The Rams of the National Football League are moving back to Los Angeles, the city where they had played for three decades before relocating to St. Louis in 1995. Will the team claim the allegiance of fans it deserted twenty years ago? Will those fans look proudly on the Super Bowl banner the Rams won in St. Louis, and will the stars of that championship team – Kurt Warner, Marshall Faulk, Isaac Bruce – take their place in fans’ hearts alongside the “Fearsome Foursome,” Jack Youngblood, and the greats of the old Rams? In short, will the new LA Rams really be the LA Rams? It takes a philosopher to sort out what makes a team a team.

David Papineau's team, the Balmain Tigers, in their last season before they ceased to be his team.

David Papineau’s team, the Balmain Tigers, in the last season before they ceased to be his team.

 

For many years I played for a traveling cricket team called the “Old Talbotians.” Our name sounds as if we were an old boys’ side from some minor public school. But in fact it was a joke. The team had originally been started by the journalists on Now!, the short-lived attempt at a British version of Time magazine founded by the financier Sir James Goldsmith in 1979. For some reason, the satirical magazine Private Eye, which was constantly at loggerheads with Goldsmith, always referred to his magazine as Talbot!

Goldsmith’s magazine folded within two years. The cricket team was more successful, and so the journalists kept it going, defiantly incorporating Private Eye’s slight into their club name. Over time, the links with Now! faded. When I first joined the team around 1989, there were still a few players left who had worked on the magazine. But age takes its toll, in cricket as elsewhere, and by the time I gracefully retired, some fifteen years later, all the old Now! hands had gone.

Yet we still had the same name – the Old Talbotians. The team had been replenished by friends of friends, younger acquaintances whose only qualification was that they knew what to do with a bat or ball. Scarcely any of them had ever heard of Now! Should we still have been counted as the same team that the magazine’s journalists had founded a quarter-century earlier?

Team identity may seem a funny thing to worry about, but it is an issue that can matter a great deal to sports enthusiasts. Players and fans form intense attachments to particular teams, and they maintain these attachments over time. They bask in past glories, look forward to future successes, engage in long-standing rivalries, and remember injustices from decades ago.

Still, do such continued attachments make any sense? Sports teams change a lot over time, as did my Old Talbotians. Often this involves more than just turnover of personnel. Teams can move location – the Los Angeles Dodgers were once the much-loved bums of Brooklyn. They can split into two – Hapoel Katamon Jerusalem and Hapoel Jerusalem, both in the second tier of Israeli soccer, are fierce rivals who have claimed the same ancestry since they split a decade ago. And teams can even merge – when I lived in Sydney, I was a fan of the proud Balmain Tigers, one of the founders of the Australian Rugby League, but in 1999 they were sadly amalgamated with Western Suburbs to form Wests Tigers. How much change can a team tolerate and still remain itself?

Philosophers have long asked this kind of question about other entities. The ancient Greeks started it when they asked if Theseus’s ship would still remain the same ship even if all its planks had been replaced over years of repairs. This might seem a no-brainer. Isn’t it obvious that it would still be the same ship? You don’t destroy a ship just by replacing planks. But what if some smart Athenian had hung on to the old discarded planks, tidied them up, and put them together again to make another ship? Wouldn’t that have a better claim to be Theseus’s original ship? After all, it wouldn’t just look the same, but be made of exactly the same planks. But if this reassembled ship is the original one, then the one with the replacement planks can’t also be it – two different ships can’t both be the same ship.

Philosophers ask similar question about people. If I suffer an advanced case of Altzheimer’s disease, and my memories and character fade away, am I still there? A first reaction might be that I am, even though in a sadly depleted state. But what if some future technology came to allow my memories and dispositions to be copied into some specially created healthy body before they faded away? Wouldn’t there be a good case that this imprinted being was David Papineau instead? As with Theseus’s ship, both answers can’t be right. The depleted body and the imprinted one can’t both be me, since they’re clearly two different people.

Even though philosophers have been asking such questions for centuries, they have not agreed on any answers. In the personal identity case, for example, some philosophers identify David Papineau with the depleted body, some with the imprinted one, some say that both the depleted and imprinted being were present in embryonic form in the young David Papineau’s body, some say that the original David Papineau ceased to exist once the two candidate successors come into being, some say that . . . well, take my word for it, the list of options is long and exotic.

Part of the trouble here is that philosophers generally try to resolve the issues by appeal to intuitions. They check their theories against our gut reactions to ingenious cases. For example, what would we say if my brain was split in two and transplanted into two different host bodies? However, people differ in their reactions to these scenarios. It is scarcely surprising, then, that appeals to intuition leave us undecided between a range of incompatible theories. Instead of relying on intuitions, we will do better to step back, and ask about the underlying purpose of distinguishing parts of reality as persisting objects, like ships, or people – or indeed sporting teams.

A good way to focus this issue is to compare persisting objects with events, like battles, storms, political demonstrations, or football matches. In some ways, persisting objects and events are similar. At any time, both occupy a limited region of space, and this region can move about as time progresses (e.g., the demonstration starts in Hyde Park and progresses to Trafalgar Square; I have breakfast and then walk to my office). For the mathematically minded, both events and persisting objects can be represented as “worms” in a space-time co-ordinate system: the cross-section of the worm at any time T represents the spatial extent of the event or object at T, and the succession of cross-sections at different times shows how the event or object moves through space over time.

Still, despite these similarities, we think of events and objects very differently. We think of events as being made up of stages. A football match has a first half and a second half. If you’ve only seen the first half, you haven’t seen the whole match. But this doesn’t apply to objects. Just because your audience with the Pope only lasted a few minutes, we don’t feel that you didn’t meet the whole Pope.

As philosophers put it, persisting objects are wholly present at any time when they exist. By contrast, at any given time you only get a stage, or temporal part, of an event. The whole event is the sum of those temporal parts, from the beginning of the event to its end.

What makes objects different from events is their stability. My facial features don’t alter much from day to day, nor my bodily shape, nor my gender, nor the languages I speak, nor the way I walk. The same goes for constructed and inanimate objects. Events are different. They are in constant flux. You can’t read off the later properties of an event from its earlier properties, as you can with objects.

Note that persisting objects vary across space, even if they are stable across time. My liver doesn’t share properties with my heart, in the way that my Monday self shares properties with my Tuesday self. Because of their stability over time, there is no point breaking persisting objects into temporal parts, in the way we do with events. There are no differences for this temporal differentiation to track. The Monday David Papineau and the Tuesday one are pretty much the same.

In my view, we distinguish parts of reality as persisting objects precisely because we can reliably read off their later properties from their earlier ones. Of course, this doesn’t work for all properties. I might wear a blue shirt on Tuesday even though I wore a white one on Monday. But it works fine for facial features, gender, languages spoken, gait, and a wealth of other properties. In general, for any kind of persisting objects, there will be a wide range of properties that they maintain over time.

So what about sports teams? Do they display enough stability over time to be taken seriously as persisting objects? I don’t see why not. They typically wear the same kit from game to game, select their sides from the same pool of players, play to a given standard, host home matches at the same ground, belong to a given league, and so on. Once you have played a team once, you will know an awful lot about what to expect next time.

With professional clubs, there is even more stable information that you will glean from an initial encounter. You learn about the stadium, manager, assistant coaches, nicknames, favoured tactics, type of fans, chants, and many other such items. You don’t have to check these things every time you watch the team. You can work on the assumption that they will be the same next time as last.

Of course some of these things will change in the long run. Players move on, managers get sacked, and new kits get designed. But that’s not the point. The idea that persisting objects are distinguished by the stability of their properties doesn’t require that these properties never change, only that they normally remain the same from one encounter to the next. People grow taller and fatter, their features coarsen, they learn and forget languages. But we generally work on the assumption that such changes can be ignored in the short to medium term.

So I say that the Old Talbotians I left in 2005 was the same team that the Now! journalists had founded a quarter-century earlier. If you met them one season, they would be roughly the same the next: mostly the same players, of roughly the same strength, with the same opening bowlers and star batsmen, the same fixture list, playing the same teams on the same grounds, the same laggards who always arrive late, the same level of sociability after the game, et cetera. Over time, these features gradually altered. But, precisely because these changes were gradual, you could still rely on this season’s Old Talbotians being more or less the same as the side you played last year.

What if a team’s features change suddenly? Then things are different. In the decade after World War II, the Brooklyn Dodgers were one of the greatest sides in baseball history. They reached the World Series in 1947, 1949, 1952 and 1953, only to be beaten each time by the Yankees. In 1955 the Dodgers finally beat the Bronx Bombers to take the title. Even I, with my limited knowledge of baseball, can name some of the iconic figures of that Dodgers team: Pee Wee Reese, Roy Campanella, Duke Snider, Jackie Robinson.

Then in 1957 the owner of the Dodgers, Walter O’Malley, moved the team to Los Angeles to make more money. He has never been forgiven. My older Brooklyn friends put him right up there with Hitler and Stalin.

At first, some of the Brooklyn fans maintained a loyalty to the players O’Malley took with him. But once those players had moved on, there was little to connect the Californian side with the original. Different stadium, different fans, only half the name. Nowadays, the LA Dodgers organization still lays claim to the pre-move history, but scarcely anybody else counts them as the same side. The traumatic changes wrought by O’Malley cut the thread of historical continuity.

It’s rather the same when teams merge. At a stroke everything is changed. When my Balmain Tigers were amalgamated with Wests, we suddenly had a bunch of new players, a strip that we couldn’t recognize, and a new stadium out in Campbelltown for half our home games. A lot of the dispossessed fans supported the new club, for want of anything better, and it has achieved some success, winning the premiership in 2005. But it was only a shadow of what we had before.

The Old Talbotians eventually met a similar fate. Towards the end of my career we started struggling for players, and so, a year or two after I stood down, we joined forces and fixture lists with a similarly challenged side, called Gustavus Adolphus (don’t ask). We original Talbotians are still included in the emails from the new composite, now known as the G&Ts, and we follow the fortunes of our surviving ex-teammates with interest. But we don’t identify with the new team. When we have our annual Christmas reunion, at Ye Olde Cocke Tavern in Fleet Street, it is strictly Old Talbotians only.

When teams split, this can also obliterate the original club, but in a different way. The mere fact of plurality can be enough to cut links with the joint origin, as we see with the two Israeli football clubs I mentioned earlier: Hapoel Katamon Jerusalem and Hapoel Jerusalem.

Historically, Jerusalem had two main clubs: Beitar and Hapoel, both founded in the 1920s-30s. Hapoel means “the worker,” and the many sports clubs in Israel with this cognomen originated in the labour union movement that flourished before independence. For most of the last century Hapoel were serious rivals to Beitar, but from the 1990s they started sliding down the leagues under the ownership of a pair of fractious businessmen.

In 2007 a section of the fans lost patience and founded a breakaway side, under the name Hapoel Katamon Jerusalem (Katamon was the area of Jerusalem where Hapoel originated). The aim was to restore the club’s collectivist ideals and offer real opposition to the noxious Beitar.  They’ve suffered various ups and downs, but they are now back with the other Hapoel Jerusalem in Liga Leumit, the second tier of Israeli soccer.

So which is the real Hapoel?

Both sides can mount a strong case. Hapoel Jerusalem has the more direct line of descent, but Hapoel Katamon claims greater affinity with the club’s original vision. Moreover, a significant number of pre-split players have ended up with Katamon, not to mention the preponderance of the fans.

If the two sides have equally good claims, this means that neither can be the original club, which must therefore have ceased to exist. After all, when they play each other in the league this season, it will be a proper match between two different teams, not a club playing itself.

The funny thing is that this eclipse of the original club depends entirely on the duplication of successors, rather than any discontinuity in inherited features. Suppose that the breakaway club hadn’t been founded in 2007, but that Hapoel Jerusalem had developed just as it did in reality, losing some players and shedding some fans in subsequent years. Without the rival side, there wouldn’t have been any doubt that this was still the same Hapoel Jerusalem continuing its downward slide.

Or suppose that the owners had formally wound up their Hapoel Jerusalem in 2007, at just the point when the disgruntled fans got organized. Then there would have been no dispute about Katamon’s claim to the heritage.

The point then is that each club on its own had quite enough continuity with the original to qualify as its continuation. What messed things up was simply the duplication.

This phenomenon isn’t peculiar to sporting teams. It’s the same with ships. The repaired ship and the reassembled ship would each unquestionably be Theseus’s ship, if only the other weren’t there to contest its claim.

I said earlier that our rationale for discerning persisting objects is that we can read off their later properties from their earlier ones. But we now see that there is more to it than that. We also want to keep distinct objects distinct. From the perspective of tracking stable properties, we might as well lump the two Hapoels together, along with the two ships. Their common ancestries would provide a perfectly good guide to their many shared features.

But this lumping-together would generate any number of tangles in our dealings with the duplicates. Which team gets relegated when one finished bottom of the league? Who pays the bills when a ship loses a cargo? Our interactions with individual objects demand that we distinguish them even when they share many of their properties.

So it is just as well that things don’t split often. If they did, we would need to disavow continuities in order to keep distinct offshoots separate, and would lose our ability to read later properties off from earlier ones. Perhaps we should be thankful that duplicate people are largely restricted to science fiction, duplicate ships to philosophical imagination, and duplicate teams to the strange world of Israeli soccer.

 

David Papineau is professor of philosophy at King’s College London and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. A longer version of this essay originally appeared on his blog about sport and philosophy, More Important Than That. David tweets from @davidpapineau.