Like many boys his age, my 2-year-old son has taken a liking to any show that features Thomas the Tank Engine. In a situation like mine, presented with days upon days of ridiculous, inescapable songs sung by children about trains, many parents sink into a long, despairing, learned helplessness and consider taking more drastic steps to lessen their future ability to have children. However, I have learned to deal with this unenviable position by letting my mind drift to philosophy as my son watches the show.
I am often puzzled by the show, but there is one puzzling aspect of the show above all others. Thomas, Percy, Henry, Gordon and their friends frequently speak, have adventures, make decisions, and feel emotions in the course of an average show. Sir Topham Hatt frequently directs the trains to carry out tasks in order to be “very useful,” and, though there is often more than one marginally amusing and mildly suspenseful hangup that seems to threaten the performance of their tasks (okay, admittedly, they seem to be very amusing and suspenseful for my son, who at the moment is quite ignorant of the conventions of children’s entertainment), every show seems to wrap up nicely with the tasks being completed by the trains and everyone cheers/smiles/laughs and the show ends.
But wait a minute. Every now and then, in the course of changing cabs and loads of cargo, a little man emerges from Thomas and uses a hook to attach or de-attach the load. It turns out the little man is one of Thomas’ drivers. What?
It seems that the agency that causes movement, decisions, and power to load cargo in Thomas is quite over-determined! For it then becomes a mystery who is making the real decisions. It sure seems like Thomas is the one making decisions, talking, and moving up and down the track. So what role do the little homunculi in the engine play in all this? I’ve thought of some options.
- Thomas is the true causal agent, and the men are component parts. On this view, the men are simply non-conscious tools used by Thomas to perform tasks. Thomas decides to move, and the men are obligated to do whatever Thomas wills. All the component parts of Thomas (the drivers included) are subsumed under the irreducible form of Thomas and fall under his causal control. The range of actions available to Thomas are limited by the properties of his component parts (Thomas cannot fly to his destinations, must only ride on tracks, has a speed limitation, etc.) but Thomas is the entity that can be said to decide, will, move, etc., and is not fully reducible to his component parts. This seems to me more of an Aristotelian view.
- Thomas is an epiphenomenon of the decisions, emotions, and conversations that the drivers have. In other words, “Thomas” as we know him is actually an emergent property that represents a sort of average of the drivers. On this view, it is unclear whether Thomas even “exists” as a real entity or not, but even if he does, it is not accurate (ultimately) to say that Thomas has any causal influence on the world at all. This is like epiphenomenalism.
- Thomas and the drivers have a parallel relationship. On this view, the men just happen to make the same decisions that Thomas makes at the same time, and there is a pre-established union between the men and Thomas that cause them to be forever joined in this harmony. This is called parallelism, and seems to only work if you assume that there is Someone (capital S) ensuring that both sides are the same at all times forever.
Surely there are more explanations for the existence of Thomas, but these are the main ones that come to mind, for me. And then there are even bigger questions about Thomas: do Thomas, Sir Topham Hatt, Gordon, and the Island of Sodor actually exist or not? Does there need to be an explanation for the existence of Thomas, or can he exist by brute necessity? If he needs an explanation, then does it make sense to have an explanation within the fictional story, or do you need to appeal to an outside creator to explain the existence of the whole story?
Most importantly, how would St. Thomas Aquinas feel about not being the most important Thomas in this post?