The Ship of Theseus Paradox is a philosophical conundrum about identity and change that goes back to the Ancient Greek writer Plutarch. He related a scenario regarding the ship on which the mythical Theseus sailed from Crete back to Athens, the city that he founded. According to Plutarch’s account, the ship itself was preserved for its historical significance, but over the years as it fell apart and decayed with age, pieces of it were replaced – a plank here, a…I don’t know…a stern there (a stern is a thing that ships have, right? I’m pretty sure most ships have a stern) – until, eventually, there was nothing original left. Every part of the ship was “new,” in that there was no longer even a single board that had been in the ship at the time Theseus had sailed on it.
Is it the same ship or not? Given that it’s a completely different constellation of materials, does it matter that its parts were replaced only gradually? Is there a real sense in which we can say that, yes, this is the Ship of Theseus, even though it’s a completely different constellation of materials, sharing no components with the vessel on which Theseus sailed?
Plutarch tells us that the philosophers were pretty much evenly split when it comes to their intuitions about the Ship of Theseus. Over the millennia since he first elucidated the paradox, philosophers have struggled with trying to resolve it, and their beliefs on the subject have more or less stayed the way Plutarch described them: some say yes, some say no.
But here, today, on this very website, I am here to report: don’t worry, you guys. I’ve totally got this. That’s right, ladies and gentlemen, I have resolved the Ship of Theseus Paradox once and for all, and as soon as this article goes live I can categorically guarantee that no man, woman, or child will ever have to worry about it for the remainder of humanity’s existence in this physical realm. The Ship of Theseus Paradox is over and you can finally get on with your life. You’re welcome.
Oh, right, I should probably tell you the solution.
Okay, so I was thinking about hockey. As a Canadian this is a legal obligation to maintain citizenship. Our Prime Minister – and this is not a joke – even wrote a book about the history of the sport. And as a fan of the Toronto Maple Leafs, thinking about hockey mostly just makes me sad. If you’re not familiar with the National Hockey League, suffice it to say that the Leafs are not only the most profitable team in the NHL and number 31 of the 50 most valuable sports franchises in the world, but they are also an organization acclaimed in the annals of professional hockey for finding new and exciting ways to lose, spectacularly annihilating the perennial hopes of its infinitely forbearing devotees every single year. Being a Leafs fan is a lot like being in a relationship with someone you know is really bad for you: they keep saying that they’ll change, and you keep believing them.
Wayne Gretzky, I know you are the greatest hockey player of all time, but I will never forgive you for this.
And but here’s the thing: they have changed. Since the formation of the NHL in 1917, the team now known as the Maple Leafs have won 13 Stanley Cup Championships, second only to the damned Montreal Canadiens who have 23. All of those Stanley Cups, though, were won prior to 1968. Toronto has not won a championship or even made the finals since winning in 1967. The team went from consistent contenders to predictable losers overnight, and have stayed that way – and this is the part that’s relevant to the topic at hand – despite the fact that the composition of the team is completely different than it was in 1968.
They have had good seasons and bad seasons, but they’re always the same Leafs. The 2012/13 season is the perfect example of that: after making the playoffs for the first time since 2004, the Leafs faced the Boston Bruins in the first round; they managed to roar back from a 3-1 deficit in the best-of-seven series to force game 7, were up three goals to one going into the third period, and then totally and catastrophically collapsed, letting in three goals to tie it up before losing in overtime. The entire Leafs Nation felt like we’d been sucker punched. Not just because we lost, but because this was exactly what we should have expected.
No matter how many times the team reinvents itself, it is still the same team. Every player, coach, manager, trainer, and scout, is periodically replaced, one by one, until there is no similarity in the makeup of the team to what it was at an earlier time. But just watching them year after year, that they are the same team is readily apparent – which makes absolutely no sense. Just like a person whose cells all die and are replaced over years and decades and yet someone, we insist, remains the same person.
This realization led me to understand that the professional sports team is our age’s Ship of Theseus. And we can use that to do philosophy. We can look at the Toronto Maple Leafs to consider the Ship of Theseus Paradox from a different perspective, and maybe discover some truths about identity and change that have gone heretofore unconsidered.
So let’s take a look here. As we can see, between 1927 and 2013 there have so far been five complete roster turnovers (Official Pastry of the National Hockey League). The first question this raises is: is this actually the same team or not? Is that chart an actual representation of the evolution of something, or are we imagining continuity when what we’re dealing with is just a bunch of discrete items temporarily associated with one another? My intuition is that, yes, “The Toronto Maple Leafs” is a real thing, and despite the fact that none of its constituent pieces remain from when they became the Maple Leafs in 1927 (before that they were called the Toronto St. Patricks, and before that, the Toronto Arenas – in case you thought that “Maple Leafs” was a dumb name, you don’t know how lucky we actually are these days) – and in fact that there’s nothing left of the Maple Leafs of only seven years ago – somehow it’s still the same team.
What does that mean? Why do I (and obviously most of sports in general is modeled after that notion of continuity) feel that there’s something that persists across the decades even though there isn’t really anything that’s actually persisted?
But that’s not actually true, is it, that nothing has persisted. They are still the Toronto Maple Leafs. Why?
It’s at least in part because they are still called the Toronto Maple Leafs. A name is part of what gives something its identity. When Conn Smythe took control of the team in 1927 and renamed it the Maple Leafs, there really wasn’t any difference between the team before and after the name change, but the name became part of the team anyway. The philosophy of the semantics of names is a complicated issue in and of itself, but suffice it to say that when someone refers to the Toronto Maple Leafs, we know what they’re talking about. We gain more information if they give us a specific year or range of dates, but that roster data is not strictly necessary to convey what’s trying to be communicated by the name “Toronto Maple Leafs.” That is to say, no single player, coach, manager, or particular collection thereof, are essential components of the team such that without them it ceases to be the Maple Leafs. But the name is not the only thing, either, and the players are not incidental to the team’s identity – when ownership changed in 1927 and the name changed to the Maple Leafs from the St. Patricks, but none of the players changed, really it was only the name that changed and not the team in any essential way. What we’re beginning to see is that a name is at least as important as a player – in fact more important than any particular constellation of players – but not more important than the entirety of everything else about the team. My intuition is that, had every single player also been replaced in 1927 when the team’s name changed, it would no longer have been the same team. “Toronto Maple Leafs” is an indexical utterance that points to a specific collection of individual hockey players at a given time, but it also carries part of the weight of identity in itself.
Then again, there are other factors too that are, in some sense, external to the actual composition of a team that nevertheless also carry some of that weight of identity. The Toronto Maple Leafs are based in Toronto. So location is another of those essential characteristics. They also have a distinct fanbase. The Toronto Maple Leafs is the team that is rooted for by anyone who self-describes as a Leafs fan. That also has absolutely nothing to do with who is on the ice at any given time, or even what arena they’re playing in. So collective allegiance is another external factor that contributes to the team’s identity as an entity distinct from others.
To further demonstrate that these things (name, location, and fanbase) are essential characteristics of identity, we can contrast by looking at a team that has lost all of those things in addition to its players: The Winnipeg Jets.
In 1972, the Winnipeg Jets joined the NHL after the rival World Hockey Association, of which it was originally a member, folded. They operated in Winnipeg until 1996; the small population of the city relative to most NHL markets, combined with the effect of the weak Canadian dollar (all NHL player contracts are in U.S. currency, but income for Canadian teams is, of course, in Canadian currency, putting Canadian teams at an economic disadvantage when the exchange rate fluctuates) had made the team unprofitable. The owner of the Jets sold them, and the new owner moved the team to Arizona, renaming them the Phoenix Coyotes.
Now, the team’s location and name had both changed, but all the players remained the same. Was the 1997 Phoenix Coyotes the same team as the 1996 Winnipeg Jets? This seems like a much more difficult question to answer intuitively than our previous question about the Maple Leafs. I don’t know how many Jets fans became Coyotes fans, but I suspect it’s not many – almost certainly not a critical mass of them, anyway. What it looks like, then, is that player composition is a much less sufficient factor for continuity of identity than team name, location, and fanbase. The Phoenix Coyotes have less claim to be heir to the identity of the Winnipeg Jets even when all their players are the same than the Toronto Maple Leafs have to their identity even when all their players are different.
Further reinforcing that point is the fact that in 2011, Winnipeg got their team back. The city’s population had grown, making it a much larger market than it had been, and the Canadian dollar was now much closer to parity with the U.S. dollar, making it more economically feasible for a team to operate there. The embattled Atlanta Thrashers moved to Winnipeg and were renamed the Jets! After 15 years, Winnipeg has its Jets back – but does it really? Is the team that’s currently playing under the name The Winnipeg Jets in any way the same team as the one that departed in 1996 and may or may not be still playing under the name the Phoenix Coyotes? No, and yet kind of yes. Because look, either way it’s unlikely that there would be any players, coaches, or managers in common between 1996 and now even if the Jets had stayed put in the first place. But we’ve already seen that that doesn’t really matter, or at least that it’s not the only factor, or even a major factor in what determines the team’s identity. Both teams play in Winnipeg, both teams are called The Jets, and both teams share the same fanbase (more or less). Meaning that there is pretty much no difference between the current actual Winnipeg Jets and what would have been the current Winnipeg Jets in a universe where they’d never moved to Phoenix. For all intents and purposes, ontologically there’s no way you can say that they are not the real Jets, even though their compositional continuity is completely broken.
The same thing applies to the Maple Leafs (and every other team, obviously). How can they be the same team even though every player is different? The same way that you are the same person even though you share zero cells in common with yourself at birth. The same way that the Ship of Theseus really is still the Ship of Theseus even without a single board remaining from the ship on which Theseus sailed. Because there are necessary metaphysical factors that are collectively more important contributors to the object’s identity than its physical composition. The physical composition is, in fact, kind of arbitrary. The 1927 Toronto Maple Leafs could have been anyone and still been the Leafs. But they couldn’t have been based in, say, Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Having a certain name, being in a certain place at a certain time, and being in a certain type of relationship with a number of other individuals who self-associate with that name, place, and a configuration of parts (but not any specific configuration in particular) is what creates identity. Physical continuity contributes, but is not and cannot be the make-or-break factor in determining identity.
This is a modification of Leibniz’s Law, or the Principle of the Identity of Indiscernibles, which states that two objects are identical if and only if they share all the same properties and relations. Obviously the 2013 Maple Leafs don’t share all the same properties and relations as the 1927 Maple Leafs. But they do share all the essential properties and relations, some of which are themselves built of up smaller inessential properties.
The Ship of Theseus, then, is not, and cannot be, just the sum of its parts. Its identity is part physical, part historical, part semantic/referential (which it itself a gigantic problem in philosophy because we don’t really know what names are, but for the purposes of this argument, we know a name when we see it and we know what it does and what it points to), and in part just a tiny piece of an immensely complicated web of relations that needn’t be physical or even directly causal in any way.
There’s something weirdly mystical about that realization. On the ice, when today’s Leafs look disturbingly similar to the Leafs of 1995, there’s a reason for it. When we can’t understand how it’s possible that they haven’t won a Stanley Cup since 1967, it’s not a senseless thought. The Toronto Maple Leafs has a soul that transcends its physical body or bodies. Part of that soul certainly exists inside every player, past and present, who has been part of the organization. But part of the soul exists in the city itself, and part in the weird Platonic realm where names live. I guess what I’m trying to say is that we are all Horcruxes; that part of that soul, of the transcendent identity that makes the Leafs the Leafs (and makes other teams whatever they are too, I guess) is also inside every long-suffering fan. Which explains why watching the Leafs lose season after season hurts so much. It’s not just happening to them. It’s happening to us too. The Toronto Maple Leafs is the thing that makes Leafs fan cheer when they win, and cry when they lose.