We are all the Tin Woodman [Revised]

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In what sense are we the same person today as yesterday?

But, now again to weave the tale begun,
All nature, then, as self-sustained, consists
Of twain of things: of bodies and of void
In which they’re set, and where they’re moved around.

Lucretius, On the nature of things

Ever since the Ancient Greek philosophers known as the Atomists claimed that nothing exists but atoms and the void, we’ve struggled to understand the implications of this idea. For many of us, our immediate personal experience of the world says that our identity endures from day to day, even as we learn and grow and change. We have an intuition that ‘I’ exist in some essential way, a sensibility that atomism—claiming we can be reduced to component parts—seems to undermine.

It’s possible that we are more than the atoms that make us up, and that we have an immaterial soul that lives on after death. I’m not going to argue against such a belief, which gives comfort to many people; nor will I make the dubious claim that science can pass final judgement on such matters. But it’s worth remembering that the idea of an eternal life for the soul is not a comfort to everyone, and for some, like the thinker Lucretius, it’s our very mortality that gives life its poignancy and zest.

Instead, what I want to do now is explore how intuitions about the material world can bleed over into other areas, such as ethics, religion, or politics. What interests me are the ways in which an atomist intuition about the ‘material world’, an intuition we think is scientific, is actually very outdated. Even if we are not scientists, our intuitions about how the world works and what we are made of helps to guide our thoughts in certain directions. These intuitions encourage us to take things for granted, when in fact they need to be examined and questioned.

For example, atoms move through the biosphere, forming and reforming the patterns we call living beings and non-living matter. The boundaries of the atomistic body are not sharply defined in space and time. We are eaters, and we are what we eat. We are drinkers, and we are what we drink. And what we breathe. These are truisms, safe grounds from which to start an adventure in free thought. Let’s pull on those threads and use our imaginations to envisage how we are networked with so much of the living world through our very bodies.

Think, then, that every breath we take also contains at least a few atoms exhaled by the dying Caesar, or that some molecules of the water we just drank once churned through the beating heart of a blue whale. Astronomers have even discovered that our galaxy contains much larger and more ponderous flows. Over cosmological timescales, supernovas mix and remix the materials out of which whole star systems are made.

Speculating in such ways is fruitful, playfully subversive without making grand metaphysical claims about the ultimate nature of things. This way of understanding ourselves and our relation to our surroundings is also reminiscent of certain Native American cultures, which teach that the water of the rain, the lake, the river, and the ocean is the water of myself, so you must keep that water clean wherever it happens to reside. It’s all part of one large flow, back and forth, in and out, the Earth’s circulatory system.

We can expect intuitions about the nature of the world to be reflected in the languages we use. I have a colleague at William & Mary, the linguist Jack Martin, who has dedicated his professional life to the study of Native American languages, in particular the Creek and Miccosukee languages. Great effort has gone into saving these Native languages that are at risk of extinction, and to preserve them in grammar books so they can be taught to the next generation.

In her book Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants (2013), Robin Wall Kimmerer, a professor of botany at the University of Syracuse and enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, writes about trying to learn the tongue spoken by her ancestors, the Anishinaabe. She found the language extremely difficult. The words were new and unfamiliar, of course, but even with the vocabulary under her belt she found the grammar so strange that she struggled to understand or to put together sensible utterances. In Western languages, subjects act upon objects, many of which have no agency themselves. For example: ‘I threw the rock’ makes sense, while ‘The rock threw me’ does not. The subject/object distinction runs throughout Western linguistics. Kimmerer writes of a kind of epiphany she experienced when she realized why Anishinaabe seemed so strange to her: it was because the language assumed what she called a ‘grammar of animacy’. The language had far more verbs than nouns, more motion than rest. For example, a river or a lake were both water, but a river was ‘water being in motion’, while a lake was ‘water being at rest’. Living things are not objects, but subjects. When asked ‘what is that?’, for a table you can answer ‘it is a table’, but if the same question is asked of an apple, the proper response is ‘he is an apple’. The language itself assumes agency on the part of things that Western grammars assume to be empty of will. Acquiring fluency in the language of an animist culture demanded a shift in Kimmerer’s intuition about the nature of things, to see all living things as subjects, not objects.

The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once wrote that religious or ethical expressions were often nonsensical in the strict sense of logic and rationality, and that he came to see their nonsensicality as essential. In writing about such subjects, all he wanted to do was ‘go beyond the world’, and that to write about such things was to run up against the boundaries of language because ‘running against the bars of our cage is perfectly, absolutely hopeless’. But so far as it sprung from a desire to say something about the meaning of life, he would ‘not for the life of me ridicule it’. If our language encodes a kind of folk-theory of how the world works, it can act as that cage; that’s why it’s helpful to remind ourselves that the cage of language evolved at a time when we were largely ignorant of large parts of the world. The boundary line that language uses to limit our thinking needs to be challenged, again and again, with regularity.

To be clear, I am not arguing that somehow our culture should be guided lockstep by whatever worldview happens to be currently in favor among scientists. Far from it. Instead, I am calling attention to ways of thinking that, upon excavation, are revealed to be based upon outmoded and ossified intuitions—intuitions that can be invoked in the service of ideologies or political theories. In his landmark book Orientalism (1978), Edward Said called out Henry Kissinger for separating the world into societies that had undergone a Newtonian revolution and those who had not. Kissinger’s characterization, as quoted in Said, is that the essence of Newtonianism is a belief that there is an external world, whereas pre-Newtonian thinking presupposed an almost entirely internal conception of reality. That would be news to the Polynesians who conquered the Pacific long before Europeans learned how to sail against the wind. This characterization of Newtonianism as reducible to a belief in an external world leaves so much left unsaid, so much presumed. It also leaves me wondering why Kissinger didn’t go on to separate the world into those societies that had undergone a Darwinian revolution, or an Einsteinian one, or a quantum revolution. It’s as if the world as understood by a student after taking an intro physics class came to be taken as ‘the modern Western worldview’, sufficient for the development of geopolitical systems that constrained the lives of billions of people.

Linguistic intuitions about the nature of the world invariably leak into our thinking, a point that the philosopher Annamarie Mol explores in her essay ‘I eat an apple’ (2008). There, she asks how Western philosophy might have developed differently if, instead of focusing on humans as thinkers, it looked instead at other aspects of our being in the world: our physicality, our sensuality, our shared substance with all other things, our permeability. What if Descartes, after so masterfully demolishing two thousand years of philosophical thought with his radical skepticism, had grabbed ‘I experience, therefore I am’ as his life raft? The entwining of thought and experience, the idea that we are embodied thinkers, is now more in tune with the modern scientific understanding of cognition.

Given we are permeable, that the stuff we are made of is always changing, the question of personal identity comes back to bite us in a way that Cartesianism avoids—grounded as it is in the notion that our conscious experience reflects an immortal soul ‘looking out’ upon the world. Instead, if we adopt the view that we are embodied minds, it means we are all a bit like Theseus, the mythic hero reputed to be the founder of Ancient Athens. In his trials and adventures, bit by bit, Theseus had to repair or replace parts of his ship. In Travels of Theseus, Plutarch posed the question: if the ship is replaced part by part, at what point is it no longer the same ship? This puzzle came to be called the ‘Ship of Theseus’, a thought experiment used by generations of philosophers to unsettle their students.

If I take a thing and replace it bit by bit, at what point does it become another thing? We might scoff and reply that it’s simply a naming convention. I recall a scene at lunch one day as an undergraduate when I was sitting alongside two lacrosse players at the next table, apparently just back from philosophy class. They were shaking their heads. One took an empty paper cup and, while crushing it slowly in his hands, asked: ‘When does the cup… become trash?’

It can all seem silly, a kind of fodder for late-night conversation at drinking parties. Yet while our memories of ourselves might seem fixed, our current understanding is that those memories are encoded in the patterned arrangements of neurons, and ultimately the atoms, that make up our brains at any given moment. Those atoms change over time, with new ones taking up locations that originally housed other ones. The neural patterns might endure, but over weeks and months, I am made of new stuff. So, at what point am ‘I’ no longer me?

This philosophical problem of personal identity was playfully explored by writer L. Frank Baum in the Oz series of books. The film The Wizard of Oz (1939), based on Baum’s work, never reveals why the Tin Man has no heart—but the earlier book, The Tin Woodman (1918), tells his backstory.

The fully human Woodman, Nick Chopper, had fallen in love with a witch’s assistant and tried to steal away with her. The witch found out, and she cursed Nick to suffer one mishap after another. Consequently, through a series of bad swipes of his axe, his human parts were damaged and replaced with tin ones. But, as Baum writes:

“In the Land of Oz… no one can ever be killed. A man with a wooden leg or a tin leg is still the same man; and, as I lost parts of my meat body by degrees, I always remained the same person as in the beginning, even though in the end I was all tin and no meat.”

All tin, except of course, for his heart, which was still missing when young Dorothy arrived. In the later narrative, Baum takes the problem of Nick Chopper’s personal identity to extreme lengths in a scene in which the Tin Woodman discovers his own (original) head in a cupboard, where it’s been hidden away by the witch. Startled, he asks the head ‘Who are you?’

“‘I used to be called Nick Chopper, when I was a woodman and cut down trees for a living.
‘Good gracious!’ cried the Tin Woodman in astonishment. ‘If you are Nick Chopper’s Head, then you are Me—or I’m You—or—or—What relation are we, anyhow?’”

Many of these stories and philosophies are based upon intuitions about matter that the Greek Atomists would immediately grasp. Yet in modern physics our atomism is even more radical than that of the Greeks. The contemporary update to Atomist theory comes in several flavors.

For example, all fundamental particles of a given type—all electrons, or all photons, or all top quarks—are posited to be indistinguishable. This is a far stronger statement than simply saying they are ‘alike’. When counting the number of distinct microscopic states of a physical system, if we exchange electron A with electron B, those two states (AB and BA) are counted as the same microstate.

This is very strange. Put differently, if we swap an atom on one side of a room with an identical atom on the other side of the room, it’s as if the swap has never occurred. In fact, we can swap every atom in the room with every other atom, in all possible combinations, and we still must count that as only one distinct microstate. The count of microstates isn’t changed by identical particle swaps. The collective microstate only changes if the position or velocity of one or more of the atoms is changed.

Now add to this mix the additional strangeness of quantum mechanics and dig even deeper into quantum field theory and the Standard Model. Here we find a roiling vacuum and sea of virtual particles, popping in and out of existence in a restless dance, the forces between particles emerging from the constant exchange of other particles…it all becomes a bit much for the old-style materialist mindset to take in.
All these theories are products of early or mid- to late-twentieth century physics, and they now rest upon a firm experimental foundation, confirmed by many tests over the decades. The more recent and even wilder theories of dark matter and dark energy, string theory and the multiverse, are still seeking confirmation. The Jorge Luis Borges’ short story, ‘The Garden of the Forking Paths’ (1941), is a literary expression of the notion that any time we make a choice, to turn left or right, to step forward or back, that the world entire splits and continues along each separate path, while we and the world around us ramify, each fork now a stranger to one another. This short story is sometimes invoked to explicate the quantum multiverse in literary form. But for our purposes, it’s more evocative to imagine the story of infinitely forking paths as told from the center of a turbulent maelstrom: in the quantum multiverse the forking doesn’t depend upon our personal choices, but instead all the possible outcomes of each chance encounter of every fundamental particle.

The modern atomist revolution is still unfolding, and the radical character of 20th century physical theory has not fully penetrated the areas beyond the sciences—areas where some intuitions still seem to be based upon antiquated notions about matter, with its solid billiard ball atoms banging around, governed by cold equations, the future determined by the past, as if the universe was a giant clockwork where our fates are fixed at the outset of the world. This is a picture of things which physicists found they had to abandon over a century ago. Atoms are not billiard balls. The world is not a clockwork. In addition, light is not composed of particles, like Newton believed, nor is it a wave, like some 19th century physicists believed. Instead, light has the characteristics of both wave and particle. As do atoms, which are both localized and wavelike. If we insist on thinking of them as little billiard balls, we must endow them with a restless shimmer. Chaos is the order of the day, not determinism.

Why does any of this matter outside of the physical sciences? Because our intuitions about the stuff the world is made of can pop up in surprising places, like political or religious ideologies—serving as a kind of metaphysical fog that clouds and creeps into places it shouldn’t. Science, the shared and open enterprise to develop reliable knowledge about the world, can morph by degrees into the ideology of scientism by a certain type of move, in which sloppy, outmoded thinking is passed off as ‘objective’ and ‘rigorous’.

The late physicist Freeman Dyson made this point eloquently in his essay collection Infinite in All Directions (1988). There he writes that he’d recently attended a talk by a famous biologist who spoke about there being two philosophical viewpoints which he called ‘scientific materialism’ and ‘religious transcendentalism’. At heart, the two world views were incompatible, according to the biologist. Dyson went on to say that he didn’t understand the meaning of the word ‘materialism’. To him, ‘matter’ in modern physics is an ‘imprecise and rather old-fashioned concept’ because in our current understanding of things, matter is how particles behave when large numbers of them are clumped together. But, when viewed in isolation, we see those same particles behaving ‘as an active agent rather than an inert substance’. That roiling vacuum is what he has in mind here, not the void of the atomists but instead something far stranger, full of fluctuating virtualities. The actions of these particles in the strictest sense are unpredictable, they are not the billiard balls of 19th century materialist philosophies.

Dyson goes on in even more radical fashion to conclude that:

Between matter and mind as we observe it in our own consciousness, there seems to be only a difference in degree but not in kind. If God is accessible to us, then his mind and ours likewise differ from each other only in degree and not in kind. We stand, in a manner of speaking, midway between the unpredictability of matter and the unpredictability of God.

Freeman Dyson, Infinite in All Directions

Like Wittgenstein beating against the cage created by language in order say something he believes deeply, Dyson here is attempting to share his inmost thoughts using the imprecise language available to him—thoughts that were inspired by insights revealed to him in mathematical equations, written in a language that most of us cannot read. But those laws of physics are a place where consciousness might be hiding if we only understood the potentialities of what the equations are telling us. If we could only navigate their complexity, we might glimpse ourselves peering out of all those churning and unpredictable particles of which, it seems, we are made.

Dyson was one of the leading theoretical physicists of his generation. He was a co-creator of quantum electrodynamics (QED), the first theory that fully aligned quantum mechanics and special relativity, and the Director of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton for many years (where Einstein spent his last two decades). His views are his own, of course, and I suspect that his theological speculations are not widely shared among physicists, who mostly keep their thoughts on these matters to themselves. But the point Dyson is making is one that I believe most physicists would certainly agree with: the ‘atomism’ of modern physics is not the Ancient Greek Atomism of Leucippus, Democritus, and Lucretius. The matter of modern physical theory is not the kind of matter that forms the metaphysical ground of ‘materialism’ as that word is generally understood outside physics. The materialist Emperor isn’t wearing the clothes he thinks he’s wearing, and his head is encrusted with the barnacles of long-dead physics.

Modern physics is far from finished. Neuroscience cannot yet explain consciousness. And AI is still far from creating a true machine companion. But all these fields are making progress. Great discoveries await. All these fields are undergoing sustained upheavals that will carry us well into the middle of the current century. Such developments counsel great humility regarding our old ways of thinking. If the aim of ideology is to eliminate ambiguity, as the writer Margaret Atwood has argued, then we must be ready for the fall of ideological idols, because the very ground beneath our feet is shifting.

When I was in high school, one of my teachers asked the class to reflect upon what we wanted to become in life, and to write it on a slip of paper. Without a moment’s thought, I wrote: ‘I want to be free,’ and passed it forward. He shook his head when he read my note, as if world weary, and told the class that here was someone who hadn’t yet woken up to the fact that none of us are really free. Time to grow up. Instead, what I took from that day’s lesson was to be careful who I shared my dreams with, and to hide my attempts to run against the bars of the cage.

With atomism we have become like the Tin Woodman—who, when confronted with his own self, realizes that the questions ‘Who am I?’ and ‘What am I?’ are fatefully entwined. And to this we should also add: ‘Am I free?’ The philosopher Jenann Ismael ponders the question of human freedom in her book How Physics Makes Us Free (2016). Ismael’s point seems to be that the typical arguments invoked to claim that Newtonian physics, Einsteinian physics, or even quantum mechanics have no room for human freedom are not couched in clear terms. They often look to the character of the laws of nature, or to the mathematical equations that express them, and voilà—suddenly there is no room in them for freedom.

Ismael herself engages more seriously with the question of freedom within the physics of complex assemblages of matter and comes to a very different conclusion. That complexity of interacting particles can evolve to become what she calls ‘self-regulating’. This does not mean they break out of the cage of physical laws, but rather that they exploit the properties of matter to create skeins of signal pathways and feedback loops. These loops can become so complex that, even with the constraints of physics, it’s possible to develop what we can call a story-telling engine, matter speaking to itself—an internal ‘I’ that models an external world that the ‘I’ is situated within. That ‘I’ and ‘world’ model emerge from the hubbub of all that chaos that lies within us at the level of fundamental particles.

I find this idea intriguing, if not entirely convincing. The question of situating human freedom within the prevailing scientific world view is always something worth pondering, if only to try out certain new mental tools that we can use to beat against the walls of Wittgenstein’s cage of language. Such give and take between science and reflection is essential: human freedom matters a great deal, even if we can’t quite understand it, or fit it within what science tells us about the world.

I once had a conversation with a colleague, a biologist, who told me that when the question of free will comes up in class he tells his students that they have no free will, only a perfect illusion of it cooked up by the brain. I asked him how he would ever prove that empirically, and he looked at me like I had spoken a heresy. But all I was really asking for was to show some humility. A dash, just here and there, to avoid getting stuck with old bromides that won’t stand the test of future generations. Closing off certain lines of inquiry as either prematurely settled, or simply out-of-bounds, says to our students that some of the deepest and most meaningful things in their lives must be put aside when they enter a laboratory or a lecture hall. Instead, we should encourage them to keep beating against the walls of the world using whatever languages we have available, if only so we can send messages to one another, like signal fires in the night.

Copyright © Eugene R. Tracy. All rights reserved. If you enjoyed this piece, please share it, while respecting the Terms of Use.

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