Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Twilight Zone

Most of the “pop culture and philosophy” books that have flooded the Borders and Barnes and Noble shelves in recent years seem to me to be pretty schlocky. Their purported justification is that they introduce philosophy to people who wouldn’t otherwise read it. But since the “philosophical significance” of the subject matter is usually vastly overstated (30 Rock? Jimmy Buffett? The Atkins Diet?!) and the philosophy dumbed down, it is questionable whether they really do much good on this score.

Still, there are pop culture topics that are worthy of philosophical consideration. As our pal Bill Vallicella has noted, The Twilight Zone is one of them. Naturally, a volume on that subject has appeared, and while I have not yet read Philosophy in the Twilight Zone, it looks interesting and I plan to do so. In any event, anyone who has watched the show can think of examples of episodes which raise serious philosophical questions.

In “The Man in the Bottle,” a genie grants a down-on-their-luck couple four wishes. This turns out, of course, to be less of a blessing than they assume it will be. Watching this episode as a youngster spawned one of the first philosophical thoughts I can recall ever having: Why couldn’t the couple wish for ten or twenty more wishes, as the husband suggests doing at one point? The genie just says that “wishing for more wishes is not permitted,” but this limitation seems arbitrary. It also seems easy to get around, for why couldn’t the husband just respond: “OK, then in that case I wish you hadn’t imposed that arbitrary rule!” And if the genie then said that that was also something that couldn’t be wished for, why couldn’t the husband reply that his wish in that case is that that rule had never been imposed?

The indeterminacy illustrated by this example – the difficulty of “nailing down” the content of a certain rule or statement so that what one wants it to rule out really is ruled out – is in fact part of the larger theme of the episode. Every wish the couple makes – for money, for power – turns out to have unforeseen unhappy implications, and there seems to be no way to add detail to the description of the content of the wish to make absolutely certain that no further iteration of the same basic problems can crop up. Readers of Wittgenstein, Hayek, or Kripke will appreciate the difficulty. There is also moral and political significance to the problem the episode raises. We are often prone to think of personal and social problems in terms of what would happen if only we could “press a button.” In fact this is a very foolish way to think, because human life and human problems are typically far too complicated to boil down to a single factor, the alteration of which would solve everything.

In “A Most Unusual Camera,” a gang of petty criminals acquires a camera that takes pictures of events that have not yet occurred. It turns out that the knowledge of future events that they acquire by means of the camera is one of the factors that lead to the realization of said events. Obvious fodder for those interested in time travel paradoxes and questions about determinism and free will. In “It’s a Good Life,” omnipotent 6-year old Anthony Fremont terrorizes a small town. He is clearly selfish, callous, and willful, and causes unimaginable suffering to those around him. But he is only 6, and arguably lacking in understanding both of the moral law and of the consequences of his actions. So, does he have sufficient moral responsibility for it to be morally permissible to kill him so as to save the town from the horrors he inflicts upon it? Discuss. In “A Kind of a Stopwatch,” a man acquires a watch that can stop time. I’ve used it in the classroom for years to illustrate the question that initiates the Aristotelian argument from motion: Why is the world dynamic rather than static? Why does it undergo change rather than being “frozen in place,” as the episode’s characters are when the stopwatch is pressed?

You get the idea. Of course, The Twilight Zone has other, non-philosophical charms. Perhaps there is some deep epistemological issue raised by the famous “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”; but the reason it is so many people’s favorite episode is simply that it gives a good scare. (It made it at least a little harder for my 5-year old daughter to get on the plane to London with her mother last week!)

And then there is the excuse it gives me to link to a classic Manhattan Transfer video. Enjoy:

Manhattan Transfer- TWILIGHT ZONE theme 1979 from Coleccionista80 on Vimeo.

13 comments:

Anonymous said...

In “It’s a Good Life,” omnipotent 6-year old Anthony Fremont terrorizes a small town. He is clearly selfish, callous, and willful, and causes unimaginable suffering to those around him. But he is only 6, and arguably lacking in understanding both of the moral law and of the consequences of his actions. So, does he have sufficient moral responsibility for it to be morally permissible to kill him so as to save the town from the horrors he inflicts upon it? Discuss.

That is (minor spoiler alert) the real conceit of John Wyndham's The Midwich Cuckoos as well.

Anonymous said...

Speaking of which, I'm interested to know what you would give as the Thomistic natural-law response to this dilemma. (The pro-infanticide Aristotle would have no problem going to war on hostile children, yes?)

Ilíon said...

Concerning "It's a Good Life"

When I was a kid, I read the short-story on which the TZ episode is based. In the story, the boy is not selfish and callous, and if his willful, it is a function of tender years and lack of real understanding. And the harm he causes everyone is because he's trying to please all the desires (including that of animals) he hears, but not understanding the implications of his actions.

Thus, the townspeople defend against that by training themselves to keep their minds empty when he is around.

SO, for instance, in the story, "Aunt Amy (?)" is "the smiling, vacant thing you're looking at now" not because “the monster” doesn’t like singing and snapped at her when she forgot, but rather because her husband had died and she forgot to hide her grieving (in her mind, she was crying for her husband to come back to her) … and, wanting to ease her sadness and suffering, “the monster” animated the corpse (I suppose he teleported it out of its grave) … but, of course, it was still a dead corpse. The shock/horror of seeing her husband as a zombie is what broke her mind.

Happily, real people are a bit more resilient than those in stories and movies ... and psychological treatises.


WV: infer *grin*

Ilíon said...

I took me a couple attempts, but I managed to watch the full "It's a Good Life" episode.

I'm sorry, but I find most programs from that era to be mildly (or strongly) painful to watch -- they're all so melodramatic.

On a slighty amusing note, I watched the first bit of "A Kind of a Stopwatch" -- notice "McNulty" droning on about how soccer is the Sport of the Future?

Anonymous said...

Our host has been weaponized in the comments section of the Templeton 'Big Questions Online' website. (Shermer v Chopra article) Might be a Templeton Prize in it :)

I agree with the commenter, the folks over there need help with their philosophy of nature.

Anonymous said...

Speaking of planes, what's the AT response to fear of flying?

Jime said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jime said...

One episode of the 80s' Twilight Zone was about an artifact which, once activated, would stop time at the will of the holder of such object.

I remember that when the guy pressed the bottom, everything would stop.

It's interesting, because as far I know some philosophers of time have argued that time is essentially a measure of movement (i.e. time only exists when some physical object is moving)

The writers of such episode perhaps didn't know anything of philosophy, but intuitively, they realized that in order to make appear that time was stopped, they had that stop any movement (except the movement of the person holding the stopping-time artifact. The latter, by the way, seems to be an inconsistency, since the movement of the artifact's holder would produce "time" if the above definition is correct, at least regarding him...)

Perhaps you remember that episode. At the end, the URSS had sent a missil to USA, and the guy holding the artifact would stop the Earth's time (and movement) just before the missil landed on USA.

I don't remember more details of such episode, but at the time I liked a lot.

Off-topic: William Lane Craig just published this 30-page article on 5 arguments for God's existence:

http://thegospelcoalition.org/pdf-articles/Craig_Atheism.pdf

P Boire said...

Hi Prof Feser

I was most fortunate to have been able to study philosophy at Saint Michael's College, University of Toronto which helped me appreciate your excellent LS even more. Thank you for the excellent book.

I am naturally lazy and a little busy, but I have been wondering about the issue of substance vs property dualism via a vis free will and the subject. I am... attracted to substance dualism as best I can tell as seeming a fuller expression of the free will we experience, but have not spent enough time on it to clear up the issue. I know you are a property dualist and ask if there is a short work you can recommend discussing the essential differences.

Lastly , I spend quite a bit of time on the "GOd Delusion" amazon ebsite which boasts some professional philosophers arguing for atheism , a few Catholics like myself who are having a pretty good time, and the usual ugly dawklings.

Cheers and keep it coming.

Paul Boire

Brampton Ontario Canada

P Boire said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Paul Boire said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Paul Boire said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Edward Feser said...

Hello Paul,

Sorry for the late response -- I didn't see your comment until just now.

Actually, I am not a property dualist. I am a hylemorphic dualist. I say something about this in the last chapter of my book Philosophy of Mind, and my fullest and most recent statement -- including a fairly detailed comparison of hylemorphic dualism with other versions -- is in chapter 4 of Aquinas.