There’s an ancient Greek legend about a ship that launched from the port of Theseus, and sailed around the world. So during the journey, the ship encountered various dangers. Storms ravaged its sails, which had to be replaced. The floorboards gradually gave way and eventually had to be changed out one by one. Crew members then decided that they liked the look of some island or another along the way and stayed behind. And as the ship sailed on, more and more of its crew members got replaced until finally, not a single original plank of wood, or hand on deck, remained.
Now here’s the question : When the ship finally returned to Theseus, was it the same ship that left? The answer, lies in the concept of identitas or “identity”. Philosophers describe identity as a relation that a thing bears only to itself. So whatever makes a thing uniquely what it is defines its identity. And if two things are identical, they are said to share an identical relation. Now whether two things are the same might seem blindly obvious. But ofcourse, it isn’t. Because : P H I L O S O P H Y.
The Philosophy of identity can get pretty slippery, largely because like ship of Theseus, things change.
And when they do, they eventually stop being what they are, and become something else. Now this goes not just for mythological ships, but all kind of things. Like the mug kept on your table, the Rs. 100 note in you pocket, and even B A T M A N.
Is Batman, identical to Bruce Wayne?
By saying identical, it doesn’t only mean “look alike” but also that they share the same identity – they are literally one and the same. So you may yes, as Bruce Wayne and Batman are identical as everyone fucking knows that Bruce Wayne is the man behind the cowl. Not only that, you might say Bruce Wayne is the very essence of Batman. He saw his parents getting killed in that alley. HE BECAME THE DARK KNIGHT. No one else could take his place!! But hold on.
People have actually taken his place. It turns out that Dick Greyson, the original Robin, has pinch hit for Batman, donning the cape and cowl to protect the streets of Gotham in his boss’s absence. And so has Police commissioner Jim Gordan after Bruce Wayne was reported dead, he reluctantly accepted the role himself.
Both of guys have been Batman.
So if the person inside the costume does’t make Batman – Batman, then what does??
The Indiscernibility of Identicals.
The idea is that if any two things have to be identical, then they must have the same set of properties. If this theory is to be believed then the ship of Theseus became a new ship as soon as that first plank of wood was replaced. As soon as its parts were not all original, then the ship suddenly acquired a new property. And with a new property came a new identity.
So likewise, Bruce Wayne and Batman cannot have the same identity as they have their own set of properties. Bruce Wayne for example has the property of being a millionaire playboy, but Batman doesn’t. That guy is all business. Meanwhile Batman has the property of having fought Joker, which Bruce Wayne hasn’t.
And the different versions of Batman aren’t identical to each other either. Because the person wearing the costume, even if it’s the exact same costume(which it usually isn’t)is gonna have different combat techniques, and even, say, a different moral code.
So, is there a limit to how much something can change, and still be the same thing?
Think about this. A sculptor takes a lump of clay, and names it Lumpl. He then forms Lumpl into a sexy carved with a six pack statue calling it Goliath. Are Lumpl and Goliath identical?
Our intuition might say YES, because they’re composed of exactly the same amount of the same physical stuff. It’s been kneaded and molded into a different shape, but still : no part of Lumpl is not Goliath, and vice-versa. But consider this : If we wreck the statue, and smush it into a big blob, Goliath is gone, because part of what it means to be Goliath is to be shaped like a statue. But Lumpl, being a lump, doesn’t have a set shape. So it will remain, after Goliath has been destroyed. So on one hand Lumpl and Goliath seem to be identical because they are the same exact thing, just in different shapes. While on the other hand, they don’t.
One way to try and make sense of identity, and explain how an object endures over time is by making a distinction between what we call essential and accidental properties.
Essential properties are the core elements needed for a thing to be thing that it is. Accidental properties are traits that could be taken away from an object without making it a different thing. Accidental properties are traits that could be taken away from an object without making it a different thing.
For example : Think about a dog. A dog without a tail will still be dog, either you give him a shape or a silly poodle doo, don’t let it bark- what you still will posses- is a DOG. So all these things are accidental properties, they’re pretty easy to pick up. But it can’t be really tough to find its essential properties, the things that, if they were absent, would make the dog not a dog anymore.
And the more something changes, the harder it can be to determine its identity. A tree can loose its leaves and still be a tree. But if you cut the tree up and make it into a bunch of notebooks, is it still a tree?
And if you think a notebook is not a tree, then at what point of time, what point in the whole process of it becoming a tree, will it lose its tree-ness? Was it when it was cut down and was thus no longer living? But isn’t a dead tree also a tree? Or did it happen when the tree was cut into pieces and was lying on the ground? Did it make a difference when those pieces were collected? How about when they were ground up in the pulp?
The tree stopped being a tree when its essential property was lost. But when exactly that happened depends on your perspective. Plus, many thinkers reject the concept of essential properties altogether. Existentialists for example deny the very existence of essential properties. I mean, you cannot step in the same river twice, can you?
Nothing is identical to itself because everything-including both you and the river-is always in motion. It keeps on changing. So not only is the ship of Theseus an all new ship by the time it returns back to Theseus, but it was a new ship the new time anything about it changed!
Now it’s interesting enough to think about whether ships and trees endure over time, or what makes Batman Batman. But ultimately why – why the fuck should we care for all this? I mean you must be thinking why the hell am I yelling so much of philosophical gyan when ultimately philosophy is a thing of the past although it being the father of each of the subject currently studied?
Welllll…. If objects are important to you, then you’ll probably want to know if you have the same object that you think you have. And when it comes to tangible stuff, we tend to value persistent identity. If you take out Rs. 100 from my wallet to buy lunch, stop by the ATM and replace it, is the money that I had identical to what I had this morning? Of course this won’t matter to you until you can buy thai noodles with that. But again, for example, if your favorite mug is broken into pieces by your sibling and he replaces it with an identical mug? Will it make a difference? What if – your dog runs away, and some one catches the dog, falls in love with it, after a while sees the ad on the newspaper from the you of the missing dog and then eventually he replaces YOUR dog with a different dog with identical features and gives it back to you? Will it be the same dog?
If you are still reading this, obviously you were interested. This wasn’t just your stuff, or rather anyone’s stuff. Don’t think about identity – we all are BAT people.