We're a little crazy, about science!

Madness on the ship of Theseus

Awhile back I made a quick comment on the ship of Theseus problem and left it at that. I guess it’s been rattling around in my head since then because we’re revisiting it. Everything in my life feels like it’s falling apart and for the past month or so I’ve been desperately trying to hold onto any bit of flotsam that I can find. Once again, I’m left to pick up the pieces, try to rebuild, and move on. But if there’s nothing left of the old life, am I still the same person?

The ship of Theseus problem came from our old friends the greek philosophers and goes something like this. You have a ship and it’s made up of wooden planks. If over time I replace all the old planks with new stronger (non-rotted) wood, rip out the frame and replace as needed, and years from now have replaced the entire ship, so that not a single piece of the original remains, is it still the same ship?

As an added bonus, another philosopher expanded on this problem with this interesting bit. If I gather up all the old pieces of wood and build a new ship from it, which one, if either, is the original ship of Theseus?

In the age of technology we can extrapolate the question into the realm of science fiction, which of course may not be in the next fifty or so years (maybe sooner, maybe later, maybe never, the future is hard to predict). What if I had an arm transplant, or a leg transplant? What if I had a full body transplant? Well my brain would still be the same so you may argue that the ship of theseus problem doesn’t actually work because YOU live in the brain, not the body. But what if I could copy your brain into a new brain?

Think of it like the matrix, but instead of uploading your brain to a computer simulation, we copied it over into another body. We could argue that wherever YOU are is the real you I guess, but what if there was a problem with the process and you remained in the old body… and got copied the new one? Which, if either, is the real you?

Over our lifetime our body replaces every bit and piece of itself so that when we die, nothing is the original stuff we were born with. From the skin to the brain, to the bones, your cells slowly die and get replaced. That’s basically (warning, overly simplified) why we age. The copies our cells make aren’t perfect. It’s like photocopying a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy. The quality starts to degrade slowly, then it picks up until you’re left with something unreadable.

So none of your cells are the same, none of your atoms are the same, none of your circumstances are the same, but are you still you? I’ve been struggling with this question as this month has slowly ground me down. Because despite the “new” me, the “new” circumstances, and the “new” atoms, nothing feels like it’s changing. Over the course of adulthood I have yet to find solid ground to moor to as I’ve sailed through life.

I think we all feel that at one point or another, but that still leaves me wondering, why does everything seem to fall apart? Could it be an inherent thing? If the ship of Theseus was built so that it slowly would drift to the left, always, no matter how much was replaced it would still drift to the left. That was by design and since the design doesn’t change, why would the outcome? What if I was just built in such a way that I feel alone and isolated from the rest of the world because that’s how I was made? No matter how much of me changes, the outcome remains the same.

I think the answer is that the bit that makes me, “me” is the crazy bit. It’s no secret I consider myself crazy, I’m okay with the label, even if I wasn’t at first. I like to think it just means I’m different or that I see the world differently. It’s a shame none of the stereotypical crazy genius that we see on TV came with it, as I like to reiterate, I’m not a smart man in the memorization or comprehension side of things… or life things.

The point (if there ever is one with my posts) is that I get washed over by time and replaced as I go. We all do, but somehow the crazy bit sticks with me. It’s depressing to think that depression is what makes me the original even if all the pieces are replaced. Then again maybe the me twenty minutes from now is sufficiently different from the me twenty minutes ago that they really should be considered two separate people. So all the bad things that happened to past me doesn’t count when it comes to future me.

I guess that’s just where my head is right now. Does it still matter that my life keeps falling apart if I’m not technically the same person anymore? Does whatever I conclude as “me” still bear the scars of the past if it’s not really the same me? Will I ever stop feeling like I’m an outsider no matter where I go or what I do?

Posts like this are what happens when I have very little sleep, far too much caffeine, and no good way to manage my depression/anxiety/etc. You get ship metaphors. But I’ve spent years trying to build something for myself to help keep away all the bad stuff in the world and it still somehow finds its way inside anyway, so what’s the point?

Really I’m just trying to justify the fact that I have no real friends or connections to help keep me afloat while I’m going through all this. I mean it’s my own fault, right? No one is physically stopping me from making friends or having meaningful relationships with people. Yet I really do feel like something keeps holding me back, something very real if only unseen. I guess I just wish I had been born into family that actually cared, or at least family who didn’t actively try to be shitty to me.

Well heck as least you’re here… whoever you may be. Just two ships, passing by each other as we drift through the river of time.


8 responses

  1. Nice

    Liked by 1 person

    October 4, 2021 at 3:45 pm

  2. I identify with this. I’ve also felt like I’ve changed completely from my previous self. Sometimes, the transition feels gradual and sometimes it feels completely abrupt. I’ve come to accept the wisdom of “you can’t step in the same river twice” both because the river is different, and also because I’m different.
    I’ve also been struggling with depression, poor sleep habits, too much caffeine etc. Sometimes I fear I’ve attached too much of my identity to these habits that are ultimately unsustainable.
    Be well.

    Liked by 1 person

    October 6, 2021 at 6:46 am

    • Thank you for sharing! I always appreciate others telling their stories. I hope you find peace.


      October 6, 2021 at 12:35 pm

  3. Those ideas of mind transfers are being contemplated since Asimov came up with the concept of humanoid robots. However, for the problem of how to transfer empathy and emotions, no solution has been found so far.

    Liked by 1 person

    October 11, 2021 at 10:01 pm

    • Fair point and that brings up some interesting questions all on its own. Thanks!

      Liked by 1 person

      October 12, 2021 at 7:26 pm

  4. Morgen Singstad

    I think the very core of who we are never changes. It’s our essence. We develop different parts of who we are over time, then those parts change over time. At the core, we are the same ship. Even if every part of us is replaced, our essence will always remain the same.

    Liked by 1 person

    April 8, 2022 at 12:31 pm

    • An interesting take, thank you for sharing! I like to think our core self remains as well.


      April 9, 2022 at 11:37 am

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