Theseus’s Identity Crisis

Who are you?  I’m not asking for your name or age or other bits of information you would put on a census form.  Just take a minute and reflect on this question: Who am I?

…….Ok, a minute has elapsed.  Do you have an answer?  Yes? Well, if you already have an answer, you’ve misunderstood the question!

Identity is such a complicated concept.  We go through life studying, working, eating, socializing, stimulating ourselves with entertainment.  Yet how often do we lie under the stars and contemplate our place in the universe.  Where do we fit within the Milky Way Galaxy?  Are we merely specks of dust in space?  Are we the most exalted forms of God’s creation?  Are we characters in a virtual reality stimulation?

How do we define ourselves?  The conventional way is based on four facets: Nationality, Ethnicity, Religion, and Linguistics.  For example, based on the conventional way, I would be a English-speaking South Asian-American Catholic. However, in my view, this method of identification is highly flawed.  First, nationalistic and ethnic labels are pure social constructs devised through political means.  National borders constantly change. Ethnic labels alter.  The region of Alsace (now located in Eastern France) has been tossed between France and Germany for centuries. One minute the Alsatians were French.  The next minute, they were German! Before 1960, there was no such thing as a Palestinian.  Now that’s all you hear about in the news!
Alsace in France.svg

Now applying religious labels to yourself  make sense if you are a sincere believer.  However, let’s be honest.  Most people couldn’t care less if they had a guardian angel.  For most, being a Roman Catholic, a Jew, or a Hindu is a reflection of their ancestors’ belief system, not their own.

As for linguistics, well, thanks to the political climate of certain regions (Quebec, India, Spanish Catalonia), people are forgetting that language is merely a means of communication.  There is no need to have such an emotional attachment to a language, whether it be French, Hindi etc. It is irrational to call yourself a Francophone, an Anglophone, a Gujarati, a Hindi speaker etc.  My ‘mother tongue’ is English yet I would have no problem embracing another language if it is more useful to me.

So if the four facet conventional way is flawed, what is an alternative way of defining our identity?  Is it through our careers?  Maybe.  In a typical social event (i.e. a charity dinner, a party), the first thing people do after meeting someone is ask them “So what do you do?”.   The question doesn’t imply “What are you doing now” but “What do you do for a living”.  In this manner, people are identified by what they contribute to society, whether it be through medicine, technology innovation, law, education etc.

From childhood, our parents have stressed the importance of a formal education.  What’s the point of spending four (maybe more) years to obtain a university degree? To pursue a career.  This is after all the primary objective for people my age.  Perhaps our identity is based on our career and the skills we contribute to society.

But that can’t be right!  In fact, it is ridiculous to base one’s identity on one’s career, although we have a tendency to do so.  It isn’t uncommon for one to switch careers.  At the beginning of my university studies, I was studying health sciences and working part time as a pharmacy assistant.  After a couple of years, I am now pursing computer science.  Did I suddenly alter into a completely different person?  Of course not.  I just happen to choose a different career path.  If one retires from his career, does he lose his identity and ceases to exist?  I hardly think so.  I personally know many retirees who continue to live vibrant and productive lives after 10 years into retirement.  From what I see, they certainly haven’t lost their identity!

Do we base our identities on hobbies and interests?  I doubt it!  Similarly to careers, people definitely change their interests and hobbies over the course of their lives.  Ten years ago, I used to be into anime and Yu-gi-oh cards. Now, I’m still wondering why I was ever fascinated with them in the first place!

Fereidoun M. Esfandiary aka FM-2030 (1930-2000)

The more I think about it, the more it seems that identity is extremely fluid.  The renowned tranhumanism advocate FM-2030 said it best: “I am not who I was ten years ago and certainly not who I will be in twenty years”.  The complexity of personal identity is akin to the Theseus’s paradox.

In the first century, A Greco-Roman historian and philosopher named Plutarch asked whether a ship which was restored by replacing each and every one of its wooden parts remains the same ship.  What do you think?  There isn’t a right or wrong answer.  It’s all dependent on perspective.  Think of the ship as your identity.  Ten years has passed.  You are no longer have the same hobbies.  The way you speak and present yourself is different.  And you even switched career paths.  Can you truly say you are still the same person?


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