Let’s start with the paradox of Theseus, a thought experiment that has already puzzled Heraclitus, Plato, Plutarch, and Hobbes. According to Greek legend, Theseus returned from Crete with the young Athenians in a 30-oar boat, and that ship remained in use for a long time, or “until the time of Demetrius of Phalero,” as a hyperbolic Plutarch wrote. Calculating how long the ship lasted is difficult, since Demetrius was a real person who lived the end of century from IV to III before Christ, whereas Theseus is not more than the mythical founder of Athens and therefore did not exist at any time. But Plutarch’s astonishment is worth us in this case, since we are doing a thought experiment. Don’t forget that.
The thing is, the young Athenians had an enviable after-sales service, removing any board from the ship every time it got wormy and replacing it with a new one. The comic strip, whether it was real or not, ignited the philosophers of antiquity. After a while, not a single board would remain of the original ship, they will all have been replaced by new woods, and then in what sense was that the same ship that Theseus traveled with? If you adopt strict materialism, there is nothing of the original craft there. But if you open your mind you will see that there is, and that what remains is the most fundamental of all: its structure. His design. Its way.
Today we know that we are all the ship of Theseus. Our body is now made of some atoms and tomorrow of others. Our biological identity is not due to our building materials being the same throughout life. They are not at all. Are we then the same boat after having changed all the tables? Yes we are, because we have preserved what is fundamental, which is the structure. All the atoms of our genes have been replaced, but the information (gatacca…) Remains the same, and therefore our design remains that of a person instead of being that of a monkey or a bird. It is not the materials that identify us. Is the way.
The paradox has relevance in neuroscience. What we think and remember, what we experience and feel, our perceptions and desires consist of networks of associated neurons, which have established those contacts during a lifetime of interactions with the world. Some essential areas of the brain, such as the hippocampus, continually generate new neurons that are incorporated into the old circuits, such as the boards of Theseus’s ship. The hippocampus is a fundamental brain structure in the formation of new memories, and in the recovery of old ones. The mechanism by which young neurons integrate into old circuits must certainly be subtle, and research is active to clarify how the hippocampus retains shape despite changes.
The traditional war between scientists and philosophers is harmful to the intellect of both. Geneticist and data scientist Rasha Shraim offers in Nature a good selection of philosophical sources for scientists. Since we are evanescent matter, let us keep the form.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.