Episode 151 – “The Encounter”

Even under the best of circumstances, people are remarkable resistant to revising their beliefs when faced with new evidence. Harman (1984) reports that subjects who were given information about the results of studies of their aptitudes and then formed beliefs about their aptitudes based on the information communicated to them, failed to revise their beliefs when they were later told that the test results had been mixed up, and what had been reported to them was false.

If we’re resistant to changing our beliefs in light of new evidence in such benign circumstances, what happens when the beliefs are deep seated and the result of cultural and political inculcation? This question is raised in “The Encounter” and the answer isn’t encouraging. Here our two “subjects” are Fenton, a veteran of World War II, who fought in the Pacific theater, and Arthur, also known as Taro, a Japanese-American who grew up in Hawaii and witnessed the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor first hand. As they encounter one another, in spite of being citizens of the same country, twenty years after the end of the war that their “side” won, entrenched  and brittle beliefs direct the two interlocutors in a tragic direction.

When countries are at war, circumstances are often extreme, both for civilians and for soldiers. The unique experiences during war, together with the beliefs, that soldiers and civilians are urged to adopt, take on a special significance in the lives of those who survive the conflict.


Further Reading:

Harman, G., 1984 , “Positive versus Negative Undermining in Belief Revision,” Noûs, Vol. 18, No. 1,  pp. 39-49.

Posted in reflections | Comments Off on Episode 151 – “The Encounter”

Episode 150 – “Stopover in a Quiet Town”

There are many Twilight Zone episodes in which someone is lost, including “Where am I?”, “The After Hours,” “Valley of the Shadow,” and “Probe 7, Over and Out.” There are also episodes in which someone’s size relative to others is different from what they think it is, as is the case in “The Invaders,” and “The Little  People.” There are episodes where individuals are lost and their relative size is different than they believe is. This double-whammy occurs in “Five Characters in Search of an Exit,” and “Stopover in a Quiet Town.”

Being lost comes in many shapes and sizes. One can be lost in a place that is a familiar kind of place, such as a small town, or a department store. One can be lost in a completely unfamiliar environment, such as the inside of a container from which there appears to be no exit. In “Stopover in a Quiet Town” Bob and Millie wake up after a night on the town, and discover that they are not in their bed. They are not in their bedroom. They are not in their house. They have an epistemic problem, a problem about knowledge. They don’t know where they are.

To begin to solve their special problem about knowledge, Bob and Millie begin with things they do know, and they attempt to make inferences from their knowledge to a true proposition about their current location. Following Bob and Millie’s investigation reveals a lot about the different sources of knowledge, and the ways our attempt to acquire and justify our beliefs can alternatively fail and succeed.

One way to try to figure out where you are is to attempt to remember where you were last, and then extrapolate from there to your current location. Bob and Millie remember that they left a party in their car and were headed home. Unfortunately, this line of reasoning doesn’t get very far. So Bob speculates that someone brought them to the unfamiliar house they find themselves in, and if that’s so, then they should be able to find that someone in the house.  Their methodology has moved from appealing to memory to seeking the testimony of others. They expect that there are others, that those others are not also lost, and that those others will be able to tell them where they are and how they got there.

Bob tries to use the phone to call information. It’s not clear what he will ask them, but he doesn’t get that far. The phone isn’t wired to anything. He pulls it right off the wall. This strategy – using a phone to find out where you are – is employed in “Where is Everybody?” and “A World of Difference,” and it fails in each.

Bob and Millie’s general knowledge of the world conflicts with the experiences they are having in this strange house. Telephones are usually wired and have a dial tone. Cabinet  drawers open, and contain kitchen items. Refrigerators contain food, not food props. In each case, their default beliefs about types or kinds of things are defeated. Where could one possibly be where most of the ordinary, common-sense beliefs one holds, turn out to be false? Is it odd that Bob and Millie don’t stop to consider this question?

As their inquiry continues, Bob and Millie are drawn out of the house and into the community, in search of others who can tell them where they are. In the suburban community in which they find themselves, no one is in evidence. Bob complains that this is a feature of such communities, unlike the urban environment of New York City, where they live. There are people, Bob is certain, hiding inside their houses, and peering out at them. Although it’s a brief point, Bob’s observation about suburbia is a searing critique of a form of social organization that was quickly taking hold in the 1960s.

Others are not to be found on the street, in the local church, or anywhere else.  They see someone sitting in a parked car, and they think they are in luck. But the person turns out to be a mannequin, ((see “Where is Everybody?” and “The After Hours”) and the car has no engine.  They can’t escape by car, but they soon spot a commuter train, and they jump on, and they’re on their way. Or so it seems, until the train quickly loops back to the starting point.

Millie and Bob wonder whether anything is real in their suburban version of hell. They discover that the trees and grass are artificial. Their hypotheses become more extreme: Maybe this is a joke or a test, or maybe they are dead.

Bob and Millie have used their skills as inquirers without success. They’ve used their senses, their knowledge of the world, and they’ve attempted to secure the testimomy of others to find out where they are. They’ve done the best that they could be expected to do. Their failure to solve the problem is the result of their circumstances. The impediment is one of scale. Bob and Millie and too small to comprehend their location. The problem is much worse than they think it is. They are not stuck in a provincial suburban backwater. They are stuck in the model world of what to them would be a very large child.

Our discovery of Bob and Millie’s predicament leads us to see their strange discoveries in a new light.  Why didn’t they figure it all out earlier? In their favor, Bob and Millie’s endeavor is a lesson in systematic inquiry. Although their predicament prevents them from reaching a solution on their own, that isn’t for lack of trying.

Further Reading:

Welbourne, M., 2001, Knowledge, Acumen Press, Chapter 5, “Learning from Testimony.”

Posted in reflections | Tagged , | Comments Off on Episode 150 – “Stopover in a Quiet Town”

Episode 149 – “The Jeopardy Room”

What actions against its own citizens is it permissible for a sovereign state to take in order to protect itself? Is it ever permissible for a state to order its agents  to hunt down and assassinate a citizen taken to be a threat to the state?  These questions are neither directly  raised nor answered in “The Jeopardy Room.”

Evan Kuchenko is an escaped political prisoner caught in the net of the state’s defense machine. The state’s agents’ goal is to kill Kuchenko, and one agent in particular, Commissar Vassiloff prides himself on finding creative ways to eliminate his targets. He’s planted a bomb in Kuchenko’s room, which Kuckenko will eventually detonate when he carries out some routine action, like turning on a light or picking up a book. Kuchenko is told this will occur, heightening his terror.

Is this state-sanctioned behavior or has Vassiloff gone rogue?  Again, we don’t know, but what we can sense is that Vassiloff is judged by his results, not by his methods of achieving those results.  Even if we put aside the question of whether the assassination of Kuchenko is justified as an act of self-defense by the state, it is difficult to find any justification for the manner in which Vassiloff proceeds. Vassiloff is a monster – a sadistic killer whose methods his own twisted sense of self-satisfaction.

The difficult moral question in “The Jeopordy Room” does not concern Vassiloff’s methods. Those are clearly wrong. The hard question has to do with Kuchenko’s response to the terror and danger inflicted on him. He outsmarts Vassiloff, and in doing so inflicts Vassiloff’s bomb on Vassiloff himself. Clearly this is an act of self-defense, and morally justified as such. But it is more that just self-defense. It is difficult not to see this as a case of just dessert, of Vassiloff getting what he deserves. In support of this, we appeal to the notion of generalization in ethics, the idea that we can test the moral status of a proposed action by asking whether the principle on which the action is based can be generalized to other cases. Would Vassiloff wish his methods to be used on his family, or on himself? The question is raised, but Vassiloff doesn’t have more than  a second to think about it. It is that second that is clearly precious to Kuchenko.


Posted in reflections | Tagged , | Comments Off on Episode 149 – “The Jeopardy Room”

Episode 148 – “Caesar and Me”

It is uncontroversial that you can do something that you don’t want to do. You can  pay taxes when you’d rather not. You can take the trash out to the street when you’d rather keep reading a novel. You can get up when the alarm goes off when you’d rather sleep in.  What we want to do at the moment doesn’t always coincide with what we believe we ought to do.

How should we describe situations that are slightly different? You don’t pay the taxes, even though you believe that you should. You don’t take out the trash, though you know that not doing so will mean that you’ll miss the weekly collection. You turn the alarm  off and go back to sleep, when you know that by doing so you’ll  be late for work. We might say that in each of these cases you take a course of action that you believe is not the right course of action to take. You act against your own self interest. Philosophers characterize such cases as weakness of will. You have weakness of will when your will is too weak to do what you believe you should do.

Although these seem like cases of weakness of will, there are many philosophers who believe that there is no such thing. They argue that these cases are incorrectly described, and that when they are presented correctly, they are not cases of weakness of will.

Let’s reconsider the case of continuing to read a book when doing so will mean that the garbage doesn’t get taken out. Is it true that you really wanted to take the garbage out, but that you didn’t have the strength of will to accomplish it? Isn’t it more accurate to say that you preferred to continue reading the book, and that you desired the continuation of that activity at the expense of getting the chore accomplished? Your will accomplished what you wanted. You voted with your feet, as the expression goes. What seemed like weakness of will was really a misreading of what you wanted. What you wanted is made clear by the what you actually did. Your desire to read the book out-ranked your desire to get this week’s garbage to the street. Your will was not weak, since you did what you most desired.

“Caesar and Me” is about the struggle of the will, where the will is represented by a ventriloquist’s dummy, Caesar. Unlike an earlier episode involving a ventriloquist and his prop, “The Dummy,” this ventriloquist, Jonathan West, is not surprised that Caesar  appears to be an semi-autonomous agent who speaks for himself.  But the self that the dummy speaks for is really West himself, recommending courses of action that West, in his non-dummy mode, finds repellent.

West is down and out. He can’t find work either as a ventriloquist or in any other field. He can’t meet the rent on his meager one bedroom flat, and his prospects are bleak. While West seeks conventional solutions to his problem, his alter-ego, Caesar thinks outside the box, and advocates a life of crime. West resists, and says “A man has to live with himself, even if he lives  in the gutter.” Thus he wants to reject Caesar’s recommendations not on prudential grounds, but on moral grounds.

When we are of two minds about a course of action, as Jonathan West is, and one “mind” prevails over the other, is that a case of weakness of will? To claim that, one would have to identify the will with the “mind” that doesn’t prevail. But that seems incorrect on two grounds. First, there aren’t two wills, but just one, the will that chooses from among the courses of action under deliberation. Second, the will that acts is not weak, since it has selected a course of action.

What tempts us to describe West as suffering from weakness of will may be that it is apt to describe his ill-advised actions as a failure to do the right thing when he knows that it is not the right thing. This may be a moral weakness, but not a weakness of will. The will does its job, and the choice it carries out is the Jonathan West’s preference.

One might object that with further reflection, or under other circumstances, West might have chosen differently. Maybe his choice is impulsive, and so doesn’t really represent his true preferences, as they would reveal themselves in the fullness of time.  Still, this merely suggests that West is impulsive, and that doesn’t match with the facts. West’s vacillation between his regular voice and his Caesar voice is extended in time.

Do we learn how to avoid choosing the wrong path? In cases like these we often remark that the newly minted criminal has been hanging around with the wrong people. West, a loner, has only been hanging around with Caesar, to whom he gives voice.  Giving voice to thoughts, plans, and values different from his own, West risks making them his own. To avoid West’s plight, we should limit our imaginative flights of fancy which represent values we find problematic.

Further Reading:

Davidson, D., 1970, “How Is Weakness of the Will Possible?,” in Davidson 1980,  Essays on Actions and Events, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 21–42.

Stocker, M., 1979, “Desiring the Bad: An Essay in Moral Psychology,” Journal of Philosophy, 76: 738–753.

Posted in reflections | Tagged , , | Comments Off on Episode 148 – “Caesar and Me”

Episode 147 – “Sounds and Silences”

“Sounds and Silences” is a rather heavy-handed character sketch of an individual who is deeply flawed as a husband, as a boss, and simply as a member of  humanity. Roswell Flemington’s  flaws are related to his interests and values. He is obsessed with all things nautical. His home is filled with images of boats, model boats, parts of boats, including a large ship’s wheel. He owns a model ship company, and he runs it like a ship captain. He barks out commands laced with nautical turns of phrase. Flemington doesn’t speak, he yells out commands. His employees hate him.

Flemington loves the loud sounds of boats at sea, and reproduces them not only by barking out commands like a ship captain, but by ringing a ship’s bell and playing recordings of ships in battle. He takes great delight in this auditory shower of sound, while the rest of the world cringes at the assault. This is a man who cares only about himself and engineers his sensory world as one in which he can be enveloped in the sounds of his past career as a naval officer.

This is a morality play, and so the moral affront Flemington inflicts on the world has to be answered by a world in which everyone gets their due in the long term. The long term arrives for Flemington in two stages. First, he suddenly finds that he experiences sounds as if they are all much louder than normal. With the help of a psychiatrist, he learns to control his perception of sound, so that the perceived volume is reduced to an acceptable level. Second, the sound level he perceives continues to go down, to the point where even the loudest sounds are barely audible. In essence Flemington has lost most of his hearing.

If there is anything philosophically interesting in this story, it is this: Flemington’s imposition of excessively loud sounds on others goes hand in hand with his complete self-absorption, and his lack of regard for the rights, needs, opinions or interests of everyone else in the world. He can only hear himself, and in his company, others can only hear him. He drowns everyone else out. So one form of morally objectionable behavior has to do with an imbalance of input and output. If your input into the system prevents the system from providing a response that you can process and understand, then the conditions for being able to understand, much less respond to, the needs of others will simply not exist. In the end, Flemington can’t even hear himself, or the sounds that were so much a part of his identity, that the identity of others was of no significance to him.

Posted in reflections | Tagged , , | Comments Off on Episode 147 – “Sounds and Silences”