I recently finished the series WandaVision (I am always super slow to catch up on popular shows), and in the big climactic battle between Vision and his other self,1 Vision brings up a famous paradox called the Ship of Theseus which Plutarch, one of my personal favorite people from that era, describes as:
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 places, insomuch that this ship became a standing example among the philosophers, for the logical question of things that grow; one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending that it was not the same.Translated by John Dryden from Plutarch’s “Theseus” written in 75 CE
This issue of the ship and whether it’s the same ship any more or not has been puzzling Western philosophers for many centuries. As an armchair philosopher and nerd, I just learned about this and the paradox (as well as WandaVision) really blew my mind.
However, what really blew my mind is kind of conundrum wasn’t limited to ancient Greek philosophy. Long ago in India, a famous Buddhist treatise, the Dà Zhìdù Lùn (大智度論), was composed in Sanskrit (that version is now lost) and translated into Chinese by the venerable Kumarajiva.2 This paradox from the Dà Zhìdù Lùn is also found here in an essay by Jing Huang and Jonardon Ganeri.
Paraphrasing the story here, a traveler encounters two demons on the road, one of which is carrying a corpse. The other demon grabs the traveler and begins by pulling his arm off. The second demon removes the matching arm from the corpse and somehow attaches it to the man. From there, the demons replace each part of the traveler’s body with the matching part from the corpse until none of the original body is left. The man is distraught because he doesn’t know who he is anymore. As the story continues, he encounters a group of Buddhist monks who then explore the implications (for the benefit of the reader).
Modern versions of this story can be found in science fiction, too. In the novel, Creatures of Light and Darkness by Roger Zelazny, the character Wakim is taking apart and replaced with mechanical parts, and later put back into human form, by Anubis who opines:
“Men may begin and end in many ways,” says Anubis. “Some may start as machines and gain their humanity slowly. Others may end as machines, losing humanity by pieces as they live. That which is lost may always be regained. That which is gained may always be lost.”
“I have made you a machine, Wakim. Now I shall make you a man. Who is to say how you started, where you started? Were I to wipe your memories up to this moment and then re-embody you, you would recollect that you had begun as metal.”
All this is to say, where does one’s true identity begin and end? How much of it is dictated by outside, and how much of it are you born with? Is there anything you can truly call your own?
Further, as Huang and Ganeri cite the famous Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna (150 CE – 250 CE) who explored this kind of issue at great length:
Nāgārjuna is known in particular for his fondness of dilemmas. He was so fond of them, indeed, that he excelled in converting them into tetralemmas (catuṣkoṭi). To any question, he said, there are four possible answers: yes, no, both, and neither. The unique twist, and what deﬁnes [the Buddhist philosophy of] Madhyamaka as a philosophical system, is to then afﬁrm that none of the possible answers is viable; each one can be shown to end up entailing some absurd or impalatable consequence, which is called a prasaṅgaIs This Me? A Story about Personal Identity from the MahāPrajñāpāramitopadeśa / Dà zhìdù lùn
Jing Huang and Jonardon Ganeri, British Journal for the History of Philosophy 2021
The paradox of the Ship of Theseus isn’t limited to ships; the Buddhists felt this issue comprises all phenomena including you and me.
If you think about it, your body has been constantly changing and growing since your conception as an embryo. Cells divide, die, get replaced, etc. On a physical level, the rotting timbers of your body have been replaced countless times over and over and will continue to do so until your dead, in which case your body continues to change as it decomposes into other things, and so on. Is it this still the same body you had from birth? Nagarjuna would say that answers like “yes”, “no”, “maybe”, “both”, “neither”, “42” and so on are all absurd and don’t quite hit the mark
But what about your mind? You retain memories from the past (assuming you can still remember them), but even here Buddhism would argue that none of it is the original mind state, but a constant state of fluidity shifting from one thought to another, with nothing static. Even your memory may not be as reliable as you think it is, colored over time by your thoughts and recollection until it no longer resembles the original in any objective sense.
For me, this really made me realize that I am not defined by my past, the good and the bad. I am not the same person I was 30 years ago, or 30 days ago. For better or worse, that person is gone. There is only me, here and now.
Looking at my life up until now, maybe all we are is just a constant state of flux, becoming and persevering? But, as Nagarjuna might say, that’s not quite it either.
I guess only the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas truly understand:
The true entity of all phenomena can only be understood and shared between Buddhas. This reality consists of the appearance, nature, entity, power, influence, inherent cause, relation, latent effect, manifest effect, and their consistency from beginning to end.”The Lotus Sutra, chapter 2, Burton Watson translation
As for me, I’m-a-going back to playing Breath of the Wild.
P.S. This post is dedicated to Lionel Ritchie.
1 I think this Twitter post explains the finale nicely:
2 The whole mass-translation effort that took place in China during the Tang-Dynasty (7th – 11th centuries) was nothing to sneeze at either. Sanskrit and Chinese have almost nothing in common, and the religious-technical vocabulary that monks brought from India and the Silk Road had to be translated not just verbatim, but in way that could properly convey the meaning to Chinese audiences. Some really talented and dedicated monks, Indian, Chinese and Central Asian really worked hard on this over successive generations to bring us the literature we benefit from today.