Theological Slapstick: The Good Place

I can’t recall who suggested I start watching The Good Place, which recently released its finale after four seasons.  I do remember being warned not to look up the show on Wikipedia or anything first; and that was good advice.  The series’ twists and turns are entirely unexpected and it would ruin the effect to know they were coming.  So, at the top of this post, I need to point out—

Here Be Spoilers!

The Slapstick Element

The Good Place opening sceneA TV series about the afterlife is, to the best of my recollection, a novel idea.  There’ve been shows that featured regular visitations from the afterlife, such as Topper or My Mother the Car.  But these were’t about the afterlife, any more than My Favorite Martian was about life on Mars.  They were about events here on earth when visitors from the afterlife intruded.  Those who know more than I about the history of TV may be able to provide other examples; but The Good Place’s approach is at least fairly rare.

The second unexpected thing about The Good Place is the transcendent silliness with which Michael Schur and the show’s other writers imbue the series.  Almost invariably, if something seems profound or weighty, there’s a pratfall (verbal or otherwise) waiting just around the corner.  Even when typical afterlife tropes are invoked, such as torture in hell, they are so exaggerated or understated that one can’t take them seriously.  The characters are also drawn very broadly, to the point of caricature—no one could be quite as perfectly airheaded as Jason, as status-conscious as Tahani, as indecisive as Chidi—except for Eleanor, who serves as our Everywoman hero.

The Good Place yogurt shopThis perpetual wackiness makes the show entertaining, but it also accomplishes some other things.  The silliness of the events and characters prevents us from taking the theology seriously.  It would be hard to present a serious visualization of heaven or hell in an era when there is no general consensus about such things.  But we can all laugh along with the notion that a heaven featuring a really, really great yogurt shop is a bit of a letdown—even if you like yogurt.  It’s hard to be offended or galvanized to argument when the theological features are clearly not meant seriously.

In the moments when the show actually does get serious, the surrounding wackiness also keeps it from getting preachy.  The levity of the overall atmosphere lends the genuinely moving moments a sort of innocent sincerity.  (A fan of G.K. Chesterton, of course, will find that sort of atmosphere immediately congenial.)

The Ending

I’ve seen some lively comments online on how the show ended.  Several people have said they hated to see it end.  It’s true that one is always reluctant to say goodbye to favorite characters and situations.  On the other hand, it’s better for a TV series to close before it’s worn out its original premise and goes into that long slow decline.  Exhaustion of the premises is especially likely to occur when the premise is as bizarre as that of The Good Place.  So I was kind of pleased to see the writers were bringing the show to an end after four good seasons.

Is it a good ending?  Dramatically, yes.  I’m content.  That’s the essential criterion for the show’s creator:  “there’s really only one goal ever for a show finale, in my mind, and that’s to make people who have been watching the show and invested time and energy and emotion in the show feel like it’s a good ending.”

However, the completed work does leave some questions hanging.  Appropriately enough, the leftover puzzles are big issues about the fundamental things.  I don’t mean that the show should have tried to deal with them:  it can best to leave some mystery.  However, it’s entertaining to look at what some of these holes were.  I present them, of course, from my point of view; those who approach the fundamental questions differently may see the gaps in somewhat different ways.

(Since I flew the spoiler alert above, I’m going to assume that anyone who makes it this far has a pretty good acquaintance with the series.)

First Cause

The more we find out about The Good Place’s underlying machinery of the afterlife, the more we may wonder:  Who put this madhouse in place to begin with?

Judge Gen

Nobody seems to be in charge of the whole shebang.  The demons who run the Bad Place don’t have complete power, or they’d have simply gone on happily torturing humans indefinitely.  The Good Place, apparently, is run by a committee of nonentities, who show up only once or twice, make some entirely ineffectual remarks, and flee at the first opportunity to abdicate their responsibilities.  Disputes between the two are resolved by Judge Gen, an irritable, easily distracted entity who seems annoyed by the whole business.

We never do find out who dreamed up the point system that’s used to evaluate human actions.  As Sam Adams’ article on Slate puts it, “Introducing a painless exit from the afterlife allowed The Good Place to punt on some of its biggest questions, like who created the universe (the highest-ranking figure we ever meet, the nearly omnipotent Judge Gen, still feels like she’s enforcing someone else’s rules) . . .”

As the setup comes to seem more and more arbitrary, an inquiring viewer is likely to become more and more perplexed about why this particular cockamamie system should exist, rather than any other.  (Much less “why there is anything at all,” the fundamental question of metaphysics.)

These are the kinds of questions addressed by the traditional “First Causearguments for the existence of God.  Why is there this universe rather than some other?  Why is there this universe rather than nothing?  Ordinarily we sail along day to day without bothering much about the matter.  But because The Good Place is showing us (in its own wacky way) the entities that ought to have the answers, the questions become hard to avoid.  Once the main characters get backstage, you might say, the God-shaped hole in the overall system becomes more and more evident.

A related issue appears when at one point the judge proposes to wipe the slate clean and start over—annihilate all humans who have ever lived and start the new system from scratch.  I found myself wondering, what is the judge trying to accomplish?  What are her motives?  If the idea is to find a better way to deal with the ongoing human population, that’s fairly clear.  But if she’s going to eliminate the humans and start something different, why go to the trouble?  Is there some sort of cosmological imperative that there be a human race, or a life-and-afterlife system?  We don’t have any idea what her motives might be, because we have no earthly (or unearthly) idea why the existing framework is there in the first place.

Unintended Consequences

Carbon footprint graphicOne of the most interesting moral speculations in the show turns up when the main characters are trying to figure out why no humans for centuries have succeeded in qualifying for the Good Place.  The reason, it’s suggested, is that the modern world is so complex that an ordinary human can’t know all the consequences of an action.  If I buy a Coke, I have to consider not only the effect on my budget and my waistline, but also the bottle’s carbon footprint, whether it was produced using child labor or unfair business practices, and so forth.  Every choice is laden with unknowable results—and apparently these are mostly bad, bringing people’s point scores down.

It’s an interesting idea, with at least superficial plausibility.  The modern world is more complex than our pre-technological world, and maybe it’s just grown beyond our ability to manage.  Today we are constantly being told that it’s our obligation to take into account all sorts of remote consequences, becoming so scrupulous that the slightest decision is weighted with ponderous political and moral consequences.

This argument itself is based on some significant moral assumptions.  For instance, it takes for granted that actions are to be evaluated on their results—“consequentialism,” of which the most popular form is utilitarianism.  That’s not the only possibility.  Chidi, for instance, apparently embraces a “deontological” or rule-based ethics.  And then there’s the Aristotelian virtue-based ethics.  What actually drives the main characters’ decisions in the end seems to be the worth or importance of persons, which has something in common with Kant’s deontological ethics (every person must be treated as an end in itself) or, more directly, personalism.

One might also wonder whether the problem of unforeseen consequences is really unique to modernity.  Life has always been complex, and actions have always had ramifications stretching out far beyond what we can anticipate.  It does seem plausible, though, that in a highly interconnected world (“the world is getting smaller”), the effects of a given cause propagate faster and further.

Good Place cast, inquiringThere’s an additional complexity in the The Good Place’s point system insofar as it uses these remote results to judge the person who is acting.  There’s a difference between judging the results and judging the agent.  Traditional axiological (good-based) or consequentialist theories of ethics would not normally hold us responsible for consequences we can’t reasonably foresee.  If someone does something terrible (or, for that matter, something heroic) we take into account the pressures that person was under, which may include their history and experiences; the limits of their knowledge; the effects of outside conditions like drugs or alcohol; and many other factors that might diminish (or enhance) responsibility.

None of this seems to be considered in the point system with which The Good Place begins.  And no wonder:  the point system is presented from the beginning as a caricature of real moral judgment, an oversimplified and somewhat unfair scheme.  But the “new system” we’re given at the end doesn’t really solve that problem either.  Giving the poor humans many lifetimes to become better people is kind, perhaps, but how does it take degrees of responsibility into account (much less resolve the issue of unpredictable consequences)?

Eternity and the Good Life

The driving force of the series’ last episodes is the notion that an eternity of pleasure is itself intolerable.  We get bored, and, we’re told, the tedium gradually degrades our faculties, so that the esteemed philosopher Hypatia of Alexandria shows up as a shallow airhead (“Patty”), to the main characters’ dismay.  The series’ answer is that the system must provide the opportunity to end this eternal lassitude at a chosen time—“die the real death,” as Zelazny might have put it.  The option of ending it all somehow removes the tedium of eternal pleasure and allows us to enjoy the Good Place until we walk through the final door.

The idea of eternity as a bore presents a valid question.  It isn’t a question restricted to the afterlife, either; it points back to the classic philosophical issue of what is a good life for human beings.  The good life, in the classical ancient or medieval sense, isn’t just the absence of wrongdoing or the ability to score arbitrary points; it embodies the idea of a life that is worth living.

For this reason, it’s worth taking a closer look at what The Good Place has to say about the good life.  From the perspective of that question, the show’s final solution looks a bit superficial.  Sam Adams, again, says:  “The idea that going through the door would simply allow a person’s energy to rejoin the universe—as Eleanor took the fateful step, she dissolved into otherworldly fireflies that wafted down to Earth—felt more like New Age goop than moral philosophy, or maybe just a midway point between Immanuel Kant and Dan Brown.”

It’s true that “[t]he way to love anything is to realise that it might be lost,” as Chesterton says (Tremendous Trifles (1909), ch. 7).  But the idea of loving something is curiously muted in The Good Place.  The Good Place as we see it in the show does look boring, but that may be because the writers built it that way.  The focus on simple pleasures like milkshakes lends itself to this—an eternity of sitting placidly and drinking even the best milkshake would be a bore.  With admirable consistency, the screenwriters do apply the same argument to other goods like learning and reading.  But it’s not quite as clear that something like learning is as inherently limited as ordinary (and genuinely good) gustatory pleasures.

Baby kicking its legsEven with respect to the simpler pleasures, The Good Place doesn’t take into account the possibility that becoming bored is a a human weakness—a physiological or psychological failure to continue appreciating something that remains worthwhile in itself.  That weakness isn’t necessarily incurable.  Chesterton remarks:

The thing I mean can be seen, for instance, in children, when they find some game or joke that they specially enjoy.  A child kicks his legs rhythmically through excess, not absence, of life.  Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged.  They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead.  For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. . . .  It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.  (G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (Image 1959), ch. IV, p. 60)

The one factor in the depiction of the Good Place that seems to be understated, oddly enough, is love and friendship—relationships.  The show does make something of personal interactions, mainly in the two romantic relationships, Eleanor and Chidi and Jason and Janet.  But none of the four main characters becomes involved with any other interesting people—despite the plethora of historical figures that might be called on.  (As we noted above, the interesting Hypatia has been deliberately dumbed down for the episode to make a point.)

Steven Curtis Chapman, from The Great Adventure music videoOutside the central four, together with Michael and Janet, there’s no sense of camaraderie or community.  We do not see the potentially unlimited constellations of True Companions—just the one cluster of main characters.  And of course the one big relationship is missing:  that God-shaped hole.  In traditional Christian thinking, at least, God is infinite, and our relationship with God is one time can never exhaust.  Because The Good Place adroitly sidesteps the whole question of divinity, that line of solution to the problem of eternity can’t be explored.

Moreover, the show cheats a little when it suggests that a final dissolution is the real end.  At least one character uses the conventional phrase “moving on”—which undermines that notion of finality.  And what one commentator refers to as “a complete and unknowable end” isn’t quite what we actually get.

For a while, it seems as if Michael Schur is no more prepared to answer existence’s ultimate question than anybody else. But when it’s Eleanor’s turn, the camera doesn’t cut away. Instead, it pans up to the sky above her, a group of ethereal lights floating up into the frame, suggesting that this is what the person that was Eleanor Shellstrop has become. . . . . What that gorgeous final scene suggests is that the best possible reward would be the ability to continue to touch the lives of those we left behind . . .  (Rolling Stone)

Even the series’ best attempt at agnosticism about the good life seems to recede before a sense of good action as in some sense eternal.

The Good Place cast portraitConclusion

The Good Place has been a great show, and I’ve enjoyed it throughout.  Simply giving us an opportunity to think about such matters as these is way beyond what most TV series achieve.  And to do it in a way that’s consistently entertaining is the cherry on the top of the frozen yogurt.

Mind Powers

Mental powers are a staple of both science fiction and fantasy—and even quasi-SF genres like paranormal romance.  The idea’s like the traditional iceberg:  easy to put into a story, but with some major assumptions lurking under the surface.

The Physical and the Non-Physical

In SF, it became fashionable to use the invented term “psionics” to refer to powers of the mind.  The term seems to have originated by analogy to “electronics,” giving it a scientific (or pseudo-scientific) cast, and using the Greek letter psi, the first character of psyche, “soul” or “mind.”  Sometimes simply “psi” is used, as in “psi powers.”  It’s a useful coinage.

There are two broad approaches to psionics.  One treats mental power as acting purely on other minds—what we can loosely call nonphysical:  for example, telepathy.  The other approach allows mental powers to act directly on matter:  the most familiar example is telekinesis, moving things by mind power.

Note that distinguishing “physical” from “nonphysical” already involves some pretty big assumptions—but we’ll get to that.

Mind-to-Mind

Professor Xavier using telepathyQuite a few science fiction stories postulate mental powers that have only mental effects, such as talking mind-to-mind.

The “Lens” worn by the “Lensmen” of E.E. Smith’s classic series is essentially a psionic amplifier.  It gives the wearer telepathic abilities.  This is extremely useful in making contact with unfamiliar species—especially in interstellar law enforcement, with instant communication an essential for “lawmen” that might be pursuing criminals into unknown regions of space.  The Lens also serves as a means of identification that cannot be faked, since an individual’s custom-made Lens will kill anyone who touches it if it’s not in contact with the designated wearer.

But Lensmen can’t make things physically happen by mind power alone; they have to use the conventional space-opera gear of ray guns and such.  The Lensmen can communicate mentally; they can influence or even take over the mind of another person; they can erase or implant memories.  But a Lensman can’t lift objects and throw them around without flexing his muscles in classic action-hero fashion.

There are some odd borderline cases.  The main character, Kimball Kinnison, gains a “sense of perception,” allowing him to perceive nearby objects without using the standard five senses.  He can “see” through solid objects, for example.  That does involve interaction with inanimate matter, of course; but the interaction is all one way—he can’t affect the things he perceives.

Now, a contemporary scientist physicist would find this paradoxical, since it’s fundamental to quantum physics that you can’t perceive an object without interacting with it—bouncing photons off it to see with, for example.  But the Lensman stories were planned out in the 1940s, when we were not so acutely aware of quantum-type theories of perception.  The anomaly does illustrate the difference between these two theories of knowledge:  one in which the knower is the passive recipient of information, and the other in which knowledge is always the product of interaction.

James Schmitz, The Hub - Dangerous Territory, coverJames H. Schmitz’s numerous stories set against the background of the interstellar “Federation of the Hub” use a similar theory of psionics.  Telzey Amberdon, one of the main characters, can communicate telepathically with nonhuman creatures such as her massive “pet,” the crest cat TT (who turns to be a formidably intelligent being in his own right).  Hub psis like Telzey can influence other minds and can be extremely dangerous—whether in a good cause or a bad.  But physical objects aren’t affected.

A similar sort of psionics is assumed in A.E. van Vogt’s classic mutation novel Slan, and in one of my childhood favorites, Star Rangers (The Last Planet), by Andre Norton.  For a more well-known example, the movie Independence Day showed the inimical aliens using mind control to speak through a captive human to communicate with other humans.  But to properly destroy humanity, they used conventional physical weapons.  (Well, “conventional” as science fiction goes; the alien weapons were dismayingly novel for the embattled Earthlings.)

Fantasy, too, can feature purely mental abilities.  There are references in The Lord of the Rings to the ability of elves and wizards to speak mind-to-mind.  (This was shown more explicitly, as I recall, in the movie versions of The Hobbit.)  An analogue might even be found in ghost stories.  Ghosts are often portrayed as acting only through influence on human minds, whether through terror or telepathy—as in A Christmas Carol:  the various spirits do not act except on Scrooge’s own consciousness.

Sometimes telepathy is imagined as “hearing” only what people verbalize—what’s put into words; for example, in Al Macy’s novels about mind-reading detective Eric Beckman.  In other cases, telepathy allows direct access to other people’s feelings and inchoate thoughts, somehow getting behind the speech-forming function.  The notion that one can think without words would itself be anathema to many a twentieth-century linguistic philosopher—consider the linguistic relativism or “Sapir-Whorf hypothesis” so adroitly used in the movie Arrival.  The difference raises basic questions about the relation between speech and thought, and how thinking works.

The divide between mental and physical powers gets further eroded when the story includes telepathic machines.  The Psychology Service in Schmitz’s Hub routinely uses mechanical detectors to monitor psis.  In Slan, “Porgrave broadcasters” can send “recordings” telepathically.  Even aside from the Lens itself, which is a quasi-living physical device, the Lensman series eventually gives us machine-generated mental screens, analogous to the physical force-fields of space-opera lore.  If psionics were confined to minds alone, how can machines handle it?

I’ve spoken loosely about this sort of mind-on-mind power as “nonphysical”; but that involves a very significant assumption—that the mind is not a physical thing.  If the mind were wholly reducible to the brain, there would be no reason in principle why mind powers would only affect matter in the form of other brains.  By analogy, microwaves can be used for communications, but also for cooking dinner.  On this assumption, mind powers would constitute just another kind of physical force, the analogy often being a different “wavelength” of energy.  Second Stage Lensman refers to the “frequency-range of thought” (ch.14), and Smith’s Skylark series presents thought as a “sixth-order wave”—whatever that may be.

Mind Over Matter

We’ve gotten so used to things like telekinesis nowadays that the mind-only abilities discussed above may seem oddly constrained to us.

Vader uses the Force to fling objects at Luke (Empire)The original Star Wars film, A New Hope, showed us that the Force could mediate mental communication, even with the dead (“Use the Force, Luke”), and some degree of mind-control or mental influence (“These aren’t the droids you’re looking for”).  But it was only in the sequel that we saw that it could also enable telekinesis.  I still recall the moment when Luke, ice-cemented to the ceiling in the wampaa’s cave, strains fruitlessly to reach his light-saber—then relaxes and closes his eyes; and I thought with some excitement, so, we’re going to get telekinesis too!  By the end of the episode, we’re watching Darth Vader use mental power to throw objects to distract Luke and keep him off-balance.  You can even use this matter-moving power to move yourself, or in effect to fly without wings—as we saw in one memorable scene in The Last Jedi.

Yoda lifts the X-wing (Empire Strikes Back)By now this sort of mind-over-matter is familiar territory.  But there are still aspects that aren’t obvious on the surface.  For one thing, telekinesis is apparently reactionless.  It’s unclear whether it obeys Newton’s laws of motion, under which action requires an equal and opposite reaction.  It would have been a great comic scene in Empire when Yoda impressively lifts Luke’s X-wing fighter into the air—and Luke had looked over to see Yoda rapidly sinking into the muck, with the entire weight of the X-wing bearing down on his diminutive form.

The simplest fantasy version of telekinesis is the poltergeist, an immaterial spirit which (rather bafflingly) is capable of throwing around physical objects.  Levitation, whether of oneself or of something else, is a commonplace for magicians.  In fantasy, however, mental powers tend to bleed over into magical powers, which we don’t think of in quite the same way—although one way of conceiving magic is as a kind of mind over matter.

There are other kinds of (fictional) mental interactions with matter, over and above mere movement.  A common trope is the ability to start fires, or “pyrokinesis,” as in Stephen King’s Firestarter.  This might be interpreted as a subtle form of telekinesis—since heat consists of motion at the molecular level, maybe a telekinetic could create heat by causing an object’s molecules to move faster.  Such an explanation leaves open the question of where the added energy is coming from; but that’s an issue common to any form of telekinesis.  There may be a certain nerdy satisfaction in supposing that a physically puny specimen like, er, yours truly could throw things around by sheer power of mind, even though one’s muscles aren’t up to it.  But whether things are moving by mind or by muscle, there has to be energy coming from somewhere.

The Golden Torc, second volume of Julian May's Saga of Pliocene Exile, coverThere are other things you can do with matter besides just moving it around.  Julian May’s Saga of Pliocene Exile, and related stories, postulate “metapsychic powers” that include “creativity,” allowing metapsychics to change the form of matter and thus materialize or convert physical objects.  Other stories imagine psionic abilities to “read” the history of an object or a place.

Teleportation—instantaneous movement from one place to another—represents a kind of in-between.  Physical objects are obviously affected, but the physical object in question is typically the practitioner’s own body, and perhaps other objects physically connected (such as clothing—but clothing doesn’t always come along, depending on the story, which can be inconvenient).  Does it count if your mind affects only your own body—the one locus where even theories that sharply separate mind and matter have to assume some crossover between the two?

Jean Grey (Marvel Girl) using telekinesisThere’s a long tradition of mental powers in comic books too.  But given the visual nature of the medium, physically effective mental powers tend to predominate over the purely mental.  We do see some of the latter—pure telepathy in Marvel’s Professor Xavier or DC’s Saturn Girl.  But much more popular is Marvel Girl (Jean Grey), whose telekinetic powers make for much more striking imagery.

Minds and Bodies

Considering these two approaches to mind powers raises the philosophical question of whether minds affect matter only in and through a person’s body, or can do so independently.

If we exclude direct physical effects from the scope of (fictional) mental powers, this suggests parallel realms, with thought proceeding on one level while physical actions occur on another, linked only through the minds of humans or other intelligent beings.  It’s almost a Cartesian approach (that is, a theory similar to that of René Descartes) of mind-body dualism, and sinks roots into the long-standing debates over the “mind-body problem.”

The “sense of perception” concept, similarly, functions as if there were two independent metaphysical levels, mental and physical, and this mental sense could allow a person to go “around” the physical senses and inspect an object directly.  The philosophical notion of intentionality (not to be confused with the usual sense of “intentional” or deliberate) is adaptable to such non-sensory knowledge.  But the trend in both philosophy and physics over the last couple hundred years has been to focus on the physical connection between the knower and the known.

It’s become a standard assumption that we can’t know or do anything without a physical connection.  Anything else seems “unscientific.”  What’s interesting is that we seem to be willing to accept the now-unpopular postulate of non-physical knowledge and events when we’re dealing with fiction.

Of course, it’s also possible to meld the two back together by taking the position that mental powers really only reflect physical events taking place at a level we can’t yet detect—as with Smith’s “frequency range.”  But that isn’t the only way to conceive of the relationship.  There is still a certain imaginative appeal, at least, to the notion that mind can act independent of the constraints of the physical body.

I think such stories are helpful.  We’re apt to rush to conclude “science has proven” that the mind equals the brain and the brain is just a particularly subtle form of matter.  Science has not, in fact, proven any such thing.  The physical sciences assume, understandably, that only physics is involved.  But they have by no means demonstrated that all observable phenomena can be wholly explained by physics.  The arguments on this subject are still live.  We should still apply sound standards of evidence, and not leap to conclusions—but that applies in both directions, whether to materialism or to its alternatives.

In other words, there may still be more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our physics, and one of the uses of speculative stories is to help us keep an open mind on these subjects.