A Paradox Series: The Ship of Theseus

A Paradox Series: The Ship of Theseus

Dear reader, if you have crossed paths with philosophy, you must be familiar with thought experiments. You know, thought experiments are more like experiments done in the head, as the name suggests. That is, it is trying to illuminate some problems that may or may not be applied in reality through thought.

I think we can clarify this with an example. So now let me take you to Ancient Greece. There is a paradox that Master Plutarch -who is a historian- introduced us to before Christ, and its name, which I would like to write emphasize, is “The Ship of Theseus”

So What Makes This Ship Special?

The person we call Theseus is a Greek mythology hero who is considered the founder of Athens. So yeah, he’s not real. A fairy-tale character. Without further ado, let me begin to introduce our paradox:

Theseus’ ship embarks on a long voyage. Maybe in months, maybe years, parts of the ship start to wear out. The ship’s great mechanic also replaces each of the parts one by one over time, and ultimately no original parts are left on the ship. But let’s be careful, the ship did not stop and the parts did not change at the same time. These part changes were made one by one over time. Now the question is: Is the ship the original ship that sailed first, or is it a ship that returned to land with its refurbished parts?

Old Ship Image

A Question Without a Correct Answer: The Paradox

Wait, I don’t expect you to answer this question right away. I don’t expect it because it’s not actually a question. This is a paradox. Over time, dozens of philosophers sought answers to this question. Actually, they gave answers. If you want, I will confront you with a few answers and you decide with your own logic. But remember, there is no right or wrong in philosophy. That’s why you always look for answers using your own logic.

As for the answers, some philosophers measure our existence on the body itself, and if we look at the ship, the ship’s body is also its parts. So, according to those of this opinion, if the parts change, yes, the ship will also change.  This actually raises a new question. Thanks to science, we know that the cells in our body are renewed, just like the parts on the ship. If we look at it then, aren’t we constantly changing? It’s not just that we gain or lose weight or our hair grows. In fact, we are changing every moment, every second.

photo of an old ship

We’re a little confused, aren’t we? Let’s move on to the new answer and continue from there.

Some philosophers also think that our minds make us who we are. That is, they claim that our thoughts and intellectual identity make us who we are. So, aren’t we coming to the same problem again? We learn and lose something new every day. We forget we learn, we meet, and much more. Aren’t we in all kinds of constant change, whether you define yourself materialistically according to the body or idealistically according to thoughts? In other words, the change continues every second. As Heraclitus famously said, “The only constant in life is change.”


Four Main Reasons for Existence

Now we come to the end of this thought experiment. Our new philosopher to answer this question is Aristotle. According to Aristotle, there are four main causes of existence. Formal cause, material cause, final cause, and efficient cause. So what are they?

Let’s try to explain them through the ship example:

What we call the formal cause is the design of the ship. That is roughly the shape. The material cause is the material from which the ship is made. For example, for that period, most of it was wooden. The final cause is function. That is, the ship can still move and carry what’s in it. Finally, the efficient cause is the people and tools that make that ship. Now when you look at these four reasons, you will see that the ship has not changed much. Because neither the material, nor the people who made it, nor the function nor the shape has changed. Now comes a new question. If a new ship were built from the damaged parts that were removed, would it be the ship of Theseus then? Or which one would be Theseus’ ship?

Here we come to the end of our article. This is a paradox and there is never one right answer. Let’s end our article with the following French Proverb:

“The more things change, the more they stay the same”

References and Further Readings

Rose, D. (2020). The ship of Theseus Puzzle. Oxford Studies in Experimental Philosophy Volume 3, 158-174. doi:10.1093/oso/9780198852407.003.0007

Worley, P. (n.d.). The philosophy Foundation – the ship of Theseus. Retrieved March 17, 2021, from

You can access the sources of the images used by clicking on the images.

The proofreading has been done by Asu Pelin Akköse and Mete Esencan.

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Tufan Özdemir

Hello there! I'm Tufan Özdemir. I am a philosophy student at METU. Philosophy has been a big part of my life and my life. For this reason, most of my articles on this site are on philosophy.

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