The Ship of Theseus: What makes you, you? (Part 1 of 2)

 image courtesy of

image courtesy of

Imagine this for a second: you have a job at a history museum, working on preserving a large wooden ship. When it was first stored in the museum each of its wooden planks were fairly new. But as time goes on, some of the planks start to rot. Your job is to replace the rotting planks. So you diligently do your job until, suddenly, you realize that you’ve replaced every plank in the ship. There’s nothing left that was original. It might look like the same old ship the day it was brought to the museum, but it’s not made out of the same wood. So the question is: “Is it the same ship at the end?”

That’s the conundrum at the core of the “Ship of Theseus” paradox. It might seem pretty simple to figure out at the start. But after looking closer, you might not feel so confident; especially once you think about some of the larger implications.

Let’s start off with a simple response, the one you probably thought of first. “You’re such a dummy, Matt,” you say. “It’s obvious they’re not the same ships since they have a completely different physical makeup.” And you would be right, my inquisitive friend. It’s plain that Ship A (the original one) isn’t the same as Ship B (the restored one) since their essential atomic structure is different. And we could easily walk away from this so-called “paradox,” baffled at how someone could be stumped by it.

On the other hand is an equally strong point of view. “It’s ridiculous to say that they’re different ships,” another person might say. “They may be made of different things, but there was always an underlying part of the ship that kept it what it is: its form. Its shape was always the same, so it was always the same ship.” Again, another interesting perspective.

But I don’t think this example is concrete enough for us to really sink our teeth into. Besides, who cares if a new wooden ship is or isn’t the same as an old one? What we need is something more personal, more intimate.

And there isn’t anything more intimate than ourselves and our bodies. Anyone who’s gotten a scab over a scrape knows that their body is always replacing old cells: skin cells are constantly scraped off, and old blood cells are programmed to die once they grow old. In fact, almost every part of your body will be replaced after seven years. As well, nearly three-hundred million of our body’s cells die every minute—that’s five million every second! You are, in many ways, a living, breathing Ship of Theseus.

Read more about the “Ship of Theseus paradox” and what it could mean for your identity in Part 2.

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Matthew Montopoli

Matt is in his second year of Algonquin’s Professional Writing program. He enjoys writing, editing, reading history and philosophy, and not talking about himself.