“Where Is Everybody?”—Exploring the First Episode of “The Twilight Zone”—Part 2


The popular TV series The Twilight Zone was first broadcast in 1959. “Where Is Everybody?” is the first episode of the series. It was broadcast October 2, 1959. I’ve used it in philosophy classes to foster discussion about knowledge and justified belief.

The Twilight Zone-Where Is EverybodyI use a two-part handout with questions for guided discussion. In an earlier post, I listed the questions in Part 1. Those questions are designed to draw viewers into the story and help them recall and think about the events that transpire. In this post I list the questions used in Part 2 to facilitate reflection and discussion of themes in philosophy.

I screen the episode in class, then lead discussion around a selection of these questions. There are more questions here than can be used during a class period. So I encourage students to take some time with the rest of the questions on their own. I mix it up a little by having students get into small groups to share ideas that are prompted by two or three of the questions. Then we discuss a few of the more philosophically technical aspects of the story as a whole group. This allows me to include some lecturing. At the end I may allow time for students to write their thoughts about a wrap-up question. Students then turn in their notes, taken while viewing the story and during discussion.

You’re welcome to experiment with this exercise in your own teaching. Or you may want to view this episode of The Twilight Zone with some friends, then have a discussion around the issues raised in these questions. If you have suggestions of your own, feel free to write them in the comments box for this post. And if you do try these out in class, let us know how it goes.

Rod Serling-The Twilight Zone-image

Part II – Some Philosophical Questions

  1. At one point the main character says he has the strange feeling of being watched. Why does he think this? First, when he says this, what evidence does he have? Later it turns out that he is being watched. Does this explain why he thinks he’s being watched? And do those who are watching know what he is experiencing? Support your answers with evidence from the story.
  2. Why does the man think he’s suffering from amnesia? Is he suffering from amnesia? He thinks he might be dreaming? Is he dreaming? Explain your answers with evidence from the story.
  3. In the soda shop the man spins three bookracks. The fourth one he comes to is already spinning. What is significant about this? What is displayed on the rack? What does he make of it? Why, given how the story ends, would he have this particular experience?
  4. How does the man conclude that he’s in the US Air Force? Is he justified in believing this? Is his judgment based on memory? If so, what accounts for his remembering this? Does he have evidence? If he does have evidence, is it sufficient to justify his belief that he’s in the Air Force? Is he instead being caused somehow to believe that he’s in the Air Force? At this point in the episode, are we supposed to be convinced that he’s in the Air Force? Support your answers with evidence from the story.
  5. How does this story compare with the Brain in a Vat thought experiment? What are some key parallels? What are the most significant differences? Could this episode be used to make the same point intended by the BIV argument for skepticism? Why or why not? Does the story raise any other epistemological questions? What are they? (See below for Brain in a Vat argument.)
  6. At one point the man says, “I must be a very imaginative guy. Nobody in the whole bloody world can have a dream as complete as mine.” And his “dream” is remarkably vivid. But there are no other people in his dream. Why wouldn’t such a complete dream world include people, especially if there are signs of recent human activity all around him? How does this eventually connect with the theme of the story? Think about how this might make sense in the final scene and when the narrator says, “Up there, up there in the vastness of space, and the void that is the sky, up there is an enemy known as isolation. It sits there in the stars waiting, waiting with the patience of eons, forever waiting, in the Twilight Zone”?

Brain in a Vat Argument for Skepticism

“The Brain in a Vat thought-experiment is most commonly used to illustrate global or Cartesian skepticism. You are told to imagine the possibility that at this very moment you are actually a brain hooked up to a sophisticated computer program that can perfectly simulate experiences of the outside world. Here is the skeptical argument. If you cannot now be sure that you are not a brain in a vat, then you cannot rule out the possibility that all of your beliefs about the external world are false. Or, to put it in terms of knowledge claims, we can construct the following skeptical argument. Let “P” stand for any belief or claim about the external world, say, that snow is white.

  1. If I know that P, then I know that I am not a brain in a vat
  2. I do not know that I am not a brain in a vat
  3. Thus, I do not know that P.”

– Lance P. Hickey, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (http://www.iep.utm.edu/brainvat/; viewed 23 September 2015)

Click here for discussion questions in Part 1.

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“Where Is Everybody?”—Exploring the First Episode of “The Twilight Zone”—Part 1


The popular TV series The Twilight Zone was first broadcast in 1959. “Where Is Everybody?” is the first episode of the series. It was broadcast October 2, 1959. This story takes a fascinating look at themes of interest even today. I’ve used it in philosophy classes to foster discussion about knowledge and justified belief.

Rod Serling-The Twilight Zone-imageI use a two-part handout with questions for guided discussion. The questions in Part 1, reproduced in this post, draw viewers into the story and help them recall and think about the events that transpire. In a separate post I’ll list the questions used in Part 2 to facilitate reflection and discussion of themes in philosophy.

I screen the episode in class, then lead discussion around a selection of these questions. There are more questions here than can be used during a class period. So I encourage students to take some time with the rest of the questions on their own. I mix it up a little by having students get into small groups to share ideas that are prompted by two or three of the questions. Then we discuss a few of the more philosophically technical aspects of the story as a whole group. This allows me to include some lecturing. At the end I may allow time for students to write their thoughts about a wrap-up question. Students then turn in their notes, taken while viewing the story and during discussion.

You’re welcome to experiment with this exercise in your own teaching. Or you may want to view this episode of The Twilight Zone with some friends, then have a discussion around the issues raised in these questions. If you have suggestions of your own, feel free to write them in the comments box for this post. And if you do try these out in class, let us know how it goes.

Part I – Questions about Your Experience and Evaluation of this Episode

  1. The story begins with a man walking along a dusty road. The narrator says, “the journey we are about to watch could be our” What does this mean? How does this personalize the story? Notice, the narrator uses the first person plural (“we” and “our”), not the third person (“you” and “your”). Why might this matter?
  2. The man hears music playing and walks into a coffee shop. Thinking there’s someone in the back room, he calls out, “Say, I noticed there’s a town just up the road. What’s the name of it?” These are his first words in the story. Why would he ask this? Does it have anything to do with what he later begins to experience? Why would he want to know the name of the town? Does he ever learn its name? Why not? Later we find out that he can’t remember his own name. What is significant about this being a town with no name and his inability to remember his own name? (When does he realize that he can’t remember his name?)
  3. During the coffee shop scene, the man begins talking to himself. This happens when he pulls out a wad of cash and notices that it’s American money. When he then says, “I’m not sure who I am,” he’s still talking to whoever might be around. But we realize he’s actually talking to himself. This shift between direct address and self-address happens repeatedly throughout the story. For the story to work, we have to know what the man is experiencing. The episode depends on narration by the character himself, speaking aloud about what he’s experiencing. He’s reporting his thoughts and responses to what he encounters. But he transitions back and forth between talking to others and talking to himself. These transitions back and forth need to be smooth to move the story along and to keep us informed about what’s going on in the mind of this man. How effective is this device?
  4. What is significant about the following events:
  • breaking the clock in the coffee shop?
  • crashing into a mirror in the theater?
  • discovering that the “woman” in the passenger seat is a mannequin?Twilight Zone-Oakwood Telephone Booth-image
  • the man’s conversation with the mannequin when she tumbles into the street?
  • the telephone ringing?
  • getting trapped in the telephone booth?
  • the gong of the clock in the church tower?
  • the film clip scene in the movie theater?
  • the cigar still burning in the ashtray?

Is there any symbolism here? What do these events reveal about the character, once we know the real nature of the experiment? What would you add to this list?

  1. At the outset of the story, the man is relaxed and casual. When he discovers there are no people in the town he’s mystified. At times he seems to be humored by his circumstances. There’s his encounter with the mannequin, and the moment when he’s stuck in the phone booth and says, “This is an absolutely hysterical town, and I’m growing very fond of it.” In due course, however, his experience is increasingly disturbing, until he reaches the heights of desperation. What is happening to him? What is your sense of the explanation for this as things unfold? Does your understanding of his plight change at all by what is revealed at the end?
  2. How is the character delivered from his artificially manufactured experience? In his imagination he’s pressing a button labeled WALK, but in reality he seems to be pushing an actual button. What purpose is served by this button?
  3. Eventually we learn that the man’s name is Mike Ferris. And we learn the backstory. Why has Ferris been kept in an isolation booth? What was the purpose of the experiment?
  4. What did you experience as you watched this story unfold? When the man first discovered there was no one in the town, what did you think would happen next? Were you right? As the story went on, did you expect something dreadful might eventually happen to him? What did you think might happen?
  5. Describe what you were feeling as the man noticed there was a “woman” in the passenger seat of a car and he began to shout out to her? How did it make you feel when he opened the door and the mannequin tumbled out onto the street? Why would Ferris have imagined this?
  6. Movies often begin by giving viewers a reliable sense of what the story is about. This story doesn’t do that until the end, with only five minutes remaining. But the progression of events shapes our beliefs about the story and its meaning. Based on the clues provided in the story, we naturally seek to make sense of what is happening and what will happen next. How did your beliefs about these things shift as time went on? What did you think this episode was about when the man first walked into town? What did you think when he went looking for someone to find out what was going on? When he walked into the coffee shop and there was coffee brewing, but no one was around? When he ran into the jail? When the phone started ringing? When he got stuck in the phone booth? When he went into a movie theater and a film was playing, though no one was there? Why did you feel and believe the things you did? What elements of the story were the basis of your beliefs as they shifted over time?

Teach Yourself Epistemology


Epistemology is the branch of philosophy devoted especially to study of the concepts of knowledge and justified belief. The name for this discipline, epistemology, comes from the Greek word episteme, signifying “knowledge.” This is why epistemology is sometimes called “the theory of knowledge.” Unfortunately, this designation leads to a truncated view of a complex subject matter ranging over a wide variety of issues having to do with the status of belief.

The study of epistemology is notoriously difficult. It is also difficult to teach. Most university professors in the Anglo-American analytic tradition present the subject as a series of problem-solving ventures. The most persistent theories addressing these problems are presented and compared. Sometimes the teacher favors a general approach in epistemology and gives special attention to explaining and defending that approach and spelling out its implications.

One of the great problems of epistemology is how to think about the subject matter. This is the most fundamental problem for the enterprise of epistemology (which I distinguish from the enterprise of knowing and responsible believing). And yet this problem is often passed over, not only in the classroom, but by epistemologists in their own systematic work.

In my view, this places the student at risk. The student new to epistemology is liable to learn epistemology second-hand, taking as given the various problems and their proposed solutions, arranged in whatever order suits the professor or textbook writer. One very common approach is to begin with the threat of skepticism, which hangs as an ominous spectre over the whole enterprise—and is perhaps never completely exorcised.

A proper approach to “doing epistemology” would have to be delineated with great care and in more space than I have here. But there is a sense in which the self-educated have an advantage when coming to this subject matter. They are more likely to embark upon the enterprise of epistemology with that sense of wonder that is characteristically Aristotelian. In this case, the wonder is that we are capable of knowing so many things in such diverse areas of investigation, and that we move confidently through the world believing much that we do not know or would claim to know.

Still, the student needs a guide to such a complex subject. And while no text can serve in place of careful reflection on aspects of knowing and believing as they present themselves, there are a few very good books to guide the student and prompt examination of long-standing issues in epistemology.

In my own teaching, I have favored three books on the subject:

These books complement each other nicely. The book by Robert Audi will require a tutor for most who are new to the subject. It is rich and comprehensive, and, most important, very sensible about the topics it addresses. Better than any other book I know of, this book presents the subject in a natural order that is conducive to proper progress through to thorny issues it addresses.

To anchor a course in epistemology, I’ve found that the books by Feldman and Bon Jour complement each other neatly. They are concise and readable surveys of major topics. Laurence Bon Jour adopts a method of presentation that he explains clearly at the outset. While I think the method he adopts is unfortunate, it does give readers a sense of the rootedness of trends in contemporary epistemology in the influential work of the great 17th-century philosopher René Descartes. Of special value is Bon Jour’s treatment of the contest between foundationalists and coherentists in epistemology. A convert from coherentism to foundationalism, Bon Jour excels in his exposition of this debate; yet he is also realistic about the persistent philosophical challenges raised by foundationalism.

Richard Feldman demonstrates the exacting technique of analytic philosophy in a way that is accessible and interesting to newcomers. His book is a pleasure to recommend for that reason alone. But it is strong in many other respects. Feldman selects only the most fundamental issues in epistemology, and his book is a natural choice for someone with my anti-skeptical predilections for foundationalism and internalism in epistemology. His juxtaposition of evidentialism on the one hand and internalism and externalism on the other hand is initially puzzling. The presentation of evidentialism is a model of exposition at the introductory level.

Neither Feldman nor Bon Jour does justice to the problems associated with sensory perception. This large area of study in epistemology is set aside by Feldman, perhaps in the interests of conserving space. I think the decision to postpone consideration of the theory of perception can be defended. Feldman simply ignores the topic. Bon Jour, on the other hand, takes pains to explore the theory of perception. He defends a position called indirect or representative realism. As a direct realist, I believe this is a mistake. The presentation is well-organized and focused. And, in my judgment, Bon Jour’s development and defense of indirect realism creates opportunities to indicate significant problems for his position, which is part of any thorough defense of direct realism.

Several other books make useful companions to the ones I’ve recommended above:

The student also needs a collection, or anthology, of readings in epistemology. The best anthologies include selections from influential thinkers going back to Plato, as well as seminal essays by more recent philosophers. Among the best are:

Epistemology, like all professional philosophy, is “trendy.” The serious student of the discipline must understand these trends, even at the risk of being misled about their importance or being distracted from the real business of epistemology. The books I’ve described and recommended here contribute greatly to that task.

Postscript

While I strongly recommend the books by Rober Audi, Richard Feldman, and Laurence Bon Jour as places to begin the systematic study of contemporary analytic epistemology, several other introductory texts make excellent ancillary reading:

A Plan for the Study of Epistemology

  1. Read the three introductory texts recommended at the beginning, by Robert Audi, Richard Feldman, and Bon Jour. Sketch a plan to read them simultaneously, following the topical sequence in Audi.
  2. Read a sample of classic and contemporary essays from one of the anthologies listed above. Read according to interest and accessibility and note those authors who are mentioned in Audi, Feldman, and Bon Jour. Follow the order of coverage by topic in your reading of Audi and the others.
  3. Use Jonathan Dancy’s Companion to Epistemology as a quick reference on sundry topics in epistemology.
  4. Consult the other companion volumes for more detail and discussion.
  5. Survey several other introductions listed in the Postscript above. Especially deserving of careful study are Chisholm, Lehrer, and Pollock.
  6. Begin reading on topics of special interest to you, in books and essays that focus especially on those topics.
  7. Think about issues in meta-epistemology, or the study of the proper study of epistemology. On this topic I especially recommend Chisholm, Theory of Knowledge (already listed) and his essay on “The Problem of the Criterion,” George Chatalian, Epistemology and Skepticism: An Enquiry into the Nature of Epistemology, and P. Coffey, Epistemology, or the Theory of Knowledge (1917).
  8. For a realist approach to epistemology, I suggest reading seminal essays by the so-called “New Realists” in 20-century American philosophy.

Finding Films for Courses


More and more college and university professors are using film in their courses. Makes sense. Students like film, and film can be an exceptionally stimulating way to introduce students to complex issues in the various disciplines.

My field is philosophy, with specializations in epistemology (the theory of knowledge) and philosophy of religion. I use film in my courses in two ways. In some courses I use film to illustrate concepts, arguments, and the popular expression of “big ideas.” I also teach a course on faith, film and philosophy, which is all about the intersection of these three things. My primary textbook for that course is my own edited book Faith, Film and Philosophy: Big Ideas on the Big Screen (2007). But I’m always trawling for new film connections for my courses and public lectures.

Today I read Chris Panza’s plea for suggestions for a philosophy course that he’s been planning. His question is very specific: What films from an Asian perspective would complement a course on Asian Ethics? My first thought, naturally, was to recommend a chapter in my book. Chapter 13, written by Winfried Corduan, is called “Bottled Water from the Fragrant Harbor: The Diluted Spiritual Elements of Hong Kong Films.” Win writes about specific films in this genre, and his analysis of spirituality portrayed in representative films touches on ethical issues. But Chris’s question is a special case of a more general question: How does one find films that serve the specific purposes of a course? Here are a few suggestions.

Since I know others who teach using film, I ask them about their practices and experiences. I also have a growing library of useful books:

  1. There are several books on film with material by philosophers or on philosophical topics. My own library includes the following examples: Philosophy Through Film, by Mary M. Litch, and Movies and the Meaning of Life, edited by Kimberly Blessing and Paul Tudico.
  2. St. Martin’s Griffin publishes an annual collection of essays on The Best American Movie Writing. The essays tend to be written by popular film critics and journalists of various types. Some are filmmakers. The 1999 volume was edited by Peter Bogdanovich and contains essays by Martin Scorcese, David Denby, Molly Haskell, Gore Vidal, Douglas Brinkley, Steven Spielberg, Phillip Lopate, Andrew Sarris, William Zinsser, Roger Ebert, E. L. Doctorow, and others. Titles sometimes provide clues about the potential philosophical relevance of specific essays and the films they discuss.
  3. Some books deal with a specific film or range of films from a philosophical perspective. A noteworthy example is the book Mel Gibson’s Passion and Philosophy: The Cross, the Questions, the Controversy. Open Court and Blackwell have published popular culture book series with other titles like this one dealing with a specific film or film series.
  4. For films on religious themes with philosophical overtones, there is, for example, Catherine Barsotti and Robert Johnston’s Finding God in the Movies: 33 Films of Reel Faith. The authors are Protestant ministers and theologians, with interests that overlap those of philosophers. Several books fall into this category.
  5. Some textbooks make use of film as a complement to the exposition of philosophical themes. Dean Kowalski has composed a textbook that is part exposition, part anthology, and part film criticism: Classic Questions and Contemporary Film: An Introduction to Philosophy. Nancy Wood makes topical film suggestions in her textbook (designed chiefly for nursing students) Perspectives on Argument.

It goes without saying that search engines will turn up valuable resources on the web. I’ve been collecting URLs for websites and blogs about film and films.

I also keep track of my own associations between philosophical themes and the films I watch. While viewing a film, I’ll often make notes in the small Moleskine notebook that I always keep handy (using my Bullet Space Pen, of course). With a little practice, I’ve even been able to make notes in the darkness of a movie theatre and find them legible later in the light of day. And I don’t mind pausing a DVD to make a note now and then.

I store my notes using a software application called Scrivener. For Mac users it’s a great improvement over word processors (like MS Word) for this sort of thing. With the application open to my film file, I can enter notes on separate “pages” under different headings that I can later arrange in any order I like. (The virtues of Scrivener deserve praise in a separate blog some other time.) In my Scrivener film file I have folders for individual films, and in each folder are individual notes of various kinds. Additions to existing notes and the creation of new notes are simple activities. Note categories include: General Impressions, Themes, Quotes/Favorite Lines, Pedagogical Ideas, etc. I’m not limited to my own observations when making notes with Scrivener. I can add anything that has turned up in my research, including informal film discussions, lecture ideas, class activities, contributions by students, recommendations by colleagues, web links, and citations from books, journals, and magazines.

Because of my book on film, people often ask, “Have you seen such-and-such a film? It’s loaded with philosophically interesting ideas.” When that happens, I encourage them to write a short piece that I can add to the website for my book: www.faith-film-philosophy.com. Now I find myself with essays to edit for eventual posting there.

Our students have fertile imaginations. They frequently come up with philosophy-film connections that I wouldn’t have dreamed of. For a paper assignment earlier this year, one student told me he wanted to write about the film Ratatouille. I asked him what kind of philosophical essay he thought he could write about this entertaining animated film. He made a compelling case that the film expressed deep ideas in the realm of taste and aesthetics. I approved, he wrote a great essay, and I learned something valuable from what he had to say.

I can’t conclude this post without inviting you to post comments with (a) your own methods of dredging up films that complement the goals of higher education (beyond the film studies department), and (2) specific suggestions for films and their philosophical content. And I want to thank Chris Panza, whom I’ve never met, for raising the question that became the subject of this post.

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