Episode 45 – “The Trouble with Templeton”

Booth Templeton is a distinguished and accomplished actor. But he is also an aging actor, confronting a new world order, the order of the young. “Some of us are young.  Some of us are old.” So says the new, young director, who does not defer to Templeton’s age and stature. Rather than submit to the new order, Templeton retreats into the past – same place, 37 years prior.

The problem with time travel is that it takes you back to the past – not the past as  you remember it, but the past as it was. This distinction is at the heart of Templeton’s troubles. Templeton attempts to converse with his long deceased wife and best friend, but how could he?  The characters from his past send him packing – back to the present. Templeton discovers that the actual past is not even a nice place to visit. It’s also clear that you can’t live there, and that’s the lesson Booth Templeton learns from the his  brief visit.

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Episode 44 – “The Lateness of the Hour”

Technology can be marvelous. Cars whisk us to our destinations, washing machines clean our clothes. In this episode we see technology in spades: Jaina’s father has created technology that goes beyond our wildest dreams. Robotic servants and a fully controlled environment allows the family to live “retired from the world.” But Jaina thinks she is an “insulated freak.” What Dr. Loren takes to be freeing, his daughter takes to be imprisoning.

Dr. Loren values his robots not merely for their convenience, but as his marvelously complex creations.  He even attributes life to them, though Jaina quickly corrects him. “I’ve given each one of them a memory of his own, haven’t I. And all of them can recount, in detail, everything that’s happened to them in their childhood. But they have no childhood.” Do Dr. Loren’s robots have memory? Are they persons?

When we attempt to give an analysis of personal identity we quickly discover that memory must have something to do with it. A person at time t2 who has absolutely no memory of the person with the same body at t1 does not seem to qualify as the same person. So it looks like a necessary condition for being the same person at t1 and t2 is that the person at t2 have the memories of what happened to the person at t1. But this can’t be enough: I remember my brother’s 5th birthday party, and that doesn’t make me the same person as my brother!  Clearly it’s our first person memories that matter. I have to have the memories of my past.

The episode brings an important wrinkle into the memory requirement for personal identity: Dr. Loren’s robots have beliefs – memories – of their past. But are they really memories? Isn’t it the case that instead of memories the robots have false beliefs? The things they seem to remember didn’t really happen. They don’t have actual memories.  The robots seem to remember childhoods they never experienced. They are not the same person as the person they remember, because there was no such person.

Are the robotic servants persons at all? Clearly they are wrong about the extent of  their personhood. But perhaps they are persons from the moment they are switched on by Mr. Lorens. Whether they are persons would seem to depend at least in part on whether they can actually remember what happens to them over time. There’s good reason to doubt that this is the case: They believe that they had a childhood, but they also stand by and accept that they are robots when Mr. Lorens describes them as such.

Jaina disapproves of her parents’ lifestyle and delivers the ultimatum: unplug the servants or I’m leaving. The Lorens clearly love their daughter more than they value the comforts provided by the servants. When push comes to shove, the servants go and Jaina stays.  Alone with her parents, Jaina quickly becomes suspicious about her own case. She looks in the family photo album and doesn’t find any pictures of herself as a child.  She is horrified to learn that she too is a robot – a robotic daughter – a machine. Her father tries to comfort her, to convince her that it doesn’t matter.  Aren’t the apparent memories as good as real ones? Apparently not!

Jaina’s anguish over the discovery of her origins is extraordinary. She seems to realize that the discovery changes everything. She is neither a feeling thing nor a person. But she does feel the intense disappointment at her discovery. She feels bad about not feeling. More importantly, it seems that she’s realized that she isn’t a person. Not only does she have a false past, but a false future as well. She can’t have hopes and dreams. She can’t escape the world her father has created. She may be a thinking thing at any moment,  but is she a person? She also remembers things that have happened over the last several days, at least. She believes correctly that they never go out, that her mother loves to be massaged, that she herself is terribly unhappy.  Jaina does seem to meet the Lockean conditions of personhood, even if her personhood doesn’t extend as far as she, and we, originally thought it did.

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Episode 43 – “The Nick of Time”

Superstition – the willingness to believe based on factors other than those normal individuals would find relevant – is an ailment suffered by Don, an up and coming office manager. At first Don is just influenced by his superstition. He is moved to get real evidence – a call to his office – to confirm a suggestion made by his “seer” – a napkin holder that, for a penny “answers” yes and no questions. When the seer’s prediction is confirmed, Don buys in whole-hog, and becomes immobilized by the seer – who tells him that leaving the dinner before 3 p.m. may be dangerous to his health. Then at 3 p.m., attempting to defy the predictions of the seer, another prediction comes true, and Don is hooked.

Pat asks Don how the “gizmo” predicted the future. This suggests that if something can predict the future, then there is an explanation – a mechanism or causal explanation that is responsible for the correctness of the prediction. But ultimately she drops any attempt to convince Don that his beliefs are not justified. A different strategy – a different kind of argument – is ultimately effective.

What is Pat’s argument? She argues that the belief that the seer can predict the future is itself a cause – and a “bad” cause – of Don’s behavior. Beliefs can be causes, and believing that a napkin holder can predict your future – even if it is possible that it can – is a dangerous thing. This is a significant observation for the determinist and the compatibilist. Although it looks like Pat is saying that the buying into determinism would be bad for one’s mental health, she’s really just saying that if determinism were true and if one also had access to the predictions one could make if one knew all of the initial conditions and all of the relevant causal laws in any situation, then that would be a bad thing. To put it positively: It is important that we have the sense that we are free, whether we are or not.

Notice that Pat’s argument doesn’t depend on positing the truth of determinism. She’s worried about any device that is taken to predict the future, and that could be a complete science, a mystic seer or a direct line to God. Again, to say that events are “predetermined” or “known in advance” is different from saying that every event is determined. Events can be causally determined without being known in advance (though they would be knowable). And events could be known in advance (by a god or a seer or a napkin holder) without those events being (causally) determined.

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Episode 42 – “The Eye of the Beholder”

The notoriety of this story in the Twilight Zone corpus is surely due to the way it hits us over the head with the truth expressed in the episode’s title.  But that truth is easily misunderstood, and the power of the fable may be missed, if it is taken as the claim that judgments of beauty and deformity are subjective. If we were merely confronted with the difference of our own, individual aesthetic judgment from that of someone else, the powerful punch from “No change” would not have the force that it does.

Repulsion from  difference, and the witnessing of that repulsion by the one who is different, is described by the patient in room 307, Miss Janet Tyler. Beauty, Hume says, “is nothing but a form that produces pleasure” (Treatis, Deformity produces pain. Note that ugliness is deformity, that is, failure to conform to the the structural features which produce pleasure. But deformity doesn’t just fail to produce pleasure. It produces pain, the sort of pain Janet Tyler describes, when she recalls the childhood memory of another child screaming when she looked at her.

Even the childhood repulsion to “deformity” is an acquired point of view, a learned stance based on what is taken to be the norm, or standard, by which deviation from t he norm is judged and felt.  While the child should not be blamed for a visceral pained reaction to another person, we should try to assess the moral status of the society in which such reactions are learned.

A child responds to deformity or ugliness by screaming. How do adults respond? In the world Miss Tyler inhabits, society is committed to trying to make her “normal,” through plastic surgery. The alternative is segregation into “a ghetto designed for freaks.” In Miss Tyler’s world, the state quick literally “makes ugliness a crime.” Living with difference isn’t tolerated. If surgical “correction” doesn’t work, segregation is the only option. This isn’t a state that is just intolerant of difference, it is a state that celebrates “glorious conformity,” and disallows deformity. Miss Tyler will be banished to the north, to live among her kind.

Is acceptance of difference impossible? Miss Tyler’s doctor’s expression of sympathy is heretical. It will not be tolerated. What’s clearly needed is a state that not only tolerates but embraces difference, a state in which beauty is not in the eye of the beholder.

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Episode 41 – “The Howling Man”

The howling man is the devil, and he’s howling because he’s been caught and contained, at great effort, by Father Jerome, the head of a religious order in Eastern Europe, between the two world wars. A visiting American, David Ellington, is alarmed by the howling sound issuing from a closed cell in the abbey. Although Father Jerome warns Ellington to ignore the howling man, and when pressed, explains why, Ellington is tricked into releasing him.

Is this just a reset of Adam and Eve’s Fall from Grace? Is Ellington responsible for the existence of evil, through his choice to free the devil,  just as the first couple released him through their free act?  If this were all “The Howling Man” offered, it wouldn’t be particularly interesting. But there is more.

Father Jerome tried to explain the situation to Ellington: The howling man is the devil, and he’s been caught. Releasing him means releasing evil. Ellington finds this ludicrous, and he concludes that Father Jerome is a madman, a lunatic leader of a misguided cult. Once he sees the consequences of his actions, a horrified Ellington resolves to recapture the devil, and he eventually does. But now he has to warn his housekeeper not to release the devil, just as he was warned by Father Jerome. The problem is clear: anyone who claims to have captured the devil, to have eliminated non-natural evil, will appear insane to anyone else.

Rather than rehashing a biblical fable, “The Howling Man” offers an indictment of a main strand of religious dogma.  The very idea of evil as something we can capture, contain, release, and conquer, is incoherent, as the attempted explanations first by Father Jerome, and then by Mr. David Ellington, clearly illustrate.

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