The Ship of Theseus

Have you ever wondered, how much you can alter an object before it loses its identity and becomes a new, different object? Can something change, yet remain the original? What about you as a person? Can you really always keep “being yourself”? Or at what point do you become “someone else” if you keep changing – independently of whether you progress or decline?

The question of identity

This question of identity has haunted thinkers, philosophers and people of all paths of life for centuries. One of the examples that best depicts this dilemma is the so-called “Ship of Theseus”. This famous thought experiment was first introduced by Plutarch in the 1st century and later taken up by Hobbes and many other famous philosophers. It unveils – yet does not solve – the question of identity: how much can something change and still remain what it originally was? Or even, how much can we change, yet remain who we are?

Theseus' ship was a famous, majestic and stunning ship in ancient Greece. It had sailed the oceans for years, decades even. It had always been very well kept, yet as time went by here and there some parts had to be replaced, due to natural wear. After many years of maintenance and careful replacement of few parts at a time, at some point, all the parts of Theseus' ship had been replaced. Hence, at this point, none of the parts constituting the ship were the original pieces anylonger. The question arises: can we still say that this is Theseus' Ship?

How much can something change and still remain what it originally was?


Duplication of originals?

Let's take it one step further: suppose that we collect all those rotten, replaced parts and reassemble them into a complete ship. Is this now the original ship of Theseus? Or which one of these two ships is really Theseus' Ship? Could it even be possible that both are the real Ship of Theseus?

If so, then we end up having two versions of the same ship. One being the actual ship of Theseus, that never ceased to exist but which is constituted of entirely new pieces, and the other one – recreated from scratch – entailing all and only original pieces, without exception. Which one is “the real one” now? Can they both, contemporarily, be “Theseus’ Ship”?

What is your view on this dilemma? If you have never thought about this startling question of identity before, take a couple of minutes to recreate this scenario in your head. Where else in life could we be confronted with the dilemma of “the Ship of Theseus”?