There is a famous metaphysical thought experiment called the Ship of Theseus. Theseus himself is a figure in greek mythology, a hero who adventured throughout the world before he became the king of Athens. He did many great deeds, but we are here to talk about his boat (note that I use the terms ship and boat interchangeably here).
So what’s the deal with this ship and why are we talking about it? Well in his story after Theseus settled down, his ship was permanently docked and was ordered to be preserved. So throughout the years, the shipwrights tried to maintain the ship’s condition, replacing old decaying planks of wood with brand new ones. This continued on for so long until finally, the last original piece of the ship was replaced.
This is where the thought experiment kicks in. If every single piece of the boat was eventually replaced, is it still the same boat as before? If it is, then what is the essence of “boat-ness” that remains even when all the material has changed?
And if you say that it’s not the same boat anymore, when did it change to a different boat? When the first plank was replaced? When half of the ship was replaced? 75%? Don’t worry, there is no right answer here, that’s why it’s a thought experiment, a paradox.
The Ship of Theseus can be applied to numerous things in life, including yourself! The cells inside our body constantly replace themselves, and scientists discovered that every seven years, every single cell in your body will have been replaced with newer ones. Depending on your age, you might have fully replaced your body several times over already, now that’s something to think about.
There’s a character from a sci-fi movie or video game (I can’t remember exactly) who’s a battle hardened veteran of many wars, and in this future, body parts can be upgraded and replaced easily. But this veteran still has an injured leg, and when questioned why he still has an injured leg even though he can get it replaced instantly. He answered, “Because it is the only original part of me that’s left.” After getting damaged in battle so many times, parts of his body were slowly replaced until finally only his right leg was left. And even though it was eventually injured, he refused to get it replaced because he feels that it would mean he wouldn’t be the same person he was before. He’s holding on to his sense of humanity with that one final link that he has. If only he knew that even his right leg is not really the original anymore, referring back to cells being replaced part earlier.
The Ship of Theseus can also be applied in today’s world of interconnectedness, where purposeful misinformation is rampant. Where statements and arguments can be warped using the principles of the Ship of Theseus, replacing the words and rhetoric piece by piece and erasing the context until it conforms with whatever agenda they’re representing. We can find lots of examples for this online if we are aware that this tactic exists.
How many words can you change in an argument where it’s not the same argument anymore?
"The Ship of Theseus is a kind of elaborate euphemism: what language they use reveals what they think we care about; what language they won't use reveals what they can and can't say. It's a temperature check for where we are as a society - what things do horrible people feel they can get away with and what things do they have to disguise; but no disguise is perfect, and if you do the fact-checking it will show you where they're weak. People will try to contort the truth... but the truth leaves an essence behind."
I’ll end today’s post with a lighthearted and silly approach to a ship of theseus statement.
Q: “Is it true that Grigori Grigorievich Grigoriev won a car in the All Union Championship in Moscow?”
A: “In principle, yes, but first off, it was not Grigori Grigorievich Grigoriev, but Vassili Vassilievich Vassiliev, second, it was not the All- Union Championship in Moscow, but the collective farm sports festival in Smolensk, third, it was not a car, it was a bicycle, and finally, he did not win it, it was stolen. But in principle you are right.