“Can you believe what has become of me?”
– Romulus Gaita
Two millennia ago, Greek philosopher and historian Plutarch wrote about a thought experiment on identity, The Ship of Theseus, in which every plank of wood on a ship is replaced over time. Philosophers were divided: some claimed that the ship “remained the same, others that it was not the same vessel”. Theseus’s ship resurfaced – along with the debate – when Thomas Hobbes discussed it from another angle: if we were to locate all the original planks of wood and reconstruct the ship, would that one be the ‘real’ ship? What, then, of the other ship?
Western philosophers are hardly alone in contemplating the splendid mess of personal identity. In the Mahāprajñāpāramitopadésa, a 1,600-year-old Buddhist text, the mess is considered in the form of a philosophical puzzle about two demons, a corpse, and a traveller: the demons rip off the body parts of the traveller and the corpse, replacing one with the other, part by part. The traveller asks, rightfully, “What has become of me?”
Who, then, are you? Are you your body? Your mind? Your memories? Perhaps you’re all, or none, of these things. Or perhaps the problem lies in our focus: on ourselves as concrete individual entities, rather than as a cycle, an ever-changing part of a whole. As John Donne wrote, “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.”