Friends Season 2, Episode 3: “The One Where Heckles Dies.”
Dir. Kevin S. Bright. (C) Warner Bros, 1995.
Excerpts posted by FriendsFan03’s
In one of the best moments of this brilliant sitcom, flaky Phoebe challenges her die-hard archaeologist friend Ross’s scientific convictions.

Themes: Philosophy of science; theories of truth and scientific certainty; corroboration, hypothesis, fact, theory and certainty; dogmatism in science; evolutionary theory; scientific humility. (“Creationism” is not mentioned and it cannot be inferred that this is Phoebe’s position, but it would be a natural avenue for this discussion.)

Related authors: Many authors could be brought into the discussion (apart, obviously, from Darwin himself; and one shouldn’t assume that Ross’s explanation is representing him accurately). Technically, evolutionary theory is not philosophically opposed to theism and to creationism broadly understood. Nevertheless, that “evolution is a fact” seems to be a very important point in the argumentation of contemporary atheists, and so the names of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens will probably surface, with David Berlinski and a few others poking holes from the opposing corner.

None of these, though, produce high-level philosophical reflection. For this you will need to look into such names as Karl Popper, Thomas Kuhn, Paul Feyerabend, etc. The clip can also be used for a more “classical” discussion on David Hume (can you really “see” evolution happening through the fossil record?)

Teaching tips:

There are a number of difficulties involved in the discussion of this clip, but these very difficulties make the discussion worth having. Some students may see evolutionary theory as a challenge to their religious faith, making this a sensitive topic, and this is an opportunity to discuss the relation (and potential conflicts) between faith and reason. Not surprisingly, perhaps, this is also a sensitive topic for atheist students (I wouldn’t be surprised if I get some hate just from talking about this clip), and this is a great opportunity to identify the “scientific dogmatism” that can slip into some scientific views, undermining the ideal of science itself. (I use here a few of the beginning scenes from Ben Stein’s chilling Expelled, in which he documents a number of scientists from various disciplines, that have been ostracized for merely hinting at the idea that theories of intelligent design are worthy of scientific consideration.)

Another difficulty comes from the fact that “evolution” is a very broad term, used to encompass a very wild variety of meanings. There are the very precisely stated theories that try to explain biodiversity and changes in the heritable traits of biological populations, the vaguer common-sense understanding of the theory (expressed in near-tautological principles such as “survival of the fittest”), the moral applications of such principles (e.g. “social Darwinism”), the application of the term to individual moral progress, all the way to the near-magical use of this notion to justify the wild range of superpowers that appear in comics and science fiction stories. Again, this very difficulty can be used as an opportunity to discuss and practice the importance of defining the problem in precise terms.

Once these difficulties are addressed, the conversation can become a more specific discussion of such notions as “certainty,” “fact,” “scientific theory,” etc., and of the different models used to explain scientific progress.

Questions for discussion:

  • Is evolution “a scientific fact,” as Ross states? And what do you mean by that?
  • Ross states that you can literally “see” species evolving through time in the fossil registry. How would you rephrase that statement to make it more philosophically accurate?
  • Phoebe leaves Ross in a no-win situation. Either he demonstrates an absurd pride, or he “caves in.” Is this way of stating the situation fair?
  • Are Phoebe’s arguments grounds for a scientific “skepticism”? What is the value of scientific theories?
  • Why would Phoebe say “Don’t get me started on gravity”? What problems can gravity pose from the point of view of philosophy of science?
  • What are the dangers of turning scientific theories into “dogmatic” truths? Is biology the only discipline in which this may be a danger?
Please leave a comment (below) or send us a note! If you send further ideas on how to use a specific clip, we’ll move them to the body of the article.