Episode 50 – “The Whole Truth”

Opening an episode entitled “The Whole Truth” with a scene (in fact, it’s the only scene of the entire episode) at a used car dealership is hilarious, and what ensues does not disappoint. A young couple, “just browsing” for dependable but inexpensive transportation are harangued by Harvey Hunnicut, the salesman and owner of this disreputable establishment. We begin with a normal state of affairs at such an establishment: customers at risk in their interaction with a salesperson who will say anything, true or not, to close a sale.

We are then thrown into a thought experiment. Suppose that an individual found itself , temporarily at least, unable to deliberately assert falsehoods, that the only assertions that individual could make were propositions that are true. In two areas of life such a modification in assertability conditions would have profound consequences: selling used cars and governing nations. “The Whole Truth” explores this possibility and its consequences for auto sales and politics to comedic effect. But it raises the issue of the role of falsehood, and its relatives, such as dissembling, exaggerating, and  withholding, in the much wider sphere of human discourse and action.

One widely held view is that we can only make sense of the behavior of human agents by assuming that what they assert is both what they take to be true, and is true. Sometimes this is known as the Principle of Charity, that our interpretation of the claims of others should be charitable.  That people generally assert the truth has to do with the fact that people are goal-directed and self-interested. If you ask me why I’m dialing 9-1-1, I’ll say, “That’s how you activate the Emergency Management System,” and it’s both true and true that I believe it. If either of these assumptions fail, disaster lurks ahead.

But if we largely utter true statements, what’s the point of a thought experiment that constrains us to do what we generally do anyway? The rub is that while we generally are truth-tellers, we aren’t always truth-tellers, and that has to do with the fact that it doesn’t always serve our goals to let others know what we take to be true, and what is in fact true. Cases in point: selling used cars (or pretty much anything, for that matter), and politics.

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

Episode 49 – “Back There”

It’s April 14, 1961, Washington D.C., at the Potomac Club. A group of well-heeled club members play cards and discuss the metaphysics of time travel. One argues that if time travel were possible, one could prevent a financial disaster that we know occurred in the past, from taking place. Another disagrees: If an event has taken place in the past, then it can’t be altered or be prevented from happening. It is this second claim, that the episode sets out to defend, with a qualification.

Mr.Peter Corrigan is a participant in this debate, and when he leaves the table, he inexplicably finds that he has time-traveled to April 14, 1865, hours before Abraham Lincoln’s assassination at Ford’s Theatre. He attempts to prevent the assassination – wouldnt’ you? – but he fails, as he must. Yet on his reappearance in the present, we discover that something that is the case, the great wealth of one of his fellow club members, is causally linked to his attempt to prevent Lincoln’s assassination. The conclusion: “In the matter of time travel, gentlemen, some things can be changed; some things can’t.”

So what can be changed and what can’t?  The short answer is that you cannot bring it about that not-p when it is true that p, and you can bring it that p when it is true that p. When Corrigan travels back in time it is true both that Lincoln was assassinated in 1865, and that his club colleague is wealthy.  Prevented from changing the past only precludes him from changing those things that will alter the truths about the past.

Of course, the short answer raises questions that don’t have short answers. How can Corrigan be a contributing cause in the acquisition of his colleague’s long-deceased ancestor’s wealth? Corrigan (the cause) comes into existence after the accumulation of wealth (the effect). So we have to tolerate causes occurring after their effects.

If we must adhere to the requirement that the past can’t be altered, must we also adhere to the requirement that causes must occur prior to their effects?  “Back There” doesn’t explicitly address this, but it suggests that there is a difference between these two principles. Violating the first is unthinkable. Violating the second is thinkable, when we imagine the story of Corrigan and his interactions with his 19th century and his 20 century compatriots,

Posted in reflections | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Episode 48 – “Dust”

When things are really tough, we tend to hope for something miraculous to happen, for some bit of magic that will transform some inevitable doom. Of course, hoping that something will be the case is a form of imagining it to be the case, and so is something that takes place in the Twilight Zone, that is, in the imagination.

Things are really tough of Luis Gallegos, who is not only a poor Mexican in a hard-scrabble Western town of tough, unsympathetic white pioneers, but he has just accidentally killed a white girl, and has been tried, convicted, and sentenced to death by hanging, probably all in the same day. And it’s worse than that: There is a surly, disgusting resident named Sykes, who has provided the rope for the hanging, and taunts Luis about his impending execution. This is the second episode featuring a hanging.

Luis accepts his sentence, but his father hopes for a miracle, and Sykes exploits this, selling him some “magic dust” that will save the day, and spare his son. And, surprisingly to everyone present, Luis is spared, after his father spreads the dust. The dust is spread, the hangman’s rope breaks, and Luis survives.  A miracle, or just a post hoc occurrence?

What is special is not the breaking of the rope, but what happens next. The victim’s family has the authority to order the execution to continue, or to pardon Luis. The mother says:  “we leave it like this – one victim is enough.” Serling concludes: “In any quest for magic, … first check the human heart.” As in so many episodes, the final outcome is the result of natural, not supernatural, causes.

Following on the heels of “Night of the Meek,” it bears mention that Serling’s characters and themes exhibit cultural and ethnic diversity that was far less present in television and film than it is at present. “Dust” portrays the brutal racism towards the native Mexicans whose land in what became the American Southwest was taken from them, particularly through the character of Sykes. “Night of the Meek” reveals the poverty of those unable to provide for themselves, the poor and the elderly of the inner city. Even the suburbs, the sanitized, seemingly uniform community of white residents, turns out to crack with the slightest suspicion of a loss of security in “The Monsters are due on Elm Street.”

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

Episode 47 – “Night of the Meek”

“Night of the Meek” is a Christian morality tale, a Christmas miracle story. It is about sympathy and support for the meek: the poor, the young, the old, the homeless and the impaired. We see the meek in these forms, contrasted with the non-meek – the wealthy department store patrons dragging their privileged children – one is named “Percival Smithers” – to tell Santa what they fully expect to get for Christmas.

This episode contains two explicit references to philosophy. The first occurs early in the episode, when Corwin (played by Art Carney), a poor, aging, alcoholic, takes a break from his temporary gig as a department store Santa during the Christmas season,  and downs shots of whiskey at a local bar. As he drinks in his Santa garb, two kids notice him from outside, pressing their noses to the windows, waving wildly to get his attention. Corwin asks the bartender:”Why do you suppose there really isn’t a Santa Claus? Why isn’t there a real Santa Claus, for kids like that?” The bartender responds: “What am I supposed to be, some kind of philosopher?”

The second comes when Corwin is sacked after returning drunk from his break from  his Santa gig. In response to his employer’s outrage, Corwin is at first contrite, but then points out that Christmas is not about how well others meet our performance expectations, but rather about how we understand, sympathize with, and respond to the plight of others – of the meek. Someone should tell the outraged mother of Percival Smithers that Christmas is about “patience, love, charity, compassion.” Corwin’s boss dismisses this with sarcasm: “How philosophical, Mr. Corwin!”

Corwin is hip to the fact that something is seriously wrong with Christmas. Santa doesn’t exist. Instead  there are only fake Santas, hired drunks like Corwin himself,  unable to meet the needs and hopes of those most in need.  Corwin’s eloquent observations are dismissed, derisively classified as “philosophy.”

In the Twilight Zone, that is, in the imagination, things can go differently. We get to imagine that Corwin acquires the resources to begin to fulfill the needs and reduce the suffering of the children and the elderly in the dark, inner city streets of this American city on Christmas eve. The hope rests in the fat that what we can imagine is possible.

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

Episode 46 – “A Most Unusual Camera”

Even small time crooks need to be able to predict the future. The story begins with a married couple, despairing over their meager haul from the robbery of a curio shop. Lamenting the fact that the stolen items are mostly worthless junk, they see the need to do a better job of predicting the value of future heists. The one item that stands out from their latest robbery is a camera, a most unusual camera.

The stolen camera is unusual in two respects. First, it develops pictures instantly, at a time before the invention of the Polaroid Camera. But more remarkably, it takes pictures of something that hasn’t yet happened, but will soon (in five minutes)  happen. It take pictures of an imminent future event.

Predicting the future is central to human nature. We believe that bread nourishes, that the sun will rise tomorrow, and that rhubarb is usually a purge, to use Hume’s examples. Were we unable to make predictions, we would be limited to the narrow sphere of our current sensory awareness and our memories of our sensory states. We would be unable to act. But our inductive inferences, even at their best, are limited.  It’s not that we can’t make highly specific predictions – I can predict that this piece of bread will nourish me. Rather, such specific predictions are ones that follow from generalizations, like the generalization that bread nourishes. The predictions made by the unusual camera are predictions of one-off, novel events.

In a singular out of character moment, one of the crooks realizes that the technology in his hands might be of use to science, and he vows to donate the camera to science for the benefit of humanity. But that plan vanishes, when he realizes that it can also be used to predict the outcome of horse races, and in a flash, they are off to the races.

“A Most Unusual Camera” is a morality tale. Extending our ability to predict the future might very well benefit humanity, when that technology finds itself in the right hands.

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