When you tuned in to WandaVision’s season (series?) finale, you likely weren’t expecting two floating Visions to hold seminar on ancient Greek philosophy—discussion topic: the “Ship of Theseus.” Certainly, I wasn’t expecting this, and I even audibly groaned when it was mentioned. The reason is that I have a degree in philosophy—and I say that very hesitantly, knowing how annoying it is for anyone with a philosophy degree to tell you they have a philosophy degree; mostly, we should just shut up. I groaned because it’s usually very difficult to work these types of discussions into fictive dialogue without them being either awkward or, just, really rudimentary. In the case of the Visions, the discussion does make sense, only because Vision really does think in abstract, professorial terms. That both Visions discuss something like this instead of battling seems pretty on brand for Vision—whatever “Vision” really is.
Still, like most students after years of studying the subject, I graduated realizing how very little about it I actually know. So I feel totally qualified and yet utterly unprepared to explain the “Ship of Theseus” and the myriad of accounts using the thought experiment to make claims about identity. Here’s my best shot. I apologize in advance to my former professors reading this; I do remember some stuff, I promise.
The question both Visions are ultimately trying to answer is: Which Vision is the real Vision? (We can just ignore what they mean by “real” or “true” or other terms they use for what is intuitively just the original Vision we’ve known since his JARVIS days.) The answer is important, since White Vision has been programmed to “destroy Vision”—a grossly ambiguous coding error that seems unfathomable in its stupidity.
Red Vision points out this ambiguity, and the two of them discuss a thought experiment known as the “Ship of Theseus.” Now, there is no answer to this thought experiment; the point is merely to present challenges to conventional theories of identity—what makes x “x.” So what the two Visions discuss is really just one resolution to the experiment. And since both Visions technically have the same “mind” (we’ll get to this in a bit), it makes sense they will agree on the answer.
Here’s how White Vision articulates the thought experiment. (The experiment has many variations.)
“The Ship of Theseus is an artifact in the museum. Over time, its planks of wood rot and are replaced with new planks. When no original plank remains, is it still the ship of Theseus?”
Red Vision, playing the part of English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, reminds Red Vision of the extension of the thought experiment.
“If those removed planks are restored and reassembled free of the rot, is that the Ship of Theseus?”
White Vision concludes that “neither are the true ship; both are the true ship,” in a very quick moment of analysis. Red Vision agrees. He then proposes (unhelpfully) that memories represent the planks of the ship (this move sort of conflates two thought experiments since Vision is both body and mind).
So, if those memories are restored in some form, then that form is also the “ship of Theseus,” i.e., the “true” Vision. White Vision says he doesn’t have memories. Red Vision restores those memories. Therefore, both Visions are now both not the “true” and the “true” Vision, based on how each interprets the ship problem—both the ship replaced (White Vision), and the ship reassembled (Red Vision, again, based on his mind, not his body) are the true ship and not the true ship. Therefore, White Vision should just kill both of them. Right? Wrong. He flies off into the Marvel writing room for more material.
Now, there’s a lot going on here, particularly because the Visions are basically talking about two thought experiments—the ship, and what you might call “brain duplication” problems, like the cloning of consciousness. Vision himself is basically a flying thought experiment, given that he has been downloaded from Jarvis into another body. (You could also reasonably ask if Vision actually is Jarvis or something new.)
The Ship of Theseus experiment challenges what we might call just an ordinary “criterion of identity”—where identity is the relation of one thing to only itself. The ship problem suggests that there may be degrees of identity, given that changes take place to a thing over time and space—it rots, it is replaced, it is cloned, etc.
To resolve the Ship of Theseus paradox—where it appears that both ships both are and are not the original/true/etc. ship—you might try and argue about degree, that there is a “best candidate” for the claim to the original identity. You might also make recourse to possible worlds in which the same ship was built from different materials—all in an attempt to show that only the reassembled ship (Red Vision) could be the original—but I’m too lazy to research exactly how this argument should go. (Read about it here from an actual philosopher.)
In the end, the Visions simply accept the paradox, almost conceding that the question of absolute identity either has no solution or is irrelevant. Which seems like exactly the kind of conclusion Vision would make—he’s been getting a bit more mystical over the years.
Summarizing his identity changes over time in his final moment with Wanda, Vision says, “I have been a voice with no body. A body, but not human. And now, a memory made real. Who knows what I might be next.”
So maybe we just go the Buddhism route and assume that Vision is literally everything all the time. Maybe Doctor Strange will go down that rabbit hole soon. Best start brushing up on that two-thousand-year-old philosophy. We have a year or so.
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