The Modern Ship of Theseus: Nanomedicine

Is this technology to make us immortal, or unrecognizable?
Nanotechnology, capable of rewiring human biology. Ship of theseus, Science philosophy, Nanomedicine

Imagine a future where all diseases could be cured through full body genetic alteration using nanotechnology. Doctors would be able to use microscopic tools to literally repair or replace every “part” of the human body as well as the genetic code which causes the primary dysfunction in hereditary diseases. 

But is tapering with nature & biology worth it, in the face of curing physical and mental disease? 

To answer this question– as with many modern questions regarding ethicality and philosophy– allow us to consider an ancient thought process. 

Heraclitus, Ancient Greek Philosopher

Heraclitus and Plato, Ancient Greece philosophers, once discussed what was known as the Ship of Theseus paradox. It was a story in which a ship owned by the mythological king Theseus is repaired after being damaged.

The ship, with its timber, oars and other components are across a significant period of time. Plato and Heraclitus ask, if the ship was entirely changed in its constitution over time, would it still be the same ship? 

The same paradox applies to the theory of mind and any physical changes to the brain including the genetic and epigenetic frameworks. Where exactly is the threshold in how much the human brain can change before it stops being the same person? The neurons which you currently possess in your head have long since established neural networks which are years and years old, going back to the very moment that they first formed and were accommodated as you grew up. 

If we look at this problem through the lens that not even in the phase of growing up are we fundamentally the same person, yet still retain consciousness, it would stand to reason that some mechanism exists where the brain can accommodate for growth, neural expansion and skull expansion without sacrificing the consistency of the theory of mind. 

So, this problem boils down to whether or not the fundamental consistency of the mind lies in an established biological neural network, growing and retaining consciousness, or neurons themselves being fundamentally conscious.

If one were to replace the neurons in the brain, the longest lasting parts of neural networks, the symmetry between consciousness and ownership is broken, at a certain threshold. In the same way that replacing the entirety of the ship of Theseus is fundamentally resolving the paradox in itself. 

In the analogy of the brain, a replacement of neurons as if they were the fundamental parts of the ship is essentially removing the ownership property away from the human, no matter how gradually done. The structure of the ship is still the same but imagine as if that structure was only sustained as if a carpenter were replacing individual pieces of the ship one by one, so as not to destroy the framework of the ship.

Various explanations for the thought process have been brought up. After considering the question, Plutarch describes an identity as something which “scatters and again comes together, approaches and recedes.” Overall, the topic is still discussed by cognitive scientists and scholars around the world.

If you have any thoughts regarding the Ship of Theseus paradox or nanomedicine, please leave a comment! If you enjoyed this reading, consider sharing and following us!