The question of identity gets philosophical very quickly. A recent post about Sophism prompted me to write this post about the philosophy of identity. The Sophism post reminded me of the eternal debate around the Ship of Theseus.
Theseus fought many naval battles during this effort to found the city-state of Athens. Athenians wanted to pay tribute to Theseus so they built a ship as a monument to him. Over time, boards on the ship rotted and were replaced with new boards made from the same material. After many repairs were made, people asked if the ship was still the same “ship of Theseus” they originally built. Is the ship defined by the original wood and hardware used to construct it or is it the physical presence of a ship made of changing materials or is it the idea of the ship and what it represents from the citizens of Athens in tribute to Theseus?
Each of us is rebuilt every seven years. The cells in our body die off and are replaced by new cells over that seven year period. We literally are not the same person we were seven years ago. We were born in a certain image and grow pretty rapidly through infancy, toddler years, adolescence and young adulthood to become a different image of ourselves but are we a different person. Some of us maintain a relatively consistent appearance through our 20s and 30s and maybe into our 40s, but even then weight gain or loss, haircuts, beards grown and shaved, suntan (or in my case sunburn), etc all change our physical appearance over time. But are we different people?
Let’s not limit the concept to physical appearance. We get smarter over time (mostly). Our tastes change over time primarily moving from preferences for sweet in our youth to salty or savory as we mature. Our philosophy changes over time. I’ve hear this phrase many times: “If you aren’t a liberal when you’re young, you don’t have a heart. If you’re not conservative when you’re older, you don’t have a brain.” Our relationships and feelings for friends, family co-workers and even strangers can change over time. But are we different people?
The might Mississippi River flows constantly throughout the heartland of the Midwest. Like any other river, I can’t step into the same river twice. The water is constantly moving, churning up riverbed, transporting river life and debris, feeding the Gulf of Mexico, but I always step into the Mississippi River. So here’s the point from my changing seat: I feel the same as I did when I was a scrawny teenager fumbling about trying to figure things out, but I know I’m not as strong or as weak as I was back then. I’m not as smart or as stupid as I was back then. I’m not as nice or as nasty as I was back then. I’m just me and that’s different.