Warning: This article contains spoilers of both the movie Avengers: Infinity War and the T.V. Series WandaVision
WandaVision and the ship of Theseus Part 1. My family and I have been enjoying the Marvel series WandaVision on the Disney+ streaming service. The series just concluded a few weeks ago, and the last episode featured a fascinating thought experiment, the type of which is not often found in action movies. The thought experiment is called “The Ship of Theseus”.
What Is The Ship Of Theseus?
The ship of Theseus is an ancient thought experiment that goes as far back as 500-400 B.C. Philosophers such as Plato and Heraclitus were known to have engaged with the idea. While there have been other iterations of the experiment, the person credited with originating the puzzle is Plutarch. Here is the problem as laid out by Plutarch:
The ship wherein Theseus and the youth of Athens returned from Crete had thirty oars, and was preserved by the Athenians down even to the time of Demetrius Phalereus, for they took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their places, insomuch that this ship became a standing example among the philosophers, for the logical question of things that grow; one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending that it was not the same.
— Plutarch, Theseus
WandaVision And The Ship Of Theseus
So how did this thought experiment work its way into an episode of a television show based off of a comic book? The two central characters in WandaVision are Wanda Maximoff and Vision. Vision is a mechanical being with advanced artificial intelligence. So advanced in fact that he begins to think independently, and experience thought and emotion. He and Wanda Maximoff develop feelings for one another, and begin a romance.
In the Avengers: Infinity War movie, Vision is killed by the villain Thanos. The WandaVision T.V. series picks up a few weeks after the events in which Vision is killed. Wanda (The Scarlett Witch) in her grief, creates an alternate reality in which Vision is recreated, but only as a product of her mind, not a physical being.
In the finally of the series, Vision’s body is reassembled by the U.S. government, and is sent to take on Wanda’s version of Vision. While the female characters are battling with their powers, the two versions of Vision engage in a philosophical discuss on who the real “Vision” is, using the Ship of Theseus as analogy to their current situation.
Who Is Vision?
As the two debate, the question moves away from the ship of Theseus. The question is, “Who is Vision?” Is Vision the physical matter reassembled by the government, or is Vision the version created by Wanda that has Vision’s memories and emotions. In the climax, Wanda’s version of Vision unlocks the memories and presumably the emotions of the physical version of Vision to combine the two into a complete version of the character.
So, what does any of this have to do with Christianity? Some of you may see what is going on here. Many materialists will argue that we as humans are just made up of physical matter. In other words, there is no “You in you”. But is that actually true?
More Than Matter
Our bodies are constantly changing physically. We grow older, and our cells are continuously dying and being replaced by new cells. It’s estimated that in a 7-year timespan, every cell in your body will die and be replaced by new cells. In a sense, your body is a living version of the ship of Theseus!
But this leads to problems for materialists. If all we are is physical matter, how do we maintain continuity in our personhood when our physical self is constantly changing? If physicalism is true, then there should be no prison sentence for anyone longer than 7 years, because at that point you are not punishing the same person. It’s someone different altogether.
In my next article, I’ll discuss the Christian view of mind/body dualism, and how this makes better sense of what we as humans experience in the world we see. In the immortal words of comic book legend Stan Lee, “Until next time, Excelsior!”.
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