Ship of Theseus is an interesting paradox that has captivated the greatest of the philosophers over the centuries. The paradox was first described by Plutarch in the first century in his work – Life of Theseus. Here is how he describes the ship and hence the idea:
The ship wherein Theseus and the youth of Athens returned from Crete had thirty oars, and was preserved by the Athenians down even to the time of Demetrius Phalereus, for 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.
The question arises – if each part of the ship was replaced, then would it be the same ship or a different one?
Furthermore, if we assume that as we keep on removing the timber or the small parts of the ship, recollect them and build a new ship with those parts, would the new ship be the same as the one from which it has been made?
These questions require deep thought and the philosophers have done a remarkable work on them. Let us assume that the original ship belonged to Theseus and as the ship began its voyage in the vast ocean, Theseus decided to take out each part of it one by one and kept replacing them with that of another metal, so that in the end there was no part of the original ship left in it. Instead, as he removed each part, a new ship was being built by other sailors using those parts. Therefore we have three ships now –
The original ship of Theseus – We will call that Ship of Theseus
The ship which was made by replacing the parts of original ship – Let’s call that Ship of Deepak
And the ship made with the parts of original ship – That would be Ship of Rana
Here begins the paradox:
- Assuming that the ship is defined with the constituent parts that it is made of, in that case Ship of Theseus is the same as Ship of Rana. But consider this – During the sail, Theseus never got out of his ship, then how can it be possible that his ship appeared somewhere else when he was with his ship all along. And assuming that the ship was about the material that was being used in it, then one could build a number of ships with that material. But they all cannot be Ship of Theseus, when there was only one.
- Let’s assume that the Ship of Deepak is Ship of Theseus in actuality. Which means that material part is irrelevant and it’s only the structure and the history of the ship that defines it. But again, there’s a problem with that explanation. First – every part of the ship has been removed and replaced, so there’s no way it can be same. Second – we can keep replacing the parts and create new ships again and again. In that case which would be the real Ship of Theseus.
- The problem further complicates when we do not replace all the parts but only some. In that case it would be impossible to define the real Ship of Theseus.
Where is the Ship of Theseus?
We are the Ship of Theseus. Yes, you heard it right. The above paradox is not for a ship but to define an individual human being. Therefore the question is not about identifying the Ship of Theseus but it’s about identifying yourself. Who you are, what defines you and if any what could be the odds of replacing you by something else. The Ship of Theseus helps you to find the answers of these questions, or at least eliminate some of the illusions that we have about our identity. The same questions are also valid in this case as well:
- If you are defined by the constituent matter, then they change all the time. Scientifically speaking, the matter keeps changing and therefore your composition is not same at two different points of time. Also, what if your kidney or any other organ needs to be replaced and once it has been replaced, wouldn’t you be the same person?
- If you are not defined by your body or structure, then do your perceptions about yourself or other people’s perceptions define you? Well, perceptions and feelings change all the time. What you felt yesterday about yourself, you won’t be feeling tomorrow. If you are not consistent with your feelings about yourself, who else would be?
- The only possibility in that case could be that your soul is the real you. But with that assumption, it also needs to be assumed that souls change bodies and once your soul is in a different body, it is not you.
So, who are you?
Probably an ever changing creature, or an unidentifiable entity or just an illusion… Who will answer that if you can’t? Perhaps no one. The Ship of Theseus therefore has been and will be a paradox.