The identity and ship of Theseus

The identity and ship of Theseus

We tend to think that our identity is unique and immutable, that it is always the same. However, the reality is that our identity is more fragile than it seems. To better understand this, the paradox of Theseus' boat can serve as an example. This paradox tells us that: "During his travels, the wood broke or rotted and had to be replaced." When Theseus returned home, the ship that docked at the port did not have a single piece of the ship that had departed from itStill, the crew did not doubt that it was the same boat.

The story of the boat of Theseus is a paradox of replacement. If all parts of an object are replaced, is it still the same object? This paradox can also apply to us, to people: are we always the same if our physics changes? And if our personality changes?

The legend of the boat of Theseus

Theseus was, according to Greek legend, the founding king of Athens. Other legends emphasize that it was Poseidon himself. One of the legends surrounding the myth of Theseus is about his journey by boat from Crete to Athens. The used boat was kept for 300 years and the different parts of the boat were replaced. Finally, after so long, the boat did not look like the original. None of the ship's parts matched the first ones that had been used to build it.

The question is: if in a boat of 30 rowers we replace an oar, is it still the same boat? And if 15 oars are replaced? And if all the oars are replaced? Or, if instead of oars, you replace the boards that break? And if in the end you end up replacing all the boards of the boat? The problem, and what makes it a paradoxis that it is very difficult to know exactly if one thing becomes another from the moment when we replace the entirety of what composes it.

The boat of Theseus in philosophy

The philosopher Thomas Hobbes went further into this paradox by stating that every piece of wood replaced from the ship was preserved. So when all the parts were replaced, a new boat was built with the old parts. From this story, Hobbes asked the following questions: Which of these two ships is the true boat of Theseus? The one that was made with the original material, one could say. But that's not what Theseus thinks, he believes that his boat has been renewed and not replaced.

The same paradox applies to identity. Is the identity stable or can it change? The Heraclit philosopher has positioned himself with his famous statement: "No man can cross the same river twice, for neither man nor water will be the same". This raises the question of whether the identity is renewed or changed, remains the same or is another.

Changes in identity

If it is applied to people, this paradox is much simpler to consider when it comes to the physical. It is quite possible and safe to replace several organs, via grafts, but it is currently impossible to replace the entire body. It is understood that the person would remain the same. On the other hand, there seems to be a consensus that people are their brains.

However, a problem remains. As science progresses, we get closer to the point where the brain can be thought of as a simple organ and can therefore also be replaced – what would happen then, if we could technically transfer our thoughts, memories and plans to another brain or a system that behaves like him – would we still be the same person?

When we look in the mirror over the years, we do not see the same person. Our physique changes as well as our personality. However, people are not only embodied by their physique and their personality. People are also made up of all their relationships with others, their impact on their environment, their projects, their work, and so on. We are also our social identities.

As long as all that remains the same, even if the packaging changes, the person will be the same, will not it? Like all paradoxes, the boat of Theseus has no univocal answer. However, thinking about it can help us better understand and accept change.

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