The ship of Theseus is said to have been moored in the harbour at Athens for a thousand years. Over time, its wooden parts wore out (you couldn’t buy Ronseal in ancient Greece). One by one, the parts were replaced with identical-looking ones. Eventually, no part of the original ship remained. The question is, was it still the ship of Theseus?
What if, theoretically, a family had collected the original parts as they were removed and, over the years, used them to reconstruct a whole ship? Would that be the genuine ship of Theseus?
For a humorous take on this conundrum, have a look at this Only Fools and Horses clip: Trigger’s broom.
What is identity? Is it defined by physical factors, which change over time? Or is it more to do with an ‘essential’, or non-material, quality which persists?
The question can be asked in relation to human beings too. If I shave my beard and then it regrows, I’m still me. If I had a kidney transplant, most people would say that I’d continue to be ‘me’. So what is it that makes me who I am?
The ship of Theseus conundrum assumes the ship exists as a physical object. But what if the ship was merely a thought that someone had made up? The ship as it was when it first sailed, the 1000-year-old ship with all its panels replaced, and the ship reconstructed from the original’s retired parts would all be simply thoughts. In other words, the problem would be only in the mind.
A Course in Miracles says in its introduction "Nothing real can be threatened. Nothing unreal exists. Therein lies the peace of God". (These are the words that Arkadiusz Kogut has displayed on the wall of his study in my novel Escape to Redemption.)
Theseus’ ship could be 'threatened' – so it fails the ACIM test for being 'real'. The same goes for Theseus himself. Or Brexit, or the endangered giant pandas, or pretty much any material thing.
What if all the things we perceive are images made by our mind? And what if, ultimately, there is only one Mind in which those thoughts have their being?
In this world, there will always be problems - whether personal or global challenges or philosophical conundrums which the rational mind may never be able to solve. But perhaps there is only one 'problem' that needs to be answered: "Who am I?"
If I identify with my physical body, my personality or my story, then I'm saying I’m a separate self. I'm affirming the reality of separation, and in doing so I'm denying Oneness. Whenever I experience any lack of peace, it’s because in that moment I’m believing in my separateness from God, from my neighbours and my environment. I feel I can be ‘threatened’. We might call this a state of exile from Love.
For that one problem there is but one solution: opening to the awareness of the One Reality which cannot be threatened and accepting It as the truth of Who we are.
Now, where can I buy a new handle for my broom?
Peter Parr: Quaker, writer and former member of the British minigolf team. (Actually those are all just roles I play. Words can't describe who any of us really are.)