Episode 57 – “The Prime Mover”

There’s a long tradition in the history of philosophy, going back at least to Aristotle, of arguing for the existence of a prime mover. If there are things that move, and there are, then there are other things that made them move. And the things that made things move must themselves move, and so must be moved by other moving things. This is a regress and it  can only be stopped by a prime mover, a mover who is not itself moved by another.

Another way of characterizing a prime mover is as something non-physical that can move a physical thing. If you hold that the mind is not a physical thing, then you are a prime mover. When you raise your hand to answer a question in class, you have formed the intention to raise your hand, and then you raised it. You prime-moved it. While we can, within limits, directly prime move parts of our bodies, we can’t directly move other objects. We can raise a glass by raising our arm when we are holding a glass. In Meditation 6 of his Meditations on First Philosophy, Descartes remarked on the close connection of mind and body. Though he took mind and body to be completely distinct substances, he emphasized and attempted to explain the special relationship a mind has to its associated body, and it alone. This episode has us imagine a possible world in which there is a person who is a prime mover in this extended sense: He can directly move objects the way we can move some parts of our bodies.

The issue raised here is similar in some respects to that of “Mr. Dingle, The Strong.” There we imagined someone possessing a power not normally possessed. In that case it was sheer physical strength. And we saw that not only could such powers be abused, but that it was all but certain that they would be abused. In “The Prime Mover” the possible world we imagine is one where the difference in the possession of a power is not just a matter of degree, but one of scope.  If someone had the power to directly move not just parts of his or her body, but other objects as well, how would such a power be used?

Mr. Dingle used his new found strength for himself. Here, a “Jimbo Cobb” has the power, but he serves simply as the agent of his friend, Ace Larsen, in the exercise of his special talent. He’s a prime mover in the service of another.  Jimbo knows that Ace is using his powers in the service of his gambling addiction, but he accedes to Ace’s demands, for as long as he can. As Rod Serling puts it: “Some people possess talent; others are possessed by it.” Here the person possessed by it is not the person who possesses it.  Jimbo’s inability, or unwillingness, to challenge the bad shots that Ace calls shows that even a prime mover can make the wrong moves. It’s one thing to possess a power, and quite another to act on it from the right reasons. In fact, when Ace is calling the shots, Jimbo isn’t the prime mover; Ace is.

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Episode 56 – “Static”

What distinguishes memory from imagination? Certainly our memories inform our imagination. When we imagine what might have been, in contrast to what was, we go beyond our memories to paint a picture of alternative states of affairs.  That’s what happens to Ed Lindsay, a long time resident of a boarding house, who long ago was in love with Vinnie Broun, another resident. They planned to marry but never did. Now, prompted by an old radio, a 1935 console that he retrieved from storage, he remembers his promise-filled youth, and the sounds issued on the radio that he and Vinnie listened at the time. But he does more than remember. He imagines that he is hearing live broadcasts of Tommy Dorsey and his Orchestra playing “Getting Sentimental Over You” and other radio shows that graced the airways in decades long past.

When Ed attempts to share the broadcasts with others, all there is is static. The radio only “works” when he’s alone.  So is Ed making a mistake, or is he exhibiting a form of mental illness. In On Certainty Wittgenstein observes that we someone violates shared norms and background assumptions, we can’t explain their behavior in terms of making mistakes. Mistakes presuppose a shared framework. The shared framework for the folks Ed is trying to convince is one in which Tommy Dorsey is dead and live broadcasts of his music ceased long ago. Ed is not simply making a mistake. He’s way out there.

Another source of static between Ed and his fellow residents is the “new” medium of television. The episode opens with the residents glued to the TV. Ed erupts with a furious rebuttal of the medium. As he switches the channels, it doesn’t matter what’s on a little screen. The residents are mesmerized by all of it. It becomes clear only later that what Ed really objects to is the presentness of television, in contrast to radio. TV is just there, while radio requires the active participation of the listener’s imagination.  Serling describes Ed’s preferred medium as “strange and wonderful time machine called a radio.” Of course, in episode, TV is the new technology, and radio is outdated. But Ed is on to something about the difference in the modalities of the media. Serling is using television to critique television, presaging our recognition that the medium may not be the message, but we ignore the relationship between different modes of the presentation of information and the different modes of cognition, at our peril.


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Episode 55 – “Mr. Dingle – The Strong”

We are often advised to know our limitations, and to plan our actions in light of them. It’s not a good idea  to plan to pull an all-nighter to write a paper when you typically have trouble staying up to midnight,  and it’s also unwise to think that you can read, understand, and craft polished prose about Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason over a span of ten hours, even if you can manage to stay awake and focused for that interval.

More positively, knowing your limitations entails that you have some sense of what you are capable of doing with the resources that you accurately assess to be at your disposal. Looking at the sign indicating that the ski run you’re approaching is a black diamond, you may assess that you have the requisite skill and possess the appropriate equipment to make it safely and enjoyably along that route.  Much of our sense of our own well-being is caught up in the accuracy of our self-assessments of our own physical and mental capacities.

Knowing your limitations and your powers doesn’t tell you what you ought to do, except insofar as you ought not attempt to do what you can’t do.   As we attribute to Immanuel Kant: Ought implies can (Critique of Judgment). But among the vast variety of actions that you can undertake, what ought you to do? And what happens when you discover that you can do much more than you thought you could do? That’s the question raised in “Mr Dingle – The Strong.” Of course the relevant question isn’t what would you do, but what would the average person do, and would that be what one ought to do?

Before he aquires new powers, Mr. Dingle does indeed know his limitations. He cowers when bullied by his acquaintances at the local bar.  The visiting aliens choose Mr. Dingle as the subject of their experiment for just this reason. He’s the weakest person they have found and he knows that he is weak. They  give him additional strength, making him three hundred times stronger than the average human. What happens when the weakest human discovers that he is the strongest?

Mr. Dingle does not use his new powers for good, but merely switches places with his tormentors, and does to them what they did to him. It’s machismo and revenge gone wild. The aliens are disappointed, but not surprised. As they abort the failed experiment, they look forward to trying again on another planet, one in which there are only women! Chances are that they’ll have better luck.


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Episode 54 – “The Odyssey of Flight 33”

The possibility and the nature of time travel is a frequent theme  in The Twilight Zone. It is front and center in this one. Inexplicably, a commercial jetliner, a Boeing 707 enroute from London to New York, gains speed, too much speed, and finds itself not over the New York in 1961, but New York during the Mesozoic Era, a mere 100 million years or so prior. They know this when they get below the clouds and see the dinosaurs. There’s no airport, of course, and so they head back up, to gain speed and inexplicably try to get “back” to 1961.  They get close, but not close enough, and the episode ends with them undertaking a third attempt, with little prospect of hitting their target time.

In this, as in all time travel scenarios, there are two ways to track the passage of time: There is what David Lewis calls “personal time,”  the time span as the crew and passengers on Flight 33 (and we) experience it, and there is what Lewis calls the “external time,” the time span from some point on the flight to the location in time at which they have arrived. In normal cases, personal time and external time are the same. The passengers and crew endure a six hour journey from London, and arrive in New York six hours after leaving. But in this case, they arrive in New York 100 million years or so before they left London. Time has passed in these two, seemingly irreconcilable ways. It’s even problematic to say that time has “passed.”

Arriving in New York 100 million years ago, the occupants of Flight 33 inhabit a time before their species existed and before Boeing 707s were built. So at the point at time to which they have traveled, there are no humans, but there are humans, and there are no airplanes, and there is an airplane. The aircraft continues to function. It continues to burn fuel, and the crew monitors the remaining fuel. The occupants of the plane still wear their 20th century clothes. Everything inside the aircraft remains as it was. But the crew has lost contact with their ground communication counterparts, because those counterparts don’t exist and won’t exist anytime soon.

Typically emphasized in time travel scenarios are interpersonal relationships and the consequences of time travel for those relationships. In contrast, “The Odyssey of Flight 33” is not about that at all. Instead, what we come to appreciate is the role that the environment, including the state of technology, where it exists, plays for the time traveler. Flight 33 simply can’t land  in most of the past, since the past is not set up for the technology of jet travel. Without airports, or even with airports but without long enough runways, there is no place to land, and Flight 33 is doomed, unless it can return to the narrow window in which the airborne technology meshes with that on the ground.


Suggested reading:

David Lewis, “The Paradoxes of Time Travel” American Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 13, No. 2 (April 1976) pp. 145-152.

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Episode 53 – “Twenty-Two”

Miss Liz Powell has a problem. She has a recurring dream, but  she finds it “difficult to decide which is reality, and which is nightmare.” Does she dream that she wakes up from her hospital bed, knock a  water glass to the floor, leave her room and takes the elevator to the basement of the hospital, and proceeds to Room 22, which is the morgue, where the door opens a a nurse beckons her in, with the welcome, “Room for one more, honey” or does she actually wake up and experience this sequence of events? The problem is exacerbated by her location: Her “dreams” occur in the psychiatric ward  of a hospital, where she is being treated for a “nervous breakdown.” Her insistence that the nightly events are real is dismissed by her psychiatrist and her agent as a symptom of her illness.

A good way to distinguish dreams from reality is to check how the purported dreams cohere or fail to cohere with the purported reality. If the consensus has it that some proposition is true, then check whether the purported dream claim coheres or fails to cohere with p. For example, if you dream that you jumped out a window and flew like a bird, the claim that you actually did so will not cohere with what your epistemic community, the community of other belief holders of which you are a member, claim to know. Therefore what you claim to have experienced was a dream.

Using this test, it turns out that Miss Powell’s claims do cohere with many of the facts as they are understood by others. It takes the psychiatrist a while to appreciate this, but he knows that there is a morgue in the basement of the hospital, that it is numbered room 22. Both claims cohere with Miss Powell’s description of the sequence of events she claims to experience each night.  Further, the claim that Miss Powell actually visited the entrance to Room 22 adds additional coherence to the set of beliefs held by the psychiatrist and others, since the truth of that claim helps explain how Miss Powell can hold the beliefs she holds.

The dramatic peak of the episode occurs only after Miss Powell has recovered and is on her way to Florida for further relaxation and decompression. And this dramatic climax trades on the question of the relation of what Miss Powell thinks she is experiencing, and the public truths about what is transpiring in the world. Finding coherence among the experiences, claims, and overt facts is challenging and confusing. Since any belief we hold can, in principle, be challenged, we’re left wondering what to hold onto and what is in need of revision.

Another dimension of this episode has to do with the fact that the individual reporting the supposedly aberrant events is a woman, a woman we meet in the psych ward of a hospital, towered over by the authoritarian psychiatrist, and then by the patient’s handler in the outside world.  He is her agent and she is a dancer. He characterizes her as a “strip-tease dancer” and she corrects him.   The person with the contested view of what is real is a female, and the possessors of the truth are males. The males are in powerful, dominating figues – the psychiatrist and the dancer’s agent.Both the psychiatrist and the agent belittle her every claim, but she fights back, and rebuts every belittlement.  Look closely at Miss Powell’s interactions and it is clear: She doesn’t suffer the fools who are in control, that that’s not because she’s crazy. She isn’t.

A word on the score: The score is remarkably similar to another episode about dreaming: Shadow Play.

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