What defines us?

I have often marvelled over what actually defines me. I came across an interesting paradox while reading the book Philosophy 101 by Paul Kleinman. Explaining the metaphysics of identity, the ship of Theseus paradox first appeared in the writings of the Ancient Greek philosopher Plutarch. He wrote about Theseus (the founder-king of Athens) returning from a long voyage at sea. During this voyage, the old and decayed planks of wood the ship was made of was replaced by brand new and strong planks of wood. So by the end of the voyage, every piece of wood the ship was made of initially, had been replaced. The philosophical idea generated from this scenario is: is this ship still the same ship that Theseus started his voyage on? Or, if the ship Theseus began his journey on is A, and the ship Theseus ended his journey on is B, then does A=B?

This paradox surely goes beyond a problem about ships. It leads us to thinking about identity and what makes us the people that we are. I am going to change as I grow older, and parts of me are going to change as years are going to go by. But even when I turn sixty, I’m still going to call myself Saania- I’ll still consider myself to be the very same person.

Is identity related to my structure and the way I am made? If this is the case, I wouldn’t be me if I were to shave all my hair off. Some philosophers say that “we are our body”. But as we grow older, a lot of changes take place in our bodies. As teenagers, we may change our looks, our style when it comes to clothing, our hairstyles, and so much more. And as we grow even older, we get gray hair and wrinkles by our eyes. We may even develop health troubles or we may modify the food we take into our body. So many of our cells keep replacing themselves too, and some even die. So our body is definitely not a permanent fixture.

Is identity related to my mind and my feelings? If this is the case, I wouldn’t be me if I ever replaced my heart, or lost my memory. Many philosophers say that our mind is what gives us our identity. Yet, our outlook on life changes over time. I am starting to think differently as I am growing older, as compared to the things I believe in when I was much younger. I may gain a lot of knowledge. I may change my beliefs. I may find religion, or lose it. This change is inevitable, and so very constant.

I believe there is no right or wrong answer for these mind-boggling questions. What this paradox does tell us, however, is that although we see identity as a fixed and solid structure, it is actually very thin, malleable, and ever-changing. The ship of Theseus and its implications about what identity really is are still discussed today. It does, indeed, leave me with quite a lot of food for thought…

– SaaniaSparkle🧚🏻‍♀️

243 thoughts on “What defines us?

  1. To use your paradox of the ship, there was one thing on the ship that remained the same the entire trip….?

    The crew. There is a never changing part of us, that part is timeless and never changing. To get in touch with that is, well, my life long goal.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. That’s such a relevant question, especially with the movement of “gender fluidity.” I won’t get into that, but it’s just an example of how this question has pervaded human thought over millenia. If we want to (and choose to) change things about ourselves, to what degree have we changed our essence versus just altering a secondary quality about ourselves?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Sanjay, here is another short paradox about identity.

    If a person joins a club and is one of those kind of people that “really make a difference”, is the club still the same club as it was before they joined?

    And back to an issue much like Theseus’ ship. Sailors would change a plank in their hull While Sailing if it was damaged or leaking. So, you can do that by changing one plank at a time, but you can’t change them all at once!
    It seems that if you got back to Greece with an entirely rebuilt hull but it was done one plank at a time, you could more easily say, “its the same ship.”

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  5. It’s difficult, or essentially impossible, not to keep changing, although there are plenty of people that would seem to change very little. We are always evolving so, in that sense, there remains a constant self, always being modified. A person can even completely transition gender but they can recall their past and they acknowledge a self that has evolved, and continues to evolve.

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  6. May I just say what a comfort to uncover a person that truly understands what they’re talking about on the internet. You definitely realize how to bring an issue to light and make it important. More people have to read this and understand this side of your story. I was surprised you are not more popular since you surely have the gift.

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  7. It’s very much about the role of something versus its substance. The substance of the ship was replaced many times over, but its role (or identity) remained constant.

    (Did you know all the cells of your pancreas are replaced every 24 hours? You essentially wake up with a new one every morning.)

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  8. Saania, how wonderfully articulated. No wonder we also have Darwin’s theory of evolution. Our brain and our being and our very core of cells are constantly evolving.

    But sometimes it is the preconditioned mindset that stops us from moving a step further.
    It is for us to drop the A planks of our ship and move to the B planks.

    Thank you for this thought provoking post, you wonderful wise soul.
    Love and light ♥️

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  9. To add a little more to this thought, as I’ve started seriously studying some languages lately, I’ve heard that your personality can be different depending on the language you’re speaking! I haven’t progressed far enough in my studies yet to feel this happening, but I am very interested to see what it feels like if and when it does!

    Liked by 1 person

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