Episode 40 – “A Thing About Machines”

B. Finchley drives an elegant car and lives in an elegant house. He’s clearly rich. But his first interaction is with the TV repairman, who he thinks is ripping him off.  The repairman accuses Finchley of mistreating his electronics, kicking his foot through the TV, etc. The repairman asks: “What is it with you and machines?”

Borrowing a question from Alan Turing, we can ask: What are the machines with which Finchley is s concerned? They are a varied lot, with varied behavioral repertoires. Some, such as the typewriter and the TV, have linguistic output. But none are digital computers.  Finchley is outraged at the cost of repairing the TV. But Finchley is enormously wealthy. Even the cabinet in which the TV lives is ornate beyond belief. Finchley is also no spendthrift. He clearly lives well in someplace not unlike Beverly Hills.

Finchley thinks his machines are out to get him. The clock strikes the hour and won’t stop. Finchely smashes it to smithereens. So far the machines are no match for Finchley. They have no agency, and can just suffer the effects of his wrath. But Finchley thinks they do have agency. The typewriter, the TV, and other appliances command “Get out of here, Finchley!”

Finchley is insane, and his insanity is fueled by consuming a lot of alcohol. Forced out of the house by his electric razor (no kidding!), he is confronted by his angry car. The end is not pretty.

There’s a point here and a counterpoint. The point is that attributing beliefs, desires, goals and plans to machines, is something only an insane person would do. The counterpoint is that we get to see the behavior of the machines, real or imagined, from Finchley’s perspective, and from that perspective, we see behaviors, that could easily be interpreted as guided by intention and purpose.

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Episode 39 – “Nervous Man in a Four Dollar Room”

A two-bit criminal is commissioned to make a hit, to commit murder on behalf of his gang. In advance of the hit he is confronted by his conscience, represented by his alter-ego in a mirror. His alter-ego critiques his life, his past choices, and his immediate plans to commit a murder.

The episode poses this question:

When faced with a critical choice, can a person defy his or her character and will oneself in a new direction? Can one decide to give up a life of petty crime fueled by fear, incompetence, and self-loathing? Can one turn over a new leaf and go straight, find a job and a mate, as Jacky resolves to do? Here the question isn’t whether one can sustain the change of character. The question is simply whether one can initiate such a change.

This is an empirical question, and we can look to the run of human behavior for the answer. It seems clear that  people sometimes, perhaps rarely, do a 180, or something close to that. The philosophical question is how it is done, for a genuine 180. An alternative view is that we can make a distinction between apparent and real 180s, and every 180 is just apparent, not real. In the episode the method of achieving real character change appears to be an argument between Jackie and his conscience. His conscience wins the argument, and the change takes place. But we don’t really see how it happens. At the pitch of the argument Jackie collapses. He wakes up as a new man.  Was it the force of the reasoning displayed in the mirror, or something else? Does reason have the power to move us to such radical action, or is it something else?  Perhaps it is reason, but the clincher may be his alter-go’s claim that he needs companionship and love.

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Episode 38 – “Man in a Bottle”

What do we desire, and what is of value?  This episode begins with those questions. Anelderly lady brings a used wine bottle to an antique/junk shop claiming it is an heirloom. But the item is something no one desires – it is a piece of junk. But Mr. Arthur Castle,  takes pity on the old lady and goes along with subterfuge, and assigns it a value,  and hands her a few bucks. What we learn is that Mr. and Mrs. Castle are themselves near bankruptcy and with little of lasting value. Or so it seems.

Like Al Denton, Arthur Castle finds himself stuck in a world he didn’t choose, but rather a world he inherited. Unlike Al Denton, he is not so self-absorbed that he can’t have compassion for the miserable fate of others.  This is a story about choice, and about the compatibility of choice in a world of causes and effects.

The bottle contains a genie who can guarantee four wishes; he appears when the bottle falls (it doesn’t break) and is uncorked.  To figure out what we desire, we need only reflect on what we wish for. And what we wish for us what we assign great value to.

After a fairly trivial test wish is fulfilled by the genie and the Castles come to grips with the scope of the possibilities before them, they need to figure out what they desire – what they value.  The solution is easy: They ask for and receive a million dollars, in fives and tens, right on the floor of their shop.

But choices have consequences. A wish fulfilled in a possible world gets fleshed out. After taxes, and after giving away some of their windfall, what they have left is five dollars! The genie critiques their choice. After all, they could have asked for a million dollars after taxes. But the genie warns: “No matter what you wish for, you must be prepared for the consequences.”

The Castles think they can consequence-proof their wish, and so Mr. Castle comes up with wish number three: “I want to be the head of a foreign country who can’t be voted out of office, a contemporary country, a country in this century.  The result is so disastrous, he retreats to his old life in wish four: “I wish I were back where it all started. I wish to be Arthur Castle again!”

The genie laments that although he can grant any wish, happiness rarely accrues to the wish-maker. The Castles’ wishes fit a pattern. If the wishes that can be fulfilled have consequences, then we need to be prepared for them. But we can’t be prepared for the consequences of extravagant wishes, since they fall far outside the scope of our knowledge and practical experience. The fulfilled wishes that have the best chance of making us happy are those that we bring about without the help of a genie in a bottle.

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Episode 37 – “King Nine Will Not Return”

Captain Embry crashes his WW2 prop plane in the desert.  The rest of the crew is gone, and Embry doesn’t know what has happened. He hallucinates, sees and understands technology of the future, and concludes “There’s not a single thing that’s real.” Like “Where is Everybody” this is the case of an extended illusion, brought on by military experience. In this case, Embry, who was responsible for the ship and its crew in 1943, relives the horror of the crash that killed his crew. He survived because he wasn’t on that mission.

So there’s Embry in bed in the pscyh ward, and Embry with the downed King Nine in the desert. We know which is real, and which is the illusion. But Embry’s hallucinations are causally related to the real, to the facts of the downed aircraft and the fate of his crew members.  The point is driven home in the final minute, where Embry’s clothes are brought into his room, and there’s sand from the desert in his shoes.

The observation that the illusory builds on the real is noted in other episodes, for example, it is emphasized in “Shadow Play” where the lead character has to convince everyone else that what they think they are experiencing is just a dream. He does that by showing how the experiences they are having are constructed and rearranged from his contents of his imagination, which draw on his actual experiences of the world.

Why is this philosophically or otherwise important? The example counts against the view that the products of the imagination are pure imaginings – pure products of unfettered thought. They are instead grounded in experience, not just by being constructed out of what we’ve sensed and perceived, but more thickly, from rich experiences and matters we’ve thought through and understood.

The sand in Embry’s shoes symbolizes this.  He isn’t just a soldier who has “lost it.” Rather, he’s retained  it, and that’s what haunts him and causes him to construct an imagined world that’s too close to the actual one.

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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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