Imagine a grand old ship. Crafted out of wood and powered with thirty oars by fifteen burley Romans. A thing of pure grace powered by sails crafted of the finest weave. A beautiful object. But the ship sailed in the mightiest of eras. A rough and turbulent time. The ship became worn and battered. Its planks began to decay. ‘No problem’, so the legend goes. ‘Simply replace the planks’. Over time, more and more of the ship began to decay. The sails, the oars themselves, and even the men who found themselves tired, feeble or dead. Ten years passed by. Not a single element of the original Ship of Theseus remained. Not one single element. So how do we know it was The Ship of Theseus? If all the components of the original ship had been replaced, is the ship fundamentally the same ship? ‘Tis the question, readers.
This is a Greek legend. Yes, those wonderful Greeks are at it again. First reported by Plutarch, a Greek historian, biographer and essayist. Theseus was a founder-hero, a battler against mighty foes and a strong believer of archaic religious and social order. It seems so easy when you first read about this magical ship. Of course it’s the same ship. What kind of idiot would say it isn’t? But it’s not the same ship. The ship has gone. Further the paradox. If you imagine all the original components are collected and a new ship is built from them, then using the logic that Ship A is the original, then what does that make Ship B? Two originals? You can’t have two originals. What is the original? Is the original not actually original? Or is it a copy? What is this concept of ‘same’? What if you replace all the parts of your carriage with all the parts of your enemies carriage, doesn’t that make your carriage his and his carriage your carriage? Then doesn’t that make you your own enemy? Maybe so.
What is real? All objects are made of two things, there’s a form and there’s matter. The form may stay the same but the matter may change. And indeed, the purpose stays the same. So, if we have the form and purpose, does the matter matter? If you have a bowl of water and you splash your hand down on its surface, is it the same as it was before? Well, the water is still there and still looks the same, but it isn’t the same. It’s changed. You can never do the same thing twice. The best resolution I’ve found is perdurantism. ‘Considering objects to extend across time as four-dimensional causal series of three-dimensional ‘time slices’ could solve the problem because, in taking such an approach, each time-slice and all four dimensional objects remain numerically identical to themselves while allowing individual time-slices to differ from each other’. Don’t worry, I don’t get it either, but I still love it.
The paradox is interesting because it questions our understanding of identity and individuality. But there is a persisting nag of, ‘Does it matter?’ No. I don’t think it does. It terms of objects, that ship is still a ship and that’s its purpose. It’s all that matters, for me. What something is, to the average person, is what we see. That ship is still the ship we knew. If it looks the same, I think it is the same ship. That’s good enough for me.
But what do you think, readers?
Photo: The Ship of Theseus
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