Episode 36 – “A World of His Own”

Serling provides a comedic romp through the metaphysics of fictional discourse. The setting is the home of Mr. Gregory West, “one of America’s most noted playwrights.”  Mr. West is being poured a drink by his mistress, his beautiful, adoring, and younger companion. When his wife returns, she spies the two of them through the window, and prepares to confront them. But when we enters the house, the mistress is gone, and the wife is ontologically confused. She saw the mistress in the arms of Mr. West, but where is she now? The house is searched, and Mr. West is interrogated. Ultimately she succeeds in getting West to admit to the existence of Mary, his mistress.

But here’s the rub: West claims that Mary is one of his fictional characters. He thought her up. But he did such a good job thinking her up that she came to life. Not only did Mr. West see her, but so did Mrs. West. So where did Mary go? She was created by an act of Mr. West’s imagination, and so she can be instantaneously eliminated by another act of his imagination.

Mrs. West thinks this is nuts, and she attempts to call the psychiatrist. She’s right. We don’t think that people come into existence just in virtue of someone imagining them. Mr. West thinks that when he imagines his characters in sufficient detail, they actually come to life. But that isn’t how things work. A well-imagined character can fascinate and preoccupy us in literature, but that doesn’t bring the character to life in anything more than a metaphorical sense. Fictional characters may have causal powers. For example, a fable with moral content my bring it about that I reform my ways, and stop stealing or lying. But that doesn’t make the characters in the story into existing persons.

The description of a fictional character as actually existing seems incoherent. If a character, say Mary, is fictional, then she doesn’t exist. If she exists, then she’s not fictional. How do we know whether something actually exists? An adequate test, at least in this context, is intersubjective agreement.  When Mr. and Mrs. West both see Mary at the same time, then Mary exists. Mrs. West still thinks Mr. West is nuts, on good philosophical grounds, until he demonstrates that he can bring characters in and out of existence by the mere power of his imagination.

Conceptual confusion is cleared up when we learn that Mrs. West is also a fictional character. She can, and eventually does, go out of existence as easily as does Mary. So the collaborative verification of Mary’s existence turns out, like everything in this story, to be a figment of Mr. West’s imagination. But what of Mr. West? In a confrontation with Mr. West’s creator – Rod Serling, Mr. West reveals that Serling is himself merely a character in Mr. West’s fiction.

This story can be seen as a fun-filled version of Descartes’ Evil Genius thought experiment, an argument for scepticism. Mr. West is the evil genius, and we are in the epistemic position of Mary, Mrs. West, Rod Serling, and the red-eyed elephant in the room. While great fun is had by all – namely Mr. West, there is a chilling aspect as well. It’s no fun to be ontologically confused when the object you’re confused about is yourself.  Other episodes reveal this as well: “Walking Distance,” “The Lonely,” “The Hitchhiker,” and “The Sixteen Millimeter Shrine,” to name a few.

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