Ship of Theseus

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Since ancient Greece, there has been a fierce debate in the philosophical arena about the nature of change and how it affects the identity of objects. Some philosophers believe that nothing ever truly changes and others such as Heraclitus (535-475 BCE), believed that all objects identities are always changing. There are many properties to an object, and many wonder how many properties can change before the object is considered to be something else. This enigma is usually illustrated by the classical story of the ship of Theseus. Change and identity becomes complex and the definition of objects change. An object is a thing that exists in time and space and has many properties or aspects such as size and colour. As these properties change, so do the object and the object’s identity, so therefore objects are always changing with time.

The story of the ship of Theseus has had philosophers puzzled for centuries. The classical story is told by Plutarch (46-120 AD), ‘The ship wherein Theseus and the youth of Athens returned from Crete had thirty oars, and was preserved by the Athenians down even to the time of Demetrius Phalereus, for they took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their place’, insomuch that this ship became a standing example among the philosophers, for the logical question; one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending that it was not the same ship. Plutarch questions whether the ship would remain the same if each piece were replaced one by one, as the change was only slight. Another puzzle was introduced by philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) wondering what would happen if the parts that were replaced were then used to rebuild a second ship. Which ship is the original ship of Theseus? There are two ships, one has been renovated and the other reassembled. The renovated ship was the original ship of Theseus, but only before it was renovated, all the parts have been replaced which makes it a different ship. Gradually it became a ship that was no longer in its original condition but held onto the legend of Theseus. The ship seized to be his ship from the first part that was replaced. Once the last piece of wood was replaced with a new one, it was a complete new ship. The reassembled ship on the other hand, has all of the original parts. The ship was Thesues’ original ship and then pulled apart to be planks of wood in a shed. These planks of wood have been separated from each other and so they exist to be individual planks of wood. When put back together, even if every plank of wood is put back in its original spot, it cannot be called the ship of Theseus as the ship was built centuries before and when rebuilt, cannot possibly be the same. Neither ship can possibly be the ship of Theseus.

Whichever way we look at this puzzle, there will be a contradiction. The renovated ship holds the legend of Theseus and the reassembled ship has all the original parts. The process of dismantling and reassembling usually preserves identity and so does part replacement. But with the two ships, the processes produce conflicting results. The renovated ship is Theseus’ ship according to one set of criteria, and the reassembled ship is also Theseus’ ship according to another set of criteria. This raises the question of how many times can an object be pulled apart and put back together, and still remain the same. Objects properties can change with time, or with dismantling and reassembling. When a new object is created out of parts from another object, those parts have lost their identity as a whole because they are no longer together, and they form a new identity with the new parts. If two objects are the same in every property, then they are identical. Both ships are not identical even though they may look the same, the reassembled ship has the old original parts and the renovated ship has new parts that were manufactured centuries later. Our common sense...
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