“What makes you, well, you?”- Michael Stevens, Vsauce.
Plato in his thesis and conceptualisation of perfect beings, explored and introduced to us the concept of Forms and how the ‘World of Forms’ is the state of perfection of every being in our world, the achievement of which may be well beyond our capabilities, owing to the limitations that bound us. The World of Forms is a utopian disposition, a state of perfection, which exists only in the mind.
However, the question which arises from it is: what kind of a being would be a perfect form of us? To understand this, we must question ourselves on our true nature and the most fundamentally important, yet unanswered question we are faced with. The question is: who are we?
You’re probably thinking that this is another clichéd take on who you are, or on how who someone truly is can never be defined and yet there will be attempts to explore this subject, leading to countless innovative and daring philosophical initiatives in order to reach a comprehensive definition of our being? Oh blimey! That’s some misplaced and crooked jugular, isn’t it?
Well, you could be right, this probably is another one of those inquiries that we dive into, modelling ourselves into the Thinker’s pose, trying to figure out what defines us, what it means to be us. Rene Descartes once remarked, “I think, therefore I am”, posing keen albeit ambiguous arguments on the definition of a man, on the basis of his consciousness first, after which we can define our being. Sartre took his chance and played with “Cogito, ergo sum” to make his own phrase, “I am, therefore I think” and even though it may seem to be just a play of words which it is (maybe). It does, however, attempt to make more sense from Jean Paul’s version of existentialist propagation, prioritising our being over the form of mind. Note that there can be some valid arguments over the interpretations of what each of them meant when using these words in order to elucidate their thoughts, it is on us to interpret them in the way we like for the adoption of our own code to follow.
The question of who we are is an intriguing one and even more so when we are to discuss one of the very interesting philosophical analogies of all time, which has been used as a plot device in several anime and movies such as Ghost in the Shell. The concept is generalised and popularly known as the Ship of Theseus.
The premise of the argument is based on the historical and mythical artefact of the Ship used by Theseus in his journey. If the Ship of Theseus is displayed in a museum, it’s safe to assume that after some time, some parts will start rotting and will have to be replaced with new parts. Say, the rotten parts of the ship are preserved, in order to restore them when the adequate technology is available. Gradually, all parts of the original ship are replaced and they are kept in a store house. The question which arises, at this point of time, is if this Ship, the one which has been entirely replaced with new parts, is still the same ship which Theseus used for his journey?
Now, let’s say that thanks to technology, we can restore the rotten parts of the ship in a proper manner. If we gradually replace the ship with its original parts, can I consider this ship to be the original one? The question being explored is how can we still call it the same ship if it has none of its original parts. If after dismantling and reorganising, what makes the ship, the same original ship used by Theseus? Are we right in the way we approach this problem?
The answer to this philosophical question has been debated and deliberated upon since the time of Plato.
There have been several arguments which have been made in order to determine what would be the consequence of such an action. There have been propositions, made on the basis of ‘forms’, by Aristotle, in which he argues that anything is formed out of four essential causes: the formal cause (on the basis of its form), material cause (on the basis of its constituent materials), efficient cause (on the basis of its principle) and the final cause (which is indiscrete in its mannerisms but is a part of all the above causes). He argues that the causes are more or less consistent in all the cases with only one divergence in every case, and therefore it is in principle the same ship.
Another argument is that of the transitive property via which it relates to all the forms of the ship to be the representative of the ship itself. There is also the argument that there is loss of identity over time, and therefore, it is not the same ship anymore and can be regarded as a different ship in the frame of time. This theory, however, has been heavily criticised owing to the assumptions it makes on several fronts.
The problem of the Ship of Theseus is an intriguing one, and questions the understanding of ourselves from within, that if we are in the same position, being replaced, what makes us the same person as before? What makes us, us?
Donald Davidson in his paper, Knowing one’s own mind, gives an example of The Ship of Theseus. He talks about the possibility of a clone being born out of his dead body in a thunderstorm. How will his family or anyone else differentiate between the actual him, who is dead, and the clone borne out of the thunderstorm?
He argues that ‘there will be an inherent difference’ but he does not further enunciate his point. It places us under a precarious and delicate situation. Does it benefit us if we define ourselves within some definition and make sense out of ourselves? Do we need to know the difference?
The identity crisis may be a philosophically daunting question, but from a stoic’s perspective, this will not matter because the world we live in will not change with the change in me, and thus it will still be us in some way. Which goes on to say that there is no need to think about it anymore.
But then, is it wrong to explore and understand ourselves better in order to develop the characteristics of self resolution within us? Maybe we will never know or maybe knowing the answer defeats the human purpose which is not to define but keep a limited form in order to open up more interpretation. Thus, knowing who we are is a small fragment of understanding our consciousness, the universe beyond us and our purpose in it.
In the next section, I will dig deeper into the realm of our nature to find clues as to what makes me so different from you on the other side of the screen.
What makes me, me and you, you?
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