When do you stop being you?

personal development Oct 06, 2021

Are you familiar with the ship of Theseus?

It's an old thought experiment about identity first shared by one of my favorite pre-socratic philosophers, Heraclitus, whose enigmatic utterances and cryptic wordplay earned him the nickname, "The Obscure."

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The paradox of the Ship of Theseus goes like this. Theseus, the mythical founder of Athens, possessed a great ship. After a great battle, the ship was maintained in a harbor as a museum piece and monument to Athens' victory.

As years passed, some of the wooden parts began to rot and were replaced by new ones. After a century, every plank and piece had been replaced.

This begs the question, is the fully restored ship the same as the original?

Philosophers have argued this since the days of Plato, and the puzzle continued to be unpacked by Thomas Hobbes and more recently by Noam Chomsky.

Several years ago, I collided with an urban legend that made me consider the ship of Theseus riddle from a slightly different and more personal perspective.

The myth goes like this, the human body replaces itself with an essentially new set of cells every seven years to ten years. Fascinating, right?

Except it's not entirely accurate.

While it's true that most cells regenerate over a decade, the rate at which cells do so over various parts of the body varies widely. In fact, some critical areas of the body, like the lenses of our eyes and neurons in our cerebral cortex, contain cells that remain with us for life.

Still, the spirit of the idea remains. Physically, you and I are all essentially reconfigured and reconstructed by cell replacement every decade or so.

Which, again, begs the question, are you the same person today as you were a decade ago? What about the person, fate permitting, you'll be ten years from now?

I guess it all depends on how you define your identity? Are you primarily the sum of all the atoms of matter that make up your physical being? Or is who you are the story your consciousness tells yourself about yourself?

Or maybe it's a "both-and" proposition?

What if who you are and who you're becoming are works in progress constantly in flux? Which pieces would you replace today? Which would try to hold on to?


Scott Perry, Difference-Maker Coach at Creative on Purpose

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