Episode 72 – “The Grave”

This is a Western with a metaphysical twist. Can someone who is dead commit murder? Can Pinto Sykes, a recently deceased gun-slinger, cause the death of Conny Miller, a bounty hunter who had tried, but failed, to bring about Sykes’ demise? When Miller visits Sykes grave, Miller winds up dead. But is his death due to natural causes, or to unnatural causes? That’s the question, and of course, Serling just leaves it open, concluding: “you take this with a grain of salt or a shovelful of earth, as shadows or substance, we leave it up to you. And for any further research, check under ‘G,’ for ‘ghosts’…in the Twilight Zone.” “Shadows” are non-natural causes, “substances” natural ones.

To turn this into a controversy that is of some philosophical interest, we have to refine the shadow/substance distinction. If all we’re asking is whether there are ghosts who can pull flesh-and-blood human creatures down and kill them at in graveyards, then we’re not doing philosophy. But philosophers have made the distinction between natural and n0n-natural substances and causes, and we don’t have to invoke the possibility of ghosts and other shadow phenomena to engage with these questions.

When we describe the events that occur in the world, many of them fall easily within the domain of natural causes and effects: the decline of sea otter populations results in the explosion of the sea urchin population, which leads to the decline of kelp forests. These causes and effects are all natural, that is, they occur in nature and can be explained by theories in biology and ecology.  And we can stay within nature when we bring in human otter hunting as a cause of the decline in the otter population. But when we seek to explain the cause of the over-hunting of sea otters by explaining the role of such factors as greed, short-sightedness, we at least appear to leave the realm of the natural. When we include cognitive and affective features of human agents, we appear to move beyond “substance” and move into the “shadows.” What kind of natural phenomena correspond to our beliefs and desires, and by what mechanisms do they bring about their effects? These are lasting philosophical questions.

When probing the cause of Conny’s death in “The Grave” we have at our disposal a wealth of facts about Conny’s relationship to Sykes. On the one hand Conny appears to be a tough guy. He’s been on the trail of Sykes for years, determined to hunt him down. But the townsfolk grow tired of waiting for Conny to do the job, and so they do it themselves. When Conny appears, they questions his toughness and resolve. They taunt him and dare him to visit Sykes grave. With all this context, there’s no need to appeal to the shadowy occult to explain his death. One quite plausible explanation, an explanation that will appeal to beliefs and desires,  is suicide.

One quite plausible view is that the natural/non-natural distinction collapses, that all apparently non-natural phenomena are really natural. Affective and cognitive states are really just states of the organism,  they are just states for which we lack the kinds of robust scientific explanations we have for other things, such as the eating habits of sea otters and sea urchins. We don’t have the detailed understanding of mechanisms that have beliefs and desires, and so when we find ourselves appealing to such features of human agents in order to explain their behavior, such appeals are placeholders for more complete all-natural explanations that we may be able to supply in the fullness of time.

Further Reading

Daniel C. Dennett,  The Intentional Stance (Bradford Books, 1989)

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Episode 71 – “The Mirror”

“The Mirror” is a rather heavy-handed warning about the tendency of revolutions to lead to tyranny and fascism. Airing within two years of Castro’s rise to power in Cuba, Serling is unapologetic about this episode’s presentation of a fictional version of Castro, a new populist cigar-smoking leader of a small Central American country. If Serling was predicting Castro’s quick demise, he was spectacularly wrong.

As a commentary on the political developments in Cuba in the late 50s and early 60s, “The Mirror” may be flawed in ways that go beyond failing as a prediction of Castro’s regime. It presents a revolutionary leader in his first hours in power as a paranoid, delusional monster, whose grip on himself is as tenuous as his grip on the nation he now leads. He possesses a mirror which reflects the intentions of others, or at least their intentions as he interprets them. And when he eventually looks at himself in the mirror, the reflection of himself is a self that is out to get him; and so he self-destructs.

The fact that the episode doesn’t accurately predict the fate of Castro doesn’t mean much. The history of Cuba is just one case, and the events shown in “The Mirror” are another. The question is whether the possible world in “The Mirror” depicts a pattern likely to be actualized.  The history of revolutionary governments in Central and South America since the late 50s show some striking similarities to the sequence of events depicted in the episode. That said,  even Serling falls victim to Hollywood’s inability to convincingly portray the non-Anglo characters in this story. Among the actors playing Latino characters, just one is a Latino. All the others are Anglo-Americans/Europeans, and it shows, with fake beards and all. The portrayal of extreme behavior, both by the new  dictator, and his pathetic henchmen, is a cartoon-ish portrayal of political acts as self-serving, and parochial. Real revolutions are far more complicated.

More philosophically, and less topically, “The Mirror” does have something important to say about the role of reflection in our practical reasoning, of which political reasoning is a part. The new leader, Clementé, begins to reflect from the very beginning of his assent to power.  He reflects on his anticipation of this moment, and on what he would do and feel. The outgoing leader reflects on the real motivation of the new leader, which he shares with the defeated leader, and on the pervasive fear that will serve as the real motivator of behavior.  Reflection – looking in the mirror – will reveal the true motivations of the crowd, of the lieutenants, and of one’s own self.


Further Reading

Feldman, Leslie Dale, Spaceships and Politics: The Political Theory of Rod Serling (Rowman & Littlefield, 2010)

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Episode 70 – “A Game of Pool”

Woody Allen once said that he didn’t want to become immortal through his works. He wanted to become immortal by not dying.  It’s hard to get much distance from Skakespeare’s puzzle about our posture towards death,  but this episode is not about the fear of death, but about the fear of not achieving immortality through one’s works, of dying without having become the best at what one does best. So it is about how one should lead a life. Should one live in pursuit of singular achievement in a field, regardless of how narrow, or should one aim for some sort of balance and appreciation of life’s many pleasures and resources? Is the relentless pursuit of excellence in some endeavor (any endeavor?) the highest imperative?  How should a life be ordered, and our purposes and goals prioritized?

“A Game of Pool” doesn’t try to answer these big questions completely, but it does examine the consequences of organizing one’s life around the singular pursuit of greatness. Jesse Cartiff is an expert pool player, but he stands in the shadow of Fats Brown, now deceased, but still the best pool player ever. How do you demonstrate that you are better than the legend?  In the Twilight Zone that’s accomplished by recalling the deceased from their resting place and having them respond to the challenge, in this case, of a game of pool.

The game between Jesse and Fats is fascinating, both in  terms of the game and the exquisite skill and love of the game revealed by both players, but also by what is shown about the character of each, and their attitude toward the game and the craft they love. Fats is confident and cool. Jessie is nervous and uncool. But Fats is also worldly, while Jessie is narrow, and Fats, who remains the legend that Jesse has to beat, councils Jesse that there’s more to the world than pool, that there are places to see, and people to love, and that being the best pool player isn’t worth it if everything else has to be sacrificed to attain it.  Perhaps the message Fats is delivering to Jessie and to the rest of us is that greatness of character isn’t a one talent thing. It’s a package deal. Fats has the package. Jessie does not.

Yet Jesse’s total engagement captures something important about the pursuit of attainment, namely the thrill of achievement, of the sheer joy of the execution of a shot, or of a movement of the body in the service of making a shot. There’s something there that is part of what human greatness is all about. It is what Dreyfus and Kelly try to capture in All Things Shining. When Fats describes pool as “geometry in its most precise form,” we witness human shining.

Jesse comes to grips with his predecessors via confrontation. But that is also the result of a kind of narrowness in his view.  Relinquishing resposibility for being the best is something that Fats Brown is happy to do.  Rising to the top isn’t just about being the best, it means shouldering the responsibility for being the best.

Further Reading

Dreyfus, Hubert, and Kelly, Sean Dorrance, All Things Shining (Free Press, 2011)

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Episode 69 – “The Passersby”

Is sympathy called for by in response to the opening scene when we realize, that the passersby are Confederate soldiers at the close of The Civil War in Aril, 1865, and the house they are passing contains an ailing Confederate woman, Lavinia, whose husband was killed in that war? If that’s the way it seems, it is corrected by Serling’s introduction, which refers to the locations as “a strange province that knows neither North nor South.”

Our conviction that we are in the deep South is heightened, however, by the ailing Lavinia, who is understandably embittered by the outcome of a war that Southerners were told they would win in a month. Watching the Confederate soldiers pass by is too much for her. She wallows in anger against and distain for the enemy.

We learn that the soldiers on the road are not just the soldiers of the south, but Union soldiers as well, and when Lavinia’s husband returns, and we know that he died, we figure out that the road represents the casualties of war, and everyone is heading to the end of the road. So it’s not a road in a place, north or south. It’s a road we’re all on, sooner or later.

Abe Lincoln appears, also a casualty of the war, but he consoles Lavinia, quoting Shakespeare: “Of all the wonders that I yet have heard, it seems to me most strange, that men should fear, seeing that death, a necessary end, will come when it will come.” (Julius Caesar. Act II, Scene 2)

It is true that death is inevitable, and that even though it is, it may be hard to accept it, and to step on the road. But against the background of the cause of all these premature deaths, the war itself, it’s hard not to side with Lavinia, and resist its call. Our sympathies may rest with Lavina after all, even though she’s a Southerner.


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Episode 68 – “The Shelter”

During the fall of 2001 students in my Introduction to Philosophy course watched this episode on the afternoon  the same day in which, hours before, the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. were attacked by terrorists who hijacked fully fueled commercial airliners and flew them into their targets.  On that day, September 11, 2001, we were beyond the terror of possible attack, and we confronted the aftermath of an actual attack on our cities, on thousands of human beings, on organizations and businesses, and on symbols of power, commerce, and achievement.  In contrast, “The Shelter” is about the possibility of attack, and our response to such threats. But it is certainly relevant to us post September 11th: Life has changed. The threat of such attacks is more salient than it ever was before, and we will need to consider what kind of shelters we build as we attempt to come to grips with that threat.

“The Shelter” opens with a suburban celebration: a group of families is in the middle of a surprise birthday party for a well-loved resident: the local family doctor.  The only thing the residents seem not to like about their doctor is that he has built a bomb shelter in his basement. They view this act as odd. There is no palpable threat, so it’s irrational to prepare for it.  When the party is interrupted by an announcement of unidentified flying objects headed toward the U.S., everyone scrambles to their home. But only the physician and his family are safe. No one else has a shelter. The shelter becomes the scarce resource that everyone needs, and the neighbors claw and fight their way in. The doctor protects his territory. When asked why he can’t take up the concern he had for them just a few minutes ago, he says “That was a thousand years ago.” The neighbors turn not only on the doctor, but he turns on them, and they also turn on each other, finding ethnic differences suddenly important in the grab for resources.

In class and online our concern is to try to figure out how to act, how to respond to the the threat, how to find our shelter, our security, our peace. In “The Shelter” reasoning, at least moral reasoning, has been thrown out the window. The emphasis is on survival at any cost. We have time to reason and reflect, and to attempt to figure out what morally appropriate responses are open to us. Many of us have raised the fear that some possible political and military responses may not be appropriate.

Of course, determining what is morally appropriate is a complicated matter. First, as philosophers, we need to come to grips with the issues in moral theory. How do we know what is right or wrong in even the most mundane cases? What justifies our beliefs about such things?  If we believe that it is wrong to take an innocent life, for example, we are faced with further philosophical questions: what makes a life innocent in the first place?  What is a life? Is it morally wrong to take non-human lives?

When making moral assessments of the actions of others, it is important to distinguish between explaining actions and justifying actions.  Clearly a terrorist acts out of a sense of outrage at the actions of the targeted country. The terrorist has beliefs, and reasons in support of those beliefs. We may come to understand the causes of the terrorist’s beliefs and the conditions which lead to extreme acts such as acts of terrorism. But such explanations don’t count as justifications.  They do not show that the terrorist was morally justified in acted as he or she did.

To demonstrate that an action is morally wrong, or morally correct, we need a standard which may fall outside the standards and values used by the person whose actions we are judging.  It doesn’t follow from the fact that different groups – different countries, interest groups, even companies, may have different sets of values, that we can’t make the appropriate moral judgments from the outside. Understanding the terrorist’s own justification won’t resolve the moral issue. It just tells us why he or she thinks they are justified, not whether they are justified.  And the existence of different sets of values certainly cannot show that each set is morally appropriate, because those of the terrorist will conflict with those of others, those of his or her targetsfor example.

“The Shelter” does not supply a moral standard by which we can judge the rightness or wrongness of actions. It takes a well developed philosophical theory to do that. But “The Shelter” does suggest what happens when we abandon moral reasoning and act out of brutish self-interest, and when, for whatever reason, we drop our regard for other persons as individuals, and treat them instead as means to our own ends. The results are found not only in the Twilight Zone, but sadly, in lower Manhattan and Washington, D.C.

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