Episode 36 – “A World of His Own”

Serling provides a comedic romp through the metaphysics of fictional discourse. The setting is the home of Mr. Gregory West, “one of America’s most noted playwrights.”  Mr. West is being poured a drink by his mistress, his beautiful, adoring, and younger companion. When his wife returns, she spies the two of them through the window, and prepares to confront them. But when we enters the house, the mistress is gone, and the wife is ontologically confused. She saw the mistress in the arms of Mr. West, but where is she now? The house is searched, and Mr. West is interrogated. Ultimately she succeeds in getting West to admit to the existence of Mary, his mistress.

But here’s the rub: West claims that Mary is one of his fictional characters. He thought her up. But he did such a good job thinking her up that she came to life. Not only did Mr. West see her, but so did Mrs. West. So where did Mary go? She was created by an act of Mr. West’s imagination, and so she can be instantaneously eliminated by another act of his imagination.

Mrs. West thinks this is nuts, and she attempts to call the psychiatrist. She’s right. We don’t think that people come into existence just in virtue of someone imagining them. Mr. West thinks that when he imagines his characters in sufficient detail, they actually come to life. But that isn’t how things work. A well-imagined character can fascinate and preoccupy us in literature, but that doesn’t bring the character to life in anything more than a metaphorical sense. Fictional characters may have causal powers. For example, a fable with moral content my bring it about that I reform my ways, and stop stealing or lying. But that doesn’t make the characters in the story into existing persons.

The description of a fictional character as actually existing seems incoherent. If a character, say Mary, is fictional, then she doesn’t exist. If she exists, then she’s not fictional. How do we know whether something actually exists? An adequate test, at least in this context, is intersubjective agreement.  When Mr. and Mrs. West both see Mary at the same time, then Mary exists. Mrs. West still thinks Mr. West is nuts, on good philosophical grounds, until he demonstrates that he can bring characters in and out of existence by the mere power of his imagination.

Conceptual confusion is cleared up when we learn that Mrs. West is also a fictional character. She can, and eventually does, go out of existence as easily as does Mary. So the collaborative verification of Mary’s existence turns out, like everything in this story, to be a figment of Mr. West’s imagination. But what of Mr. West? In a confrontation with Mr. West’s creator – Rod Serling, Mr. West reveals that Serling is himself merely a character in Mr. West’s fiction.

This story can be seen as a fun-filled version of Descartes’ Evil Genius thought experiment, an argument for scepticism. Mr. West is the evil genius, and we are in the epistemic position of Mary, Mrs. West, Rod Serling, and the red-eyed elephant in the room. While great fun is had by all – namely Mr. West, there is a chilling aspect as well. It’s no fun to be ontologically confused when the object you’re confused about is yourself.  Other episodes reveal this as well: “Walking Distance,” “The Lonely,” “The Hitchhiker,” and “The Sixteen Millimeter Shrine,” to name a few.

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Episode 35 – “The Mighty Casey”

This episode anticipates what would be an impressive achievement in artificial intelligence and robotics, the development and implementation of a robotic major league pitcher.  This machine, “Casey,” looks like a human, but is still a special purpose machine, designed to pitch competitively, to figure out the best pitch under the circumstances, and to deliver it. So it really is intelligent, goal driven, and beautifully coupled to its environment.

Once Casey is signed to the struggling Zephyrs, their fortunes reverse. Casey delivers, and his humanoid opponents can’t get on base. But an injury and subsequent hospitalization reveal, first to his physicians, and then to the baseball commissioner, that Casey is no ordinary pitcher. He doesn’t have a pulse because he doesn’t have a heart.

Implausibly, all Casey needs is a heart, or a functional equivalent thereof, to be allowed back on the field. But installing the robotic heart has an unanticipated consequence: Casey now has feelings, and with feelings, sympathy for his opponents. He simply cannot endure the thought that he is responsible for their failure.  Casey drops baseball to pursue social work!

The episode nicely introduces questions about the relationship between cognition and affect, reason and the passions. Without emotions, Casey is truly a machine. He simply executes the task of pitching. He does what he is told, and does it better than any human could. Once he has emotions, he can consider how he ought to employ his talents, and matters are no longer so clear.

The distinctions as they are made here are fairly crude, and their application is questionable. Could a being devoid of feelings really pitch as well or better than his major league counterparts?  Figuring out how to pitch requires some understanding of the beliefs and desires of the batter, and so requires some possession of what cognitive scientists call “theory of mind” on the part of the pitcher. Could Casey possess theory of mind in the absence of any affective states of his own?

Serling’s own interests may be centered more on the nature of sport. Baseball is an American game, a wholesome activity for players and spectators alike. But the affect-endowed Casey finds the game intolerable: To play it requires discounting the negative effects that one’s own successful play has on half the players on the field, one’s opponents. What does it say about us, that we never give the concerns of our opponents a moment’s thought, that we have no sympathy for them at all, that our success means their failure? Would someone with a heart really wish to engage in such activity?

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Episode 34 – “The After Hours”

Marcia appears to be the most ordinary of persons, in the most ordinary of circumstances, a department store.  Marcia is the consummate shopper: she knows what she wants and is in the process of taking steps to get it. Even at this stage, before anything unusual happens, there are issues for the philosopher: What is it to have beliefs and desires? How do we go about figuring out what someone believes and desires? We make these attributions so easily – but how do we do it? This isn’t the epistemological question of how we know that others have beliefs and desires, but it’s the question of how we come to even have beliefs about the contents of other persons’ beliefs and desires. Of course we can still raise the question of whether our beliefs constitute knowledge:  At the end of the episode, do you still think it was correct to attribute the beliefs and desires you attributed to Marcia?

Before long Marcia finds herself on a floor of the department store selling the very item she wants, and we begin to see that, as she puts it, something is odd.  Marcia wants a thimble for her mother. But does she really? What has to be the case for someone to want to buy a thimble for their mother? Doesn’t one have to have a mother to want to buy the thimble for? We’ve assumed, and Marcia has believed, that she has a mother. This episode, and others we’ll see shortly, explore the idea that a being could have beliefs, desires, and memories that are somehow packaged into it, but don’t arise from that individual’s natural history.  The episode suggests that we might very well take such individuals to be persons. Marcia looks like your average department store shopper. But is she really a person? To answer that question we need a theory of personal identity.

Marcia discovers that she’s a mannequin. Is this really possible? What would it mean to learn that you were a mannequin?  The problem of other minds suggests that everyone other than me could be a mannequin, but how could I (or you, from your perspective, or Marcia, from hers) be a mannequin? When Marcia remembers that she is a mannequin, what exactly is she remembering? Does she remember what it’s like to stand, statue-like, not moving? But how could one remember that?   Do mannequins have consciousness, a consciousness others are completely unaware of?  Are they standing on their pedestals longing to “climb off” and move around?

We can apply the problem of other minds here as well. Just as we can look at other people and consider the possibility that they are really mannequins, where by “mannequin” we mean beings who do not think, we can look at mannequins and consider the possibility that they are really persons, that is, thinking, remembering, even conscious beings.  So I can imagine being a mannequin, if mannequins think, and that’s certainly the scenario in “The After Hours.”

Thinking and being a person, however, are not the same thing. It’s still not clear that Marcia or the other mannequins are persons. Marcia’s beliefs about her mother turns out to be a false belief. Mannequins don’t have mothers, and Marcia is a mannequin. Therefore Marcia has no mother. Marcia does have a past, however, and the crucial moment in the episode is the moment when she correctly remembers that past.  So combining the insight we just had that Marcia, in her mannequin state, could still be a thinking thing with a mental life, with the observation that she can remember her mannequin mental life, it follows that she is a person. Of course she’s a very different kind of person than persons we take ourselves to be surrounded by. But she’s a person nonetheless.

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Episode 33 – “Mr. Bevis”

Mr. Bevis is a hippie before there were hippies. He loves zither music, plays with the poor kids on the street, and places no value on getting ahead, maintaining regular employment, or even paying the rent on time. Under the best of circumstances, Mr. Bevis just gets by. But on this day, Mr. Bevis’s car is totaled, he is fired from his job, and evicted from his apartment.  But all is not lost – Mr. Bevis’s guardian angel appears, prepared to improve Mr. Bevis’s lot in life.

One’s lot in life is a package deal. Even a guardian angel can’t fix one thing without changing another.  Mr. Bevis’s job can be restored, his car fixed, and his apartment restored, but at a price. Mr. Bevis will have to give up what makes him who he is – his love of zither music, his relationship to the neighborhood kids, his lack of interest in his boring job. The guardian angel doesn’t approve. He says, “Mr. Bevis, I don’t dig you.”  He doesn’t understand Mr. Bevis’s apparent lack of ambition, drive, and self-concern. He doesn’t see the pure appreciation of life that Mr. Bevis has when he interacts with the neighborhood kids, builds model ships, and listens to zither music.

There’s an important conception of the good captured in this episode, and of a virtuous life.  Beware of guardian angels offering a better life.

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Episode 32 – “A Passage for a Trumpet”

Joey is a down-on-his-luck jazz trumpeter. He can’t get a gig because he is not dependable. He’s not dependable because he is an alcoholic. But addiction and jazz are intertwined. For Joey, booze fuels his flights of musical expression, in the rare moments when he can keep it together. Rejected even by peers who care about him deeply and only wish him the best, he’s hit rock bottom. He sells his horn for eight bucks and steps in front of a fast moving car. And, as Joey puts it, for once in his life he was successful.

But as in other episodes (“Mr. Bevis”, “Escape Clause”, “A Nice Place to Visit”, “One for the Angels”, ….), there’s an angel or a devil lurking, stepping in to redirect the causal order or to suspend it, providing another possible future for the troubled character. For Joey, it’s Gabe – Gabriel, who, of course, blows a mean horn.  They talk, play the horn, and Joey gets a second chance, a pivot back into life, with a perspective on what he would have lost, and what he’s missed while living.

This is a classic morality play, about the choice to live, and the value of life. Gabe says that Joey can go back, “But no more stepping off curbs. You take what you’ve got and you live with it.”  Gabe is wise, but his advice is straightforward and simple, though inaccessible until Joey stepped off the curb.

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