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Neurath's boat is a simile used in anti-foundational accounts of knowledge, especially in the philosophy of science, which was first formulated by Otto Neurath. It is based in part on the Ship of Theseus which, however, is standardly used to illustrate other philosophical questions, to do with problems of identity. It was popularised by Willard Van Orman Quine in Word and Object (1960).
We are like sailors who on the open sea must reconstruct their ship but are never able to start afresh from the bottom. Where a beam is taken away a new one must at once be put there, and for this the rest of the ship is used as support. In this way, by using the old beams and driftwood the ship can be shaped entirely anew, but only by gradual reconstruction.
Stanovich, in his book The Robot's Rebellion, refers to it as a Neurathian bootstrap and uses it as an analogy to the recursive nature of revising one's beliefs. A "rotten plank" on the ship, for instance, might refer to a meme virus or a junk meme (i.e., a meme that is either maladaptive to the individual, or serves no beneficial purpose for the realization of an individual's life goals). It may be impossible to bring the ship to shore for repairs, therefore one may stand on planks that are not rotten in order to repair or replace the ones that are. At a later time, the planks previously used for support may be tested by standing on other planks that are not rotten:
"We can conduct certain tests assuming that certain memeplexes (e.g., science, logic, rationality) are foundational, but at a later time we might want to bring these latter memeplexes into question too. The more comprehensively we have tested our interlocking memeplexes, the more confident we can be that we have not let a meme virus enter into our mindware..." (p. 181)
In this way, one might proceed to examine and revise their beliefs so as to become more rational.
- Cartwright, Nancy; Cat, Jordi; Fleck, Lola; Uebel, Thomas E. (2008). "On Neurath's Boat". Otto Neurath: Philosophy Between Science and Politics. Ideas in Context. 38. Cambridge University Press. pp. 89–94. ISBN 9780521041119.
- Neurath, Otto (1921). Anti-Spengler. Vienna Circle Collection vol. 1: Empiricism and Sociology (1973). doi:10.1007/978-94-010-2525-6_6. ISBN 978-90-277-0259-3.
- Stanovich, Keith E. (2004-05-15). The Robot's Rebellion: Finding Meaning in the Age of Darwin (1 ed.). University Of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-77089-3.