Every one of us has a particular philosophical worldview: a way in which we perceive ultimate reality. Often there are competing philosophical outlooks within a given culture, particularly in one as pluralistic as our own. One way to readily identify someone’s philosophical presuppositions is to ask them their take on some specific issue/problem. I’m going to do that with you to determine your philosophical viewpoint on the issue of personal identity. What gives us our identity? Does our identity remain the same over time?

 

Let’s say person X suffers a coma at age 35. He is in a coma for 7 years. During that time nearly every cell in his physical body has been replaced. At age 42 he wakes up from his coma but cannot remember anything about his past.

 

Question: Is he still person X, or has he become a different person: person Y? Why or why not?

 

 

Consider another problem. In ancient Greece there was an Athenian king by the name of Theseus. He was both a warrior and a sailor. Plutarch makes reference to his ship:

 

The ship wherein Theseus and the youth of Athens returned had thirty oars, and was preserved by the Athenians down even to the time of Demetrius Phalereus, for they took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their place, insomuch that this ship became a standing example of the philosophers, for the logical question of things that grow; one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending that it was not the same.

(Plutarch, “The Life of Theseus,” in The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans, trans. John Dryden, rev. Arthur H. Clough (New York: Random House, n.d.), 14.)

 

Question: Was the ship repaired or replaced? Was the ship that existed in Phalereus’ day the same ship that Theseus sailed on? Why or why not?