Watchmen’s Ozymandias and the ultimate moral dilemma


Ozym Ozymandias

The ideal hero… but can he be?

First, I have to ask you: have you read Watchmen? Or at least seen the movie? If you haven’t, this is going to spoil the heck out of it; what I’m discussing is tied to the conclusion of the great story. Do read the original graphic novel first rather than reading this. If you’ve seen the movie, that’s good enough, but I would not recommend starting with it instead of the comic.

Watchmen is the graphic novel (ie. comic book) that always gets mentioned when talking about how comics or even superhero comics can be deep and can be art. I’ve already discussed philosophical questions raised in it in two articles, concentrating on the metaphysics around Dr. Manhattan. This time, I am going to use it to look at a central question in ethics. It’s one of the most important questions in ethics: do the ends justify the means, or, when do they?

Now, if you’re ready to hear more about this, read on.

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“The Machine” and the big problem with the continuity of consciousness

Existential Comics is a webcomic about philosophy — mostly about parodying philosophers and philosophical ideas for inside joke laughs, sometimes making profound observations. Perhaps the most profound comic is the first one, “The Machine”. I recommend that you take a few minutes to read it right now. Either way, I’m going to use it to illustrate an important question that it brings up.

The comic begins with the invention of teleporters that can be used to flawlessly teleport even people. However, some people think being teleported means death, and not without reason.

Existential Comics The Machine 3-4

If the teleporter takes you from one place to another instantly, without your passing in between, then what it really does is in at least some sense to destroy the original you and create a new one in the next place. If you don’t think so, what do you say to the two examples of thought experiments at the end of the panel above? But then, doesn’t this mean that when you teleport, you die and a clone is created in your place, one that thinks it’s you but isn’t because you’re forever dead? Continue reading

Dr. Manhattan 2: Reductionism, life, and miracles

A live body and a dead body contain the same number of particles. Structurally, there’s no discernible difference. Life and death are unquantifiable abstracts. Why should I be concerned?


Dr. Manhattan 2

In a previous post, I discussed the metaphysical questions about time, causality and free will raised by Watchmen’s Dr. Manhattan. In this article, I will examine his relationship to matter and life. There are some spoilers again.

After becoming a superbeing capable of manipulating matter at will, Dr. Manhattan has largely lost touch with what the rest of humanity considers important. He feels more at home with inanimate matter, and indeed he shows genuine interest in its impersonal beauty in spite of his disinterest otherwise. He can directly observe at least atomic structures, if not even smaller particles. Meanwhile, he shows indifference even to matters of life and death at a human scale. Life and death are just unquantifiable abstracts.

In other words, Dr. Manhattan’s view of the world is thoroughly reductionist by nature. Continue reading

Dr. Manhattan: Time, causality, and freedom

“Everything is preordained. Even my responses.”

“And you just go through the motions, acting them out? Is that what you are? The most powerful thing in the universe and you’re just a puppet following a script?”

“We’re all puppets, Laurie. I’m just a puppet who can see the strings.”


Dr. ManhattanThe graphic novel Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons is rightly considered a masterpiece. It explores the question of what it would really be like if there were “superheroes”, and does this as well as many other things with thought-provoking depth.

One of the characters in Watchmen is Dr. Jonathan Osterman, who becomes the only “superhero” to gain actual superpowers — the ability to manipulate matter at will and observe its microscopic structure as well as to see the future — and whose new identity is called “Dr. Manhattan”. The comic explores his alienation from humanity as his powers and altered perception of reality move him away from the world as seen by everyone else.

In this article, I want to look at some of the philosophical questions around Dr. Manhattan in more detail. I will focus on questions posed by his non-linear experience of time and its implications for freedom of the will. I will write a second post about his view of physics and life as a phenomenon later. Continue reading

Would you jump off an analogy?

I think this strip is witty enough, in a changing the topic kind of way, but anyone taking this seriously as a counterargument would be missing the point [edited to add: see postscript], and I’ll use that to illustrate another point.

Alt-text: "And it says a lot about you that when your friends jump off a bridge en masse, your first thought is apparently 'my friends are all foolish and I won't be like them' and not 'are my friends ok?'"

Let’s assume “all my friends” are going to a party. It doesn’t make much difference. What I think the offscreen strawman should be saying in in the last panel would be:

  • “So literally every single person you know is going to this party? If not, why are you equivocating? Can’t your argument hold without your changing meanings of expressions in the middle of it but pretending we’re still talking about the same thing?”
  • “Are you going to this party because you’re thinking that some harm is going to befall everyone who doesn’t? Is that how you derive ‘I should go’ from ‘All my friends are going’? If not, what has what you just said have to do with this issue? Are you trying to change the subject?”
  • “Do you, in fact, understand how analogies work? That they stand or fall by the parts that are relevantly similar to the thing they’re an analogy of, not the rest of it?”

That last is the point I want to make. An analogy is illustrating a thing, let’s say thing A (going to a party because all your friends are going), by comparing it to thing B (jumping off a bridge because all your friends did so), by saying both have properties x, y, and z (doing something regardless of what the thing itself is like because your friends did). Of course, both things will have some further properties that they do not share (people jumping off a bridge would have to have a good reason to do so). If you’re looking at those features, though, guess what? You’re not understanding the analogy, or you’re willingly arguing back with sophisms that have nothing to do with the original point.

You can, of course, argue against an analogy by saying it does not hold. There isn’t a very good example of that for the “jumping off a bridge” argument, because if it’s used properly, it’s making the true point that it’s a stupid argument, more like revealing your own psychological weaknesses than giving a reason, that you should do something (at least if that something is not totally harmless) just because everyone’s doing it. (Calvin’s mom in Calvin and Hobbes uses a more effective analogy, although specifically in relation to smoking cigars: “Flatulence could be all the rage, but it would still be disgusting.”) I suppose a possible argument against this analogy could be “Jumping off a bridge would be harmful, this is neutral, so I can do this for no good reason.” But that would only work if it was neutral. You’d still be left with having said you want to do something for a bad reason. If that’s not your reason, then why are you using it as an argument? Why don’t you just say what better reasons you have to go? (If you actually meant “I want to be there because all my friends will be there and it’s going to be really fun to see them all,” then replying using the bridge analogy would be nonsense in the first place. But then the problem would not be with the analogy but with people not understanding it.)

When you come across an analogy, look at the relevant parts. The only thing you can do otherwise is confuse the issue. Even “winning” an argument like that would really be nothing but cheating. Missing the point of analogies and then being smug about it strikes me as annoyingly stupid, as being smug about being right when you’re wrong always does. I’m not sure how often people actually do that seriously, but there’s another and more important reason to understand how analogies work: that you don’t accept genuinely bad analogies and false equivalences, and that you can argue against them properly when you see them.

PS. On later reflection, I was partly wrong here. There is a way in which the strip’s treatment of the analogy could be meaningful. You could see an analogy between the judgement of “all my friends” about the bridge and the party or whatever, if it was about trusting their judgement whether to go. In that case, though, I’m not sure what exactly the situation could be. This doesn’t affect the point of the post, it just makes the example less apt.

xkcd Misconceptions Day 2014: Darwin’s quote on the eye

No Finnish version available.

This is the hundredth post on this weblog. Yay. Too bad I didn’t have anything more grand or celebratory.

I almost forgot, but I’m just barely in time (in my own time zone) for xkcd Misconceptions Day, inspired by this comic:

Here’s the link to the Wikipedia page for you to read at your leisure.

And below, you will find today’s semi-common misconception…

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xkcd Misconceptions Day 2013: The Definition of Insanity

No Finnish version available. I didn’t make one last year, so now I get to say it’s tradition.

It’s the first Tuesday in February again, so I’m continuing with the “tradition” established last year, inspired by the following webcomic strip:

So, first, here’s a link to the Wikipedia page in question.

And next, here’s a random misconception I want to dispel. Not such a big one this year, but annoying nonetheless.

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