Students’ views on the Ship of Theseus thought experiment
Liberal Arts students’ views on the Ship of Theseus thought experiment
Introduction to Philosophy module, Autumn 2018
Regent’s University London
We can objectively say that the ship of Theseus, despite being named after a persons’ proper name, serves the function of floating on the ocean carrying either objects or people. Therefore, we could also logically assume that the primary identity of such object is to be a ship, according to its functionality. The only factor that discerns this ship from any other, is that just by its name we are introduced to a further understanding of its history. According to the information we are given in fact, such ship becomes in our understanding the ship of Theseus. The added information that Theseus’ is the ship’s patron does not change the aesthetical aspect of the ship itself, bringing an added value to the vessel only in our understanding of the vessel. According to Plato’s philosophy, we can understand the world through four main subdivisions. There is the realm of the visible matter which further divides between tangible objects that can be physically seen, and the image or idea of the objects. On the other hand, there is the realm of the invisible matter such as abstract concepts that cannot be physically seen. Similarly, there are two further subdivisions between an actual concept, such as scientific rules, and concepts that can only be developed through the application of philosophical thought and reasoning. Through Plato’s understanding we could argue that the ship of Theseus is not the actual ship of Theseus when perceived in the realm of the visible matter. The image of the ship we see and the image of any ship for that matter, would not differ from the ship of Theseus since they both serve the same function: to float on water. Therefore, the ship of Theseus would become such, only when its name furtherly classifies it as a different kind of ship compared to the one we would originally think of.
After the initial statement that only the knowledge that the ship of Theseus differs from any other ship because of its name and the story that comes with such legacy, we should consider the question Plato raises when analyzing language and meaning. In his piece Cratylus Plato suggests through Hermogenes in conversation with Socrates that there is no name given to anything by nature; all is convention and habit of the users. (Plato, cited in Cottingham, 2008, p. 144). However, Socrates replies saying: “But would you say Hermogenes that the things differ as the names differ?… Or Would you say that things have a permanent essence of their own? (Plato, cited in Cottingham, 2008, p. 145). The issue that Plato tackles in his debate is how does a name become true? And if it does, who has the authority to define it as such? Applying such reasoning to the identity of the ship of Theseus we could say that such ship would always be the ship of Theseus no matter how many times every functioning element gets substituted for we accept such vessel as the original idea of the ship of Theseus.
Even if we were to gather all the original elements replaced from the initial ship and rebuild a second ship of Theseus, as suggested by the philosopher Thomas Hobbes, we would not achieve two ships of Theseus for our idea of the ship of Theseus is one and only one. The identity of the ship goes together with the added piece of information that its original name gives us. As for a name is the smallest part of a proposition and it can either be true or false (Plato, cited by Cottingham, 2008, p. 145). However, we have initially accepted that one ship of Theseus only was to exist and that such statement was a truth, therefore all its claims must also be true. In this case, the idea of the Ship of Theseus exists in our minds as an undeniable truth and represents an abstract idea that goes far beyond its visual representation. The identity of the ship is not bonded to the pieces that concretely compose it, since its idea lives in our mind as a concept and it will keep living even after a possible demolition of the material ship of Theseus.
Cottingham, J., 2008. Western Philosophy: An Anthology. 2nd ed. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd
I believe that the ship is completely new and different once all of its pieces have been replaced. I believe that it lost its identity as Ship of Theseus when over half of its pieces were replaced. In this example, all of the ship’s pieces of wood are equivalent to the aspects of a person that makes her herself. These aspects are things like a person’s memories, personality, looks, interests, successes, and failures. If, for example, my interests, personality, and looks change, I am not the same person as I was before even though I have the same name. Another example is a person that has gone through a traumatic car accident that had to get plastic surgery on her face, had to re-learn how to speak, and lost some of her memories. The person that is left after the plastic surgery, speech therapy, and loss of memories is not the same person that existed before the car accident. Maybe some of the old version can be seen in the new version of this person, but the new person is not the same.
Taking Thomas Hobbes question into consideration, I believe that the ship that is built with all of the old pieces is the real Ship of Theseus. I believe this because all of those pieces are what made the original ship’s identity, so it does not matter if it was taken apart and put back together again, those pieces put together are still the original ship. The ship’s identity is not defined by its name, but by the pieces it is made of just like a person is not defined by her name, but by the pieces, or aspects of her life, that make her who she is as a person.
Plato’s view of reality relates to this idea that identity can be changed by taking away more than half of the pieces that make up one’s identity because Plato believed that we all start out with a false sense of reality and must gain knowledge to know ourselves and the world we live in. The knowledge that Plato is referring to are the aspects of one’s identity that I have taken into consideration. When a baby is born, she does not have an identity yet, but the knowledge she gains from the life she lives will create her identity and allow her to know herself. The same idea holds true with the ship. All of the old pieces that have rotted are rotted from the ship experiencing the sea and experiences it has with its crew. If those pieces are taken away and replaced with new pieces, then that is a different boat that then must gain knowledge on its own and create its own identity. I believe that if the majority of the ship is still made of its original pieces then it is still the original ship though. I believe this because it is still possible for the original ship to be identified as itself if most of its pieces are there, just like a person. If a person gets cosmetic surgery or forgets a few small memories, that does not change the person’s identity. Those aspects are only minor and do not change the majority of the person’s identity, so, therefore, the original person still exists.
In the ship of Theseus thought experiment it was said that even though same boat was existent, the parts of the boat were constantly being developed and changed. Therefore, the question is, was the boat actually the same boat as before, or was it different.
I believe that just like the ship, we humans have the ability to change and develop. However, just because we remove some things about ourselves and replace them with other things; or even do stuff to better ourselves, we still remain the same person and hold the same identity we did before our changes. Thus, I think that this correlates to identity because even though just like the ship we humans add or take away some parts about our body and our personalities, the essence of our identity is in the base, root, and origin of who we are defined us. For example, the cells in our body are constantly dying and being replaced, however that should not correlate with our identity and our psyche. As human beings, our bodies are constantly developing for the better in order to perform our tasks in a more efficient and healthier manner. So therefore, similarly, just like if the ship replaces some of its parts, its identity remains the same because it is a gradual change due to performing the same functions as it was initially performing.
The experiment suggests that even though our identities and even the ship’s identity is altered a bit and developed to become better at the end of the day or identity or our names are what define us and give us a sense of individuality. For example, despite the ship going through changes and enhancements, it was always named as the ship of Theseus, which gave it meaning and an identity of its own. Similarly, human beings are defined by their names and are given in groups based on their identities, which are eventually based on the way we look at the end of the day, not how or why we change certain details of ourselves.
We can relate this experiment to Plato’s view of reality because Plato believed that what we perceive is not reality; all it is a world of appearances. This can suggest that the appearance of the ship is basically an illusion because what gives it actual meaning is the idea that we have of it. In other words, the various periods of the ship don’t matter because it is just our perception of what we are viewing, however, to fully understand an object in front of us it’s our mind that creates a perception of what we are seeing, rather than what is actually there. Therefore, I believe that, even though the ship had some changes in its appearance, it didn’t exactly matter, because at the end of the day what it was the ship of Theseus, which gave it full meaning and an identity.
This ingenious thought experiment brought about by Thomas Hobbes has the ability to make us all question the nature and complexity of our identity. To establish my argument, I would like to bring forth the definition of identity which is-the distinguishing character or personality of an individual.
An individual’s identity can be compared to the identity of a city. And for argument’s sake, let us assume that this city is London. It has been through so much since the day of its conception. The Great Plague. The Great Fire. But it still remains to be called London and the world knows it by the same name. That is because its core is the same it was the day it was established. And when using the word ‘core’, I use it to refer to the fact that London continues to promote fashion, boost the world’s economy and improve lives, in general.
As for a person’s identity, it also goes through so many changes in a lifetime, but its essence always stays intact. When comparing it to the Ship of Theseus, one can say that the end product is still the same it was the day after it started being altered. I say this because it is still a ship and it will still be sued for the same purpose it was being used for after it started getting remodeled.
I like to believe that my identity was the same three years ago and it will stay the same three years later. This will happen because my mental state will EXPAND but not CHANGE. Bodily changes will occur too, but they won’t play a big part in making me who I am. My mental state will define me more.
As for Plato, he believed that an absolute truth existed somewhere in reality. He only regarded the pure forms to be the perfect forms which everyone was familiar with. Therefore, I can endeavor to tie this statement with the one I made before. Which is that the end product retains its essence no matter how many modifications are made to it.
If the conundrum with the Ship of Theseus were presented to Plato, I’d make a guess and say that he would also think that no matter how many changes are made to the ship, it is still the same ship we know and believe in the existence of.