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.


Posted in reflections | Tagged , , | Comments Off on Episode 95 – “Hocus-Pocus and Frisby”

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.”

Posted in reflections | Tagged , , , , | Comments Off on Episode 94 – “Four O’Clock”

Episode 93 – “The Little People”

Peter Craig is no god. But he has discovered a race of people on a planet who are so much smaller than he is creatures, that David Hume might have described these small people as “though rational, [they are] possessed of such inferior strength, both of body and mind, that they [are] incapable of all resistance, and could never, upon the highest provocation, make us feel the effects of their resentment” (See “To Serve Man” for the full quote ).  A consequence of Hume’s view is that Peter Craig is not bound by the rules of justice in his treatment of the little people, since the conditions of justice are lacking. But Hume would say that Craig ought to be charitable, and treat the little people “gently.”  However, if the conditions of justice don’t apply in cases like these, then treatment of those subjugated to such authority will depend on the arbitrary will of the subjugator. As we see, the little people under Peter Craig’s thumb are unlucky.

If Peter Craig is not bound by the rules of justice in his treatment of these little people, then neither is God bound by justice in his/her/its treatment of us.  God is not required to be just in its treatment of us. How does this square with the idea that God is morally perfect?  For one thing, it doesn’t prohibit God from creating the rules of justice that we are bound to in our treatment of each other, and it doesn’t prevent God from tracking our adherence to those rules in the ultimate judgment of our worth.  In The Monadology, Leibniz says that there will be “no good deed without its reward” and “no evil deed without punishment.”  These can be the case even though the ultimate one who judges is immune from the application of those standards to Him/Her/Itself.

Leibniz offers a further description of God as a being who is not just an engineer, but also a legislator. This characterization may be apt, insofar as God lays down the moral law. Yet Leibniz also  describes the relationship we have to God as a social relationship, and this is less compelling, if God is not bound to obey the rules of justice as we are.  In fact, the more we reflect on the differences between an absolute deity and ourselves, the harder it is to make sense of the idea that we jointly occupy a social space with such a being.

When we respect the property rights of others, we don’t do so because we love them and wish to treat them gently. Rather, it’s because others are capable of making their displeasure with our failure to respect their claims known to us. Hume’s point is that we can’t make our displeasure known to God or any other being vastly more powerful than ourselves, and there would be no point in trying, in part because such a being would have no interest in our property to begin with. Yet, as the case of Peter Craig demonstrates, a god could make our lives miserable, as Craig does with the little people he’s found. If the only argument against such despotic tendencies is to appeal to the deity’s moral sense, its compassion. But can one feel sympathy for beings to whom one is not in a social relationship? Peter Craig doesn’t have the affective repertoire to pull that off.  Perhaps he would have been served by reasoning about the possible case in which he is a little person in relation to others.

Further Reading:

Hume, David, An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (1777) Section 3, “Of Justice”

Leibniz, Gottfried W., Monadology, in Leibniz, Gottfried, Selected Works, Hackett Publishing,  1989.


“Five Characters in Search of an Exit”
"It's a Good Life"
Posted in reflections | Tagged , , , , | Comments Off on Episode 93 – “The Little People”

Episode 92 – “Person or Persons Unknown”

As Serling notes, David Gurney has lost something he didn’t even know he had, his identity. A special feature of David Gurney’s circumstances is that he hasn’t lost his sense of who he is, or more neutrally, his belief that he is David Andrew Gurney, his crystal clear sense of himself as David Gurney. The problem is that his belief about himself clashes with the beliefs others have about him. He claims to know who he is, but no one else knows who he is. It’s not that they hold beliefs about who he is. It’s just that they don’t believe that he is David Gurney. As the psychiatrist says to him after he’s hospitalized: “You see, this man you think you are, he doesn’t really exist, except in your mind.” The individual who claims to be David Gurney also knows who other people are, and claims that they know him, which others also deny. They also deny that they are who David Gurney says they are.

In what sense, then has the person who claims to be David Gurney lost anything? Everything about himself seems the same to himself. What has changed is his relationship to others. It’s like property. Suppose that your car sits in your garage, but, unbeknownst to you, you’ve just defaulted on your auto loan, and the bank is about to show up to repossess it. Nothing about the car has changed. What has changed are the beliefs about the car and attitudes towards it that others have, which lead them to act in ways that they collectively approve of. If you’re left out of the loop, and don’t realize that you’ve defaulted on the loan, you will find what is about to happen very puzzling.

We readily acknowledge that property is  has to do with what actions we can and can’t take, and how we evaluate the appropriateness of the actions of others, but the extent to which this is true of our identity is obscured by our sense that identity is something internal, something that doesn’t depend on conventions or agreements about how we name, identify, and ascribe properties to things.  As David Gurney says, as he pushes back against everyone else’s denial of his identity claim: “They can’t get inside my mind.”

Yet, as we’ve already noted, the disparity in identity claims is not limited to those made about the individual who claims to be David Gurney. When David attempts to establish his identity by phoning his best friend and then his mom, he reaches the persons he recognizes as his best friend and his mom, but they don’t recognize him.

The incompatibility of David Gurney’s beliefs about personal identity and the beliefs of others is maintained when he wakes up at the end of the episode, though the identity beliefs completely reverse. He now fails to recognize other people, including his wife, while his wife, and presumably other people, now identify him as David Gurney. (No one else seems particularly bothered by the fact that Gurney has a grasp of some facts that it would be hard for a total stranger to have, such as knowing the bartender’s name.)

While the episode ends here, we can compare the difficulties David Gurney had when no one acknowledged his identity to the ones he will have when everyone recognizes him but he doesn’t recognize anyone else. If he returns to the bank where he works, it will seem to him that no one belongs there. If he returns to his neighborhood bar, Sam the bartender won’t be be behind the bar, even though the person behind the bar will claim to be Sam.  Now the fact that David Gurney will be correctly identified by others will be as inexplicable to David Gurney as their failure to identify him was in the first scenario. So it appears that David Gurney has not regained his identity, even when the beliefs of others about him match his beliefs about himself.  He won’t regain his identity until his beliefs about others also match their beliefs about themselves.


Further Reading:

Locke, John, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding 1690, Book II, Chapter XXVII.

Posted in reflections | Tagged , , , , | Comments Off on Episode 92 – “Person or Persons Unknown”

Episode 91 – “Little Girl Lost”

You know you’re in the Twilight Zone when you witness a set of parents discover that their daughter is missing, and they don’t call the police. They call a physicist. Oddly, that turns out to be a good move, because Betina, their daughter has wandered away from three dimensional space, and is stuck in “a fourth dimension.” She is followed by her dog, of course.

I’ve suggested that the value of The Twilight Zone in philosophical inquiry comes from its rich fund of exercises in philosophical imagination. These exercises  put stress on our concepts; they force us to attempt to apply them in new and unusual ways that we simply don’t get to try out in our ordinary experience. A seemingly minimal constraint on the the stories we tell is that the possible states of affairs they contain must really be possible. For example, if we described a ball as being completely blue on its exterior surface and also completely white on its exterior surface, we would not be describing a possible state of affairs. Our attempt at the description of a possible world would fail, since our attempted description is logically inconsistent.

Some inconsistencies are obvious, such as ones involving an all blue and all white ball, while other inconsistencies are only revealed by an analysis a set of propositions.  Examples of a non-obvious inconsistency include some descriptions of time travel. We hinted at the inconsistency in “Walking Distance,” where Martin Sloan doesn’t have a limp at time t and does have a limp when he returns to time t after time-traveling to the past and causing the accident to his childhood self that results in the limp.

We can distinguish between logical possibility and physical possibility. A physically possible state of affairs is one that is logically possible, but is also consistent with the laws of nature. To describe Betina as lost in another dimension is to propose what is logically possible, that space has other than, either fewer or more than, three dimensions, but it is not consistent with our best physical theories, which take space to be three dimensional, or spacetime, with a dimension for time, to be four dimensional.

So the episode is inconsistent with our best physical theory. But it’s logically possible that our physics could be wrong, and it’s possible that space has more than three dimensions, and that a little girl and her dog could enter that dimension through “a gap opening” to that dimension.  The difficulty is that it we really can’t do more than postulate this possibility. We lack the resources to represent the possibility, since our representational resources are spatially three dimensional and our spatial concepts are drawn from our physical theory.

“Little Girl Lost” doesn’t just announce that Betina is lost in the fourth (spatial) dimension. It attempts to show this to us, and this is problematic in several ways. The first problem is that her parents, in their home, can still hear Betina and the dog. So sound travels across the dimensions, which we can represent in our space, but not in the posited extra dimension. If it did, we would be able to follow it. The second problem has to do with the hole  or gap through which Betina has passed to enter the special dimension, discovered by the physicist friend on the case . What can we say about a hole? Does a hole have a size? Is it in space, or is it the absence of space? Is it in our three-dimensional space or in the fourth spatial dimension, or both? When Betina’s father places his upper body through the hole, how can he be half in the fourth dimension and half out of it? When he sees Betina and the dog, they are represented as being in three dimensions. They have height, width, and distance from him. The fourth dimension is just a foggy three dimensional space, at least as it is represented. And how could it be otherwise? Finally, it isn’t clear how an extra dimension would be incompatible with the first three dimensions. In contemporary physics, space and time are represented as the four dimensional spacetime. Representing the location of objects is a matter of assigning values in each of the four dimensions. While an n-dimensional spacetime has n-dimenions, it’s not clear what it would mean for an object to have just one of the n dimensions.

Further Reading:

Lewis, D. K., and Lewis, S. R., 1970, ‘Holes’, Australasian Journal of Philosophy, 48: 206–212; reprinted in D. K. Lewis, Philosophical Papers. Volume 1, New York: Oxford University Press, 1983, pp. 3–9.






Posted in reflections | Tagged , , , , | Comments Off on Episode 91 – “Little Girl Lost”