Ship of Theseus paradox

Darth Vader's Death Star

Ship of Theseus paradox

Imagine a ship made of wood. It is so old that each part has undergone some change. All the planks have been replaced; in fact, every single aspect has been replaced. The question many philosophers have bent their heads over, is whether this remains the same ship, and not in a boring philosophical way of what sameness means….

There are many variations to this paradox. Though technically speaking, this is not really a paradox yet, but a philosophical dilemma. Among most popular variations, there are Darth Vader’s Death Star and George Washington’s axe. I will deal here with the Theseus’ version.

Theseus needs little introduction: he is the supposed founder of Athens. But his ship, as Plutarch (literally meaning the origin of wealth – and that he was!), puts it:

“they took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their place, in so much that this ship became a standing example among the philosophers, for the logical question of things that grow; one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending that it was not the same.” (Theseus, Dryden translation)

Among those philosophers we have the famous fragment of Heraclitus (unfortunately, not many are left – though what is left has puzzled philosophers and non-philosophers alike for millennia):

“On those who enter the same rivers, ever different waters flow” (fragment DK B12, Barnes translation)

So what is the dilemma about? We can do a proper philosophical analysis on the matter of sameness (e.g. what do we mean when we say ‘same’ river or ‘same’ ship? – is it the name, or property, or feeling, or ….); but this would lead us to an endless debate on what types of things there are (and ultimately to Aristotle, I guess).

Instead, it is of great (not greater!) value to see the paradox in a modern light: and specifically on the notion of identity. Let us take the paradox from the beginning and apply it to identity. It is safe to guess that majority, if not all, of people take their appearance to be something pertinent to their identity. And yet, that is the main thing that changes in them. From a biological point of view, we have simple aging, as well as changes to cells every seven or so years. In fact, all our cells change to the extent that after twenty years it is safe to say that we have no cells that are the same. Except our brains – they don’t regenerate. And yet, we take our appearance to be fundamentally more important than our minds. And this, unlike the ship of Theseus, is a paradox.

It would be too simplistic to propose that we should focus on our minds more than on our bodies. One philosophical reason would be that sameness does not mean that it is in some way better than change. Quite the contrary can be, and has been, argued (by Nietzsche and later Foucault, among many others).

Nevertheless, the ship of Theseus gives an interesting point of view on how identity functions in certain situations. I am not the same person as I was (say, 10?) years ago. That much is certain. But I do not take the change of my appearance to be the guiding reason for this. I may refer to my metal/punk/rock years (whatever really) as something of the past; nevertheless, it is not that interest that defined me at the time either. To simply point out that this is something more complex is also a boring truism.

So instead, I propose a ‘simple’ solution to the paradox. Identity is not something that can be identified statically – there is dynamism or fluidity (to keep to Heraclitus’ aphorism). This is where I strongly part ways with the contemporary Hollywood approach: ‘you should accept me for what I am’. This type of phrase is to be found in films, on greeting cards, and what not – my assumption is that they are meant to reflect our reality, that they are the ideological presupposition. To me such phrasing as ‘accept me for what I am’ makes little sense. There is no static ‘me’ to accept in the first place; there is a ‘me’ that changes and morphs on a daily basis (if not faster). As Nietzsche put it, there is no being, but only becoming (I am paraphrasing). And isn’t it strange that Heidegger, after so much work on Nietzsche, was still interested in uncovering being?

05/01/2016: While editing this for a new site layout, I realise that this text is too dense (too many philosophers). Seems pretentious and somewhat obnoxious – I will try to unpack this once I have more time.

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3 Responses

  1. January 5, 2016

    […] on mythology as we know – Titans and Gods; they also told stories of the origins of states, Ship of Theseus discussion previously being one of them. The meaning of objectivity thus plays a crucial role in […]

  2. January 27, 2016

    […] enough (as does Disney many, many times); or that you have to accept the other for what they are (see the conclusion of this post). However, is it not more prudent to understand one’s flaws and imperfections, to learn from […]

  3. January 27, 2016

    […] always – a challenge to Heraclitus ‘everything is flux’ view pointed out in the Ship of Theseus paradox (fragment DK […]

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