Subscribe to 3 Ideas in 2 Minutes

The Ship of Theseus: How to Solve the Paradox of Who We Are

In 2005, while watching MTV Germany, I accidentally discovered the mythological Ship of Theseus. MTV had a new show, which I’m sure you’ve never heard of. It was called Pimp My Fahrrad (German for bicycle) and was modelled on the popular Pimp My Ride franchise. People would give their shabby bikes to a swag workshop crew in Hamburg, Germany who would then transform them into a two-wheeled cruisers. With phat tyres, shiny accessories and all the rest of it.

What worked well with cars seemed a bit silly with bikes. Bikes don’t have too many parts. In the end, there usually wasn’t much left of the original except for some structural bits and pieces. Perhaps the show should’ve been called Pimp My Frame instead.

As the philosophers at MTV probably intended, Pimp My Fahrrad inspired me to grapple with the age-old philosophical question of what makes us humans who we are. I was wondering if my future self will still feel like my current self in 10 years. This was when I ran into the ship of Theseus, a thought experiment about identity and identity change that takes this idea to another level.

The Ship of Theseus

Theseus was a Greek mythical king and founder of Athens. His philosophical paradox dates back as far as 75 ACE when it was first mentioned by the Greek philosopher Plutarch:

The ship wherein Theseus and the youth of Athens returned 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, insomuch 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.

Plutarch, Theseus

In its adaptation as a popular thought experiment, the following key question takes the legend to its logical conclusion: If all the planks of Theseus’ ship are replaced, is it still the king’s ship? There are two possibilities:

  1. It’s still the ship of Theseus
  2. It’s no longer Theseus’ ship.

Both choices require a fair bit of explaining. But the second one begs the question: At exactly what stage in the restoration did it cease to be his ship?

It’s said that English philosopher Thomas Hobbes took this mind-bending conundrum one step further by introducing the problem of two identities. Imagine Theseus had another ship and he asked to have all its planks replaced in a dock. The shipbuilder, however, doesn’t want to throw the planks out and uses them to build another ship in a second dock. We now have four possibilities:

  1. The ship in the first dock is Theseus’ ship
  2. The ship in the second dock is the ship of Theseus
  3. Both are the mythical king’s ship
  4. None of them is.

You don’t have to be a ship enthusiast to appreciate the real-life application of the thought experiment. Given that our own identity – who we are and how others perceive us – keeps changing, how should we think about ourselves? Before attempting to solve the identity paradox, we may wonder to what extent a maritime thought experiment is suited to answer such a profound question.

What Are Thought Experiments and Why?

Thought experiments are cleverly designed mind puzzles. They illustrate ethical or philosophical problems which may be impossible to test outside of your imagination. Often posed as paradoxes or dilemmas, thought experiments tend to have clear rules and limited options for action that encourage first principles thinking. Similar to scientific experiments, they establish a quasi-controlled environment in your mind.

Elephant in the Room

The point of Theseus’ ship isn’t to ask what else the ship is made of, to nitpick if a second ship could even be built out of the first ship’s planks, or to argue that the entire scenario was unrealistic. The whole point of a thought experiment can be to reduce the complexity of reality. In fact, thought experiments can easily get out of control and be rendered useless if they’re designed poorly and the sight of the dilemma at hand is lost.

In saying that, the reality is much more complex and there are many more factors involved. What these brain teasers can do is force us to focus on the core of an ethical question. So the learnings from such simplifications do not necessarily translate directly to reality. But they can certainly inform our actions and decisions.

Lastly, I would add that thought experiments can be beneficial beyond any specific philosophical problem. By practising how to solve ethical dilemmas we can become more comfortable in everyday paradoxical situations. After all, there’s no shortage of those.

Now, there are plenty of identity hypotheticals that are similar to Theseus’ ship but are much closer to our human existence. Does the Vision, your favourite synthezoid, exist twice after the events in WandaVision? If you get beamed in Star Trek, do you become a copy of yourself and is that copy still you? Given that a large number of our body’s molecules is replaced every couple of years who are you if not the sum of your parts? No matter how you put this question, it seems like you could make a good or a bad case for any answer. Unless you rejected all of them.

Solving the Human Identity Paradox

Even though I had long forgotten about Pimp My Fahrrad, the metaphysical question about our identity remained. Theseus’ ship was a useful thought puzzle to illustrate the seemingly unsolvable paradox of who we are. But none of the options seemed entirely applicable to the human condition. It took more than ten years until I came across an elegant solution for the paradox posed by Theseus’ ship. In a lecture by psychologist Dr Jordan Peterson, author of 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos [affiliate link]. Speaking about facts, stories and values, Peterson concludes:

You’re going from point A to point B and then things fall apart catastrophically and you’re here. […] So you can think: Well, I’m who I was, that would be one kind of identity, I’m the person I thought I was. That blows apart. Then you’re in this terrible place and you think, oh, I’m the sort of person who’s in this terrible place. That’s another form of identify.

And then you can think: I’m not the old person or the person who was in the catastrophe, I’m the new person. But the problem is the new person can fall apart, too.

But then there’s a third way of thinking. This is a better way of thinking. I’m not this, or this, or this, I’m the process by which [the transformation] occurs. I know something, it’s not quite right. It collapses, it causes trouble (the collapse), but I regroup, I learn, I regenerate, I put myself back together and it happens again and it happens again. But each time it happens, maybe, you’re a little wiser, you’re a little more put together.

Jordan B. Peterson, 12 Rules for Life Tour

Who are we in the face of our growth and evolving identity? First of all, Peterson seems to conceptualise our identity as a story and suggests that we therefore shouldn’t look at ourselves as fixed states. Rather our identity is the driving force behind the transformation between the states — for the worse or for the better.

I can’t help but notice similarities to the Zen idea of the eternal now. It posits that the past and the future are mere illusions as there is only what happens in the never-ending moment. Paradoxically, this reduces our story to a single state.

Secondly, Peterson’s thoughts (unsurprisingly) strike me as a nod to personal agency and responsibility. In his reading, identity would be less defined by where who, or what we are at any given moment, but by how we respond to them. That is the decision we make to transcend our inevitable suffering and manage to grow in spite of it. Again, a very Zen idea I think in that it’s precisely our insufficiencies that cause transformations through a ceaseless effort to make things better than they are.

What makes this interpretation resonate? It’s no secret that we tend to be harsher on ourselves than on others. After all, we can’t escape the vivid memories of all the worst versions of our past selves. With other people, however, I found that I rather tend to focus on the trajectory they chose for their lives. What I tend to see, respect and admire in people is their story of having been to hell and gotten back out alive. In other words, I see in them the transformative spirit that drives them.

Closing Thoughts

With that in mind, we should be able to put Theseus’ ship to rest. The thought experiment seems to be less about the rotten planks and more about the act of taking responsibility for replacing them. It’s about the willingness to respond to inadequacies and to let go of insufficiencies, including the ones that gradually built over time. Had the ship not been cared for, the vessel would’ve eventually ceased to exist due to natural decay. Granted, ships don’t have agency, which is why Theseus has to act as a proxy.

Even though in the original story the king has long passed away, we could argue that the wood was replaced in the spirit of preserving his legacy. Arguably, this wouldn’t have happened if Theseus’ deeds hadn’t had such a profound impact on Greek society. The replacement of the rotten planks becomes a symbol of responsible behaviour. The same goes for our shipbuilder. It’s not about where the planks came from, but about his efforts to turn the discarded material into something new and useful. The ship of Theseus is now his.

I don’t know about you, but I’m quite happy with this solution. It feels comforting that I can remain myself no matter what life will throw at me in the next ten years. And the best thing is Pimp My Fahrrad can keep its title.

Share to...