- The study of reality.
Metaphysics seems to welcome almost all unanswered and seemingly unanswerable philosophical questions. The problems faced within the field of metaphysics are varied and multiple. We’re talking questions ranging from AI, time, simulation theory, perception, language, all the way down to ‘what color was the dress’. If it’s confusing, you can find it in metaphysics.1
One of the oldest and most popular metaphysical problems concerns the concept of identity, as in how can something that changes remain identical to itself. The problem is illustrated by the classic ancient thought problem The Ship of Theseus.
The ship of Theseus was an old Athenian ship with thirty oars, and as the story goes each time a plank would decay it was replaced with a new timber. Over time each plank and each oar was substituted by a new piece of wood. One by one each part of the ship was replaced until no original pieces remained.
Questions abound! Is it the same ship after all the wood is replaced? If not, at what point is the ship of Theseus no longer the same. Does an object lose identity the moment any change occurs? The questions go on and on and have been for several thousand years.
If we defined sameness through its technical counterpart known as The Principle of Indiscernibility of Identicals, then sameness would amount to the idea that if A=B then every feature of A must be a feature of B. And if that is the case, then we would have a problem asserting that the ship of Theseus is the same once a single part is replaced.
Okay great, it’s not the same ship, who cares?
We should care, because the impact of this conclusion is profound. If that’s not the same ship based on the problem of identity, then you aren’t the same person as the person who began reading this article. You certainly aren’t the same person as yesterday, and you are absolutely not the same person born to your parents. The moment you lose a nail, a tooth, a piece of hair, or even a cell, then who you were cannot be the same as who you are. In other words, A does not equal B. The same problems arise if you’d rather define yourself in terms of experiences, psychological states, or even mind, once change occurs perseverance is demolished.2
With this, it would seem that answering a question like ‘what are you doing tonight’ would be impossible since the current iteration of you will not be the same you of tonight.
In 2019 the face of a very popular climbing wall near Austin Texas collapsed. The wall is/was called Prototype Wall. Most of the routes that were on this wall are now reduced to rubble. There is a new face, and eventually new routes will be bolted. And while the site of the new routes will be in the same location, clearly, they will not be on the same wall. After the collapse of Prototype Wall, T-shirts were made, climbers mourned, and folks try and remember what was. However…if individuals are serious about mourning the loss of Prototype, their bereavement is nearly two decades too late, because the moment after Prototype was put up, Prototype ceased to exist.
The Ship of Theseus is a metaphysical problem centered around one question about one word (Same). This question forces us to change the way we look at almost all aspects of our common understanding of the universe. Like the new/old Prototype Wall falling down, this begets new questions, new problems, and new challenges for both climbers and metaphysicists alike!
- Pop culture has commandeered the term ‘metaphysics’ and uses it to categorize all things new-age, but that is not the way philosophers generally understand the discipline.
- There are several different approaches to this problem, including the idea that we would be better served defining objects in terms of the time they take up rather than the space they take up. Or we would be better served understanding objects as non-physical rather than physical. The discussion here is based on what is considered the most common conception of “reality”.