Episode 52 – “A Penny for Your Thoughts”

The philosophical examination of an aspect of the human condition is often carried out by taking some feature of that condition, and imaging its absence, and then thinking about how that difference – the human condition minus some feature – would make a difference. And contemplating this difference-making gives us some insight into the feature under examination. Many Twilight Zone episodes can be described as conforming to this approach to philosophical examination. Take a feature of human existence, modify it, and watch what happens.  What happens takes place in “The Twilight Zone a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination.”

The ordinary feature of human existence under scrutiny in this episode is that we don’t hear what other people are thinking unless they “speak their minds,” and express their thoughts in overt speech. We simply don’t hear what isn’t spoken. That doesn’t mean we can’t know what someone is thinking without their verbal report.  But if we do know what someone is thinking when they don’t report their thoughts, our knowledge is based on non-verbal factors, such as their behavior and the environment in which they act. It’s also the case that verbal reports don’t always give us accurate information about what someone is thinking. Both of these wrinkles are noted in this episode.

The episode supposes what is not the case: Hector B. Poole, a bank employee on his way to work, undergoes a transformation such that he can now hear what people are thinking, both when they are not speaking, and when what they are thinking differs from what they are reporting to be thinking. So our question is this: How would the ability to hear what people are thinking change things, and how does this shed light on the fact that we don’t have direct access to the thoughts of others?

One thing Hector notices right away is that verbal reports often don’t line up with what someone is thinking. The dictates of politeness leads to dissembling, and to claims that at best don’t cohere with our beliefs. The  incongruities of thought and talk confronting Hector in his most casual interactions in public are disturbing and disorienting. Hector looks sick almost as soon as he is struck with his new cognitive abilities. Others speculate that he is mentally ill. What seems like a cognitive enhancement might really be a disability.

At work at the bank, among colleagues of various ranks, Hector encounters new challenges, not the least of which is grappling with the the inappropriate thoughts of his male colleagues towards women.  It is worth noting that Serling highlighted this unfortunately pervasive feature of the workplace in the early 1960s. Hector is so outraged by the sexism of his male counterpart that he douses the colleague with a cup of water.

What Hector’s new ability makes most clear, however, is that we often act without thinking and think without acting. Hector “hears” what people don’t say out loud, what a founder of behaviorism, James Watson, called sub-vocal speech, but he doesn’t hear what they aren’t thinking to themselves. In a brief but important scene, Hector sees a bank customer fondling her cash while beaming with pleasure at her treasure. Hector gets close to her, but no thought is projected. Maybe the lights are on, but no one’s home, or maybe she’s thinking but not thinking to herself. Is that a possible mental state? The scenario raises the question.

We can also think without acting, or, more precisely, think without intending to act. That’s what happens when Hector “overhears” his colleague, Mr. Smithers, planning a theft. As the end of the work week approaches, Smithers, a trusted, longstanding  but under appreciated employee plans to abscond with cash from the bank’s vault, and retire to Bermuda. Hector picks up on the plan and informs the bank president. But the plan never materializes. Smithers fantasizes about robbing the bank, but he never forms the intention to carry out the plan. Hector has access to the thoughts of others, but not the thinker’s attitude towards the thought.  He can’t tell whether Smithers is merely imagining that p, hoping that p, or intending to make it true that p, where p is “I will rob the bank and escape to Bermuda.”

So how do we, without Hector’s powers, figure out what others are thinking, and just as importantly, how do we  figure out what another mind’s attitudes are towards their thoughts, for we can’t know what they will do with a proposition p that’s in their head, unless we know whether they believe that p, hope that p, fear that p, merely imagine that p.  Yet we make such attributions all the time, even without Hector’s access.  Hector knows what is said without it being said. But just as we know what is said when some utters a proposition aloud, we don’t know what they mean until we interpret that proposition. To interpret a proposition, we have to see how it fits in with other propositions and with their behavior. Had Hector observed Mr. Smither’s behavior over several days, he would have realized that Smithers was fantasizing a theft, rather than actually planning one.

We can imagine other possible scenarios. Hector might have obtained greater powers. For example, Hector might have obtained the power to immediately know not only what someone is thinking to him or herself, but how to interpret that content, and what attitude the thinker holds toward that content (belief, hope, etc.).  That Hector’s  power is more limited is precisely what sheds light on our own condition.


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