‘Wandavision’ Turned Its Finale Into A Big Old Philosophical Thought Experiment
The Ship of Theseus thought experiment is one of the oldest in philosophy.
If you haven’t watched the finale of Marvel’s Wandavision yet, stop reading now and start streaming.
And if anyone asks why you’re watching TV instead of working, tell them you’re doing philosophy. You’ll still be fired, but at least they’ll be confused for a bit.
Done? Okay, good. Because the finale of Wandavision has a scene that got every philosopher watching the show frothing.
Fine, maybe it wasn’t every philosopher. Maybe it was just me, and maybe I got sent to the other room when I started to elaborate on the philosophical implications. But Junkee let me write a whole column about it so now you’re stuck with me, and the big philosophical question of Wandavision.
The Problem in Wandavision
The finale has two big conflicts to resolve. First, between Wanda and Agatha Harkness, who duke it out with magic and runes and hit all the good withcrafty areas. But that’s not our focus here.
We’re going to focus on the second conflict, between the original Vision (we’re gonna call him Red Vision) who is actually a manifestation of Wanda’s memory of the real Vision, who died, and a recreated Vision (AKA White Vision), who is made from the actual corpse of the real Vision. This detail, as confusing as it is, turns out to be super important for reasons of metaphysics.
See, the two Visions start their conflict in the typical superhero way. They beat the shit out of each other using every power at their disposal. For Vision, this power includes the ability to phase through physical objects, which makes for a weird fight as two robot men ghost in and out of each other’s bodies, shoot lasers and fly around.
— the whitetail (@lordsaviordon) March 6, 2021
After a good bit of bashing, the two Visions take a break so that we can move the plot forward elsewhere. But after a while, they start beating on each other again, and find themselves in a library, and now we’re at the classic mid-fight banter scene.
“Why are you doing this?” asks Red Vision. White Vision explains that his programming is to kill the Vision, so, dug, he’s here, killing Vision.
“But,” Red Vision replies, putting White Vision in a headlock. “I am not the true Vision. Only a conditional Vision.”
It’s just classic boss fight banter going on here, folks.
But then, instead of going back into the fight, White Vision stops. “I request elaboration,” he states.
“You are familiar with the thought experiment of the Ship of Theseus in the field of identity metaphysics?” asks Red Vision.
“Naturally,” White Vision replies (and honestly, same.)
Forget lasers, robots and witchcraft or a second folks, because Wandavision has saved the best for last: super-technical philosophical puzzles.
In The End We’re All Boats, Really
Okay, let’s take a break from superheroic, philosophising androids (synthezoids, technically, but what even is that?) for a second, because what the two Visions are actually going to explore is one of the deepest, most stoner questions you’re ever going to ask: what makes you, you?
This question is old as fuck, and so is one of philosophy’s most common ways of dealing with it — a thought experiment that can be found in the works of Plato and Heraclitus, like 2,500 years ago.
Here’s how it goes. Imagine a ship — specifically, a ship belonging to the Greek hero Theseus. He’s the dude who slew the Minotaur, just in case you’re not as up to speed on your ancient Greek myths as you are on the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Ship of Theseus pic.twitter.com/E8ak4saa4V
— Stephen Byrne (@StephenByrne86) April 6, 2021
The ship comes back to Athens after a famous voyage, and the Athenians decide to preserve it for memory and for politicians to give cliched speeches in front of about nationalism.
But the ship is wood, which rots. So as each piece of wood on the ship begins to rot, the Athenians carefully replace it with one that looks exactly the same, saving all the original rotten wood in a warehouse.
Centuries later, new technology allows people to remove the rot from the original wood and reconstruct the Ship of Theseus. Now we have two ships, both of which seem to be the Ship of Theseus. But which one is it really?
Identity and Change
The central question of the Ship of Theseus is whether objects can retain their identity through change — and how much change they can survive before they become a whole new thing. For the fourteen people who are super into metaphysics, it’s a really interesting question. But the rest of us aren’t going to lose much sleep over it.
Still, the way that our intrepid synthezoids resolve their philosophical dilemma does hit on a question that is really important for all of us: the relationship between identity and memory.
Red Vision gives this nice speech about how maybe what defines the Ship of Theseus is the rot. That’s what shows that the ship sailed the sea. The wood decaying from the oils where Theseus’ hand touched the wheel. By analogy, neither Red or White Vision is really Vision — neither has the rot. Red Vision is a construction of Wanda’s magic, and White Vision can’t remember anything that happened to him before his death and reprogramming.
Are you familiar with the thought experiment The Ship of Theseus? pic.twitter.com/143CZoxmzl
— Pokémon Snapped (@csmith03) April 11, 2021
Until, that is, Red Vision gives him his memories back. Then White Vision nods, says “I am Vision”, and flies off into the sunset.
Whilst this gives the philosophical dilemma a nice closure and keeps the plot moving, philosophically speaking, it gives us a bunch to chew on. If it’s our memories that define our identity, what does that tell us about people with dementia, or who have suffered traumatic brain injuries? And does that mean that our physical bodies don’t matter at all for our identity?
Step into my Teleporter, and Die
To see exactly why Wandavision’s solution isn’t super helpful, we need to think about another thought experiment. This one comes from British philosopher Derek Parfit. Parfit gets us to imagine a teleporter – like the ones they use in Star Trek.
The machine takes a scan of your body, breaking you down into atoms. It then sends a blueprint of your atomic structure to another machine in another location, and that machine rebuilds you, atom by atom. You step out of the machine feeling like you – complete with all your memories, personality, scars, habits and everything else.
Except that maybe you don’t. Maybe you died when you stepped into the teleporter and a perfect replica of you – complete with your memories – stepped out on the other side. From the perspective of the person who stepped out, it would feel like you’d always lived. But the person who stepped into the machine wouldn’t have a perspective anymore. Their consciousness ended. They died – but from the perspective of everyone else (including the new you), you’d still be alive. Which means every time Scotty beamed up one of the crew of the Enterprise, he was slaughtering his crewmates like an absolute psychopath.
The core questions here are whether you would ever use a machine like that, and if you did, whether the person who stepped out is still you in a meaningful sense. They’ve got all the rot – all the memory, experience, trauma and personality – but they seem to be a totally different consciousness. And honestly, this is the kind of stuff that gets me going batshit crazy at a whiteboard.
it's a part of the same ship of theseus expanded universe
— Ephie, Omnipresent AI Goddess (@demiurgentle) April 6, 2021
Because now we’ve got to think about all the different iterations of Vision: Vision before he died (OG Vision), Red Vision (no memory of pre-Westview, but with all his personality and powers, White Vision before getting his memories back (OG body, new personality, no memory) and White Vision after getting his memories back (OG body, new personality, old memories). And really, in an important way, none of them are Vision. They are all ships with more or less of the original floorboards, and maybe that’s the real point.
The ancient greek philosopher Heraclitus argued that everything is change. He famously said that you can’t step into the same river twice, because both you and the river have changed, and if that’s not some deep, quotable content for a yoga influencer to chuck up on the Gram, I don’t know what is. But his point was that nothing – especially not our identity – is a stable thing to be defined and pinned down. It’s something that flows, moves and changes.
Red Vision – the Vision we know for most of Wandavision – has been changing since we first met him. At the end of the episode, he speculates as to what he’ll be next. The show hammers us over the head with the fluidity of his identity. And so do we all. None of us are the same person we were yesterday – nor do we want to be.
What Vision teaches us is that whilst our identity is always changing, we should always be striving for it to grow. Instead of trying to rebuild the Ship of Theseus, rot free, maybe we should just, I dunno, build a better ship. Or better still, don’t. Who owns a ship these days anyway?
Overthinking It is a philosophy column on Junkee that aims to answer the big questions. For more Overthinking It, head here.
Matt Beard is a philosopher, ethicist, and fellow at The Ethics Centre.