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…