Episode 72 – “The Grave”

This is a Western with a metaphysical twist. Can someone who is dead commit murder? Can Pinto Sykes, a recently deceased gun-slinger, cause the death of Conny Miller, a bounty hunter who had tried, but failed, to bring about Sykes’ demise? When Miller visits Sykes grave, Miller winds up dead. But is his death due to natural causes, or to unnatural causes? That’s the question, and of course, Serling just leaves it open, concluding: “you take this with a grain of salt or a shovelful of earth, as shadows or substance, we leave it up to you. And for any further research, check under ‘G,’ for ‘ghosts’…in the Twilight Zone.” “Shadows” are non-natural causes, “substances” natural ones.

To turn this into a controversy that is of some philosophical interest, we have to refine the shadow/substance distinction. If all we’re asking is whether there are ghosts who can pull flesh-and-blood human creatures down and kill them at in graveyards, then we’re not doing philosophy. But philosophers have made the distinction between natural and n0n-natural substances and causes, and we don’t have to invoke the possibility of ghosts and other shadow phenomena to engage with these questions.

When we describe the events that occur in the world, many of them fall easily within the domain of natural causes and effects: the decline of sea otter populations results in the explosion of the sea urchin population, which leads to the decline of kelp forests. These causes and effects are all natural, that is, they occur in nature and can be explained by theories in biology and ecology.  And we can stay within nature when we bring in human otter hunting as a cause of the decline in the otter population. But when we seek to explain the cause of the over-hunting of sea otters by explaining the role of such factors as greed, short-sightedness, we at least appear to leave the realm of the natural. When we include cognitive and affective features of human agents, we appear to move beyond “substance” and move into the “shadows.” What kind of natural phenomena correspond to our beliefs and desires, and by what mechanisms do they bring about their effects? These are lasting philosophical questions.

When probing the cause of Conny’s death in “The Grave” we have at our disposal a wealth of facts about Conny’s relationship to Sykes. On the one hand Conny appears to be a tough guy. He’s been on the trail of Sykes for years, determined to hunt him down. But the townsfolk grow tired of waiting for Conny to do the job, and so they do it themselves. When Conny appears, they questions his toughness and resolve. They taunt him and dare him to visit Sykes grave. With all this context, there’s no need to appeal to the shadowy occult to explain his death. One quite plausible explanation, an explanation that will appeal to beliefs and desires,  is suicide.

One quite plausible view is that the natural/non-natural distinction collapses, that all apparently non-natural phenomena are really natural. Affective and cognitive states are really just states of the organism,  they are just states for which we lack the kinds of robust scientific explanations we have for other things, such as the eating habits of sea otters and sea urchins. We don’t have the detailed understanding of mechanisms that have beliefs and desires, and so when we find ourselves appealing to such features of human agents in order to explain their behavior, such appeals are placeholders for more complete all-natural explanations that we may be able to supply in the fullness of time.

Further Reading

Daniel C. Dennett,  The Intentional Stance (Bradford Books, 1989)

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