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Object Lesson

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(Photo Credit: Mark Levin)

Are we built to think that the things around us will last? Psychologist and philosopher Alison Gopnik tells us about a few experiments that complicate our understanding of peek-a-boo. Then she pulls us into a philosophical rabbit hole where a swamp clones Robert, Neil Armstrong writes an email, and we all try to cling to an ever-changing impermanent universe.


Alison Gopnik

Comments [12]

John G. Maguire from Chelmsford MA

I was about to link to an article I did for the Atlantic on the logic and the importance of stressing objects when you are teaching beginners (including freshmen) to write.

Feb. 03 2016 10:41 AM
John Maguire from Chelmsford MA

Because we experience ourselves as physical as well as conscious, our love for things could be seen as a translation of the affection and respect we feel for our own selves. You love me? Kiss me right there, on my cheek!

Objects--even if they are fictions because we ourselves are collections of cycling atoms--still are fundamental. Our minds are inescapably bound up in a world of things. Even ideas tend to present themselves to us as denatured things. The Platonic idea of the triangle comes across as a physical triangle but just sort of washed out. (Because it's up there in the sphere of the ideal, don't you know.)

Feb. 03 2016 10:35 AM
Tyrone from Cambridge MA

There was a study done at Oak Ridge Lab., reported by Paul C. Aebersold in the 1953 Annual Report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution, that 98 percent of all the atoms in a person’s body change out every year, and that within five years basically all of the atoms had changed. (Actually, after 5 years, statistically all but 3 out of every billion have changed.) So none of the atoms in Robert's body way back 40 years ago are still present today. But different molecules (& atoms) cycle through at different rates. For example, about every 16 days nearly 100% of the water is exchanged in a healthy body. Elements like carbon, sodium and potassium take longer, about 98% replaced within a year, with about 2% from a year earlier still remaining. After 5 years, that means only about 3 out of every billion atoms have not been replaced.

Sep. 27 2014 04:27 PM
bubble buster

Nice conversation about the idea of self being connected to our emotional connection to physical objects and connections. I would suggest, however, framing the discussion in the psychological realm, rather than philosophical. I would suggest that it is entirely possible that human beings evolved with a direct connection between the need for maintaining possession and survival/prosperity. This would result in our naturally having an emotional connection with things.

Sep. 08 2014 07:28 PM
Jackie Felber from UK

Hi, before I start, I love listening to your conversations, as it opens up new conversations and knowledge in my life. Just thinking about the date and the ticket and the swamp man, is it not true that every molecule in your body is replaced over each 7 year period (I haven't looked this up again though)? If so neither the original,nor the swamp copy would have "physically" been on the date. So what else is passed on and kept from the time of the date? Electricity? Energy?
Just a thought, because I agree that it feels like there would be something missing from swamp copy that is in the original and went on the date.

Aug. 07 2014 12:29 PM
Damon from SF, CA

The conversation in this segment touches on another topic that I'm surprised hasn't attracted Radiolab's attention: formative causation and morphic resonance theories, proposed by Rupert Sheldrake. The theories depend, to some extent (entirely?) on non-material behavioral fields, for which much anecdotal evidence can be found, but which seem to resist attempts at empirical proof.

Anyway, I terrifically enjoyed the summary of the history of the scientific process, included in Sheldrake's The Presence of the Past, and subsequent suggestions of how morphic resonance might explain some hitherto mysterious phenomena, from avian homing instincts to people's experience of "past lives". To that end, the theory might suggest that the cellular similarities between Robert and Swamp Robert might lead Swamp Robert to "tune in" to Robert's memories, the way two TVs tuned identically will pull in the same broadcast channel.

Again, I'm surprised that the only pertinent results that pop up Googling "radiolab' in conjunction with "Sheldrake", are in comments sections, such as this, for "cosmic habituation" and "A Flock of Two". Is it too far along into the realm of "woo"?

Jun. 11 2014 08:14 PM
Chris B. from Chicago, IL

The "swamp man" experiment sounds very similar to Alan Moore's run on DC Comics' Swamp Thing. The character was created in the early 70's as part of their horror line. He was a botanist named Alec Holland who was mutated into a creature that was part plant and part man.

Moore revived the character in the early 80's. A significant part of that revival was to reveal that the event that created Swamp Thing actually killed Alec Holland, and that Swamp Thing was something else. "It remembers having bones, and so it builds itself a skeleton of wood. It remembers having muscle and constructs muscles from supple plant fiber...We thought that the Swamp Thing was Alec Holland, somehow transformed into a plant. It wasn't. It was a plant that thought it was Alec Holland."

The book explored the concept of personhood, and what defines humanity.

Jun. 06 2014 11:31 AM
Eric Jorgensen from Everett, WA

Jesse Bryant hit the nail on the head. This statement- "Roberts atom's really were in that place" is 99.9% false. With the exception of very small parts of our bodies, we are constantly cycling through material- nearly an entire body's worth every year. We are like a flame that way. It's not the atoms that define a flame, it's the repeating pattern of the flame. That certainly makes the swamp gas question more interesting, because the swamp gas creation is not the same atoms, but can we count it as even the same continuing pattern? This goes all the way to quantum physics if we want to think about that question!

I believe the reason objects are interesting is that it is the *object's* atoms that were there in the past, and that's the "thing" part that we like. Something else to think about: In the egg story, the box and the egg are fundamentally different than the seedling. Like the Olympic torch, the box and egg are like the Olympic torch itself, but the seedling of the tree is like the flame. The seedling looks to the future- the objects look to the past.

Jun. 05 2014 12:11 PM
Daniel Hoffman from Philadelphia

I love these sort of experiments, however, I disagree with the outcome of the experiment done on adults.
The experimenters gave an object to people and asked how much they would sell it for. Their price is higher than that of a stranger's. Alison Gopnik suggested that this stems from value that people place upon things that they possess.

I agree that people do this, though I don't think the experiment proves that.
Here's a parallel thought experiment:
Ask people how much they would charge to clean someone's car and then ask someone else how much they would pay. These prices are bound to be different as well even though there is no "object" in question.

I see two possibilities here.
1. Objects and labor hold similar "inherent" value for people. (I don't buy this possibility)
2. People are greedy and place a value on something that could potentially earn them money.

The second scenario still relates to ownership, but I do not think it relates to the "intrinsic" value so much as it relates to the possibility of earning a dollar.

Jun. 04 2014 01:29 PM

"What's the difference between me and my atoms? I don't know but I know there is one."
Yeah its called emergence, perhaps you remember from the show you did on emergence? Or are you seriously entertaining dualism Robert? Do you not remember from the show you did on memory, that memories are physically encoded into the synapses in your brain and therefore OF COURSE swampman would have all of your memories and be an exact replica of you. He would believe he was you, and he would be correct.

No man stands in the same river twice. I'm sure I don't need to explain that proverb to you, unless you are going to do what you seem to like doing on the show and pretend not to know things that you actually already know.

How about doing a short on Parfit's Teleporter and just put this whole "issue" that has long been settled and widely agreed upon by both science and philosophy, to rest.

Jun. 04 2014 01:04 PM
Jesse Bryant from Lander, WY

I think the discussion on "the atoms" was missing one key reality: that our body is constantly changing. "The atoms" that make up are body are actually constantly changing, cycling. This may seem like a silly caveat, but I think really understanding on a deep level that this "thing" we call our body is not so much an object in the way we like to think about it, but rather a dynamic living system. This might sound a bit ridiculous, but our inability to recognize this quality of living systems, I believe, is in part why many of us live quite disenchanted lives.

Jun. 04 2014 12:05 PM
Bobby Calise from New York, NY

I believe in this section one of you made a comment about an email not being as valuable as a hand-written letter. I agree, and in that vein I've always struggled with whether an old school baseball ticket on thicker stock paper) was seemingly more valuable than the cheap printed-from-email ones most of us use today. I actually wrote about this back in 2009 myself and thought I'd share:

Jun. 02 2014 09:45 AM

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