The posts of late have been some heavy meals, reflecting the life cookbook I am currently reading – Sean Carroll’s “Big Picture” in which he lays out the case for a poetic version of naturalism. I’ll return to some more lighter fare in a few posts – particularly as I get to touch upon the many thoughts sparked during a 10 day trip rafting down the Grand Canyon.

Today’s meal is Picadillo, which has flavors of a Ship of Theseus. We all know the heavenly foundation of ground beef, onions, cumin and tomatoes. With this combination, you can make so many delicious dishes. Add in a bunch of cinnamon(!), raisins(!), and olives(!) and you have a dish that is both unfathomable and so far distant from the origin that you have to question if it is even related.


Secret Ingredient: cinnamon sticks make for fun surprises in the final dish. Oh, and the Castelvetrano olives from Mezzetta are PERFECT for Picadillo!

Music Accompaniment: Ry Cooder and the Buena Vista Social Club

One interesting concept that is peculiarly recurring is the concept of Ship of Theseus, and its inevitable follow-on discussion of identity. The concept focuses on an ancient ship that Theseus once commanded. Over the years, its planks and support beams are slowly replaced, one by one, until eventually no part of the original ship remains. The question is, with all of the original material now gone, is it still really the ship that Theseus commanded? And the question gets worse, with huge gray areas lying in wait no matter how you answer. How much does it need to have of the old ship before being something new? If I take ten planks from the original ship and use them to build new ships, are they all Ships of Theseus? What if I keep the planks, but reconstruct it in a different shape? Is the loss of just one plank enough to warrant the loss of title?

Add in some of the thought experiences of Star Trek’s transporter and you introduce more complexities. It’s all fun philosophical daydreaming with little application to the day to day… except… it keeps cropping up in my mind with such applications.

Take for instance another ship – the ship that carries our souls and identity – our human bodies. They themselves are Ships of Theseus. We all know our skin replaces itself every few days, but did you know that nearly all cells are subject to replacement throughout our lifetime? Even a number of brain cells replace themselves after 3 or 4 decades. Just think, the memories in your mind will soon be stored using neurons that were not the original ones used to record the memory. We are in essence walking Ships of Theseuses.

And even worse, a huge portion of our body is not even “us” given the biosphere that we have discovered in our own bodies. The human body is mostly made up of nonhuman DNA

How do you apply it to identity? Identity is inherently fluid and adaptive, but yet we hold on to some constructs that are fundamental to our self-definition. Can these planks slowly decay and replaced with replicated memories of ourselves? Over a lifetime, is our identity adapting, or is it suffering from existential questions as the body and mind slowly get replaced with new material, resulting in a person that is simply an inexact copy of the one chosen in our formative years?

Memories in some way become replications of memories. Identity itself has its own planks being replaced with replicas over the years.

I had an unnerving example of this during my recent Grand Canyon trip in which I found two fundamental quotes to my identity left forgotten in the dusty corners of my brain. I literally found myself struggling to remember the quotes (which I’ll cover in future posts) – which left me dumbfounded. They are so crucial to my self-identity – true cornerstones – that to suddenly realize I had both forgotten them and could not recall them quickly, I felt debased and uprooted in a very unpleasant way. I realized that the Ship of Theseus question was now active in my own identity. Did I lose these guideposts because the 30 years have passed in my brain’s neurons? Did my identity replace these concepts with wood of a different make and size approximation?