I felt puzzled when I heard about the "Ship of Theseus paradox". If we change any part, the whole is not the same as before.

But evolution needs a small change. So:

If A evolves to B., what is the thing which evolves?

Since A transforms into B, we can't compare the thing that changed between them. We can only see the thing which is not changed. So, is the property of the object which is not altered the thing we deem evolved?

I am not a philosophy expert. So correct me if my thoughts are going wrong. I would appreciate any sources that might prove of assistance.

  • 3
    Species evolve. Commented Nov 15, 2022 at 11:26
  • Are you specifically talking about biological evolution? Because it's not clear.
    – Boba Fit
    Commented Nov 16, 2022 at 1:11
  • It seems as though you are essentially asking how you identify a point in an infinitely-reducible sequence of changes. In this case, it is evolution, and the same question could be asked of time, or of any series of events which occur in time. I'm no expert, but I'm guessing any answer relies on whatever temporal parameters you decide is adequate to identify such a point. Ie. an entity (such as a human) when defined in one second of its evolution would be different (more specific/limited) than how it appears when observed over a decade. The 'thing' is identified by the whims of the observer. Commented Dec 14, 2022 at 10:57
  • 1
    According to Schrödinger the only real stuffs which are evolving in time is probability amplitudes in some necessarily complex valued infinite dimensional Hilbert state space… Commented Dec 14, 2022 at 23:13
  • Does this answer your question? What are the philosophical solutions to "ship of Theseus" problem of identity?
    – user14511
    Commented Dec 15, 2022 at 10:21

6 Answers 6


You are encountering the limits of reductive thinking.

The "Ship of Theseus" does not reduce down to its component parts.

Biological Evolution takes place over time, for a population. It does not happen for an individual, nor does it exist in an instant. Evolution is an emergent phenomenon, that only exists as a "thing" over extended time, and multiple individuals.

The Ship of Theseus may also be an emergent phenomenon, but the best way to addresses that thought problem may be thru approximations rather than emergence. See the discussion here: What are the philosophical solutions to "ship of Theseus" problem of identity? Your two cited problems are both problems for reductionism, but they may have two different non-reductive solutions.

At any rate, while most philosophers and scientists agree our world has emergence in it, how emergence works, is still highly disputed. This is a major hole in our current thinking, which needs to be resolved for a fully coherent worldview to be possible.

  • It is resolved by Nonduality.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Dec 16, 2022 at 19:42
  • Nonduality does not pass simple pragmatic falsification tests. Replacing one invalid worldview with another invalid one -- does not seem like a step in the right direction.
    – Dcleve
    Commented Dec 16, 2022 at 20:41
  • What falsification tests, I haven't heard that one before. Maybe all worldviews are invalid? That's what I understand by Nonduality. This article says some interesting things: The Universe is NOT One
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Dec 16, 2022 at 21:13
  • @ScottRowe -- pragmatically any prey that fails to recognize the predator/prey duality, or the self/no-self duality, will soon cease to be able to even have the opportunity to make such choices. In pragmatic logic, this is a refuting test case. Same with the food/poison duality.
    – Dcleve
    Commented Dec 16, 2022 at 22:08
  • 1
    Pragmatically, any species that thinks it can do what it pleases with the shared environment will soon cease to be able to abuse it. While much other life will undoubtedly continue on, without such delusions.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Dec 16, 2022 at 22:30

One of the Buddhist analysis on the 'problem of identity' is found in a very early text called The Questions of King Milinda, a dialogue between a Greco-Bactrian king (Greek name Menander) and a monk, Ven. Nagasena. (The text is not regarded as canonical by all Theravada schools.) In this text, Nagasena uses the analogy of the chariot to argue for the absence of inherent identity. The relevant passage is this:

Ven. Nagasena asks Menander, 'Your Majesty, how did you come here - on foot, or in a vehicle?'

Menander replies, 'In a chariot.'

'Then tell me,' Nagasena asks, 'what is the chariot? Is the pole the chariot?'

'No, your reverence,' Menander replies.

'Or the axles, wheels, frame, reins, yoke, spokes, or goad?'

Menander replies that none of these things is the chariot.

'Then all these separate parts taken together are the chariot?'

Menander again says no.

'Then is the chariot something other than the separate parts?'

'No, your reverence,' Menander says.

'Then for all my asking, your Majesty,' Nagasena says, 'I can find no chariot. The chariot is a mere sound. What then is the chariot? Surely what your Majesty has said is false! There is no chariot!'

Menander protests that what he had said was not false. 'It is on account of all these various components, the pole, axle, wheels and so on, that the vehicle is called a chariot. It's just a generally understood term, a practical designation.'

'Well said, your Majesty!' Nagasena replies. 'You know what the word chariot means! And it's just the same with me. It's on account of the various components of my being that I am known by the generally understood term, the practical designation, Nagasena.'

This exchange is regarded as an exemplary statement of the Buddhist doctrine of no-self, but I think it can be challenged. Consider that, in the historical context, the possession of chariots was a major factor in the military conquest and the creation of nation-states. In that sense, 'the chariot', apart from being the particular vehicle on which the King came to this meeting, is also an idea. And possession of that idea differentiated those cultures with chariots from those without, often to great consequence.

So, Menander might have replied to the question 'what is a chariot?' with 'why, it's a design. That it doesn't inhere in any of the particular components you refer in this particular example matters not one whit. Were this particular chariot destroyed, then my men could easily produce another, because they possess the idea. So there's more to the chariot than its parts.'

I suppose that amounts to a kind of Aristotelian critique of Buddhist philosophy. (I tried it on a Buddhist forum once, but it was not well received.)

  • You are post-Buddhist, I guess.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Dec 16, 2022 at 19:43
  • 1
    I studied Buddhism up to Master's level and still aspire to live up to Buddhist ethical principles, but I also discovered I have Platonist leanings. Comes from being Western, I guess. Just discovered this site, though buddhistplatonistdialogues.com/index.html
    – Wayfarer
    Commented Dec 16, 2022 at 21:53
  • In Mahayana thought, the design is part of the realm of Eighth Consciousness, Alaya Vijnana; what we might call the noosphere or memesphere.
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Dec 17, 2022 at 0:04
  • Sure, think you're probably right, but be aware that alayavijnana is not unanimously accepted by other Buddhist schools (although I personally accept it).
    – Wayfarer
    Commented Dec 17, 2022 at 23:36
  • That said, I have the excellent The Buddhist Unconscious by William Waldron, which is the definitive modern text on that question, this debate has prompted me to go back and finish it, which I didn't at the time I bought it.
    – Wayfarer
    Commented Dec 18, 2022 at 0:08

Western metaphysics has long been obsessed with describing reality as an assembly of static individuals whose dynamic features are either taken to be mere appearances or ontologically secondary and derivative.

Process Philosophy

This attitude of static essentialist metaphysics derives some paradoxes when change and transformation is to be accounted.

Change is so pervasive in our lives that it almost defeats description and analysis. One can think of it in a very general way as alteration. But alteration in a thing raises subtle problems. One of the most perplexing is the problem of the consistency of change: how can one thing have incompatible properties and yet remain the same thing?

Change and Inconsistency

Among them is the ship of Theseus.

An approach to tackle this issue is the following: what relates some object A, with an object B at a later instant is a unique (similarity) relation between A and B, A ~ B, which uniquely relates B as the evolution or transformation of A. In this sense, this relation is what persists and not strict identity.

In the above sense, one can talk about A changing (to B), since B is uniquely related back to to A, as its evolution or transformation, but without B having to be identical to A, thus without introducing any paradox or inconsistency.

For any time interval dt between ta and tb (ta is the time instant where A is and tb is the time instant where B, an evolution of A, is) same reasoning can be applied (if dt=ta then B=A, else B~A, for some evolution relation ~ between A and B).

For example, when we see an old friend after many years of being apart what we implicitly do is the following: we recognize this person as the unique historical evolution of the person we knew years ago, not as the identical person that was years ago. In this sense, even though the person is not literally the same, we still recognize them and consider them to be the continuation of our friend back then.

The subtlety is that during a chain of evolution/transformation of A, ie A -> A1 -> A2 -> .. -> Ak, there is no need for this similarity relation to be the same. For example A ~ A1 need not be the same relation as Ak-1 ~ Ak. In the case that some definitive change, like a destruction, took place one then cannot say that Ak is similar, all the way back, to A, in this sense.

Process philosophy instead focuses on processes, and A would not be a static instance, but a process itself. So this identity during change paradox is not present.

Processes may have a start and termination time, need not be eternal, going on forever (ie they may have a finite "lifetime"). Furthermore, processes may exhibit stable features throughout their lifetime.

Taking A as a dynamic process in time is also compatible with previous reasoning based on similarity, in that, different time slices of the process A (eg A1, A2,..) are related to some similarity between them which stems from being the same process A.

  • Meeting a friend after a long time can feel disturbing. People can be distressed when someone close to them changes in some fundamental way. We can wonder if they are 'really' the person we used to know. Irrational, yet not easy to dismiss.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Dec 16, 2022 at 19:40
  • 2
    @ScottRowe: "Change, like the wind Like the water, like skin Change, like the sky Like the leaves, like a butterfly"
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Dec 17, 2022 at 0:11

If A evolves to B., what is the thing which evolves?

If a therapod evolves into a chicken, what is the thing?

How about matter to molecules to amoeba to therapod to chicken? Taken in the whole, the thing is 'nature', originating from the Greek φύσις (phusis).

If nature evolved from something else, or evolved into something else, this answer could not be complete. However nature evolves from nature and into nature by its very definition as coined by Aristotle, described here : On the Essence & Concept of φύσις in Aristotle's Physics

The Romans translated φύσις by the word natura. Natura comes from nasci, “to be born, to originate,” as in the Greek root γεν- . Natura means “that which lets something originate from itself.” ...

And from section V.

... Aristotle sketches the essential outline: φύσις is not just the origin and ordering of the movedness of a moving being, but also belongs to this moving being itself in such a way that this being, in itself and from itself and toward itself, orders its own movedness. ... Something determined by φύσις not only stays with itself in its movedness but precisely goes back into itself even as it unfolds in accordance with the movedness (the change).

... While the “plant” sprouts, emerges, and expands into the open, it simultaneously goes back into its roots, insofar as it plants them firmly in the closed ground and thus takes its stand. The act of self-unfolding emergence is inherently a going-back-into-itself. This kind of becoming present is φύσις.

... We might be tempted to fall back on the notion that φύσɛι-determined beings could be a kind that make themselves. So easily and spontaneously does this idea suggest itself that it has become normative for the interpretation of living nature in particular ... In the case of every artifact, however, the origin of the making is “outside” the thing made.

  • Those descriptions of the moving and emerging sound like Existentialist wording. Strangely involuted and not evocative of anything. But the idea is good.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Dec 16, 2022 at 19:32

As with most problems in philosophy, it all depends on what you means by the words you have used.

In everyday language, when we say that something has evolved, usually what we really mean is that there has been a gradual change. We can take the 'thing' that has evolved to mean what existed before the change or what existed after the change, or, indeed, any hybrid of the two. For example, you might say:

'Life evolved over millions of years'

'My idea for a novel about Socrates evolved into a stage play'

The terminology is so loose that the distinction you are trying to draw in your question is purely a matter of personal usage.


'Thingness' is problematic, as per not only the Ship of Theseus paradox, but the Sorites or pile-of-sand paradox. Investigating this is a core concern of Buddhist philosophy, and it's doctrine of Anatta or 'non-self' as one of the Three Marks of Existence, considered defining and unavoidable qualities to how we exist in the world, that the failure to acknowledge in our lives and become reconciled with the inevitability of, causes us suffering.

I think an interesting case is the wellbeing of animals. In regard to our concern for pets, and the extinction of species, we should be considering not only the wellbeing of individual animals, but our moral duties towards supporting and allowing species to attain sentience and autonomy in the future.

I would point to conceptual-groups as tools for organising experience, and applied to the world, unlike in mathematics, they don't have necessary consequences and occur by degree in different contexts. This has important consequences for how we think about causality: Is the idea of a causal chain physical (or even scientific)? There are patterns, and some of them persist. Personal and species identity are examples of specific degrees of this. Species' are fuzzy objects.

Later Wittgenstein addresses the tendency we gave toward reification of conceptual groupings into unchanging objects:

"In this sort of predicament, always ask yourself: How did we learn the meaning of this word ("good", for instance)? From what sort of examples? In what language-games? Then it will be easier for you to see that the word must have a family of meanings."

-Wittgenstein, in Philosophical Investigations

We should look to how we use language in practice, rather than try to impose preconceptions on the world.

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