Friday, November 18, 2011

Ship of Theseus (Frankie Rolls On)

Frankie (centre, with a fiddle in the basket), with her friends, Pepe le Peug (right),
and a Fat Tuesday Special (left), summer 2010
There's a question of identity in philosophy that wonders whether all the parts of one whole can change without creating a new whole.  This question is often presented as the 'Ship of Theseus' problem.

The problem goes like this:

Frankie, showing off her wine bottle holder
Theseus, the Greek hero, sails the ocean on his ship.  Theseus spends many years asea, stopping now and then to say "yo pops" to his father, the King of Athens.  While he's asea, Theseus gets up to all manner of no-good things that are also hard on ships: meeting up with Poseidon's daughters, kidnapping Amazons, abandoning Ariadne on an island, drinking like a sailor, and returning with the youth of Athens after killing the Minotaur.  This ship of his was venerable indeed.  The Athenians decided to keep it around in the harbour, for many centuries apparently, to use it for rituals honouring Apollo.  The problem is, when a wooden ship sits around in the water for a while,  things need to be replaced.  A sail here, a plank of wood there, eventually even the rudder and masts.  Over the course of time, every part of the ship was swapped for a new part.  So those wily Greek philosophers wondered, how much of this ship is the same ship Theseus returned on?  

Frankie with her new crank, fall 2010.  This bike had it all.

Looking awesome with a bottle of wine!  Summer 2011
This question is put to people thinking about their own personal identity, when paired with the fact that we, as organisms, undergo constant cellular change.  Every part of our body will have changed in a few years' time.  Were one to have a friend who lived overseas, who one didn't see for, say, five years, when one met that person again, all of their body would have changed from before.  Would they be the same?  Would we recognize them?  And if we do, how do we do that?  And if they are the same, how is that?  And how does our personality connect to our cellular existence, when cells die and replicate at such a constant rate?

My inclination has always been to say that all of it is the same ship.  Each unique part of the ship being swapped gradually over time doesn't, in my view, make a different ship - it's the same ship, with new parts all replaced at different times in an overlapping way.  I think the same is true for bodies.

Frankie and I having a brew in Montreal, summer 2011 
Some people find these questions wonderfully and tantalizingly puzzling.  Can it be the same ship?  That might not even be reasonable if there were still a ship in an Athenian port claiming to be the ship of Theseus.  Would we believe such a claim?  At the same time, when it comes to personal identity, clearly we operate on a set of assumptions that take a person to be the same after a span of years such that we still recognize them and know who they are (on a basic level - I'm not talking about the possibility for deep, transformative change in a person's life).

I don't find these questions so enthralling, being rather more of a pragmatist.  I know that we do recognize people, and I know that despite cellular change we are more or less consistently the same unique individual over time, and I think that if Theseus' ship had a personality it would have remained similarly proud and respectable despite the changing of the nails in its planks (and I say similar because, come on, that ship probably saw a lot of strange things over the years).

Frankie and Pepe having a hug, outside Fairmont bagels,
summer 2010 
Frankie and I touring on Esplanade
Frankie and I on Esplanade, summer 2010
For these reasons, despite its new bright yellow colour, I think that my bike, Frankie, still lives on (figuratively).  I was as bummed out as is reasonable to be when I realised, with the gentle assistance of Drew, that the Norco frame I've been riding for almost 4 years is now destroyed, having a pucker in the top tube and the support tube from impact with a car.  All other parts of my bike are fine, which is amazing, given that the rims had no damage and I figure the front tire took the main force.  I love the Norco frame.  But as with all things, its time has come, and it has been replaced by a nifty Centurion frame, painted John Deere yellow for maximum visibility.

And so, Frankie rolls on, as cheerful and speedy as ever:


  1. All my intuitions say if you replace the frame of the bike, you've got a new bike--a new bike with parts from your old bike. I'm sorry if that makes me poop. I don't want to be poop.

  2. Laugh, I don't think that makes you poop. It's an intuition that you have, and one that I'm resisting. Maybe in part because it *feels* the same when I'm riding it, in a good way, because when my bike had the other frame it felt excellent and now that my bike has this frame it feels likewise excellent, so it feels like I'm riding the same bike. If I'm granted some lee-way to suggest that the feeling is something greater than just the parts put together, then I think I'm still riding Frankie.