The philosophy of Thomas the Tank Engine

My toddler loves to watch the television show Thomas and Friends based on the The Railway Series books by the Rev. Wilbert Audry. The show tells the story of sentient trains on a mythical island off the British coast called Sodor. Each episode is a morality play where one of the trains causes some problem because of a character flaw like arrogance or vanity that eventually comes to the attention of the avuncular head of the railroad, Sr. Topham Hatt (called The Fat Controller in the UK). He mildly chastises the train, who becomes aware of his foolishness (it’s almost always a he) and remedies the situation.

While I think the show has some educational value for small children, it also brings up some interesting ethical and metaphysical questions that could be very relevant for our near future. For one, although the trains are sentient and seem to have full control over their actions, some of them also have human drivers. What are these drivers doing? Are they simply observers or are they complicit in the ill-judged actions of the trains? Should they be held responsible for the mistakes of the train? Who has true control, the driver or the train? Can one over-ride the other? These questions will be on everyone’s minds when the first self-driving cars hit the mass market in a few years.

An even more relevant ethical dilemma regards the place the trains have in society. Are they employees or indentured servants of the railroad company? Are they free to leave the railroad if they want? Do they own possessions? When the trains break down they are taken to the steam works, which is run by a train named Victor. However, humans effect the repairs. Do they take orders from Victor? Presumably, the humans get paid and are free to change jobs so is this a situation where free beings are supervised by slaves?

The highest praise a train can receive from Sir Topham Hatt is that he or she was “very useful.” This is not something one would say to a human employee in a modern corporation. You might say you were very helpful or that your action was very useful but it sounds dehumanizing to say “you are useful.” Thus, Sir Topham Hatt at least, does not seem to consider the trains to be humans. Perhaps, he considers them to be more like domesticated animals. However, these are animals that clearly have aspirations, goals, and feelings of self-worth. It seems to me that they should be afforded the full rights of any other citizen of Sodor. As machines become more and more integrated into our lives, it may well be useful to probe the philosophical quandaries of Thomas and Friends.





5 thoughts on “The philosophy of Thomas the Tank Engine

  1. since i am really deep (like a deep thinker, or stuck in the mud) i believe in ‘deep ecology’ (arnie naess) so i believe all beings are equal. (schrodinger didnt think electrons or photons had consciousness or choice, but that is just one view). trains are sentient. the humans who run them, like, say, cancer cells in a human body, also are. so, we should respect all life. i used to jump trains down in mexico and from texas to california (in general ok, but u also meet some very dangerous people—i had to jump off a few times, got a bit hurt). in our society, trains primarily serve to take oil from north dakota (and i knew that place since half my family is from there—sortuh chilly in winter, very few trees except along the red river when they moved to fargo (made a movie called that) , but they have green snakes, badlands, etc.) to its resting place along i-95 and the beltway. its quite similar to the migration of caribous, salmon, and eels in rock creek. (know all of those). sure, occasionaly a few of those trains derail in canada, west virginia, minnesota, but so what. i was talking to a guy when i was buying a beer up the street who had a toddler who he loved—his apartment was just above us—we were sitting in the alley, drinking a beer, and then he propositioned me. (some people are desperate). i heard someone got shot and killed the other day their, and i wonder if it was him—some people do not like being solicited.


  2. So you don’t think only trolls are reading… Got me wondering what Asimov would write as a children’s author. Found out about the Norby series by Janet (wife of Isaac): May check that out. Saw “Big Hero 6” with my kids, and it has an interesting robot character who is programmed for what is perceived as compassion. It is particularly interesting how the robot is clearly a machine following a program, as opposed to having a mystical component (which is the usual way robots become deserving of special treatment). Seems like the topic of sentient machines has been treated in children’s lit, but I don’t know the history. Kreso Josic had post about “The Invention of Hugo Cabret” by Brian Selznick (, and I mentioned “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” by Dewan which raises the idea of machines that procreate. Anyway, I’ll choose Thomas and Friends over Peg and Cat, which should be immediately banned from PBS.


  3. My son loved Thomas around age 3-4 then suddenly lost all interest. I watched it with him and found it pretty fun, but I also had similar curious musings about how the details of these engines’ lives worked.

    I think it’s useful to consider how far these stories can get WITHOUT addressing the gritty questions about how things ‘really’ work. In other words, what is presented on screen is clearly ‘enough’ for a three year old — they succeed in enchanting him with a coherent world.

    As we get older, we are able to see behind the curtain more clearly and we then demand more plausibility from our function stories. As our habits of skepticism and critical thinking develop, we still enjoy fantasies, but they must be ever slicker — we want great novels, great films.

    Yet my point is that some very deep impulse in us still wants that elusive quality of coherence from our fiction. ‘We want to believe.’ And we can be persuaded to ‘suspend disbelief’ given a sympathetic enough story.

    The upshot is that the same dynamic applies to our real lives. When you are a kid, the world makes sense somehow. Our brains weave the world into a coherent story. Kids have very little doubt and are not critical of what outlandish stories we tell them — Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, ghosts. In fact, this sense of coherence that children have is so strongly held that even careful Socratic questioning by a sadistic adult trying to expose the insanity of these beliefs won’t often succeed in getting the kid to admit, ‘Yeah Dad, that doesn’t make sense and can’t be true.’ Instead a kid will often just say ‘but ghosts ARE real’ and be satisfied with that.

    As we get older we demand more plausibility from our stories about the world — grand unified theories, political ideologies, religious expositions, romantic ideas of love, ‘conspiracy theories.’ We still desperately want to believe in coherent pictures of the world, even when they are illusions. The smarter and more curious we are, the more complicated and Byzantine beliefs we seek to behold in order to overwhelm our skepticism and critical thinking faculties for a moment, and achieve that sweet sweet feeling of ‘whoa’ — which is inevitably short-lived. It’s not unlike the social justice warriors who are continuously uncovering more and more rococo portraits of injustice.

    We want these critical faculties to be overwhelmed. And if you are not successful in overwhelming them often enough, you may feel ‘disenchanted’ and nihilistic.

    We want to be fooled, then to see through the trick, and then to demand better tricks to be fooled again, ad infinitem. Both are fun! This dual desire has been a propellant In human development for sure.

    Given this nature, there are perhaps two strategies for happiness. (1) the less intrepid or more pragmatic (or conservative) will stop seeking and simply focus on suspending disbelief give in to the enjoyment of the illusions at hand. In other words, they realize that they better stop being so critical of the fabric of reality because it just leads to more dissatisfaction. (2) the more intrepid or the less pragmatic (liberal) will keep searching and continue to develop their critical faculties with the tacit faith that one day they will hit the bedrock of reality and be able to satisfy the need to believe with something ‘ultimately believable’ because it is the full truth. Then they can rest. Perhaps these people are called liberals — or scientists.

    Very few actually continue down path (2) forever though. For most, it is just a matter of how long you can bear to stay on path (2) until giving in and jumping back to path (1), and just accept that Sodor is real and stop asking questions already, whippersnapper! Think of elderly scientists clearly tired of looking for the truth just wanting to relax into dogma, satisfied that they’ve gone farther than most people and feeling entitled to be a respite after their years of service to the enterprise of truthseeking. Or aging liberals not hip to millennial campus protester concerns.

    Maybe though, there is option number (3). For those who hold out and continue diligently trying to dig for truth, subjecting each new proposed theory to critical skepticism, but still can’t let go of the craving for that opiate-like feeling of experiencing a perfect enchanting illusion — for those too stubborn to accept themselves as that elderly scientist content with his dogma, yet too exhausted/lazy to continue the disenchanting search for truth on our own, perhaps you eventually find yourself in South America gingerly sipping a wooden teacup of ayahuasca, because that’s guaranteed to offer a continuous and uncrackable mystery when everything else has already or seems bound eventually to disappoint.

    So probing the unknowable details of Thomas the Tank Engine may not yield too many revelations (although I would like to know if Thomas and his Friends ever go on dates…), but noticing that we have the impulse to so do and considering why may.

    See you in South America, Carson!


  4. @Chris Having the benefit of age, I don’t really fall into any of your categories. Rather I sit in possibility 4) where I simply probe the world with random questions without any belief in or even desire to discover any “absolute” truths. I just play a game where I try to find interesting connections between seemingly disparate things and try to understand for myself mostly as to why things are the way they are. To me there are no absolute truths, which is a Western fixation, but there can perhaps be relative truths where if you assume X to be true then it implies Y. Finding these little connections gives me all the dopamine rush I’ll ever need. OK, that and some really good soup dumplings.


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