Episode 62 – “Shadow Play”

In our discussion of “Where is Everybody” we considered the possibility that the world is radically different from the way it appears to be. “Shadow Play” raises a different kind of skeptical problem, a problem generated by what philosophers call the dream argument.  The most famous formulation of the dream argument occurs in Rene Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy (1641). In that work, Descartes writes:

At the same time I must remember that I am a man, and that consequently I am in the habit of sleeping, and in my dreams representing to myself the same things or sometimes even less probable things, than do those who are insane in their waking moments. How often has it happened to me that in the night I dreamt that I found myself in this particular place, that I was dressed and seated near the fire, whilst in reality I was lying undressed in bed! At this moment it does indeed seem to me that it is with eyes awake that I am looking at this paper; that this head which I move is not asleep, that it is deliberately and of set purpose that I extend my hand and perceive it; what happens in sleep does not appear so clear nor so distinct as does all this. But in thinking over this I remind myself that on many occasions I have in sleep been deceived by similar illusions, and in dwelling carefully on this reflection I see so manifestly that there are no certain indications by which we may clearly distinguish wakefulness from sleep that I am lost in astonishment. And my astonishment is such that it is almost capable of persuading me that I now dream. (Meditations)

As Descartes presents the argument, one can easily imagine that the experiences had while awake could have occurred in a dream, since in dreams one has while dreaming can be indistinguishable from those one has when awake. In “Shadow Play” Adam Grant dreams that he has just been convicted of murder in the first degree and sentenced to death. In his dream he tries to convince those around him that it is a dream. But the dream is so realistic, that the other characters dismiss his claim that it is a dream.  Adam Grant, then, presents the dream argument, and the other characters attempt to refute the argument.

If we look closely at Descartes’ argument, we’ll see that Descartes isn’t claiming that we are dreaming, just that it’s possible that we are. And if it’s possible, then we don’t know that the ordinary beliefs we have when we think we’re awake are true. If it’s possible that I’m really in bed right now, rather than sitting in front of my computer, then I don’t know that I’m sitting in front of my computer, even if I’m strongly inclined to think that I am. By the same token, Adam Grant tries to convince the others in his dream that they are characters in his dream rather than real people, by arguing that it’s possible. Still, he has limited success until almost the end of the episode.

You might think that if Grant was in fact dreaming, it should have been possible for him either to wake up and in so doing escape the dream, or to act differently than he did, by running to the door when being sentenced. Instead, his behavior seems too constrained for a dream.  Notice that the concern is that Grant’s behavior is too much like what it would be in real life. If he realizes it’s a dream, he should be unconstrained, and perhaps fly around the courtroom. Wouldn’t that convince others that it was a dream? But notice that Descartes pointed out that many of our dreams are just like our waking experiences, and so this dream of Grant’s is in fact one of those. It can be a dream and not involve wierd events and experiences. Further, if there were wierd events, such as Grant flying around the room, would that prove that it was a dream? Perhaps reality is like that. We think such things happen only in dreams, but if we can’t tell the difference then we don’t know whether our waking experience is more coherent and less wierd than our  dreaming experience.

Posted in reflections | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Episode 61 – “The Silence”

We place bets on events that are probable, not on events that are either certain or impossible, and what we are willing to wager depends on our judgments of the degree of probability that the outcome will obtain, and on the utility or value of the outcome obtaining or not obtaining.

In “The Silence” a wager is proposed from one member of an exclusive men’s club to another: If the young and very talkative Mr. Tennyson will be silent for a full year, the older and annoyed Archie Taylor will pay Tennyson a half a million dollars. If Tennyson speaks even a word before the year is up, the bet is off. The conditions of the bet include Tennyson living out the year in a glass-enclosed room that will record any utterance issuing from him.

Is it rational for Taylor to issue the bet? He believes that Tennyson will not last a year, or even a few weeks, in silence. If he’s right about that, his costs amount only to supplying the room and board in the club for the period Tennyson remains silent. If Tennyson is silent for the year, it will cost Taylor half a million dollars. But Taylor thinks that this outcome is extremely unlikely, given Tennyson’s proclivity for conversation. Tennyson aside, it’s an interesting empirical question whether a typical human agent, given a large enough payout, could be induced to refrain not only from speech, but from normal proximate interaction for such a prolonged period. There is no institutional review board that would grant permission to run such an experiment, of course, and although the informal setting of the club lacks such ethical oversight, the issue of the moral standing of Taylor’s proposal is at least raised by other members of the club.

Gambling can only take against a background of trust. Bets are made when both parties are confident that they will be paid off if they win the bet.  In “The Silence” the context is a men’s club, an establishment of wealthy men who believe of themselves and the other members of the club that they are honorable and forthright.  Tennyson requires that Taylor place a certified check in escrow, to be handed over to him should he win the bet. Taylor rejects that condition, citing the club’s traditions, and more generally, the traditions of class and privilege, as the appropriate trust mechanism. There are several philosophical take-aways about practical reasoning in this strange episode, not the least of which has to do with appreciating the grounds of trust. A men’s club in the 1960s may very well be the last refuge of a scoundrel.

Posted in reflections | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Episode 60 – “The Rip Van Winkle Caper”

What, if anything,  has lasting or intrinsic value?  Suppose your strategy is to steal something of great value and hold onto it for a hundred years, with the hope of cashing in when the heat is off. Is that a good strategy? That’s the strategy in this episode, with a little help from technology that suspends the aging process in the bodies of the thieves for 100 years, so they can cash in the stolen items without getting caught. Will something of great value now have great value in 100 years? Is there anything that has great value now that is guaranteed to have great value in, say, 100 years?

There are lots of ways of thinking about value, and about whether there anything is intrinsically valuable. Some things are valuable as a means to some end that we desire or value. A vessel that floats is valuable if we desire to cross a body of water.  If we don’t wish to get back our starting point, the vessel may lose its value.  Values like this are called instrumental values, and they are clearly extrinsic.

Are there any physical objects, or types of objects or substances that have intrinsic value, or are all “things” merely valuable as means for achieving some end, for accomplishing some goal? That may depend on what we include among our objects. Do they include living things?  Persons? We may well think that human lives, or more generally, some varieties of conscious experience, have intrinsic value.  If we think that there are no things – physical things – with intrinsic value, then we could use that position to craft an argument that persons are not physical things, if we’re committed to intrinsic value.

“The Rip Van Winkle Caper” provides grounds for thinking there is intrinsic value, and that what has it might not be what is most valuable or precious within one’s own culture, or even what has been most valuable over different cultures and  several millennia. The argument for intrinsic value is presented as a recipe: Take some candidate for intrinsic value and imagine a possible world in which it is valueless. If the description of that possible world is coherent, then the object in question does not have intrinsic value.  The problem with this argument is that it can eliminate intrinsic value candidates but it can’t show that anything has intrinsic value. However, the episode at least provides a hint of a candidate for intrinsic value.  As the last two survivors of the caper attempt to walk to through the desert, and survive to cash in, we see quite plainly that their survival, their existence as persons, is a precondition for anything else having value.

“The Rip Van Winkle Caper” is also a case of time travel. As is often noted, any enduring existence is a case of time travel, just a mundane case. In the episode, the four thieves attempt to partake in a non-mundane case of time travel, by suspending their life processes for a long interval, and then re-emerging on the scene after that interval. So they travel to a point in time that they wouldn’t be able to reach by ordinary means. This method is different from the typically imagined time machine, but it has the advantage of being a non-hand-waving procedure: We know, in outline at least, how they manage to skip to the future. Unlike the typical time-travel scenario, their trip in time, like our mundane time travel, is only in one direction. We’ll see Serling explore this possibility future in another episode.

Further Reading

See Michael J. Zimmerman, “Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Value”Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.


Posted in reflections | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Episode 59 – A Hundred Yards Over the Rim

Many time travel episodes are about traveling to the past. This one is about traveling to the future, and then returning to the point in time from which one traveled, that is,  back to the past.  If you go to the future and discover that p, while p seems unlikely to occur from the perspective of the past, that you inhabit, can you go back to the past and try to make it the case that p?

It’s 1847, in what is now the desert of New Mexico, and Christian Horn and his family are enroute from Ohio to California, by wagon train.  It doesn’t look like they are going to make it. Supplies are low, and one of their children, the eldest boy, is deathly ill. Christian decides to take a peek “a hundred yards over the rim,” just over a sand dune. When he does he arrives in the late 1950s desert, on with electrical wires, a road, trucks, and a roadside cafe.

Time travel can be disorienting both for the time traveler and for the people he or she visits. When Christian is met by Joe, in front of Joe’s diner, Christian has already had an almost fatal encounter with a monster – a large truck, and his appearance and demeanor are shockingly strange to Joe. But Joe realizes that Christian is hurt, and disoriented, and in need of help, and he sees past Christian’s strangeness and offers help. This is yet another form of diversity celebrated in the twilight zone. How would you deal with a stranger in need who appears from another time?

Although Joe’s kind and caring disposition kicks in and he cares for Christian, and even calls in his doctor, he maintains that Christian is not rational.  But the doctor disagrees, noting: “He’s suffering a delusion of some kind, but it’s a  delusion of the purist form.”  That’s based on the clarity of Christian’s description of his life on the wagon train. The problem is not Christian’s rationality, but everyone else’s. Christian has the steadfast resolve to get his family safely to California. It’s those confronted by Christian who seem lost, unfocused, and unable to understand what is going on.

Christian’s resolve is strengthened by what he learns from the future, namely that he and his family will make it, that his son will survive and flourish. If the wagon train will arrive in California, then Christian (and or other causes) will make it happen. Christian makes this inference from effects to causes, and while it doesn’t provide a logical guarantee, it does provide further reasons for pushing west, reasons he didn’t have until he peered over the rim. That comes from a vision of the future – of what is possible for his children and for others and he forges ahead because of that vision.

Before visiting the future, Christian faced skeptical fellow travelers, who questioned the wisdom of continuing on the journey. Does Christian travel forward in time, where he is caused to form the resolve in the past to continue on? Or does he stay put in 1847, and make a straightforward inference about the future, about the effect of staying the course? It’s not clear how he could acquire the evidence needed for such an inference without time traveling. But does he really need to know that they’ll make it and his son will become a physician, or does he just need to imagine it in the right way?

Christian also gains the unique perspective of being able to understand the significance of their westward struggle. He says: “There were people like us. We made it happen.”

Posted in reflections | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Episode 58 – “Long-Distance Call”

Billy, a five year old boy, is given toy telephone by his adoring grandmother on his birthday, days before she dies. She tells him that the phone is for the exclusive communication between the two of them. After her death, Billy takes himself to hold conversations with her, and takes her to command his death, presumably so that he can join her.

As Serling notes, there are at least two ways to interpret what happens, either as involving real communication from the dead, or as the consequence of Billy’s young and overwrought imagination. Which explanatory stance one adopts, Serling points out, depends on one’s frame of reference. If we could easily land on the second of these two possible interpretations, that would be well and good. But we can’t simply dismiss Billy’s perspective, because when his mother picks up the phone, she not hears Billy’s deceased grandmother’s voice on the line.  Later, Billy’s father converses, nay pleads with, Billy’s grandmother to release her hold on the child.

We tend to think of the products of the imagination, and particularly the products of overwrought imaginations, individualistically. An imagined state of affairs is a mental state of an individual. An individual can describe what she imagines to another, but if that induces the imagined state in another, there are still two sets of imagined events or things, not one. That’s a a key difference between imagination and perception. Two or more individuals can perceive the same apple, but we can’t imagine the same apple. There are two, possibly very similar, imagined apples.

Yet individualism about the imagination can’t be right. When we read and discuss a novel, we can discuss what happens to the  individuals in the novel, and when we do so we are different persons imagining the same objects, just as when we look at an apple we are individuals perceiving the same object. The fact that our perceptions, from slightly different points of view and framed with differing background information, is compatible with our zeroing in on the same thing.

So when Billy picks up the toy phone, and when his parents do so later, they share a story, and they imagine the same individual, Billy’s grandmother, who is at the center of that story. The imagined individual, who was, until recently, an individual who existed not just in the imagination, but was the dominating force in Billy’s family, is shared by the surviving members of the family as saliently as was the actual grandmother. Billy and his parents now have to come to grips with that individual, and doing so is more challenging than it was when the individual was not “merely” imagined, but existed in the real world.

Posted in reflections | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment