The 2012 film Ship of Theseus, written and directed by Anand Gandhi, presents the ancient thought experiment of whether an object with all of its parts replaced is still the object. The philosophical conundrum was also brought up in Episode 9 of WandaVision in 2021.
The ship of Theseus paradox was first posed by two Greek philosophers, Heraclitus and Plato. Recent variations include the “grandfather’s axe” question: if both the head and the handle of the ax have been replaced, is it still fundamentally grandfather’s axe?
A number of solutions to the paradox have been proposed. The one that seems to make the most practical sense is that, when all the original components of something have been replaced, it is no longer the original. Regarding the ship that Theseus sailed back to Athens, “preserved” for centuries by replacing the parts, it seems the most realistic answer is that it was no longer the original ship. Plank by plank, the real ship of Theseus was gradually replaced by a replica.
To illustrate, if the wheel of the ship of Theseus were the original, one could say, “This is the wheel by which Theseus steered the ship.” But, once the wheel is replaced, that is no longer true. It may be the same size and shape as the original, but it’s not the one on which Theseus placed his hands. So, when all the parts of Theseus’ ship had been replaced, it was no longer the ship on which Theseus sailed.
The question takes on importance in copyright law and legal naming rights. The English progressive rock band Yes was formed in 1968, but all the original members have been replaced with other musicians. Is it still the band Yes? It has the same name but not the same members. Legally, they have secured the rights to the name and perhaps the music catalog, but it is fundamentally a different band.
The ship of Theseus problem raises interesting ethical concerns that center on the questions of permanence and identity. Does a human continue as an individual if all his or her failing parts are replaced? Is he or she still the same person? Or is there a point where enough parts have changed that the original person is lost?
When science becomes king and secular humanism is embraced, as is the case in Western culture, people lose the sense of transcendence, the recognition that there is something beyond the physical world. Without a sense of transcendence, the world becomes “flat”; people no longer view the world as an environment in which to flourish but as an object to be managed, used, and consumed. Creation loses its beauty, and the people in it lose the sense of enchantment that God intends for us to have.
When people see themselves as nothing more than a collection of interchangeable parts, the world takes on a black-and-white tone, and each person seems to be simply a biological organism to be cultivated and managed. Morals, ethics, justice, art, and imagination become aberrations of the evolutionary process and are untethered to anything outside of ourselves. With a worldview devoid of spirituality, people lose their sense of transcendence and turn to technology to fill the void.
Humans have a longing for something beyond the physical and finite, something beyond the mundane that can’t quite be grasped. The fourth-century theologian Augustine recognized this longing when he wrote, “You, God, have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they can find rest in you.” We are made in God’s image. Even as they sacrifice the wonder of the supernatural on the altar of materialism, rationalism, and empirical science, people long to fill a built-in, deep desire for purpose, meaning, and permanence.
There are some who look to technology to provide permanence and even “eternal life,” of a sort. Some dream of “uploading” one’s mind or consciousness into a virtual reality and existing forever as a virtual human being. As futurist Ray Kurzweil puts it, “Our identity will be based on our evolving mind file. We will be software, not hardware. As software, our mortality will not depend on the survival of the circuitry but through taking care to make frequent backups” (The Age of Spiritual Machines, Penguin Books, 1999, cited in Gould, P., Cultural Apologetics, Zondervan, 2019, p. 89). Obviously, such thinkers’ solution to the ship of Theseus paradox is that most of our parts can be dispensed with.
Technological offers of transcendence appeal to our deepest longings, but they fail because they don’t help us see and delight in the real world for which we were made. We are more than just a body, and we are more than just a mind or soul. We are comprised of body and soul-spirit, and we are designed both to live in a physical world and commune with a spiritual God. But can humans ever escape the temporary nature of physical existence? If the answer is based on human technology and a world of materialism that continues on ad nauseam, the answer is “no.”
But if the answer is based in the Christian worldview of a transcendent Creator who promises to replace our mortal bodies one day with a body fit for eternity, then the answer is a resounding “yes.” At the heart of the gospel is the promise of life over death, permanence over the temporal. We live in a world where the curse of death is active every minute of every day. But the gospel is the good news that death and its sting, sin, were conquered by Jesus on the cross.
Jesus told Martha after her brother’s death, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die” (John 11:25–26, ESV). Earlier, Jesus had told Nicodemus, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life” (John 3:36). These promises proved true when Jesus walked out alive from His tomb.
We will continue to live in a fallen world where death is a certainty until Christ returns. Can we prolong our lives with medical science? Yes, to an extent. Medications, surgeries, and replacement organs are wonderful advances of technology. But they’re not the final answer, and the danger of thinking they are can only lead to a false sense of peace that will never satisfy.
The Christian answer to the ship of Theseus paradox is “yes”—with caveats. God promises the resurrection of the body. Our “lowly bodies” will be “like [Christ’s] glorious body” (Philippians 3:21). Our resurrected bodies will spiritual, imperishable, and raised in glory and power (1 Corinthians 15:42–44). We will be different, yet the same. Each one of us will be the same person, but perfected, living without sin in a body that will never experience sickness, decay, deterioration, or death (1 Corinthians 15:54; Revelation 21:4; 22:3). In the eternal state, we will reflect the glory of the Son and the perfection of the image of God we were always intended to display.