The Ship of Theseus is an age-old thought experiment first initiated by Greek philosophers who asked tough existential questions about the identity of beings.
The paradox asks: If the ship of Theseus was kept at a harbour and every part on it were replaced one at a time, would it then be a new ship? If the outcome was not the same ship, then at what point did it stop being the ship of Theseus? If the outcome was indeed the same ship, could all the removed pieces, if reassembled to form a ship still be the ship of Theseus?
In this article, we attempt to navigate these perplexing waters through the perspective of the ship herself, as she tries to convince the world, as well as herself, that she is in fact herself.
Far at sea, a ship’s tired sails beat about in the chilly wind. Her sides have been stripped of colour by the incessant slapping of water, and her figurehead lowers itself in a bow. She must be a thousand miles away from land. Rudder, hull and mast all seem to move together — toiling against the splitting waves and ripping tides. And as the fading light casts a mirthless shadow over her, she is submerged into a bubble of silence and lets her lone thoughts roam freely:
“Theseus,” she mutters to herself, “I am The Ship of Theseus.”
For many nights since she left the coast of Athens, she has muttered these words to herself as if there were something false in them waiting to be found. Yet she knew it, as every member from keel to mast knew it, over the course of a thousand years, every individual part that made her a whole has been replaced with newer parts. It did not all happen at once, but the cabin walls have seen more voyages than the quarterdeck; 3 gunports have sailed only 50 times; and new shrouds were installed only yesterday.
Before setting sail, a rumour had drifted to her ears: all of her original parts that were replaced were to be assembled again soon, into another ship. This made her uncomfortable, and she was perturbed by the idea. What would that ship be? Who would it be? Will it be called the ‘original’ ship of Theseus? Would it be her mother? Child? Would it be a replica of her own identity in a different place, from a different time? These thoughts gnawed at her, took root and began to grow.
Can an identity exist simultaneously in two different entities? Which one would be the true identity? The one that came first? Or the one that seemed more authentic to the majority of believers? When an amoeba splits into two identical organisms, which is the mother and which is the offspring? Could one’s identity truly be stolen?
As the ship sails through her thoughts and the forlorn sea, the saltwater abruptly stops lapping at her sides, and for a moment, the silence grows as if the wind has emptied himself. She looks about. The quiet is almost crushing like some ominous presence were leaning into her.
Her sails droop, and there is a long pause. Within the unfamiliar silence, she senses a familiar presence — the wind. She smiles her wooden smile.
Just then, with an angry gust, the wind’s steely voice rises through the quiet and cuts across her sails: “WHO GOES THERE?”
Sure enough, she turns around to find the wind, his eyes like fuming thick black smoke. Surprised by the rather cold reception, she speaks up, “It is me! The Ship of Theseus!”
Taken aback by the unexpected accusation, the ship narrows her sails.
The wind goes on: “You are NOT the Ship of Theseus! You are an imposter! A poser! I have known her for a thousand years and travelled long and far on countless voyages. How dare you say her name and claim her identity?!”
She regards her battered sails, unfazed by his outburst, and lifts her lids to meet him squarely in the eyes. “Wind! How could you say that? I am the same ship with whom you travelled to Crete and back! We have been on so many adventures together on the Aegean Seas! We have accompanied Theseus and helped him defeat innumerable foes. The Athenians still keep me as a memorial of his legend. I am still the same! Why don’t you see that?”
“But I do see! The foremast is different, and so is the rudder. The hull is painted blue instead of red. Every single plank that has ever been on adventures with me is gone, replaced by foreign, unfamiliar parts. You look nothing like the ship I knew!”
The ship was calm. But she was starting to feel the frustration.
“So if a ship has changed in appearance over the years, especially because of life-changing experiences, does that erase her identity? In the process of changing my parts, at what point did I stop becoming the ship that you knew? Am I defined more by what I am made of, rather than what makes me? Do my memories and experiences count for nothing?”
“You are different because nothing of you remains of the old ship!”
“BUT I AM THAT SHIP!” she protests.
No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man” — Heraclitus.
“Turn back!” he growls at her. He will not let this imposter get past him. “Let me pass!” she cries.
The wind has set himself strongly against the ship, howling with fury. The sea crashes in on them, crackling with thunderbolts, and her internal turmoil fights against his roaring temper as she jostles at the mercy of big waves. Then her eyes peel away their rage as she vibrates with fresh ideas:
“You’ve grown violent!” she heaves.
“I am peaceful. But I will not let you smear the name of Theseus.”
“Yet many-a sailor would have different things to say about you. A different version of us exists simultaneously in the minds of everyone. Which of them is really you?”
His eyes betray his doubt. “We are not the stuff that abides, but the patterns that perpetuate themselves,” he quotes matter-of-factly.
“Yet the patterns that manifested through me all those years ago are the only versions of me you are familiar with. Everyone changes. You cannot dismiss my identity based on only one version of it!” she replies.
A swarm of question marks buzzes about the wind’s head and his fumes blow furiously — but he is as smart as he is unbending.
“You are wise,” he remarks. Then snarls, “However, you are not the result of the changes over time. Every time you shift away from the original, you become a different being. You are a completely different species: a jury-rigged solution to cover up my ship’s demise.”
She takes no slight with the insult, perceiving that he is not very convinced, himself. With a renewed confidence, she states to the wind -
“I have always been becoming what I am right now.”
If everyone changes over time, what is left that embodies you? We think of ourselves as static in our patterns. But are we mere dynamic vessels of our destinies? An old friend who drifted away will have a completely different version of you in his/her mind. So will everyone in your life. Which one is truly you? If your version of yourself is different from the majority, does that become your true identity?
“Perhaps permanence is a human concept. But nothing is permanent. Everything is constantly changing. Even right now,” she insists, with persuading eyes. His brows are furrowed, as he punctuates the atmosphere with his eyes. She has felt the strength in his folds. A fatal blow from him could smash her to pieces.
She continues, “We are constantly evolving with new knowledge and experiences. I did not arrive at who I am today overnight, but with a gradual process of learning and reforming, over the years.” She sucks in her breath, “I AM the ship of Theseus.”
Bracing herself, she matches his stare with strong-will, every atom of her being hanging on his next move. For a long moment, nothing happens save his belligerent thrashing. And then the temper leaves his eyes as the fumes clear away and he billows calmly. The sea sloshes against her, eager to quiet down.
“Go,” says the wind, and his turbulent clouds retreat into himself, leaving a still and quiet sea once again.
With a relieved breath of thanks, she pulls her weight forward and all her members start working together again. Although they were all new and foreign, this was their collective reality, and they believed it. That was all that mattered.
The wind watches her as she passes through, still unsure of her, but convinced just enough. Maybe there is a part of his friend still in her, beyond the figurehead and beneath the planks. Maybe he has changed too. Just slower than she. “Bye, friend,” says the wind, as he bids her farewell with a gust that fills her sails.
The ship cruises on into the horizon. She is content, but uncertain. She managed to convince the wind, but what about her conscience? Has she really changed so much? Become a new being altogether? Who is she now, after all these years?
“Theseus,” she mutters to herself, “I am The Ship of Theseus.” This time, more as a reassurance, than a proclamation.
Change is easily noticed when it is all at once. But what about gradual change? Do we accept someone’s identity if we get to see every little change of theirs, slowly? And what if the change is sudden? For example, do we still retain our complete identities when we receive organ donations?
Over the years, the Ship of Theseus’ paradox has given rise to countless interesting questions about our concept of “self”. Even the fundamental question about what makes us “US” gives rise to profound scenarios:
Does our body really encompass our identity? Research shows that every single cell in our body is replaced in a span of 7 years. Does that mean that we are reborn every 7 years? In such a scenario, do life sentences make sense? Are we still human if we replace our body parts with bionic ones?
Is it our mind that determines who we are? If our memories are erased, does a part of us die? Conversely, if our memories are backed up, will we ever die? If we upload our brain data into the virtual world, do we exist in two places at once?
Or does our soul constitute us? If you renovate your entire house, are you still living in the same house? Or are you moving into a new one? How much repair should be done to your car to say that you have a new one? If we start piecing together ourselves, part by part, at what point do we become ourselves?
There is no right or wrong answer to these questions. Maybe we are who we are right now and right here. Maybe we are all the things we ever were and ever will be. The thought experiment has fascinated scholars and non-scholars alike for centuries, and as we step into a digital world, it will continue to garner attention and spark debates.
Maybe the Ship of Theseus is just a metaphor for the collective consciousness of humanity. Over the years, we have been completely replaced by newer generations. We may not retain the cultures, ideologies, and values of our ancestors, but maybe, we do carry forward some parts from the past. A part, that still keeps us human?