List of Ship of Theseus examples
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This is a list of popular culture examples of the Theseus paradox that are not covered in the main article.
The French critic and essayist Roland Barthes refers at least twice to a ship that is entirely rebuilt, in the preface to his Essais Critiques (1971) and later in his Roland Barthes par Roland Barthes (1975); in the latter the persistence of the form of the ship is seen as a key structuralist principle. He calls this ship the Argo, on which Theseus was said to have sailed with Jason; he may have confused the Argo (referred to in passing in Plutarch's Theseus at 19.4) with the ship that sailed from Crete (Theseus, 23.1).
- "The idea of the building, the intention of it, its design, are all immutable and are the essence of the building. The intention of the original builders is what survives. The wood of which the design is constructed decays and is replaced when necessary. To be overly concerned with the original materials, which are merely sentimental souvenirs of the past, is to fail to see the living building itself."
Theseus's paradox bears also on the question of virtual human identity discussed in Douglas Hofstadter's and Daniel Dennett's The Mind's I: Fantasies and reflections on self and soul (1981). Speculations concerning mind uploading suggest it is possible to transfer a human mind from an organic brain to a computer, incrementally and in such a way that consciousness is never interrupted, e.g. by replacing neurons one by one with electronics designed to simulate the neurons' firing patterns. Yet the result of this process is an object entirely physically distinct from the starting point.
In the Oz books by L. Frank Baum, the lumberjack Nick Chopper's axe chopped off all his limbs one by one, and each time a limb was cut off, a smith made him a mechanical one, finally making him a torso and a head, thus turning him into the Tin Woodman, an entirely mechanical being, albeit possessing the consciousness of the lumberjack he once was. In The Tin Woodman of Oz he seeks out his old girlfriend, to find that she has married Chopfyt, who was created partly from the leftover parts of Nick Chopper.
- In The Fifth Elephant, the dwarfish king compares changing a society's laws or customs to replacing components in an ancestral axe.
- In Lords and Ladies, there are numerous references to the supposed inability of witches and wizards to cross the same river twice. The River Ankh in the city of Ankh-Morpork is the only river that is possible to cross twice because it is polluted and slow-moving to the point of being solid. The wizards refute this by demonstrating that an agile wizard can cross and recross a small river many times an hour.
- Senior witch Granny Weatherwax possesses a flying broom whose handle and bristles have been replaced many times, yet remains unreliable to the point that she has to run up and down very quickly to essentially "bump-start" it.
- Pratchett also directly references the paradox in The Bromeliad and The Carpet People.
Isaac Asimov's Bicentennial Man applies this to humanity; the title character being a robot gradually rebuilt by prostheses intended for humans. When contrasted with a human who has been "rebuilt" by the same prostheses, the question of the distinction between man and robot is explored.
In the 1986 book Foundation and Earth by Isaac Asimov, the ancient robot R. Daneel Olivaw says that over the thousands of years of his existence, every part of him has been replaced several times, including his brain, which he has carefully redesigned six times, replacing it each time with a newly constructed brain having the positronic pathways containing his current memories and skills, along with free space for him to learn more and continue operating for longer.
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series by Douglas Adams makes continuing sport of classic paradoxes. In the trilogy's fourth book So Long, and Thanks For All the Fish, Marvin the Paranoid Android says of himself: "Every part of me has been replaced at least fifty times..." (except for the diodes down his left side, which hurt). In the sixth book of the series, character Trillian has had so many body parts and functions replaced by technology that she doubts she is still the same person, referring to her present self as New Trillian and the past as Old Trillian.
Japanese manga and animated series Ghost in the Shell cyclically returns to this paradox of a "human" in which people often have their organic body parts replaced by artificial parts, sometimes going so far as to have their entire body replaced with a prosthetic one, leaving the brain as the only remaining original part.
In Peter Watts' interstellar sci-fi novel Blindsight, the crew's ship is called Theseus. It features technology to create and replace its own parts when broken, and can heal and replace crew members' organs and tissue when they are injured.
Likely hinted at in the Star Wars Legends novel Bloodlines by Karen Traviss. In the book, Boba Fett notes that the only original part of his ship Slave I that survives from his father's days was the pilot's chair.
In the 2017 book Run Program, by Scott Meyer, when trying to trick the artificial intelligence which is the main antagonist of the story, one of the characters references the Ship of Theseus. When his reference can't be adequately explained, another character poses a thought experiment involving the transporters in Star Trek. She says when people use the transporter, a copy of themselves is made in the new location and the original is killed by the machine.
In Land of The Lustrous, Phosphophyllite keeps losing pieces of themselves. When they lose their head, one of the gems questions if they should even call them Phos anymore.
In Michael Rea's Material Constitution, there is a scenario in which Socrates and Plato exchange the parts of their carriages one by one until, finally, Socrates's carriage is made up of all the parts of Plato's original carriage and vice versa. The question is whether, or at what point, they exchanged their carriages. This thought experiment is "a model for the philosophers": some say, "it remained the same," others say, "it did not remain the same".
In Hans Moravec's Mind Children, an example of mind uploading is given - a human brain is replaced a single neuron at a time by a nanorobot and computer that perfectly simulates the behaviour of the neuron and its neurotransmitters. The end result is a completely digital copy of brain in simulation. However, there are other factors such as the fact that the intricate structure of the brain is changing as the brain learns, so a simulated brain may not learn the same way.
- "The same man cannot step twice into the same river; for the so called man who is only a conflux of mind and body, never remains the same for two consecutive moments".
In the Open All Hours episode "Laundry Blues", originally aired 1 March 1981, store owner Arkwright extols the virtue of his old brush/broom - "That's a marvelous old brush, that! I've had it 14 years - that's only had 2 new heads and 3 new handles!"
In the 2011 documentary series Curiosity, an episode entitled "Can You Live Forever?", elaborates on the concept of replacing the human body, piece by piece. Adam Savage, the episode's host, presents the audience with several plausible scenarios.
In An Idiot Abroad, Karl Pilkington ruminates over the restoration done to the Great Wall of China after discovering monkey bars that had been installed in the tourist area. Pilkington decides that the wall isn't very impressive because "it's not even the same bloody wall is it?"
In the Futurama episode "The Six Million Dollar Mon," accountant Hermes Conrad replaces his body parts one by one with robotic ones. Dr. Zoidberg requests to keep the discarded body parts, fashioning them into a marionette of Hermes, which he uses for a stand-up routine. When Hermes goes to replace his brain with a robotic one, Zoidberg puts the old brain into his marionette body, bringing Hermes back to life as his old self and leaving his previous body to be taken over by the new brain.
In Star Trek:
- In the episode "Life Support" of the Deep Space Nine series, the complete replacement of the brain is considered the destruction of the individual.
- The USS Enterprise, the starship featured in the original Star Trek television series, was very heavily refitted before its first appearance in film, the 1979 movie Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Almost nothing from the original TV version of the ship survived into the refitting. Captain Willard Decker, the ship's new commanding officer, describes it as "an almost totally new Enterprise."
- The philosophical question of whether life is merely the sum of its parts, or is more than this, is a discussion central to the transporters. In his book, The Physics of Star Trek, physicist Lawrence M. Krauss discusses whether the transporters would be required to transport a person's individual atoms, or merely the information regarding their state. This has come up in more than one episode in which a previous beaming stored in memory was used to restore an individual.
In the Doctor Who episode "Deep Breath", the Doctor postulates that a broom that has had its handle and brush replaced several times is not the same broom, "but you can still sweep the floor", when talking to an android who has replaced every part of himself several times. This is often taken to be a loving in-joke reference to the above stated "Trigger's Broom" scene in another well-known BBC TV series "Only Fools and Horses".
In the web original animated series Gen:Lock, the phrase "Ship of Theseus" is seen on a blackboard in a scene from episode 6, "The Only Me I Know," and pertains to the question of personal identity that the protagonist faces when his consciousness is entirely separated from his physical body and uploaded into a computer.
In the 1995 movie, Ghost in the Shell, the main character, a woman who has been "cybernetically augmented" to become nearly 100% robot, encounters an intelligent entity claiming to be indistinguishable from a human, who is actually a rogue A.I.; this causes the main character to question her own reality and the nature of a human or being 'alive' or synthetic; with respect to how much of a human can you replace before it ceases to be human, or how human a robot can be before it ceases to be a robot, in an age of synthetic and cybernetic replacement of humans parts on a grand scale.
The 1999 movie Bicentennial Man, based on the novel, stars an android who develops a personality and replaces his entire physiology with cybernetic-organic parts, so that he is the same character but now mortal.
In the 2008 animated film WALL-E, it is suggested that possibly every single piece of the character WALL·E has been replaced by himself prior to the story.
In the 2009 film, Gamer, Michael C. Hall's character Ken Castle develops a nanotechnology method to supplant one's biological central nervous system with a synthetic one, cell by cell. The percentage of supplanted cells in an individual's brain varied by character, depending on the desired function (i.e.- wirelessly receive information like a computer, or send it, in the case of Ken Castle). Although not fully expressed in any character of the film, Castle ultimately presents the audience with the concept of fully supplanting one's biological brain with an entirely synthetic one. Midway into the film, Theseus' Ship Paradox does come into question when the character of Gina Parker Smith (Kyra Sedgwick) shares that she would rather have the new parts removed, a statement that prompts Trace (Alison Lohman) to explain that such an attempt would kill the individual because it would mean removing a part of one's brain.
The 2012 movie John Dies At The End based on the novel, begins with a narration recounting the axe variant of the paradox.
Sugababes, a British band, "were formed in 1998 [..] but one by one they left, till by September 2009 none of the founders remained in the band; each had been replaced by another member, just like the planks of Theseus’s boat." The three original members reunited in 2011 under the name Mutya Keisha Siobhan, with the "original" Sugababes still in existence.
Membership of the British pop band The Pipettes has gradually changed such that none of the founding members are any longer part of the band.
Yes no longer features any original members.
Stratovarius was formed in 1984 under the name Black Water. The "classic line-up" (1996–2005) has no members in common with the founding line-up. Also, as of 2018, the current incarnation of the band has no members in common with the 1994 line-up that recorded Dreamspace; yet continuity was never broken.
In Flames debuted in 1994 with "Lunar Strain". Also in this case, the "classic line-up" (1999–2011) has no members in common with the founding line-up. Founding guitarist Jesper Stromblad was the last remaining when he left in 2011. Vocalist Anders Fridén and guitarist Bjorn Gelotte, however, joined right after the debut and are still currently in the line-up.
Mikael Åkerfeldt is the only member on every Opeth album, being the band leader. However, he is not the band founder. Opeth was originally formed in 1989 by David Isberg and the group's earliest members were fired upon the arrival of Åkerfeldt, with whom Isberg formally restarted the group as a two-piece in 1990. Isberg left the band in 1992. Opeth's first album, "Orchid", was released in 1995.
Japanese idol groups such as AKB48 are often like this, employing new members as the older ones "graduate", eventually coming to a point where none of the original members are part of the group anymore. Or they distribute members into teams and rotate them around, eventually coming to a point where the team no longer has any of its original members.
Computer systems will sometimes split into two or more versions, such as when its programmers disagree and split into rival teams. This may happen in open source software as a fork, or commercially when company founders leave to create a new company doing similar work. This can lead to situations where, for example, one team retains the original name but the other retains most of the core people. One of the most famous examples was when the team responsible for making Diablo and Diablo II - David Brevik, Erich Schaefer, and Max Schaefer - quit Blizzard to form Flagship Studios, but Blizzard retained the rights to the Diablo name.
The 2009 visual novel game Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors compares the paradox as well as the similar Locke's Socks paradox to one of the game's puzzles where the player has to swap body parts of two mannequins to match a certain weight for both of them.
The 2013 game The Swapper's staple mechanic is a cloning device that allows the player to create perfect clones and swap consciousness between them. The majority of the game takes place aboard a spaceship named "Theseus", which is a heavy nod to the thought experiment's involvement in the game's use of themes such as the subject of consciousness and a lost sense of originality.
The 2015 psychological horror game SOMA features dialogue and text records that presents the player with the paradox of the human body, as the cells of the body are all being replaced at different rates - the body and mind is always growing and changing. As every second passes, a person is never physically the same, but they always represent the same person, "a continuous flow of thought and perception keeps an unbroken chain of continuity that we know as our self".
In Nier: Automata the supply trader in the resistance camp refuses to replace his broken leg since it is the last remaining original part and therefore part of his identity.
The contemporary writer Martin Cohen creatively imagined John Locke regarding a favorite sock that develops a hole. He pondered whether the sock would still be the same after a patch was applied to the hole, and if it would be the same sock after a second patch was applied, and a third, etc., until all of the material of the original sock has been replaced with patches.
An instance known generally as grandfather's axe, where over time both the head and handle have been replaced, has been personified with the names of famous hatchet and axe wielders such as George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.
In Europe, several independent tales and stories feature knives that have had their blades and handles replaced several times, but are still used and represent the same knife. France has Jeannot's knife,  Spain uses Jeannot's knife as a proverb, though it is referred to simply as "the family knife", and Hungary has "Lajos Kossuth's pocket knife".
In Japan, Shinto shrines are rebuilt every twenty years with entirely "new wood". The continuity over the centuries is spiritual and comes from the source of the wood in the case of Ise Jingu's Naiku shrine, which is harvested from an adjoining forest that is considered sacred. In 2013, the shrine was rebuilt for the 62nd time.
The question of identity posed by the Ship of Theseus remains problematic even in the 21st century, foremost with both the piecemeal and wholesale reconstruction of wooden boats and tall ships, as well as structures of historic merit and not. An illustrative example is the provenance of the USS Constellation, the identity controversy over which long vexed even respected naval historians and publications of record. Credible records allowed its history to finally be resolved, but many instances occur whether either records are lacking or the matter is simply one of point of view.
The automobile restoration practice of resto-modding relies on the ship of Theseus not factoring, as all of a given car's fundamental mechanics and electronics are replaced.
- Neurathian bootstrap
- Philosophy of self
- Ship of Theseus (film)
- Sorites paradox
- Brain implant
- Mind uploading
- Land of the Lustrous
- Mishnah Kelim, 18:6 and 26:4; see also Babylonian Talmud, Eruvin 24a and Shabbat 112b
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- Sugababes crown girl group list
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