‘Rick and Morty’ and the Ship of Theseus

[Note: This piece contains spoilers for Rick and Morty episodes, SE3E01 ‘The Rickshank Redemption’ and SE3E08 ‘Morty’s Mind Blowers’.]

So, this season of Rick and Morty has been interesting. After blazing through season one and two on Netflix, I came to Rick and Morty this year watching week to week (though I waited until multiple episodes were out before beginning). This season, as opposed to previous seasons, I find myself delving deeper into the ideas of Rick and Morty. Now, something happened in the first episode that shocked me. Something that I thought would never happen.

So, in episode one, Rick is trapped in a simulation that is being utilised to get Rick to reveal the secret behind his portal gun. During this simulation, Rick pulls some shenanigans to escape the simulation by switching his mind into the body of his captor. Upon escaping the simulation in his captor’s body, Rick’s body is destroyed. Just prior to this, Rick leaves a couple of nuggets of wisdom behind due to differences in brain capacity. Now, we’ll get back to Rick being able to selectively alter his mind in a bit but first I want to get to the body thing.

To detour a bit, there’s a thought experiment named ‘the ship of Theseus’. It posits the idea of a ship sailed by the Greek hero Theseus. Across his various adventures, the ship gets damaged and repaired. Piece by piece, this ship is damaged and then repaired. Now, there’s no record of these changes anywhere and eventually every part is replaced so the question then becomes ‘Is the ship of Theseus still the same ship?’. One part of you might say no, the ship became a different ship when it changed its last piece. On the other hand, there’s no modern scientific experiment you can conduct on the ship. Based purely on human observation, the ship is no different than the original ship. It serves the same function it is the same ship.

A couple other questions arise from this, ‘at what point did the Ship of Theseus become a different object? When any part was replaced? When 50% was? When 100% was?’. The other question that comes up is ‘If you take all the old parts and put them together again, which is the real Ship of Theseus?’. As you can imagine, this comes up a lot in sci-fi.

This brings us back to Rick and Morty. Often, throughout the show, Rick is seen dimension-hopping. Particularly in SE1E06 ‘Rick Potion #9’, Rick and Morty abandon the universe we have presumably been watching for the previous five episodes, leaving their old family behind and settle in a new universe. There are only a few things we can assert about Rick and Morty that we know to be categorically true. Morty has knowledge of events that have transpired throughout the seasons, thus suggesting a continuity of one Morty since the series began (although maybe not) and that the Rick that we see is referred to across multiple seasons as Rick C-137, suggesting that that is his home universe. Now, here’s where things get prickly.

As mentioned above, Rick gets his head blown off in the opening episode of Season 3. Then, through the episode, he mind-jumps until he finds a Rick from the Citadel of Ricks to inhabit which becomes his new body. Now, you can see that this is where things get complicated. Rick C-137 no longer possesses the body of Rick C-137. He is inhabiting the body of another universe’s Rick. He is still recognised via his extra spicy flavour of renegade but the fact remains that the body of Rick, while functionally identical, is not Rick’s original body.

Well, you might think that as long as his consciousness is continuous and the mind is identical that everything remains un-spiky. Here’s where we come to the second twist in this tale. In ‘Morty’s Mind Blowers’, Morty experiences an experience that he wants to forget and asks Rick to erase the memory. Rick then reveals that he has a whole den of memories that Morty has asked to forget and we proceed to see the experiences that traumatised Morty enough to forget them.

Now, the episode comes to a head when Morty and Rick fight over the memory wipe and both lose their memories. Summer enters and asks if this is a ‘Scenario 3’ but discovers it is a full-blown ‘Scenario 4’, suggesting that this Summer has done this before. She then retrieves two memory bulbs (I think they’re bulbs) and restores Rick and Morty’s memory using this. Now, we discussed earlier how as long Rick’s mind remains intact then it is the same Rick.

However, if Rick has a reset button for both his and Morty’s minds, how can we trust their remembering of their own past. These memory bulbs have a restore point of their memories that is clearly not all-inclusive. Rick’s consciousness is not a continuous line across universes. Rick’s mind and body are not continuous experiences and thus how can we say that the Rick that is identified as Rick C-137 is really the same Rick. Rather, it seems that Rick is shaping an ‘idealised’ self that fits best with his own personal narrative. Rick defines himself from the present and then moves backwards.

In the same way that Rick defines himself from the present backwards, we as living, breathing human beings often do the same thing. We construct identities based on past experiences, we use memories to create/justify behaviours, we are in a constant process of redefinition of the self. When I proclaim ‘I am not the person I was five years ago’, what I’m really saying is ‘my perception of myself now differs from my recollection of the individual I used to be. These individuals exist in the same experiential and logistic timeframe and are thus on some level the same person that differs based on action and retrofitted worldview’.

It’s a complicated, messy process of self-definition. It feels right to define ourselves via who we were, though we have no guarantee that the two are linked. Think about it, if your body was destroyed every time you close your eyes and you were restored the following morning with all your memories prior to the moment you slept, how would you ever know?

 

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