This ancient thought exercise will have you questioning your identity

How much can something change and still be the same thing?

Model of The Argo, from Jason and the Argonauts.
Model of The Argo, from Jason and the Argonauts. Credit: dimitrisvetsikas1969, Pixababy.

It’s a myth that you get a new body every 7-10 years. The reason is, different cells last different lengths of time. Colon cells last only about four days, skin cells two to three weeks, and neurons a lifetime. In that, the body you are in now is not the same as it was last week, last month, or last year, although it feels the same. So are you truly the same person?


It may predate him, but the ancient Greek historian Plutarch was the first to write this intriguing thought exercise down. It’s called the Theseus Paradox or the ship of Theseus. A hero of Greek mythology and the supposed founder of Athens, Theseus is said to have won a number of naval battles and defeated several monsters, including the Minotaur. Plutarch’s recording of the memorial set up to honor this epic founder has had great thinkers scratching their heads for millennia since.

The ship wherein Theseus and the youth of Athens returned 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 place, 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.

-Plutarch (Vita Thesei, 22-23)

Model of a Greek trireme. Credit:  Deutsches Museum, Munich, Germany.

The memorial remained floating in Athens harbor for centuries, according to Plutarch. It’s said to have been erected during the lifetime of Demetrius Phalereus, a famous statesman and writer, who was thought to have walked the earth around 350-280 BCE. Over time, the ship’s boards began to rot. Like with the upkeep of any important monument, these were replaced.

At some point, all the boards in the ship must’ve been switched out. So the vital question is, is it still the same ship? If not, at what point does it cease to be the ship of Theseus? Replacing one board may not be such a big a deal. But what about when half of them are no longer original, most of them, or all of them? In a way, human life is like this.

Some philosophers say we are our body. But as we grow older, we get wrinkles and gray hair. We develop health problems and modify our diet. We change our look, our clothes, our hairstyle, and more. And then there’s the death and replacement of most of our cells. So our body isn’t a permanent fixture. Others say our mind is what gives us our identity. Yet, our outlook on life changes over time. We may become an addict or get sober, find religion or lose it, just as we maybe become jaded... or embrace an unbridled optimism.

There are those who say our title, occupation, position, and responsibilities lend us identity. And even so, we may have different friends in years to come or a different spouse. Our children will grow up and move away. And our career likely will not stay the same, either. On average, a person changes careers 5-7 times in their lifetime and has 11.7 jobs. That’s impressive, considering how much of our identity is derived from our work and career. We may move to another city or even the other side of the world. So with all of these changes, are we really the same person throughout? If not, which version is the real you? Is there one? There are many ways to answer.

Unlike a statue which is frozen in time, one of the only real constants in human life is change. But if that’s so, then what is our true identity and how may we get to know it? Credit: Getty Images.

Some philosophers say changing one plank alters the ship irrevocably. Others say if at least one original plank is still in the ship, it’s the real deal. Then there are those who posit that the monument remains Theseus’s ship throughout. Try as they might, it’s hard to pin down exactly why a gradual change is okay, while a sudden one feels unacceptable. Consider how shocking it is when someone has an accident, say a head trauma, and they wake up a completely different person. Yet, if they made the same changes gradually over time, we wouldn’t find it particularly jarring. One common answer is known as Spatio-temporal continuity.

This says that all objects change continuously as they travel through space-time. As such, they’ll have parts replaced from time to time, may even change form or composition.  Yet, their identity remains. The famous Greek philosopher Heraclitus posited that we don’t step in the same river twice. Everything is constantly changing, though we’re not likely to notice. The equivalent in our species can be summed up very well in a statement by Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert. He said, “Human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they’re finished.”

Many philosophers have put their own spin on the Theseus paradox over the years. 17th century English philosopher, scientist, and historian Thomas Hobbes, for instance, wrote a version where a collector took all the original boards that were replaced and one-by-one, built a second ship of Theseus. So which ship is the actual one, the immaculate memorial in the harbor or the rotting one in the dry dock? There is no right answer. What this paradox reminds us is, although we see identity as a fixed and solid structure, it’s actually thin, malleable, and ever-changing.

To learn more about the Theseus paradox, click here:

A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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