Episode 38 – “Man in a Bottle”

What do we desire, and what is of value?  This episode begins with those questions. An elderly lady brings a used wine bottle to an antique/junk shop claiming it is an heirloom. But the item is something no one desires – it is a piece of junk. But Mr. Arthur Castle,  takes pity on the old lady and goes along with subterfuge, and assigns it a value,  and hands her a few bucks. What we learn is that Mr. and Mrs. Castle are themselves near bankruptcy and with little of lasting value. Or so it seems.

Like Al Denton, Arthur Castle finds himself stuck in a world he didn’t choose, but rather a world he inherited. Unlike Al Denton, he is not so self-absorbed that he can’t have compassion for the miserable fate of others.  This is a story about choice, and about the compatibility of choice in a world of causes and effects.

The bottle contains a genie who can guarantee four wishes; he appears when the bottle falls (it doesn’t break) and is uncorked.  To figure out what we desire, we need only reflect on what we wish for. And what we wish for us what we assign great value to.

After a fairly trivial test wish is fulfilled by the genie and the Castles come to grips with the scope of the possibilities before them, they need to figure out what they desire – what they value.  The solution is easy: They ask for and receive a million dollars, in fives and tens, right on the floor of their shop.

But choices have consequences. A wish fulfilled in a possible world gets fleshed out. After taxes, and after giving away some of their windfall, what they have left is five dollars! The genie critiques their choice. After all, they could have asked for a million dollars after taxes. But the genie warns: “No matter what you wish for, you must be prepared for the consequences.”

The Castles think they can consequence-proof their wish, and so Mr. Castle comes up with wish number three: “I want to be the head of a foreign country who can’t be voted out of office, a contemporary country, a country in this century.  The result is so disastrous, he retreats to his old life in wish four: “I wish I were back where it all started. I wish to be Arthur Castle again!”

The genie laments that although he can grant any wish, happiness rarely accrues to the wish-maker. The Castles’ wishes fit a pattern. If the wishes that can be fulfilled have consequences, then we need to be prepared for them. But we can’t be prepared for the consequences of extravagant wishes, since they fall far outside the scope of our knowledge and practical experience. The fulfilled wishes that have the best chance of making us happy are those that we bring about without the help of a genie in a bottle.

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