship?’ In what way is it and in what way is it not?

Making this Gedankenexperiment relevant to this blog, we might ask, ‘In which ways can we compare the Church to the ship of Neurath? (Easy things come to mind like getting rid of Ward-level Seventies, or introducing new Quorums of the Seventy at the Church-level)

Should some things that need replacing be left in place because it would impair the functionality of the ship?

Who points out that planks are in need of repair? Who decides which planks should be repaired?

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13 Responses to Thought-experiment August: (6) The Church and the Ship of Neurath

  1. Heidi says:

    LOL This one reminds me of the original hatchet of George Washington’s Cherry Tree fame… whose handle had been replaced three times and the head twice….
    I think if the ship remains in service and keeps the name it’s the same ship. COnversely, planks removed from the ship can also be called “planks from the Ship of Neurath”.

  2. Joseph Smidt says:

    Another interesting post. In some ways you could say the same things about us humans. Most of our cells, if not all of them, are replaced several times throughout our lives. So are we the same person?

    For us you could appeal to “us” being our spirit. But what about worms? You cut them into two they continue to live as two separate worms. Did you successfully cut their spirit in half? If not what is going on there? If so, then whenever a chunk of us is lost, is that portion of spirit lost? If so then again, what about when all our cells are lost and replaced?

    Now ships and the church don’t have spirits right? Something about the church and the ship is greater than its members. What this is I can not say rigorously, but, what makes a ship more than its planks, or the church more than just its current members is what keeps the ship a ship or the church the church even as these things are replaced.

    I know That sounds like a cop out answer but I have not been able to concretely put it down what exactly it is. I will comment later if I can think of it.

  3. Stan says:

    I’ve never worked on a ship, but I imagine that the risk of replacing an old, leaking, disintegrating plank in a key position (like below the water line) wouldn’t be a good idea while out at sea. Maybe it’s better to limp along while hard working and faithful sailors pump out water like mad and telling the passengers all is well, or even more absurdly, asking the curious… “what leak?”

  4. S.Faux says:


    Because the LDS believe in “continuing revelation,” we are constantly rebuilding the ship of Neurath — it is an EVOLVING structure. It will always be the same ship, but it will NEVER be restricted to old technologies that have become irrelevant or obsolete. The ship can be adapted and shaped to the current conditions, staying afloat amidst the largest storms. The thing is: the ship needs to be rebuilt from time to time, lest it be stuck too strongly in the past.

    Excellent thought experiment.

  5. Greg Awbrey says:

    The changing of a Church policy like “getting rid of Ward-level Seventies, or introducing new Quorums of the Seventy at the Church-level” can hardly be compared to replacing old parts with another new part that serves the same purpose (like a plank or sail). It is more like replacing a sail with a prop or modifying the tiller to create less drag. I think “replacing a plank” or any other part with a like part would be more like getting a new Bishop. The Church does change policies to improve the performance of the ship and meet the requirements in the weather she sails in. The ship is still made in the image of the Captain who runs her and knows what she needs in times of trouble.

  6. Jared* says:

    Who decides which planks should be repaired?

    Facilities Management.

  7. Sophia says:

    1) it’s still the same ship, as long as you replace its parts with comparable parts. The ship as a whole has a recognizable identity. But, if you replaces the figurehead with one of a different shape, or added a new mast or took one away, or any other *change* to the ship, it becomes the ship of Neurath in name only, and the original ceases to exist.

    2) The same would apply to the church – each *change* from the original moves it farther away from being the same church. Of course, we all agree with some of the changes and disagree with other changes – we look back at what used to be the church, and compare the two. That’s where “splinter groups” come in – they take the piece that was replaced, and try to build the rest of the ship/church around it.

    Since the church is an idea, much more than a physical object, someone could even take pieces that *haven’t* been replaced yet and run with them. I’m reminded of the open-source software community. Whenever a program goes in a direction that enough people disagree in, they create a fork, keeping the pieces that they found valuable, and discarding the new changes or adding their own innovations as they desire. Neither “fork” of the program is the original, but since they are always progressing (something that we, as mormons, should hold as an ideal (unless you’ve replaced that piece of your ship, I suppose)), it’s okay that it isn’t the same as the original – because both new versions are better, just in different ways.

    It gives the users the freedom to choose between the two programs that were once the same program, according to their needs and preferences.

    3) that’s why you beach your ship first 😉 — as long as the replacement is an exact duplicate to the original, it’s all good. That’s part of the purpose to the endowment/keys – those are the pieces that are supposed to keep us going in the correct direction – as long as we don’t fiddle with them.

    4) well, in the church, the reality is that when there’s a leak, it gets fixed – which is pretty similar to a ship, actually.

    I’ve really enjoyed these thought experiments, thanks!

  8. ujlapana says:

    What if someone collects all the discarded pieces and then reassembles them at drydock, so that the “new” ship is 50% of the original? Are there now 2 ships of Neurath?

    The question highlights the shortcomings of human cognition–we must think in models of reality. To a greater mind, there is no “ship”–instead there are a bunch of atoms. Some go, some stay, it matters not.

    But we must classify atoms to deal with them, so we call them a ship. Or THE ship, in this case. And having identified the ship of Neurath, we give it a meaning, or purpose. If I sell cruises on the famous Ship of Neurath, I will call it that, no matter how many time I replace planks. If I run a maritime museum, I might assemble original discarded pieces and call THAT the Ship of Neurath. People at sea will call the museum piece a replica made from parts; people in the museum will call the one at sea a fake. But both and neither are “the ship” because “the ship” only exists as a mental construct. Some atoms are here, some atoms are there–that is the Truth.

    In religion it is the same. Labels are the tools of power, so we fight to control them. We argue about what “Christian” means or what “Mormon”” means. For example, Mormons aren’t TRUE Christians and polygamists aren’t TRUE Mormons. Sad, really.

  9. DB says:

    The ship of Neurath was a ship at sea and could only be repaired one plank at a time. Any attempt to repair or replace a larger portion of the ship would result in the sinking of the ship, illustrating the idea that science can only be changed one idea or principle at a time and that it can only be repaired with the materials on hand and whatever materials can be found floating around in the sea. I can see how this could be compared to science but not to the church. The church is an organization. Organizations define their structure and are not defined by their structure. Any organization, including the church, can restructure itself without destroying the organization. The church is not a ship at sea. It doesn’t need to carefully maintain its structure, or only change it piece-meal, in order to stay afloat.

    Now, what many people forget, or fail to realize, is that the church and the gospel are not the same thing. The church, its organization, its structure, its functionality, its policies, its practices, its leadership, etc., can all change without changing anything about the gospel. The connection between the church and the gospel is, of course, the priesthood. The priesthood structure provides the basic framework for the organizational structure of the church. The priesthood also provides authority to preach the gospel, receive revelation concerning the gospel, and perform the ordinances of the gospel. The priesthood authority which guides and directs priesthood and gospel functions also guides and directs the activities of the church.

  10. FireTag says:

    The thought that strikes me is “maintaining functionality”. The functionality of a ship doesn’t just lie in staying afloat. It has to take us somewhere. For me, it had better be changable and carry lots of spare parts, including new designs because sometimes I’m going to be in heavy seas, sometimes ice breaking, and sometimes I’m going to have to port things inland.

  11. Allen says:

    I’m going to give an example from WWII. If I mess up the facts, I hope you WWII buffs will be kind to me 🙂

    After serving faithfully for a couple of years, the Enterprise was taken into dry dock and refitted with new electronics, weapons, etc. Was it the same ship? Yes, of course. It was just updated to better complete its missions.

    The Church is an organization to help us be better followers of Christ. The Church has its 3-fold mission to proclaim the gospel, perfect the Saints, and redeem the dead. As long as the “planks” of the Church are changed such that the Church still accomplishes its mission, the Church is still the same Church. As was said by DB, the Church is not the Gospel. The Church is an organization to help us live and proclaim the Gospel to the world. The form of the Church varies as the conditions in the world vary. I was interviewed and set apart by members of the Twelve. Today that is done by our Stake Presidencies.

  12. Allen says:

    ops… I forgot to finish a sentence.

    “I was interviewed and set apart as a missionary…”

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