Episode 98 – “The Dummy”

The form of comedy practiced by ventriloquists was popular through the 1960s, a holdover from the vaudeville era. The ventriloquist appears with a prop, her or his dummy, usually a large doll, placed on the lap, or on a chair next to the comedian, and the movements of the dummy are clearly carried out by the ventriloquist, to whom the dummy is joined. The audience knows that the dummy is a dummy, a lifeless hunk of wood, screws, wires, in appropriately sized clothes. The illusion is that a dialogue takes place, a dialogue between the ventriloquist and the dummy. The illusion is the skillful artistic creation of the ventriloquist, who does all the speaking, but some of that speaking appears to come from the dummy, rather than from the ventriloquist. Again, the audience knows that the appearance of a dialogue between the dummy and the ventriloquist is a mere appearance or illusion, but it is an illusion where important features correspond to the actual features of “real” dialogues, and for this reason the ventriloquist’s act engages the audience. Goldblatt and Hagberg call it “illusion without deception” (p. xi).  Like any work of fiction, the fiction must have some things in common with reality.

This fact alone makes ventriloquism a fertile ground for philosophical reflection on the nature of language and communication. The ventriloquist has to understand the nature of real dialogue, in order to create the illusion of it occurring between a human speaker and an inanimate object. Clearly, controlling the mouth of the dummy is important, as is making it appear that one’s voice is coming from the dummy when it speaks, and also  making sure that the ventriloquist’s mouth does not appear to move when the dummy speaks. But that’s not all that’s needed: The ventriloquist must put the appropriate words into the mouth of the dummy. That is, the ventriloquist has to create a dialogue that is in important respects just like one would have with a real person, or at least with a real person pretending to be a dummy.

In the opening gag between Jerry, the ventriloquist, and Billy, the dummy, Jerry plays with the fact that he’s talking to  a doll, noting that when he expresses his superstitions he knocks on wood, and then he demonstrates by knocking on Billy’s head. Billy responds by claiming that he would be a better ventriloquist than Jerry. And then Billy demonstrates it: they switch roles. Billy appears to be projecting his voice onto Jerry. The audience knows who is really speaking, but is titillated by the idea that the control can be reversed.

The ventriloquist’s act , then, is all about distinguishing imagination from reality, and also about infusing reality with the imagination. An audience has to buy into something to find the ventriloquist’s act compelling. We have to accept that the ventriloquist is not merely talking to himself. We have to buy into the appearance, without being deceived, or at least by being willingly deceived. The ventriloquist creates the deception, and so knows that it is a deception. But can this condition fail? Can the ventriloquist be deceived by his own deception? That’s what has happened to Jerry.

Perhaps it is more appropriate to call what the ventriloquist creates a representation rather than an illusion. A painting of a landscape is a representation of a landscape. It’s possible, though unlikely, that one, even its creator, could mistake the representation for the thing represented.  But the representation created by a ventriloquist is different. It is not a static object, but a dynamic object responding to the input from its environment, though it requires a persistent connection to its creator to  so respond. And it also represents what it is not, that is, an autonomous person, independent of the person whose lap it occupies.  Willy is an active, dynamic representation of a person who is independent of Jerry.  And in this case, it is Jerry who is deceived.

When Jerry asks: “How can you be real when you’re made of wood?”, Willy replies: “You made me real.”   Willy is the creation of Jerry. Willy’s thoughts are really Jerry’s thoughts.Whatever claims the dummy makes, are really claims of the ventriloquist.The problem is that they are not under Jerry’s control. That can be true for anyone; we often find ourselves thinking of things, spontaneously imagining things that we haven’t willed to imagine. In Jerry’s case these imaginings are not spontaneous, but recurring and persistent, and very scary. Jerry takes a creation of his own mind for something outside of him.

Further Reading:

François Cooren , and Bruno Latour; Action and Agency in Dialogue: Passion, Incarnation and Ventriloquism (John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2010)

David Goldblatt , and Garry L. Hagberg;  Art and Ventriloquism (Routledge, 2005).

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Episode 97 – “The Gift”

Philosophy attempts to come up with and to answer our most basic questions. Those questions can include questions about philosophy itself, including the question of whether the questions of philosophy really are basic questions. Is philosophy is constrained by our social, cultural, historical, and economic circumstances or can philosophical inquiry transcend or bypass such contexts? Are the philosophical questions raised by such philosophers as Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Descartes, Kant, Kierkegaard,  and Wittgenstein, really fundamental questions, or do they depend on assumptions and influences of the conditions under which they were formulated, such as the prior beliefs, cultural practices, and even language? Asked positively: Are there philosophical questions that can be raised and apply to all cultures, historical periods, and can be formulated in any natural language?

Whether philosophical questions are truly universal or instead are culturally relative is raised in “The Gift” when Serling, describing the location of story as forty miles south of the Rio Grande, in Mexico, adds, “But any place – and all places, can be … the Twilight Zone.”  His point is that our ability engage the imagination to consider possible worlds is not constrained by the the details of the setting or location for that engagement. Any actual time or place can be used to construct a possible world which can serve as the basis for our philosophical investigation.  Of course this is just a claim and not an argument. But the use of Mexico as the setting, a setting that would have been very unfamiliar to most U.S. television viewers in the early 1960s, is at least the beginning of an argument.

The particular imaginative exercise in “The Gift” asks us to consider h0w we would act if confronted by a being clearly unlike us, a being from another planet or realm, a creature bearing gifts.  The exercise is similar in some respects to that of “To Serve Man,” where visitors from another planet also arrive with gifts, and after some initial skepticism, we place our trust in them. In “The Gift” we fear and then quickly destroy the visiting stranger and its gift.  The difference in the two cases is that in the former, the aliens’ gifts were just lures to attract and deceive us, while the gift in “The Gift” was real and significant.

Perhaps the conclusion we should draw is that we are not particularly good at distinguishing threatening actors from benefactors, particularly when they come from
beyond the stars. This may be a particularly good example of a feature of human nature that really is universal, and not historically or culturally bound.  The fear-fueled reaction of the rural Mexican town are not the result of their occurrence in Mexico, or in a rural area, but are the typical responses of human beings anywhere.

Could more appropriate responses be learned and mastered over time? The question is raised in “The Gift” when the visitor draws the explicit parallel of his treatment to the treatment of Jesus. He says that it’s taken a few thousand years for people to come to grips with Jesus’s visit among people, and so it is not surprising that he’s met with a hostile reception. Maybe we learn to curb our emotions and more accurately assess threats and benefits, or maybe we can learn to have the appropriate emotions in response to novel interactions.


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Episode 96 – “The Trade-Ins”

In the Twilight Zone one can often shop for items not usually thought to be available for purchase. In “I Sing the Body Electric” a family shops for a replacement grandmother. In “The Trade-Ins” an aging couple shop for replacements for their aging bodies. The difficulty they face is not metaphysical, but economic: The Holts simply cannot afford to buy two replacement bodies. They have the cash for one transformation only.

After he almost loses all his money trying to double his savings in a card game, Mr. Holt agrees to have get a new body, leaving his wife to wait until some unspecified future time for her transformation.

When Mr. Holt comes out of the transformation, in a new, young, spritely body, is he still Mr. Holt, or is the resulting person someone else? Every indication is that he is: He recognizes his wife, talks of their plans, and though he’s lost his accent, the operation was a success. If we have any doubt that the old Mr. Holt is waiting in the wings, and this is an imposter, that doubt is set aside when we see a dead Mr. Holt body being wheeled out of the operating room.

What makes it plausible to think that Mr. Holt survived the shedding of his old body? The philosophical question is the genetic one: Could one survive a change from one body to another? If you traded in your body for a new one, would you still exist? Mr. Holt gets a young, vibrant body, but that thought experiment doesn’t make it easy to infer that Mr. Holt survives, since he seems, at least outwardly, so different from his former, elderly self. To aid our intuitions here, it might help to consider a range of possibilities:

  1. Mr. Holt gets his body overhauled. It isn’t a completely new body, but has lots of new parts replacing the old parts.
  2. Mr. Holt gets a new body, but it looks just like his old body. (For the purposes of the story, we can imagine that while it looks like his old body, it no longer has the illnesses that made him want a new body in the first place.)
  3. Mr. Holt gets a new body that looks something like his old body, but it’s clearly a younger model. Perhaps it’s based on Mr. Holt’s body as a younger man.
  4. Mr. Holt gets the young body as shown in the episode, but with this difference: They placed his original brain in that new body. Thus he has a new “shell” body, but his original “core” body.
  5. Mr. Holt gets the young body as shown in the episode, presumably with a new brain as well. His memory, beliefs, desires, etc. have been transferred from his old brain to the new one. This is the scenario presented in the episode.

If you think Mr. Holt doesn’t survive in case 5, what do you think of case 1? Do individuals who have heart transplants retain their identity? As you consider this range of options, try to articulate the principles you’re using to guide your judgments of identity, and think about whether those principles give you plausible judgments in other possible cases.

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Episode 95 – “Hocus-Pocus and Frisby”

There is a charming disconnect in the person of Somerset Frisby, a good-ole-boy country bumpkin and owner of a rural gas station and general store, who possesses both a remarkable intellectual interest and claimed expertise and experience over a vast swath of human knowledge and history. To anyone who will listen, Frisby expounds on his role in key historical event as well as on his expertise and accomplishments in such fields as meteorology, mathematics,  and engineering.  What is charming and admirable is that Frisby’s geographical and socioeconomic isolation are not barriers to his interests. His mind reaches effortlessly beyond the confines of Pitchville Flats. It is said that Immanuel Kant was never further than 100 miles from his birthplace in Königsberg, but his opinions and interests extended to the furthest reaches of the planet.

The similarity of Frisby and Kant ends here, as we notice that Frisby’s testimony doesn’t withstand the scrutiny of his peers. Like Frisby, his patrons and friends seek knowledge, and what they lack the experience and education Frisby claims to have, they make up for with their ability to assess the the plausibility of Frisby’s testimony.

How should we assess the testimony of others? When should we accept it and when should it be challenged? Surprisingly, this important question in epistemology was rarely taken up in the history of philosophy, though it is currently a major focus in the field.  That may be because philosophers are often skeptical about whether knowledge can be shared, or transmitted from one person to another. Descartes begins his Meditations with the insight that he accepted many things as true as a child that he discovered (for himself) were in fact false. But it doesn’t follow from this that features of testimony are irrelevant to establishing what is known.  Frisby’s customers reject his knowledge claim because they are internally inconsistent. The notice that he makes conflicting claims which can’t all be true. This is a starting point for considering when to find testimony credible and when to reject it. Assessing testimony has something to do with assessing the character and motives of the testifier.

The creatures who arrive from another planet encounter Frisby, but lack the most rudimentary tools for assessing his claims.  On their planet, every claim made is true, and so they have no need to distinguish credible from non-credible testimony.  Since Frisby claims to be the greatest human expert on just about everything, they count themselves lucky to have found him, and they plan to take him back to their planet.

Frisby faces a dilemma. How can he convince the aliens that his claims have been fabrications? There are two problems. First, the aliens claim to not understand what it is for a claim to be false. Second, even were they to possess the distinction between truth and falsehood, they would come face to face with The Paradox of the Liar:  Frisby claims that everything he says is a lie. Is Frisby’s claim “Frisby’s claims are lies,”  true or false? If it is true, then, as a claim of Frisby’s, it is a lie, and so it is false. If “Frisby’s claims are lies”  is false, it is true.

If the aliens lack the distinction between truth and falsehood, then they will be spared the Liar Paradox. But they still will face the consequence of believing Frisby, and acting on that belief.  But could aliens who arrive on our planet, capable of communicating with us and interacting with us, really lack the ability to understand the concept of falsehood? Notice that when Frisby begins to speculate about how he will be treated on their planet, the aliens try to put him at ease, assuring him that his speculation is incorrect, that is that his belief about how he will be treated is false. It seems that the aliens must have the concept of falsehood after all.


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Episode 94 – “Four O’Clock”

Can the pursuit of a world devoid of evil be itself an act of evil?  Yes, and that means that were the pursuit successful, it would result in the elimination of the source of that pursuit. In a possible world in which an evil person or group of persons can bring about the end of evil, that individual or group will also meet its end.

In order to eliminate something, one first needs to identify the thing to be eliminated. To eliminate the pests eating the tomatoes in my garden, I have to know what the pests are, and only then take appropriate measures.  Things can go wrong. I might misidentify the pest, and do harm to a beneficial insect, for example, as a result. I might correctly identify the pest, and still inflict collateral damage to other organisms, including myself.

In “Four O’Clock,”  Oliver Crangle attempts to eliminate evil. However, it is clear to everyone other than Oliver Crangle that he has failed to identify evil, though the failure is not due to a lack of effort on his part. Crangle has amassed a database of information about people in his community. As he describes his practice to an FBI agent, he describes how he works each entry:  “I compile them, investigate them, analyse them, categorize them, and I judge them.”

In spite of his apparently voluminous and exhaustive research, Crangle gets it wrong. He identifies individuals as evil who are not. This is immediately clear in his first telephone call, where he “reports” someone as a communist.  Crangle is a Joseph McCarthy clone,  accusing others of subversion, espionage, and treason through intimidation, fear, hearsay, based on an indefensible political agenda grounded by an extreme ideology. But Crangle casts a wider net than McCarthy. He accuses a physician of malpractice based on a single data point in his possession.

The first problem is that Crangle makes incorrect moral judgments based because he makes incorrect empirical judgments. Malpractice can, in some cases, be a moral wrong, but only when one has committed it. Even if being a member of a certain political group could be a moral wrong, judging someone as morally wrong for membership in that group requires sufficient evidence that the individual is in fact a member of that group.

A second problem has to do with the way Crangle compiles, investigates, analyzes, categorizes and judges. He carries out these activities in complete isolation from other investigators. His only companion, a fitting one,  is his parrot. Although he compiles information that is publicly available, there is no check on Crangle’s research and the conclusions he draws from them. Although he is challenged during his accusatory phone calls, he flatly rejects them outright, and issues his claims and associated threats.  Were Crangle to take these critiques seriously, everyone would be better served.

Crangle’s isolation is the root of a third problem, and that has to do with the actions Crangle takes in response to his moral judgments. It’s one thing to determine that someone has transgressed morality or the law. It’s another to determine what to do about it.  As Thomas Scanlon notes, these are two dimensions  of our notion of blame. Our responses to moral transgressions are just as open to moral evaluation as the actions they respond to. Crangle’s initial responses to perceived moral wrongs are acts of threat and intimidation. Since he is acting alone, he doesn’t get the benefit of wise council about appropriate responses or cooperation in carrying them out.  Ultimately, Crangle decides that all evil-doers should get the same punishment. His choice, which he claims he will carry out by a mere act of his will at four o’clock, is to reduce all evil-doers to two feet in stature. This is perhaps something God could do, but not something a just God would do.

A just response to an evil act takes into account the nature of the act it responds to. Crangle’s single response to all evil acts would not be just. Categorizing acts as evil or wrong doesn’t tell us much. Is something wrong because it has done someone else harm, or, can an act be wrong evil where no harm results? Just as their are many varieties of goodness, there are different “bads,” and no single response to all of them could make sense.  And what is the goal of punishment? Is it to prevent harm, to extract revenge, to seek retribution or something else? These are questions that occupy moral philosophers, particularly those interested in the relationship between morality and the law.

“Four O’Clock” shows us that exacting justice is not a solo affair, that someone who thinks that they occupy the position of judge, jury, and jailer is seriously misguided. Of course, anyone who thinks that they can play all three of these roles alone is also mistaken, unless one is omnipotent and omniscient. Crangle’s illness amounts to his delusion that he is omnipotent, omniscient, and without evil. He’s in for a surprise.

Further Reading:

Hampton, Jean, “Correcting Harms versus Righting Wrongs: The Goal of Retribution”, University of California Los Angeles Law Review, 39: 1659–1702.

Scanlon, Thomas, Moral Dimensions: Permissibility, Meaning, Blame, Harvard University Press, 2009. See Chapter 4, “Blame.”

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