The Ship of Theseus: Or, What Makes You, You?

This post is a response to the following May 2018 article at The Ship of Theseus Problem Reveals A Lot About SciFi. (And by the way, good job, author Corey J. White, for getting “a lot” correct!)

The opening paragraphs of the article go like this:

The Ship of Theseus is a thought experiment first posited by Plutarch in Life of Theseus. It goes a little something like this:
A ship goes out in a storm and is damaged. Upon returning to shore, the ship is repaired, with parts of it being replaced in the process. Again and again the ship goes out, and again it is repaired, until eventually every single component of the ship, every plank of wood, has been replaced.
Is the repaired ship still the same ship that first went out into the storm? And if not, then at what point did it become a different ship?
Now, say you collected every part of the ship that was discarded during repairs, and you used these parts to rebuild the ship. With the two ships side-by-side, which one would be the true Ship of Theseus? Or would it be both? Or neither?

Corey J. White, May 31, 2018, at

The Essence of a Thing – Or Person

White then proceeds to apply this thought experiment to all sorts of situations that routinely arise in sci-fi, such as Darth Vader being “more machine than man,” teleportation, cloning, and a really scary one: a digital upload of a person’s consciousness. He uses the Ship of Theseus problem to raise questions about “the intrinsic thingness of a thing.”

Of course, questions about “the thingness of a thing” get thornier and higher stakes the more personlike the thing gets. I want to give my thoughts about a few of these questions as they apply to people. Then you can give your thoughts below.

Changes to the Body

I don’t know if this has been your experience, but when I was a kid, I tended to feel that all parts of a person’s physical appearance were very important to who they were – their “signature look,” if you will. So it was upsetting if someone who usually wore glasses took off their glasses, or if Mom got a dramatic new haircut, or if Dad shaved his mustache. Things seem so eternal when we are kids, even little details like hair length that are actually very temporal.

Then, as we get older, we learn otherwise. We find out from personal experience that we can cut off all of our hair, go through dramatic physical changes like puberty, maybe even lose a limb, and we are still exactly the same person. Our soul is something different from our body, though it expresses itself through our body. Even if about 40% of our body was gone, replaced with machine parts (as Darth Vader), we would have the same soul, and the soul would colonize the changing body and make it its own. (This can require a process, though, which might be part of the reason puberty is so difficult.)


It’s my belief that if a clone were made of you, it would turn out to be a different person who shared your genetic code. Not another self, but an identical twin. This is because every single time a baby grows, it shows up with a soul. This is part of the reason there are ethical problems with cloning. People might be tempted to treat their clones as no more than material made from their own body, when in fact they would be people with human dignity of their own.

A Digital Upload of Your Entire Consciousness

I don’t actually know whether this one is possible (and I sort of, fervently, hope not). However, the idea is one that is likely to be tried, because it is a common trope in sci-fi.

White mentions that this idea shows up in Altered Carbon, which I have never read or watched. But it is not new in sci-fi. I remember an H.P. Lovecraft short story in which some crab-like aliens remove a man’s brain and put it in a jar because that is is the only way they can take “him” with them to space. (He can still talk to them if they hook the jar up to a radio.) In C.S. Lewis’s sci-fi/horror book That Hideous Strength, an eminent scientist has his head removed and kept alive in a lab, in hopes of achieving eternal life. In both of these stories, “digitally uploading consciousness” is attempted with cruder technology, but the concept is basically the same.

The thing to note about these two examples is that they are horror stories. The attempt to separate the human mind from the body is a BAD idea, associated with death, insanity, and having your head cut off. The body “doesn’t matter” in the sense that it can be altered a great deal and you can still be you … but it does matter in the sense that part of being a human is being an embodied mind, not a mind removed from a body. The attempt to remove it seems to me like a violation of our basic nature. The sense of violation is quite strong in both of the stories I mention above.

Would it Work, Though?

It might work. I’d like to think that it wouldn’t, but there are any number of techniques that violate the human body and soul which ought not to be tried but nevertheless have been.

This idea has been explored (with a bit more ambivalence than I am here showing) in the book Six Wakes (Mur Lafferty, 2018). In this book, cloning technology has reached a level where anyone who chooses to do so can have their body cloned, their mind uploaded, and when the body clone is ready, the person’s mind complete with memories can be installed in the brand-new clone, which comes out like a healthy person in their early 20s. In other words, people who choose to do so can live practically forever. Of course, this practice opens the possibility of all kinds of abuses, all of which have been outlawed, all of which still take place, including the incredibly scary mind hacking.

Don’t worry, that’s not even a spoiler. That’s just the setup for the book.

If all of this were possible – obviously, I disapprove, but if it were possible – I would have to say that the person’s mind, even when it has been uploaded and is just being stored, is still that person. And when they “wake” in a freshly cloned body, they are the same person.

Having said that, I do think that a person would lose something of personhood if their mind were stored on a computer for a very long time, long enough that they started to forget what it’s like to have a body. I believe that the ways we think, feel, and operate in the world are tied to our bodies in important ways; that, in fact, it’s not possible to function as a human being without having some kind of body. So, if your mind were stored on a computer indefinitely, I’m not sure at what point you would stop being you, but I have a gut feeling that you would. Maybe you would be in a sort of hibernating state anyway.

Some people agree with me. The theory is called embodied cognition. In fact, AI developers are finding that maybe they have to give their robots the ability to move around in their physical environment in order for the robots to learn certain things and develop anything approaching common sense. (Not that I am an advocate for this either, but that’s another post. Total Luddite, that’s me.)

When Your Mind Changes

Now, the really strange thing is this. Your mind can change a great, great deal, and you can still be you. This is something we have all experienced when going through puberty. And all throughout our lives, our worldview and values can change enormously and still we remain ourselves. The Apostle Paul was the same person after his Damascus Road experience … even though all of his mental furniture had been upended.

This is a great mystery.

On the other hand, there are mental changes ( Alzheimer’s is the prime example) that truly do seem to destroy the person so that they are no longer “there.” This is a terrible thing, and another great mystery.

I realize this is a huge can of worms to open at the end of an already wide-ranging article, but I couldn’t post about what makes us ourselves without at least mentioning mental changes.

To avoid the deep sense of existential angst that will no doubt come over you after reading this article, allow me to close with this poem which I memorized many years ago but have since lost the reference to:

“Thou shalt know Him when He comes/Not by any din of drums/Nor by vantage of His airs/Nor by anything He wears/Neither by His crown nor by His gown./But His presence known shall be/By the holy harmony/Which His coming makes in thee.”

12 thoughts on “The Ship of Theseus: Or, What Makes You, You?

  1. BlackSheep

    This was great. Something deep to think through while I sip my coffee.
    Have you seen the movie, The Prestige? How about Primer?
    These are two of my favourites and both raise questions about “What Makes You, You?”

    Liked by 1 person

      1. BlackSheep

        You’re welcome.

        I’m not a horror movie fan, so I would say they’re not really horror flicks.

        Primer is sci-fi bordering on suspense. I’m not sure how I would categorize The Prestige. It has suspense elements to it, but it’s about magicians.


  2. Benjamin Ledford

    Okay, I’m resurrecting this because I finally have time to comment on it. And since this has been on my to-do list for less than two months, I’m feeling quite on top of things.

    Given the time lapse, I’m going to pass on most of the topics except the one that exercises me the most, namely, the idea of “uploading consciousness.”

    In my opinion, our thinking about consciousness has been seriously stunted by materialistic assumptions. I know you’re not a materialist, but I think we’ve all pretty much absorbed it. Because there are intelligent people (even scientists! *gasp*) who study the brain and are materialists and think that consciousness is a product of material causes, we assume that their view is at least coherent and that this is a possible alternate understanding of the nature of consciousness.

    But it’s not. It’s not even close to coherent. It’s total nonsense. There is no way for consciousness to exist in a purely material world, because it is not about a particular material phenomenon – it’s about *perception*. It requires intelligent awareness. The materialistic brain can go through as many complex chemical process and respond to as many stimuli as you want without even approaching consciousness. For it to be conscious requires a “who” to be conscious of something. Who is perceiving? The consciousness isn’t a physical object, and it isn’t something possessed by a particular particle of matter. It’s immaterial. And it’s not just a process going on in a material system. It’s a distinct entity. It has to be, in order to be the one perceiving the experiences.

    Consciousness is an irrefutable disproof of materialism. The reality is impossible to account for in materialistic terms. This is why you have Daniel Dennett – the atheist philosopher who specializes in consciousness, and is clearly an intelligent person – saying such stupid things about his own area of specialization.

    And because we’ve absorbed this idea that consciousness can arise from material causes, we talk about a computer “developing consciousness,” as though that sequence of words means something. But it makes as much sense as an alphabet hearing colors.

    So to talk about “uploading your consciousness” also makes no sense, because your consciousness is you perceiving things, not a collection of data points that can be stored and transferred. Perhaps someday will be able to decipher the contents of someone’s brain, make a digital copy of it, and insert that information into someone else’s brain. That sounds like a horrible and most likely immoral idea, but it’s theoretically possible.

    But even if we did that, we wouldn’t have transferred anybody’s consciousness, even if we gave the new brain all of the old memories and it thought the memories were its own. Conceptually, it would be no different than writing down all the contents of one person’s mind and then, after they die, reading it to another person. Maybe you could brainwash the second person so that they think all these thoughts are their own, so they they think they are the first person. But the first person is still dead. No one’s consciousness has been transferred. It’s exactly the same thing with a digital upload – the physical medium is just different (and harder to see, which makes us more credulous). You can’t convert an immaterial reality into a material substance. Souls can’t be transmitted through copper wire.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for taking the time to come back and say your piece. In the main, I agree with you. I even make some of your points in my post When Life Organizes Itself Thematically, where I argue that mind, not matter, is the basic unit of the universe.

      That said, I don’t think the fact that our consciousness is not caused by material processes necessarily rules out the possibility of using physical processes to affect it. Witness the awesome power on mood and thinking of Prozac, hormones, and other chemicals. Not to mention the phenomenon of people getting “hangry.” No one likes to think that their personality can be affected by physical phenomena, but no one can deny it who has ever been sick, pregnant … or known someone with dementia.

      I realize it’s a long way from these examples to thinking we could “upload” our minds. Seems like, in order to do so, whatever hardware we uploaded them into would have to be at least as complex chemically as the brain, which I’m not sure we’re capable of building. Also, all my examples above of chemical events affecting consciousness generally have the effect of limiting it further: diminishing our clarity of thought, self-control, etc.. So we can assume, applying Murphy’s Law, that any attempt to transfer our minds physically would probably diminish, perhaps destroy, them.

      But I’m still not 100% convinced the fact that consciousness is not physically caused rules out the idea of a person’s mind haunting a computer in theory. It’s no harder to believe in that than it is to believe in possessions or ghosts.

      That’s actually one of the points I was stumbling towards in this post. To be a living human being means having both a mind and a body. Anything that separates them is actually … death.

      Sorry if this comment isn’t the clearest. My brain is, at this moment, addled by hormones. šŸ™‚


      1. Benjamin Ledford

        So, clearly we agree on almost everything. Including your point about human nature requiring both mind and body. I’m with you all the way there.

        I take your objections to be 1) consciousness is not unaffected by material causes, and 2) hauntings and possessions prove that a mind could exist in a computer.

        I think both of those are categorically different.

        On (1), I didn’t mean to imply that our immaterial consciousness can’t be affected by material phenomena. It clearly is. But that is not the same thing at all as saying that it can be *converted* into matter.

        I’ve heard the analogy of the brain being the instrument that the mind uses to think. So, the brain is the piano and the mind is the pianist. If the brain is physically damaged, it will affect the mind’s ability to think, just as if a piano were missing some keys, or they were out of tune, or the pedal didn’t work, etc., the pianist would be unable to play properly. But it wouldn’t follow that because a missing key affects the pianist’s ability to play, therefore we can turn him into an inanimate object.

        On (2), I agree, sort of. I have a very limited knowledge of this sort of thing, but suppose if a disembodied spirit can haunt a house or possess a creature, there’s no reason it couldn’t do so with a computer.

        But again, that is categorically different. That sort of consciousness is not a product of object that it haunts. Going back to my example, you could record a person’s mind in a book. Perhaps, after the person died, they could haunt the book, but not because the book is itself their consciousness. And if they chose to possess the person to whom the book was read, that would be a supernatural phenomenon, not a simple, natural effect of having read the book.

        I guess, if the concept is going to be coherent, you have to assume that these supernatural phenomena behave in a strictly predictable manner that follows material causes, and that we can then manipulate that supernatural realm via our manipulation of the matter. So we’re talking about witchcraft. Maybe that’s what you were thinking of all along. But I don’t think it’s what most people mean when they refer to being able to “upload your consciousness.” They’re thinking of physical causes, not an occult ritual.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Ok, let me think. I am feeling my way here.

          I don’t think the idea of uploading your consciousness means turning the pianist into a piano. It is more like giving him a different piano, made of a different material, to play on. Or, the way it’s portrayed in Six Wakes, it’s more like you have committed to sheet music all of his repertoire and practice sessions, so that when he “wakes up” from a suspended state and is given an identical, but actually different, piano, he can run through it all again. The way it’s treated in that book, what’s being uploaded is basically the person’s memories. You might object that this is not their self. You are probably right. But if you had to reduce a person to content, I guess that content would be all of their memories plus the emotions with which they first experienced them.

          I agree that the idea of uploading your consciousness depends on the idea that mind is subject to strict laws, some of which are physical. I actually agree with this premise. It is possible to manipulate the mental realm by doing physical things. E.g. you take a hallucinogenic drug or an antidepressant. These things do reliably have an impact on a person’s mind. However, the fact that they don’t work predictably from person to person (or even on the same person at different times), shows that the connection isn’t as direct as materialism would lead us to expect.

          About ghosts, I brought up hauntings, but when I think about it, if such things happen I think the haunting would have to be volitional. That would imply that, for “mind uploading,” the person would have to want to move their consciousness into whatever container, and whatever physical steps are used are only necessary to make this act of will possible. But you’re right, that’s not the way it’s portrayed. It’s portrayed as a process that cannot be resisted and can even be performed on a unwilling victim, like an injection or an operation.

          So, yeah, I agree with you that the idea of uploading a person’s consciousness probably wouldn’t work in the real world. I guess what scares me is that people are probably going to try it. And it may do something, though not what they intend, and the results are likely to be pretty awful.


  3. Benjamin Ledford

    The volitional part is what I was getting at with the hauntings. So I think we’re on the same page there. And that’s what I meant would have to be subject to strict laws in order for it to work – the hauntings. I agree that our minds can be affected by physical laws, that’s the point of the piano/pianist analogy.

    But on the first part, I didn’t mean the pianist is turned into a piano. He’s probably turned, as you say, into a music binder or something. But there’s no “him” to wake up, apart from the binder. He’s not sleeping or suspended – he’s just a binder. Then you have to turn the binder back into a person when you have the new piano ready for it.

    Because that’s all a digital upload is: it’s a physical medium for storing information. It’s no different than a book or a cassette tape or a stone tablet. Talking about the consciousness being “asleep” or “suspended” in the intermediate period is, in my opinion, cheating, because it just assumes that this immaterial reality is still present somehow *apart* from the physical processes that are supposedly preserving it.

    I think comparing it to a book is helpful because it makes more clear what kind of process we’re actually talking about. If you recorded the contents of a person’s mind in a book, have you transcribed their consciousness? Is their consciousness now present in the book? Will their consciousness be reawakened if you could put the contents of the book into someone else’s mind through hypnosis? With a book, I think it’s clear to everyone that the answer is no. But, as I say, when it comes to digital media we become more credulous because the physical storage device is harder to see.

    Maybe you could create a clone of somebody with implanted memories that seems to outside observers to be the same person. You could theoretically do the same without a digital upload. Find or create a look alike to a historical figure, and use the printed records of their life to brainwash someone into thinking they’re that person. It might be convincing to us, and even to the subject. But it’s a counterfeit. The original person is still dead and no closer to immortality.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. OK, you’ve convinced me.

      The way the person’s experience is portrayed in Six Wakes, it’s as if they are asleep – or even dead – and then they “wake up” when their memories are downloaded into a new body. I think you make a good case this wouldn’t be possible. If you could get their consciousness to leave their brain, they’d essentially … die. Then their soul would go somewhere you couldn’t get it back. I imagine the way it’s portrayed in the book was by analogy of a person’s experience when they are put under anesthesia for an operation. But it’s not a good analogy. Anesthesia just – I guess you would say – muffles our consciousness so we don’t have to experience the operation.

      I haven’t responded to what you’ve said about books because I don’t disagree with it. However, let me take this tangent …

      You are right that when a person writes a book, it doesn’t preserve their consciousness or soul. But I do think it’s an under-appreciated point that a work of art by a person can act with the force of their personality on a reader, years later. And reading a book can sort of a take over a person’s mind – not in a mechanistic way – so they can be “possessed,” for better or worse, by the author’s vision. We talk about “mind hacking,” but mind hacking already happens all the time through communication, persuasion, and lies. We all know what it’s like to have our mind hacked, and we all know what it feels like to have our mind de-bugged.

      Liked by 1 person

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