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.

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