Theseus and I: The Ever-Changing Concept of Self

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The Ship of Theseus is an Ancient Greek legend that continues to puzzle philosophers to this day. 
By writing editor, April Owens

Who am I? 

Am I the same person I was yesterday? Two years ago? 

How far back in time would I have to go until I find a version of myself that is unrecognizable from my current self? 

As teenagers and young adults who are growing mentally and physically, questions like these are likely to be on our radar. In the fast-paced modern lifestyle that has become the norm in the 21st century, it is becoming increasingly difficult to latch on to any sort of identity. The lines between our many “selves”-- past vs present, online vs face-to-face, private vs public-- are blurring rapidly. These ponderings are the heart of metaphysics, which is a branch of philosophy that grapples with the essence of existence, reality, and being. 

The Ship of Theseus is a philosophical thought experiment that challenges what it means to “be”. Legend has it that the people of Athens in Ancient Greece dedicated a memorial to the king Theseus, who supposedly discovered Athens. As years went on, the boat started to rot and wither away. To preserve the integrity of the ship, one piece at a time was removed and replaced with a new piece. Imagine that after every single piece had been replaced, the discarded parts were reassembled into an exact replica of the Ship of Theseus. This paradox begs a challenging set of questions: Which boat is the original? Which one is the “newer” version? At what point in that part-swapping process does the boat become… no longer itself? 

We are all animated, living versions of the Ship of Theseus. We shed, we change, we replace ourselves. Humans lose and replace around 45 billion cells every single day. After 7-10 years, every cell in your body will have been replaced - except for the neurons in a part of the brain called the cerebral cortex. What does this mean? Are you the same person you were a decade ago? Since the neurons in the cerebral cortex are never really replaced, some may hold the opinion that the brain is the only thing that makes one an individual - in which case, one’s identity is fixed. It’s as if the cerebral cortex keeps us tethered to a stable sense of “self”.

I’d like to challenge this conclusion. From the moment we are infants until the instant we die, our brains are changing. We start off with relatively blank slates. As we gain knowledge and experience, the brain races to keep up. We offload information and forget about it. We compartmentalize memories, pushing the useless and painful ones deep down into our subconscious. Our opinions change. Our personalities and goals change. Change is inevitable.

Nowadays, change is coming at us more rapidly than we can control. A heavy stream of information bombards us 24/7 from all sides. We are pushed to reevaluate and defend our stances on personal, political, and societal matters. These factors make it clear that the body is not the only dynamic part of the “self”; our brains are always morphing due to internal and external processes. 

So, what if the Ship of Theseus was never a single entity to begin with? What if labeling it as such a stagnant, constant thing is completely inaccurate? What if I, like the Ship of Theseus, don’t have a fixed identity?

These questions lead me to a theory that perhaps is even more absurd: What if the moment the first piece was replaced was the moment the ship stopped being the original Ship of Theseus? Imagine the implications. In that case, we could consider ourselves to be a new entity every single second. Our skin is constantly shedding its outer layer, our hair falls out, our neurons create new connections, and old memories slowly die out. This happens even as we sleep. On a physical and psychological level, we are never the same. We are dying, being reborn, growing, and fluctuating in and out of new states. What if none of us are the same person we were at any previous point in our lives?

This idea may seem daunting. It would be miserable to spend life clutching at past versions of ourselves, reaching for some fully packaged identity-- body, opinions, intelligence, and all --that we can proudly put on display for the rest of the world. Fortunately, this theory of the ever-changing self has positive implications. Since none of has have an innate “self” to fit into, we have the freedom to become whoever we want to be. This outlook can teach us to embrace change not only as an inevitability but also as a force that we can use in our favor.

I challenge you to treat every day as an opportunity to take a step to become who you really want to be. See every challenge as an adventure, and study every new piece of information with skepticism as well as open-mindedness.

The Ship of Theseus tells the story of a physical object’s changing state. This age-old paradox is also a lens through which we can reflect inwards-- into our bodies and brains and spirits-- and examine who we are on a daily basis.

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