Tag Archives: Theseus’ ship

Bits and Pieces

21 Nov

The paradox of Theseus’ ship is used in philosophy in order to explore the question of identity.

Basically, the paradox can be described as follows; Theseus goes on a voyage around the Mediterranean. As he progresses various parts of the ships wear out, become damaged or rotten and have to be replaced and, by the time Theseus return to Athens every part of the ship has been replaced. In the meantime, some of Theseus’ devoted admirers have been following him around collecting all the discarded pieces of the ship. They reassemble all these components in order to construct a complete ship.

As a result of this, there are now two ships, one composed of replacement parts, which is the ship Theseus arrived home in, and another composed of the discarded parts, which is essentially the ship he departed in. Which is the authentic ship that Theseus sailed in?

This might seem like a trivial conundrum, but it does address quite an important point. Each living body is engaged in a constant process of discarding and replacing its constituent matter, so that even if you’re sixty years old, no bone in your body will actually be more than a few years old. Of course the actual molecules are actually hundreds of millions of years old since they were made inside exploded stars.

What is possibly more important is the fact that people change character traits and qualities in the course of their lifetimes. Sometimes this happens gradually, as people mature over a period of years, or perhaps lose their faculties due to dementia. Sometimes it can happen very suddenly due to a stroke or head injury.

Put simply, if you lose an arm or a leg it will obviously affect your physical characteristics, and it will almost certainly affect your personality as well, but there would be no reason to believe that your identity would be changed in any fundamental way.

If, on the other hand you suffer brain damage that results in the loss of your memory, some of your faculties and possibly changes your personality, (all of which is perfectly possible) does this mean that you are literally a different person?

Personally I tend to the opinion that the paradox of Theseus’ ship, and the questions relating to identity that it’s intended to illustrate are more apparent than real.

All you really need to do in order to resolve these questions is to stop trying to think of identity on the basis of an inventory of characteristics, and to see it in terms of continuity over times.

Essentially this is the difference between seeing identity as a shopping list and seeing it as a narrative, or life story.

If you take this view, then the ship that Theseus arrived home in is the authentic ship, although is doesn’t contain any of the component parts that made up the ship when it first set off. The reason for this is because each component part left the narrative when it was discarded and each replacement part joined the narrative when it was fitted.

If you’re not convinced, think of the Coldstream Guards.

This was a regiment that fought at the Battle of Waterloo and is still part of the British army. Obviously none of the soldiers who fought at Waterloo is still alive, let alone serving in the regiment, but in spite of the changing personnel, there is an essential continuity that makes it the same regiment.

Problem solved.