Are you the same person you were several years ago?

June 6, 2009 | By | 4 Replies More

Are you the same person you were several years ago?  You think so, of course, because you are you. But think about the fact that virtually every atom in your body has changed over the years.  Are you still you?

A similar question was asked with regard to the Ship of Theseus, reported by Plutarch:

The ship wherein Theseus and the youth of Athens returned [from Crete] 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.

Many philosophers, ancient and contemporary, have weighed in on this fundamental question of ontology and flux, as reported by Wikipedia.


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Category: Meaning of Life

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (4)

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  1. Erika Price says:

    There are other reasons to doubt the continuity of the self, beyond the philosophical. We think of our younger, even childhood selves as closely connected to "who we are"- but we have so very little in common with our young selves. We have more fully developed brains, new and different experiences, and much more knowledge of the world than we did as children. We behave very differently, and likely believe very different things as well. The only thing that links us to any of our past selves, really, is memory- and memory is so fallible, and sometimes entirely made up.

    Can we really say that an entity that looks unlike us, has a different brain, different cells, different experiences and engages in different behaviors is us, just because we have a few foggy recollections of what being that person might have been like? The only way we maintain continuity with our past incarnations is by force- we surround ourselves with photos of the past, we try to recreate or maintain relationships that we once had, and we mythologize our faulty memories. It's the only way we can connect to the past, even if it isn't genuine.

    I can think of maybe one alternative: writing. When I find something I wrote years (or even a decade) ago, I feel like I "get" the person who wrote it far better than I "get" myself through memories or photos. I can barely remember some of the first things I wrote for DI back in 2006, but when I pull up these posts, I think I can recall part of the mental process I actually went through when writing it. Sometimes I don't agree anymore with the person who wrote older things-but I can understand them.

    So are we the "same person" over the course of our whole lives? I suppose that depends on how extreme a definition of "same" you rely upon. There are some commonalities that are hard to quantify, like a friendship that holds strong and feels familiar even after years apart.

  2. Pat Whalen says:

    The obvious answer would be memory. So if I can remember say my childhood or time in university I'd be inclined to think I am the same person however much I have changed from then.

    By the same token say I had an injury at age 30 by which I lost all memory of earlier time. How would that child who was me be in any way different from any other child?

    Just a thought.


  3. Although physically our cells renew every 7 years, which suggests that the body is constantly restoring itself, the mind is far more complicated. I have vivid memories like they were yesterday from when I was 4 years old. Are they still vivid, because I found no closure? Possibly. Perhaps they remain vivid, because every major experience in my life has a similar ending. Has it changed me? That is the key question. Natural Selection votes for survival of the most vicious, those who cannot survive keep running on the scales from neurotic to hibernation in the hope to find something in the middle which is acceptance. The alternative is that as a Buddhist of 30 years active practise, the tendency is to remain focused on that which is 'Source', henceforth the core of Self evolves and the mind becomes more flexible, but the emotional energy depends entirely on whether it has the chance to find fulfilment or remain incomplete. The answer we seek, I think we find in our approach to death. As a child we rarely think of death, yet as we grow older and death approaches, by becoming closer and closer, we shut down by fear or continue to expand our mind, when Awake to the reality that the opposite of death is birth. Thus we find the fountain of Eternal Youth. We gravitate to a positive mind frame and remain consistent in our state of being. Living in the here and now, 100% much like a child, in whatever mood we fall into. The crying may be less loud and the laughter more controlled, but in essence we remain as we were, unchanging yet evolving into a higher state of reality. We find it easier to accept and adapt, but still we are the same being from when we were 4 years old or return to the point where we never found closure to a specific life challenging moment. The more powerful the emotion, the more necessary for the adult to find ways and means to dull the pain, hence addiction often becomes part of such an equation. In my humble opinion, this is how I have observed life and watched individuals morph out of reality. In order to find healing, one needs to focus back on centre of Self. I believe that the essence of individuality never changes, unless they themselves choose to.

  4. Karl says:

    If all people "are" is the sum total of the interactions between their neurological "mind and memories" with their environmental stimuli we have very good reason to believe that people are not any where near the same year to year, month to month, or even day to day.

    I, however, believe that the soul and spirit of man consist of relationships between these facets plus several others that are not open to consideration by a strict atheistic naturalists.

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