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So, who are you?

by Rick Lewis

Inscribed above the doorway of the Delphic Oracle were the words ‘Know Thyself’. Naturally, we are always keen to follow any advice carved on the defunct temples of hallucinating priestesses high on toxic gases, and we are eager to help our readers do so too. (There is no extra charge for this service). Therefore in this issue we look at some classic philosophical questions concerning human being. Craig Ross asks whether we have free will; philosopher and Olympic medallist Hans Lenk analyses the nature of motivation and achievement, and we have two enlightening articles about the problem of personal identity.

The identity problem is this – in what sense do you remain the same person throughout your life? Unless you are a very unusual reader indeed, you’ve probably changed a great deal since you were a small baby. You are now taller, heavier, with more (or perhaps less) hair; you have a much better grasp of language, but have forgotten how to suck your own toes. But though you’ve changed, you (and also we) assume that you are the same person. Memory is widely agreed to be very important to personal identity, but I’ve forgotten why. Still, Bob Harrison hasn’t, and you can find out about this in his article. Psychological continuity may be at the core of what makes a person a person, but can ‘you’ really be considered separately from your body? That body is born, grows, ages, and sooner-or-later dies. What happens to you then?

This is why questions about what makes you you link together with questions about how much anything can change over time and still be the same thing. The Ship of Theseus is a famous example of this problem, taken from a Greek legend reported by Plutarch:

“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 among 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.”

This example is still hotly debated by philosophers interested in personal identity (see here). They sometimes discuss a related question, too: what if the old planks weren’t discarded but were used to build a second ship to the same plan as the first – which would be the original Ship of Theseus then?

This is a legend, but a real-life equivalent cropped up in the news recently; we might call it the Ship of Tea-seus. A mere ten minute drive from the Philosophy Now office the Cutty Sark, a famous and much-loved 19th century tea clipper, is preserved in dry dock at Greenwich. Is, or possibly was, for the ship was recently very badly damaged when fire broke out amidships one night. (Sorry we don’t have any photos – our picture editor forgot to charge up his camera beforehand.) It is still hoped to restore the ship. Fortunately its iron frame survived and many of its timbers had already been removed for treatment before the fire began; others will be replaced. The chair of the restoration trust hastened to assure the public that the ship which emerges after the repairs will still be the Cutty Sark, not a replica.

The problem of personal identity is clearly tied up with the notion of time and change. We have two articles on the nature of time, one by Brian Breeze, who magnificently rises above it, and the other by Arnold Smith, who explains what some Medieval philosophers thought about it. They were very interested in the nature of time and eternity for theological reasons, partly to do with the question of how God can foresee our actions without taking away our free will.

We hope you like the look of this issue. It has benefitted from the hard work of graphic designer David Taube. And for the first time ever, sixteen of the inside pages are in glorious Technicolor. But it’s still the same great magazine!

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