For some reason I’ve been thinking about the riddle of The Ship of Theseus. At this point, many of you are thinking: “What the hell is he talking about?” It’s about a famous philosophical thought experiment. I’ll let Wikipedia explain it.
“Ship of Theseus is a thought experiment about whether an object that has had all of its original components replaced remains the same object. According to legend, Theseus, the mythical Greek founder-king of Athens, had rescued the children of Athens from King Minos after slaying the Minotaur and then escaped on a ship to Delos. Every year, the Athenians commemorated this legend by taking the ship on a pilgrimage to Delos to honor Apollo.
The question was raised by ancient philosophers: After several centuries of maintenance, if every part of the ship of Theseus had been replaced, one at a time, was it still the same ship? In contemporary philosophy, this thought experiment has applications to the philosophical study of identity over time, and has inspired a variety of proposed solutions in contemporary philosophy of mind concerned with the persistence of personal identity.”
Now at this point, many of you are thinking, “Why are you thinking about that? Did the edible just kick in?” Nope. The reason I’ve been thinking about the Ship of Theseus is because of this picture:
My brother gave it to me on my 60th birthday. My wife Ellin hung the picture above the toilet in our bathroom. She thought it was funny. And I guess it is. Either way, I have looked at that picture every day when I go to the bathroom for, well for a while now. And it’s weird.
That’s me. Or that was me. I was only three-years old. I know for a fact that I couldn’t read. Yet, there I am not just reading a newspaper, but seemingly quite engrossed in it. I think I have some vague memories of doing that. I must have been looking at advertising supplements that were mostly pictures. But that could also just be my imagination. At this point I’m sure many of you are thinking, “That’s nice. What the hell does any of this have to do with the frigging Ship of Theseus riddle!?
To which I might respond “stop thinking so much. You’re ruining my blog!” But I see no reason to be combative. Let us reason together. When daily I look at that picture, I can’t help but think, “Wow that’s ME. Or was me. The three-year-old me. But is it still me?”
I read somewhere (else) that every cell in the human body is replaced every 7 years, more or less. Each or your cells is made up of atoms, molecules, electrons, protons and subatomic particles. Your new cells have different atoms, molecules, electrons, protons and subatomic particles. This would mean during this replacement process, which has occurred about 10 times so far, every part of my body has been replaced. How can the kid in that picture possibly be the me who is me now? Isn’t this what the whole Ship of Theseus riddle is about?
Now. Some would say “It’s not about that. It’s about the shared memories and experiences that you’ve both had throughout your life. The problem here is I have no memories of anything I did up until I was three and the little me in the photo has no memories of anything afterward because NONE OF IT HAD YET HAPPENED!
So, what’s the answer? Can you solve this riddle?
Then it hit me. I realized that I was contemplating all of this while I was sitting on the very toilet above which the picture was hung, while reading a newspaper.
Yup. We’re the same guy. Problem solved. The riddle has been answered. Philosophy isn’t as hard as people think.
PS: Be sure to check out my new podcast “Get Off My Lawn” with Tom Curley. Just click on the link!