The Ship of Theseus is a ship belonging to a legendary Greek general Theseus who is supposed to have found the city of Athens. In gratitude, the Athenians dedicated a memorial by preserving his ship where it apparently remained for hundreds of years. However – and here’s the catch – with time, some of the wooden planks started rotting. They were gradually replaced with new planks.
The catch is: if you replace one of the planks, is it still the same ship? This question is one of the most interesting problems in all of philosophy, namely the problem of identity. What is a physical object? How do things stay the same even after they change? Like what happened to the ship after all its planks had been replaced? Was it still Theseus? A similar modern day conundrum goes like this. There’s a knife comprising a handle and a blade. After a while the blade breaks, so you replace it with an identical one. Later the handle breaks and you replace that with an identical one too. Now is the knife with the replaced blade and handle the same as the original one? The conundrum then changes track slightly. (Almost) all cells in the human body die after a certain period and are replaced by new ones. So, after all the original cells in the body have been replaced, is the body the same as the old one or is it a new body? Or, more to the point, is it the same person or someone else?
These days the second part of the paradox is posed in a new Avatar. A time will come, they say, when artificial (not cloned or transplanted) body parts – like hip replacements or diseased lungs for instance – will replace old, unusable or malfunctioning ones. Hypothetically, if every part is ultimately so replaced (the brain being digitally uploaded), is it the same person it originally was? Or again, is it a person at all any longer? The answers to all these ‘trick’ questions is simple: Yes, it’s still the original knife, still the original individual and, yes, still a person even after all body parts have been replaced. To discover why, we need to go back to the Ship of Theseus once again.
Suppose during his own lifetime Theseus himself discovered that one or more planks on his ship were beginning to rot and ordered them replaced? Maybe he even decided that to make the ship completely battle worthy again the entire wooden superstructure had to be refurbished. It’s something like we do when we change the jets in our car or get a new paint job or replace the tyres. Of course the car is still ours. In a similar vein, notice how no one asks whether the knife is new or old after, say, only the blade is replaced? That’s because they take it for granted that it’s still the old original knife with just one part of it replaced – as indeed it is. Therefore, if it does continue to be the old original knife then how does it matter if yet another part of it – this time the handle – is replaced?
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