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.



George Orwell alludes to the Ship of Theseus paradox in his 1940 essay The Lion and the Unicorn:

Yet at the moment of writing it is still possible to speak of a ruling class. Like the knife which has had two new blades and three new handles, the upper fringe of English society is still almost what it was in the mid-nineteenth century.

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).

In the book Last Chance to See Douglas Adams discusses the Gold Pavilion Temple in Kyoto, which is an example similar to the Shinto shrine (discussed in the main article), and realised the following:

"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.

The Mishnah presents the paradox with various practical implications to Jewish law, and concludes that it is indeed considered as if it was a different object.[1]

In his book Sailing Alone Around The World, Joshua Slocum described receiving the vessel Spray from a friend and overhauling her prior to his round-the-world voyage, keeping her name despite the extensiveness of the repairs, noting, "Now, it is a law in Lloyd's that the Jane repaired all out of the old until she is entirely new is still the Jane."[2]


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.[3] 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 novel John Dies at the End the starting chapter presents the experiment as a riddle with an axe that has its handle and its head replaced.[4]

In the Discworld series by Terry Pratchett:

  • In The Fifth Elephant, the Low King of the Dwarves compares changing a society's laws or customs to replacing components in an ancestral axe, when explaining to Ankh-Morpork City Watch Commander Sam Vimes the replacement of the Scone of Stone.
  • 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.

In Look to Windward by Iain M. Banks, the GSV Lasting Damage is itself a Ship of Theseus, partially destroyed and rebuilt, and this is key to the novel's plot.

The short story The Man That Was Used Up by Edgar Allan Poe is about a man who reconstructs himself after going through a war.

Robert Graves employs the "grandfather's axe" version of the paradox in his historical novel, The Golden Fleece, first published in 1945.[5]

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.[6]

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.

The plot of the James Blish novel Spock Must Die! hinges on this philosophical dilemma.

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.[7]

The Ship of Theseus is referred to as the name of the fictional novel in Doug Dorst's novel S.[citation needed]


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.[8] This thought experiment is "a model for the philosophers": some say, "it remained the same," others say, "it did not remain the same".[9]

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.[10] 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.

In The Three Basic Facts of Existence, Piyadassi Thera uses the teachings of Dharma to suggest that nothing in the universe is ever the same:[11]

"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 Johann A. R. Roduit's poem 'Flesh & Foil', the imagery of the Ship of Theseus is used to illustrate the consequences human enhancements could have on someone's physical body.[12]

In the Marvel comic Avenger's Vol. 7 #6 written by Mark Waid, the Vision speaks to the future Vision from the end of time and they contemplate the implications through the Ship of Theseus. The future Vision wonders if they can really be considered the same being since it has been reconstructed multiple times. The present-day Vision contests this view because their brainwaves were both created from former Avenger Simon Williams.[13]

Television series[edit]

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!"[14]

In the Only Fools and Horses episode "Heroes and Villains", the road sweeper Trigger declares he has won an award for keeping the same broom for 20 years — "17 new heads and 14 new handles".[15][16]

Science fiction[edit]

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 robotic body to be inhabited 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.[17]
  • 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".[18][unreliable source?]

Most recently, in Marvel's WandaVision series finale, the Vision created by the Hex (and thus made of no original parts) uses the Ship of Theseus paradox to pause and ultimately resolve the fight between himself and White Vision, who is made of all original parts, but who does not have the programming, data or mind stone of the original version of Vision. They come to the conclusion that "neither are the true ship. Both are the true ship."[19]


The 1990 Canadian short To Be deals with this issue. Similar to the Star Trek transporter problem, the short deals with moral issues when a subject is teleported and the original is destroyed.

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 be replaced 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.[6]

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 varies 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, the paradox is alluded to 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. When a man killed by an axe returns as a zombie to the protagonist's home after both the head and shaft have been replaced, and proclaims "That is the axe that slayed me", the narrator responds, "Is he right?"[citation needed]

The 2013 movie Ship of Theseus portrays the paradox through intertwined stories of human organ donation.[20]


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.[21]


Sugababes, a British band,[22] "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."[23] The three original members reunited in 2011 under the name Mutya Keisha Siobhan, with the "original" Sugababes still in existence.[24]


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.[25]

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[26] and Abraham Lincoln.[27][28]

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,[29][30] 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.[31]

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.[32]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Mishnah Kelim, 18:6 and 26:4; see also Babylonian Talmud, Eruvin 24a and Shabbat 112b
  2. ^ Slocum, 1900, p. 7
  3. ^ Baum, L. Frank (1900). "Chapter 5". The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Denslow, W. W., illus. Chicago, New York: Geo. M. Hill. OCLC 4051769. Retrieved 2008-10-28.
  4. ^ Wong, David (2007). John Dies at the End. Permuted Press. ISBN 978-0978970765.
  5. ^ Graves, Robert (1983). The Golden Fleece. London: Hutchinson. p. 445. ISBN 0-09-151771-0.
  6. ^ a b Gray, Frances (2013). Cartesian Philosophy and the Flesh: Reflections on Incarnation in Analytical Psychology. Routledge. pp. 155–156. ISBN 9780415479363.
  7. ^ Traviss, Karen (2006). Star Wars : legacy of the force : Bloodlines. New York: Ballantine Books. ISBN 0-345-47751-0. OCLC 71126261.
  8. ^ Michael Cannon Rea (editor), Material Constitution: A Reader, Rowman & Littlefield, 1997, p. 210, ISBN 978-0847683833
  9. ^ Rea, M., 1995: "The Problem of Material Constitution," The Philosophical Review, 104: 525-552.
  10. ^ Moravec, Hans (1990). Mind Children: The Future of Robot and Human Intelligence. Harvard University Press. ISBN 978-0674576186.
  11. ^ "The Three Basic Facts of Existence: I. Impermanence (Anicca)". Archived from the original on 2019-07-09. Retrieved 2015-11-01.
  12. ^ JAR Roduit. Flesh & Foil. BioéthiqueOnline. 2016, 5/15
  13. ^ March 2021, Michael Doran 08 (2021-03-08). "WandaVision: The comic book roots of the finale's "Ship of Theseus" scene". gamesradar. Retrieved 2021-08-19.
  14. ^ "Trigger's Broom... or was it Granville's?!". Retrieved 27 July 2019.
  15. ^ "Heroes and Villains". BBC. Retrieved 16 January 2014.
  16. ^ "Doctor Who Heaven Sent: your questions answered and that tricksy plot explained". RadioTimes. Retrieved 2015-11-28.
  17. ^ Life Support on Memory Alpha
  18. ^ "Is It Still the Same Broom? - "Deep Breath" Review". ravingsanity. Retrieved 2015-10-19.
  19. ^ Ship of Theseus - WandaVision (Vision and White Vision), retrieved 2021-11-16
  20. ^ "Review: Ship Of Theseus is a work of art". Rediff. Retrieved 2015-11-08.
  21. ^ "Impact Plays – The Swapper". Impact Magazine. Retrieved 2015-10-31.
  22. ^ Sugababes crown girl group list
  23. ^ Jacob, Sam (December 2011). "What the Sugababes can tell us about the internal workings of the iPhone". ArtReview Ltd. Retrieved 2015-10-31.
  24. ^ Bray, Elisa (4 August 2012). "Will the real Sugababes please stand up?". The Independent.
  25. ^ Cohen, M. (2010). Philosophy for Dummies. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons.
  26. ^ Browne, Ray Broadus (1982). Objects of Special Devotion: Fetishism in Popular Culture. Popular Press. p. 134. ISBN 0-87972-191-X.
  27. ^ "Atomic Tune-Up: How the Body Rejuvenates Itself". National Public Radio. 2007-07-14. Retrieved 2009-11-11.
  28. ^ Bruce Rushton (2008-02-22). "Ax turns out to be Lincoln's last swing". Rockford Register-Star. Archived from the original on 2012-09-12. Retrieved 2009-11-11.
  29. ^ "Dumas in his Curricle". Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine. LV (CCCXLI): 351. January–June 1844.
  30. ^ Laughton, John Knox. Memoirs of the Life and Correspondence of Henry Reeve, C.B., D.C.L. In Two Volumes., Volume 2. Hamburg, Germany: tredition GmbH. pp. Chapter XXIII. ISBN 978-3-8424-9722-1.
  31. ^ Olson, Brad (30 August 2013). "Japan's most sacred site rebuilt, for the 62nd time". CNN News.
  32. ^ "USS Constellation". Historic Ships of Baltimore. Retrieved 18 August 2017.