Episode 41 – “The Howling Man”

The howling man is the devil, and he’s howling because he’s been caught and contained, at great effort, by Father Jerome, the head of a religious order in Eastern Europe, between the two world wars. A visiting American, David Ellington, is alarmed by the howling sound issuing from a closed cell in the abbey. Although Father Jerome warns Ellington to ignore the howling man, and when pressed, explains why, Ellington is tricked into releasing him.

Is this just a reset of Adam and Eve’s Fall from Grace? Is Ellington responsible for the existence of evil, through his choice to free the devil,  just as the first couple released him through their free act?  If this were all “The Howling Man” offered, it wouldn’t be particularly interesting. But there is more.

Father Jerome tried to explain the situation to Ellington: The howling man is the devil, and he’s been caught. Releasing him means releasing evil. Ellington finds this ludicrous, and he concludes that Father Jerome is a madman, a lunatic leader of a misguided cult. Once he sees the consequences of his actions, a horrified Ellington resolves to recapture the devil, and he eventually does. But now he has to warn his housekeeper not to release the devil, just as he was warned by Father Jerome. The problem is clear: anyone who claims to have captured the devil, to have eliminated non-natural evil, will appear insane to anyone else.

Rather than rehashing a biblical fable, “The Howling Man” offers an indictment of a main strand of religious dogma.  The very idea of evil as something we can capture, contain, release, and conquer, is incoherent, as the attempted explanations first by Father Jerome, and then by Mr. David Ellington, clearly illustrate.

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Episode 40 – “A Thing About Machines”

B. Finchley drives an elegant car and lives in an elegant house. He’s clearly rich. But his first interaction is with the TV repairman, who he thinks is ripping him off.  The repairman accuses Finchley of mistreating his electronics, kicking his foot through the TV, etc. The repairman asks: “What is it with you and machines?”

Borrowing a question from Alan Turing, we can ask: What are the machines with which Finchley is s concerned? They are a varied lot, with varied behavioral repertoires. Some, such as the typewriter and the TV, have linguistic output. But none are digital computers.  Finchley is outraged at the cost of repairing the TV. But Finchley is enormously wealthy. Even the cabinet in which the TV lives is ornate beyond belief. Finchley is also no spendthrift. He clearly lives well in someplace not unlike Beverly Hills.

Finchley thinks his machines are out to get him. The clock strikes the hour and won’t stop. Finchely smashes it to smithereens. So far the machines are no match for Finchley. They have no agency, and can just suffer the effects of his wrath. But Finchley thinks they do have agency. The typewriter, the TV, and other appliances command “Get out of here, Finchley!”

Finchley is insane, and his insanity is fueled by consuming a lot of alcohol. Forced out of the house by his electric razor (no kidding!), he is confronted by his angry car. The end is not pretty.

There’s a point here and a counterpoint. The point is that attributing beliefs, desires, goals and plans to machines, is something only an insane person would do. The counterpoint is that we get to see the behavior of the machines, real or imagined, from Finchley’s perspective, and from that perspective, we see behaviors, that could easily be interpreted as guided by intention and purpose.

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Episode 39 – “Nervous Man in a Four Dollar Room”

A two-bit criminal is commissioned to make a hit, to commit murder on behalf of his gang. In advance of the hit he is confronted by his conscience, represented by his alter-ego in a mirror. His alter-ego critiques his life, his past choices, and his immediate plans to commit a murder.

The episode poses this question:

When faced with a critical choice, can a person defy his or her character and will oneself in a new direction? Can one decide to give up a life of petty crime fueled by fear, incompetence, and self-loathing? Can one turn over a new leaf and go straight, find a job and a mate, as Jacky resolves to do? Here the question isn’t whether one can sustain the change of character. The question is simply whether one can initiate such a change.

This is an empirical question, and we can look to the run of human behavior for the answer. It seems clear that  people sometimes, perhaps rarely, do a 180, or something close to that. The philosophical question is how it is done, for a genuine 180. An alternative view is that we can make a distinction between apparent and real 180s, and every 180 is just apparent, not real. In the episode the method of achieving real character change appears to be an argument between Jackie and his conscience. His conscience wins the argument, and the change takes place. But we don’t really see how it happens. At the pitch of the argument Jackie collapses. He wakes up as a new man.  Was it the force of the reasoning displayed in the mirror, or something else? Does reason have the power to move us to such radical action, or is it something else?  Perhaps it is reason, but the clincher may be his alter-go’s claim that he needs companionship and love.

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Episode 38 – “Man in a Bottle”

What do we desire, and what is of value?  This episode begins with those questions. Anelderly lady brings a used wine bottle to an antique/junk shop claiming it is an heirloom. But the item is something no one desires – it is a piece of junk. But Mr. Arthur Castle,  takes pity on the old lady and goes along with subterfuge, and assigns it a value,  and hands her a few bucks. What we learn is that Mr. and Mrs. Castle are themselves near bankruptcy and with little of lasting value. Or so it seems.

Like Al Denton, Arthur Castle finds himself stuck in a world he didn’t choose, but rather a world he inherited. Unlike Al Denton, he is not so self-absorbed that he can’t have compassion for the miserable fate of others.  This is a story about choice, and about the compatibility of choice in a world of causes and effects.

The bottle contains a genie who can guarantee four wishes; he appears when the bottle falls (it doesn’t break) and is uncorked.  To figure out what we desire, we need only reflect on what we wish for. And what we wish for us what we assign great value to.

After a fairly trivial test wish is fulfilled by the genie and the Castles come to grips with the scope of the possibilities before them, they need to figure out what they desire – what they value.  The solution is easy: They ask for and receive a million dollars, in fives and tens, right on the floor of their shop.

But choices have consequences. A wish fulfilled in a possible world gets fleshed out. After taxes, and after giving away some of their windfall, what they have left is five dollars! The genie critiques their choice. After all, they could have asked for a million dollars after taxes. But the genie warns: “No matter what you wish for, you must be prepared for the consequences.”

The Castles think they can consequence-proof their wish, and so Mr. Castle comes up with wish number three: “I want to be the head of a foreign country who can’t be voted out of office, a contemporary country, a country in this century.  The result is so disastrous, he retreats to his old life in wish four: “I wish I were back where it all started. I wish to be Arthur Castle again!”

The genie laments that although he can grant any wish, happiness rarely accrues to the wish-maker. The Castles’ wishes fit a pattern. If the wishes that can be fulfilled have consequences, then we need to be prepared for them. But we can’t be prepared for the consequences of extravagant wishes, since they fall far outside the scope of our knowledge and practical experience. The fulfilled wishes that have the best chance of making us happy are those that we bring about without the help of a genie in a bottle.

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Episode 37 – “King Nine Will Not Return”

Captain Embry crashes his WW2 prop plane in the desert.  The rest of the crew is gone, and Embry doesn’t know what has happened. He hallucinates, sees and understands technology of the future, and concludes “There’s not a single thing that’s real.” Like “Where is Everybody” this is the case of an extended illusion, brought on by military experience. In this case, Embry, who was responsible for the ship and its crew in 1943, relives the horror of the crash that killed his crew. He survived because he wasn’t on that mission.

So there’s Embry in bed in the pscyh ward, and Embry with the downed King Nine in the desert. We know which is real, and which is the illusion. But Embry’s hallucinations are causally related to the real, to the facts of the downed aircraft and the fate of his crew members.  The point is driven home in the final minute, where Embry’s clothes are brought into his room, and there’s sand from the desert in his shoes.

The observation that the illusory builds on the real is noted in other episodes, for example, it is emphasized in “Shadow Play” where the lead character has to convince everyone else that what they think they are experiencing is just a dream. He does that by showing how the experiences they are having are constructed and rearranged from his contents of his imagination, which draw on his actual experiences of the world.

Why is this philosophically or otherwise important? The example counts against the view that the products of the imagination are pure imaginings – pure products of unfettered thought. They are instead grounded in experience, not just by being constructed out of what we’ve sensed and perceived, but more thickly, from rich experiences and matters we’ve thought through and understood.

The sand in Embry’s shoes symbolizes this.  He isn’t just a soldier who has “lost it.” Rather, he’s retained  it, and that’s what haunts him and causes him to construct an imagined world that’s too close to the actual one.

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