Episode 123 – “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”

In light of The Twilight Zone‘s attention to philosophical themes related to the imagination, it isn’t surprising that there are several episodes that explore what happens when the imagination, understood as a faculty of the mind, takes on an out-sized role in the life of a character or characters. Several episodes explore the active imagination in the minds of children, while others reveal what happens when the imagination of an adult becomes more active than it usually is. We often characterize adults with severely overactive imaginations as suffering from some form of mental illness. We often characterize adults with more mildly active imaginations as artists.

While artists may rely on their imaginations more than most of us to practice their craft, successfully managing in the world depends on being able to distinguish between the things we just imagine and the things we really see.  In “Where is Everyone?”, “Shadow Play,” “King Nine Will Not Return,” “A World of Difference,” and others, the question of how we distinguish the imagined from the real is raised. In most cases, there is some individual who believes that something exists, and there is everyone else, who thinks that it doesn’t exist, that the individual is imagining something that doesn’t exist. The problem is that the single individual is convinced that she or he is experiencing or sensing the object or objects in question, not merely imagining it. Attempts to convince the individual otherwise will fail. If you see an apple in front of you, no one is going to convince you that the apple isn’t there.

This is a bit of an oversimplification. There are times when we seem to see something, and what we seem to see doesn’t correspond to the way things are. If you don a pair of green tinted sunglasses, your white car might appear green, and for a moment you might be surprised until you realize that the car appears green because you are not viewing it under normal circumstances.

Mental illness of the kind suffered by Bob Wilson in “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” is not like this. The way Bob perceives the world can’t be changed by removing a pair of glasses, or by any other changes he or others can make to the conditions under which he interacts with his surroundings.

Bob’s malady isn’t simply a fear of flying in an airplane. It is a fear supported by what he (mistakenly) takes to be his direct observations of an individual on the wing of the plane who is attempting to tamper with and disable the craft. A phobia of flying could be the result of mistaken beliefs about the safety record of air travel, or about the safety procedures used by airlines. In principle, it sometimes is possible to quell someone’s fear of flying by correcting beliefs and providing information.

Bob’s problem also isn’t just a conflict between reason and passion, where the passion of fear wins out. Bob’s fear is grounded in his belief that there is a creature on the wing who is trying to bring the plane down, and he reasons that he must alert others to the problem and take action to maintain the airplane in flight. The failure of others to accept his testimony is distressing. At the same time, others are distressed by his claims, which are not corroborated by their experience, and by his behavior, which is inappropriate, from their perspective.

Those around Bob, including his wife and the flight attendant, are ill-equipped to respond to his concerns. That may have something to do with the fact that they can’t really understand what it is that he believes and desires. As Daniel Dennett has suggested, our practice of attributing a belief to someone is wrapped up in our attribution of other beliefs to that person, beliefs that “make sense” together with the belief attributed. For example, if I take you to believe that apples are a healthy food, then I can also attribute to you the belief that some fruits are healthy foods, since the latter proposition is a logical consequence of the former. In short, I attribute to you beliefs that are logical consequences of the beliefs I take you to have. That means that we usually take the reasoning capacity of other folks to be intact.

In the case of Bob, all bets are off. We take him to be suffering from some kind of information processing failure, since he is drawing radically different conclusions from the same circumstances we are in, and that limits our ability to construct a coherent picture of his beliefs. Dennett argues that in such cases we have to stop thinking of Bob as having beliefs at all, that is, he is no longer an “intentional system.” Instead, we have to revert to thinking of Bob as a designed system, where there is some failure in the implementation of the design that is responsible for Bob’s behavior. This is what the flight engineer does, when he interacts with Bob. He gives up trying to reason with Bob, and instead adopts a strategy of manipulation. He pretends that he shares Bob’s belief that the plane is in danger, and he tries to convince Bob that they have to cooperate to keep the other passengers calm.  Unfortunately, Bob quickly realizes that he is being manipulated rather than being believed. The other intervention is medication, but Bob is wise to this form of manipulation as well. Attempts to control Bob’s behavior require strategies other than reasoned discussion, and deception becomes important on both sides.

If Bob is no longer functioning as an intentional system, as a a holder of beliefs and desires that are logically linked together, what is responsible for his condition? What do we know about mental disorders and their treatment?  We’re told that Bob has just recovered from a serious event that led to a six month hospitalization.  We now have theories and treatment strategies based on evidence from the social and cognitive sciences, and most prominently from neuroscience, theories that were at best in their infancy in the early 1960s.  It’s probably fair to say, however, that we’ve made more progress in aerospace than we have in understanding and treating mental disorders of the kind suffered by Bob Wilson.

Further Reading:

Bolton, Derek, 2008, What is a Mental Disorder?, Oxford University Press.

Dennett, Daniel C., “Intentional Systems” The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 68, No. 4 (Feb. 25, 1971), 87-106. (also cited in “To Serve Man.”)

Young, Garry, 2011, “Beliefs, Experiences and Misplaced Being: An Interactionist Account of Delusional Misidentification”, Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 10(2): 195–215.

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Episode 122 – “Steel”

At least since the 17th century, philosophers and scientists have considered whether it is possible for machines to think. Descartes argued that it is not possible for animals (and by extension,  machines) to think. Thinking, he argued, requires the use of language, and language use is open-ended and unpredictable. While animals, which are simply mechanisms, can act “from the disposition of their organs,” humans act “from knowledge,” in a flexible manner that enables appropriate responses to any provocation. Only humans have language, and so, only humans can think.  Other beings can respond appropriately based on habit to a narrow range of inputs. Not all philosophers in the 17th and 18th centuries agreed with Descartes. Thomas Hobbes held that thinking was a kind of computation, carried out by motions in the brain and the heart. Pascal and Leibniz both worked on mechanical computing devices, with the hope of achieving a universal computer that could communicate in the language of mathematics.

In 1950, Alan Turing, one of the architects of the modern digital computer, took on Descartes’ challenge, and suggested that if a computer could be built that has the capacity to communicate in a natural language like English, in the same way that humans communicate in language, then we would have to conclude that it is intelligent. Turing proposed a test, since called The Turing Test,” where a computer replaces a human being in a parlor game called “The Imitation Game.” The Imitation Game is usually played with three human players: a male player, a female player,  and a judge. The players communicate with the judge via printed text. The judge can’t see or speak with the other players. The goal of the female player is to convince the judge that she is the female, and that the other player is the male participant. The goal of the male player is to convince the judge that he is the female and that the other player is the male. The Turing Test replaces either the male or female with a computer, who then takes on the role of the person it replaces. If the computer, for example, playing the male, can achieve the same rate of misidentification by the judge as a human player, then the computer passes the test.

Turing thought that the test was appropriate because it tests only the linguistic skill of the computer. The judge can’t see the body of the computer during the game, and won’t be likely to rule out its ability to think in advance of its exchanges with the machine. Turing reasoned that thinking is a purely intellectual activity, and doesn’t depend on the looks or other physical characteristics of the machine, beyond its ability to produce appropriate typed responses to the questions presented by the judge. Turing predicted that within fifty years, that is, by around 2000, computers would be powerful enough to pass the Turing Test, and be truly artificially intelligent.

“Steel” is about robots, embodied computers, that are not quite up to the  conversational skill level of the computers Turing envisioned,  but have been designed for a less lofty purpose. In this story, robots have replaced humans in the sport of boxing. Instead of dangerous bouts between vulnerable human players, boxing (in the 1970s!) has evolved into a sport between teams of roboticists, who develop androids who fight in front of audiences, just as the human boxers of old did. The moral objections to the sport of boxing have been accommodated. Robots damaged in a bout can be repaired or junked. No one gets hurt.

Worried that their robotic boxer will not be able to perform, due to technical difficulties, one of the promoters of the robot decides to replace the robot in the boxing ring, and attempt to fool the judges and the audience into thinking that he is the robot. In contrast to the Turing Test, where a robot takes on the role of a human, and tries to convince the judge that he is the male or female human being, here a human, nicknamed “Steel,” tries to convince the judges that he is a robot.

How difficult is it for a human to convincingly imitate a robot? Of course that depends on what the robots are like! In this story, robots look very much like humans, and they are designed to engage in a physical activity that developed originally as an activity between humans. The closer the robot is to imitating human boxers, the easier it will be for a human boxer to imitate a robotic one.

One might think that it would be easier to build a robotic boxer than a robotic thinker. In fact, both are challenges that we have yet to meet. Twenty years after the date Turing specified as the date by which the Turing Test would be passed, we do not have a computer that can engage in the kind of open-ended communication in language required to pass the test. While we are making progress with autonomous vehicles, we are not close to constructing autonomous agents who can compete in sports.

Robotics has in fact developed since the airing of this episode in the early 1960s along the lines hypothesized here. Many tasks carried out by human beings, from boxing to mining, from factory work to driving a car, are dangerous, and there are clear benefits to turning those tasks over to intelligent robots that can perform the associated actions for us.

If robots could imitate humans, and humans imitate robots, in a wide range of activities, intellectual, physical and social, would the lines be so blurred that we would have to attribute not only intelligence, but feelings, and not just feelings, but rights and obligations, to our robots? Paul Ziff raised this question in 1959, and it’s still with us today.

Further Reading:

Descartes, Rene, Discourse on the Method, 1985, in The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, Volume 1, Cottingham, John, Stoothoff, Robert, Murdoch, Dugald, trans., Cambridge University Press.

Turing, Alan, 1950, “Computing Machinery and Intelligence,” Mind Vol. 59: 433-460. (also cited in “The Lonely.”)

Ziff, Paul 1959, “The Feelings of Robots,” Analysis 19.

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Episode 121 – “In Praise of Pip”

In our interactions with one another, and also in our observations of the actions of individuals in fiction, we find ourselves assessing behavior. We judge individuals as good, or kind, or vicious, or even evil. We consider what has been done, and what may be done, and we assess those actions as wise or foolish, as self-centered or generous, as right or wrong.  When we engage in these assessments, we are often guided by our view of the character of the individual. This view is more general than the specific action we may be considering. It is an overall profile of the moral status of the individual, as a good person, a kind person, a lazy person, or a thoughtless person, and the role that the character we associate with that individual plays in their actions. Among the things that philosophers reflect on here, is the question of whether there really is something we can describe as a person’s moral character, and if there is such a thing as character, is it fixed, or can it change? These questions are raised in “In Praise of Pip.”

Max Phillips is a small time bookie, a person who takes illegal bets on horse races, working as a runner for a small time mobster, who doesn’t hesitate to use violence to collect from his clients. Max’s job is to collect bets and forward the proceeds to his boss. He’s been doing this for a long time, and nothing about his life seems admirable. He lives in a squalid room in a run down apartment building; he has a stash of cheap whiskey that he keeps in dresser draw nearby, and he doesn’t hesitate to mislead his clients in order to get them to place their bets. Yet Max is sweet to his landlady, and reflective. He knows that the life that he leads is not admirable.

How does our assessment of Max’s character contribute to our moral evaluation of his choices? We expect that Max will continue the life that he is stuck in. We expect him to continue to live as a petty criminal, and to exploit people who hope to turn their meager savings into winning bets. We don’t expect Max to improve his lot or the lot of others, and most would disapprove of his failure to get unstuck.

How, exactly does Max’s character influence his behavior? If we think of character as the beliefs, desires, and possibly moods and inclinations of a person, then we might see how holding certain beliefs, including beliefs about right and wrong, as well as beliefs about what is valuable, together with a set of desires, might contribute to the choices someone makes. There are, however, other things that influence our behavior, including the circumstances that we are in. Max’s circumstances are not ones that facilitate self improvement or the improvement of others.  How far does character take us in guiding our choices? What role do external circumstances play?

The episode helps us consider another aspect of character. We quickly come to appreciate that Max is quite self-reflective. He is not just a bum, but a bum who knows that he’s a bum. He observes his own behavior, both at the moment and in the past, with a critical eye. At one point he characterizes his character flaws eloquently: “Dreamed instead of did, wished and hoped instead of tried.” He knows that his behavior is not praise-worthy, and he doesn’t attempt to justify his actions.  The fact that he is aware of his own character suggests that his character is influencing his actions, though the actions he takes clearly are not the ones even he recognizes as ones he shouldn’t take. For less reflective souls, who don’t think, or think much, about what they believe and desire, it’s harder to see how their character causes their actions. How character and our awareness of our character are related is discussed by Taylor, (1996).

There’s much more to “In Praise of Pip” than Max Phillips in his room. Max is the father of Pip, a young man fighting in the Vietnam War. Max learns that Pip has been gravely wounded, and may die. This causes the already reflective Max to undertake a radical reconsideration of his character and his actions. He then does something we would regard as uncharateristic, that is, something that is at odds with his character, coming to the defense of a small time gambler who needs a refund. In doing this, Max rejects the values and beliefs he shared with his mobster boss, and does so bravely  and with great resolve. This suggests that we can, when we are in crisis or faced with challenging circumstances, change our character and in doing so reorder our priorities and act in ways that surprise  others.  Whether such character changes endure, or are just temporary, depends on many factors. Unfortunately for Max, one of the consequences of his character change was that the change, like Max himself, was short-lived.

Further Reading:

Millum, J., (2008), “How Do We Acquire Parental Responsibilities?
Social Theory and Practice, 34,1: 71-93.

Nussbaum, Martha,  (1990) Love’s Knowledge : Essays on Philosophy and Literature, Oxford University Press.

Taylor, G., 1996, “Deadly Vices?”, in How Should One Live?, R. Crisp (ed.), Oxford: Clarendon Press.


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Episode 120 – “The Bard”

Here’s a thought experiment and two guiding questions: Imagine that William Shakespeare could write for television. How would he fare, and what does answering the question tell us about television as an art form?

Julius Moomer has, somewhat unintentionally, conjured William Shakespeake, and is understandably shocked to be conversing with the William Shakespeare in his apartment.  Moomer says, “Look, level with me pops, would ya? You mean to say that you’re the Shakespeare? Man, you’ve been dead a thousand years!” This is Moomer’s metaphysical challenge: If Shakespeare is the person who died in 1616 (not quite a thousand years!), and if a person who has died at time t-1 cannot be alive at time t, then the individual in front of Moomer cannot be William Shakespeare. In response, Shakespeare says, “It is true of course, but death is relative and need not be the end.” This doesn’t seem to be supported by anything in Shakespeare’s writings. In fact, he emphasizes the finality of death, in passages like one from Henry IV, Part 2: “A man can die but once; we owe God a death.” And rather than saying death is relative, whatever that means, in Measure for Measure Shakespeare says that it is absolute: “Be absolute for death; either death or life.  Shall thereby be the sweeter.”

The Shakespeare who is conversing with Moomer is right: If death isn’t always the end of the person, then his claim to be the same person as the historical Shakespeare cannot be rejected on the grounds offered by Moomer. This metaphysical hypothetical is just one of the allowances we have to make in order to follow out this thought experiment. We can, of course, interpret the episode as merely asking what would happen if someone with something like Shakespeare’s genius, wrote for television?

Serling, who wrote this episode, must have had a great time throwing television, a relatively new medium, against the work of William Shakespeare,  who represents one of the greatest literary and dramatic achievements in English literature. Shakespeake is decidedly highbrow. Television was, in the early 1960s, and still is, in many circles, lowbrow or at best medium-brow. Shakespeare’s plays are works of art. Television productions in the 1960s were widely viewed, even by the networks that broadcast them, as vehicles for promoting products during frequent commercial breaks.

What makes something a work of art? This is the fundamental question of the subfield of philosophy known as the philosophy of art. One way of answering it is to begin with uncontroversial cases of art and then come up with an account of its most important features. Then candidates for inclusion in the category can be examined and compared with the canonical cases. Another way to try to distinguish art from non-art is to fashion a characterization of the aims and methods of artistic creation. Art is created by artists, so what is it that artists do, and how are artistic enterprises distinguished from others? This is the approach recommended by Immanuel Kant in his Critique of Judgment.

“The Bard” sheds some light on this fundamental question by pursuing the second approach, showing the ill fit of a true artist, Shakespeare, in the context of modern television. Shakespeare aims to shed light on love, conflict, and death. Television directors, producers, and sponsors, in contrast, are interested in attracting an audience that will be receptive to the produces advertised. As they butcher the script, in rehearsal,  Moomer explains to Shakespeare that their decisions, to eliminate the balcony scene, the suicide scene, and make other changes, are guided by what is popular with the viewing public, by what is currently “big.” As Shakespeare leaves the rehearsal, and clearly gives up on writing for television, his indictment of the new genre is swift and severe. Television and the Shakespearean art of drama have no point of contact.

However we define it, it is clear from the history of art that it is a moving target, and new forms of artistic expression develop over time, and that includes the introduction of new media. The technological developments of the last one hundred years alone have resulted in a vast palette of media that have been harnessed by artists and perhaps would-be artists. Television paled in comparison with Shakespeare in the 1960s, and still does in the 21st century, but it can’t be as easily dismissed as an art form as it is dismissed by Serling, one of its practitioners.  If that’s right, Serling himself deserves some credit for the elevation of the medium.

Further Reading:

Kant, I., Guyer, Paul, and Matthews, Eric, trans., 2001,  Critique of the Power of Judgement, Cambridge University Press.

Lopes, D.M., 2008,“Nobody Needs a Theory of Art” Journal of Philosophy, 105: 109–127.



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Episode 119 – “Passage on the Lady Anne”

Marriage is a relationship between persons, sometimes entered into voluntarily, but sometime not. But what is the relationship, exactly? What conditions must be met for two (or in some cases more than two) persons to be married? Who, for example, can be married? What are the moral consequences of being married? What obligations does one incur as the result of marrying? Are there prescribed roles for partners to a marriage? Can those be altered? Is marriage a valuable institution, or should it be abandoned, or at least not encouraged? If it is valuable, what is it about marriage that makes it so? For example, does the value of marriage have anything to do with parenthood? If so, what follows about marriages without children? What role does love play in marriage?

These, and many other questions arise in philosophical discussions, particularly in moral and political philosophy, and increasingly in discussions of gender and gender equality. These aren’t exclusively philosophical questions. They are investigated in the social sciences, including anthropology, sociology, history, and economics, as well as in political science and law. Philosophical investigation of marriage includes attempts to define what marriage is, to understand the concept of marriage and its scope and limits, and to provide arguments for or against the institution of marriage itself.

Most philosophers hold that marriage is a social institution that varies across time and place. That means that a particular challenge to meet is to make sense of marriage as something that changes, and that we have to be prepared to imagine how we would use the concept of marriage in circumstances different from the way we might currently use it.  Making use of historical, legal, sociological, and economic data will inform our deliberations, but understanding how we have used and use the concept of marriage won’t necessarily tell us how we should use the concept in the imagined circumstances.

“Passage on the Lady Anne” doesn’t take use to distant planets, the future, the past, or any of the exotic scenes of the imagination often hypothesized in The Twilight Zone. It is placed in the present, that is, the early 1960s, where we are witness to a failing marriage, that of a young couple, Alan and Eileen Ransome. The episode provides evidence in support of Moller (2003), who presents a version of the so-called “Bachelor’s Argument” against marriage, based on the likelihood that a marriage will eventually lead to the unhappy situation of the kind faced by the Ransomes. But the episode also contains an impassioned defense of the institution of marriage.

What makes a marriage fail? What is the necessary ingredient that is missing from the Ransome’s union? Marriage, as it is portrayed here, requires mutual love, friendship, and shared interests on the part of the members of the union. These elements may have been present in the Ransome’s union in the past, but they no longer are. Eileen suggest they take a cruise where they will have the time to try to repair their relationship.

This is no ordinary cruise, of course. It is the final voyage of The Lady Anne, and its passengers are, except for the Ransomes, all elderly couples and a few widows and widowers, all celebrating the role that The Lady Anne played in their long-lasting marriages. It’s not clear how it happens, but by entering this special environment, the Ransomes come to rediscover their love, friendship, and shared interests, and in so doing save their marriage. It is not that the elderly couples provide an argument for marriage, or diagnose the problem with the Ransome’s relationship and offer a cure. Rather, they provide exemplars of what makes marriages good, and by interacting with couples who are happily married, Alan and Eileen come to see the value in their relationship.  Moller may be right that many marriages fail, and that that fact may suggest that marriage itself is a problematic institution. But the passengers on The Lady Anne show that a rich, meaningful, relationship that extends to the end of life is not only possible, it is actual. In their final act, the elderly couples insist that the only difference between the Ransomes and themselves, is that the Ransomes are at the beginning of a life of devotion to one another, while they are at its end.

These considerations would not apply to marriages in the Europe of the Middle Ages, where love was not only not a necessary condition for a successful marriage, but was often seen as an obstacle to a successful union. In addition, the conventions governing marriage in the 1960s created obstacles and barriers to happy marriages that don’t speak to the conditions we face in many cultures today. Eileen appears to be a housewife, while Alan is the workaholic bread earner. Eileen is oppressed and marginalized. She feels excluded from Alan’s world. Today’s marriages are often, though not always, among individuals who are both expected to have the same engagement with the world, and the potential equality of power means that the kind of difficulties the Ransomes face may be less likely to occur. Marriages now are understood as relationships that don’t even require a gender difference, much less one where there is a difference in power.


Further Reading:

Coontz, Stephanie, 2007, Marriage, A History, Viking Press.

Herman, Barbara, 1993, “Could it be worth thinking about Kant on sex and marriage?,” in A Mind of One’s Own, Louise Antony and Charlotte Witt (eds.), Oxford: Westview Press, pp. 49–67.

Landau, Iddo, 2004, “An Argument for Marriage,” Philosophy, 79: 475–481.

Dan Moller, Dan, 2003, “An Argument against Marriage” Philosophy, 78: 79-91.

Nussbaum Martha, 1999, Sex and Social Justice, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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