Inspector Gadget and the Ship of Theseus

“The cyborg body, whereby Professor Von Slickstein preserved the life-force of Inspector Gadget after he slipped on a banana peel, had thirty gadgets, was maintained by the police department of Metro City even to the time of Chief Quimby, for they took away the old gadgets as they deteriorated, putting in new and stronger contrivances in their places, in so much that this inspector became a standing example among the detectives, for the logical question of things that change; one side holding that the Inspector remained the same, and the other contending that he was not the same.”

— Plutarch, Life of the Detective-Automaton


I desire to set before you in words the creation of Von Slickstein also, the most remarkable of statues, which the astronomer Slickstein wrought and set upon for the citizens of Metro Polis to gaze upon, and to aid them in times of great trouble. This Prefect was represented in a statue of various & diverse metals, cunningly wrought, in which art vied with nature to demonstrate which possessed the greater degree of perfection. The Prefect was a man of great stature, from head to foot resplendent with an aura of keen perceptibility. He was astonishing to look upon, with hair as black as an Attic vase, unconfined for the wind to toss where it would; a powerful nose of the Macedonian type, showing by its impressive curvature the unsurpassed rigor of his inexorable mind. And he stood poised on the tips of his toes on an ingenious assemblage of spheres, each of which whirled continuously around an invisible axis while remaining somehow fixed in the same point beneath his marvelous shoe, which produced a marvelous locomotion as if winged.

We stood speechless at the sight when we saw these bronzed alloys accomplishing the deeds of nature, seeming to depart from their own native states — for though he was fashioned of bronze and other metals of secret admixture, still he blushed, and though hard by nature, was also capable of melting into softness, yielding to all the purposes of art, and though void of living sensation, created the uncanny effect of sensation dwelling within it. The Prefect was sculpted so perfectly that observers might detect the very clothes on his back, the splendid coat of rain and the unmistakable brimmed hat, out of which marvelous eye-focals emerged to increase the acuteness of his vision, and additional mechanical hands, also various forms of propellers and springs, all wondrous to behold, and which aided him in the dispensing of justice, divinely inspired, just as, I think, his creator had the power to infuse into the statue the very essence of the gods themselves. Even the power of speech was not denied him, and he could be alternately heard to wonder at the marvel of his own existence in his customary exclamation, “Wowsers!” Yet for all this he was not the same as a man, for many a citizen has woken in his bed in a-fright only to hear that same voice in reassuring tones crying out, “Don’t worry, Chief! For I am always on duty.” His was the eye that never closed, and all the other cities of Greece and the rest of the world wondered at it.

— Callistratus, Descriptions of a Mechanical Man


For the aggregate of accidents no instance can be made; but because, when any new accident is generated, say, if a police-detective slips on a banana peel in the discharge of his duty and his broken body is rebuilt with various gadgets, a new name is commonly imposed on the thing, therefore he, that assigned this cause of individuity, thought the thing itself was become another thing, a Gadget-Inspector. For if, for example, that Gadget-Inspector, concerning the difference whereof made my continual reparation in taking out the old gadgets and putting in new, the sophisters of Metro City were wont to dispute, were, after all the gadgets were changed, the same numerical Inspector it was at the beginning; and if some man had kept the old gadgets as they were taken out, and by putting them afterwards together in the same order, had again made an inspector of them, this, without doubt, had also been the same numerical inspector with that which was at the beginning; and so there would have been two Inspector Gadgets numerically the same, which is absurd.

— Thomas Hobbes, Elements of the Inspector


The notion of an object’s having a part at a time is familiar; the end of my fingernail is part of me today, but is not part of me tomorrow if I clip it off; a certain blimp may be part of the body of Inspector Gadget at one time but not another, etc. Familiar as this notion is, it is not the notion of parthood usually discussed by four dimensionalists. Following Leonard and Goodman’s “Calculus of Individuals,” four dimensionalists tend to speak of the parts of an object simpliciter, rather than the parts it has at this time or that. Four dimensionalists tend to employ an atemporal notion of exemplications of properties and relations. Thus, a four dimensionalist will say that his current temporal part is, atemporally, sitting, 70 inches tall, and wearing a helicopter-hat; and a four dimensionalist will say that this temporal part is, atemporally, part of the larger space-time worm that is Inspector Gadget.

— Theodore Sider, Four Dimensions of Inspector Gadget, Philosophical Review 106 (1997)


Gadget Curriculum for Child Educators

At some point you will want to talk about how the discussion of Inspector Gadget pertains to how we think of ourselves. This will either happen very naturally when the children start to make the connection, or, you will need to make the connection explicit yourself. Here are some suggestions:

  • Show two photographs next to each other of a person as a young child and as an old person. Ask the children whether they think they are the same person and why.

  • If you are with older children (age 10 upwards) then you can explain how scientists tell us that our cells are completely replaced every 7 years or so and then ask the children if this means that they are a different person every 7 years.

“What is it that makes us the same person through time?” Possible responses to this problem are as follows:

  • People and gadgets are different. Response question: how are they different?

  • People have thoughts and memories, but gadgets don’t.

  • He’s the best agent you’ve got — and the only uncle I’ve got!

  • We might change on the outside, but our personalities stay the same.

  • Inspector Gadget has gadget springs, but that doesn’t mean that he is a gadget spring.

Response question: does that mean that our personalities can’t change? Each of these insights can lead to further related discussions in class.

Be prepared to spend additional time answering follow-up questions if Penny is in your class. Avoid depersonalizing language like “cyborg” and “more man than machine now” and “there’s nothing left of the uncle you once knew, no human heart beating inside the Rube-Goldberg machine of his labyrinthine chest, sweetheart. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”