The End of The Good Place

Warning: there will be spoilers for the entire series in this post. If you are planning on watching it (and you should), you should not read this. Save it and read it later 😉

It Is Over

Over the last few years I have come to love this show. I have loved that it takes ethics seriously, that it takes the afterlife as a concept seriously (though also exploits it for some good comedy), that it takes people’s mistakes and evils seriously. I won’t repeat everything that was said over at The Gospel Coalition a couple of years ago, but suffice it to say, this show is worth watching.

I do however want to highlight two ideas that appeared in the last season. These are the nature of a fundamental dualism, and the nature of a good afterlife.

Fundamental Dualism

What I am calling fundamental dualism here is the idea that the fundamental nature of the universe is actually two fundamental forces, one of good and one of evil. In The Good Place, these are the good place architects and the bad place architects. While the show is somewhat inconsistent here (occasionally portraying the bad place architects as actually doing good by torturing evil people, saying “Humans are evil, they deserve it”. The show portrays this attitude as being right, and it is), the general idea is that the good place architects, a handful of humans, and eventually Micheal are forces for good, and the bad place architects are forces for evil.

The problem is that this view is impossible. C.S. Lewis famously criticises this idea, and I want to highlight some problems that exist in the show as a result of holding this impossible idea.

Consider this: True bad place torturers have to be good for justice. It’s unjust when evil people torment evil people because they enjoy it. It is only justice when the evil suffer at the hands of a just judge, who is attempting to do good.

I think the bad place architects are actually better than the good place architects. The good place architects are weak, passive, uncreative cowards. None of that is good! Say what you want about Shawn, but at least he’s actually trying to do things. He has some ambition, and is often intelligent and driven enough to accomplish it. The “good” architects lack this. Shawn has some good in him apparently, the good place architects don’t seem to. If Shawn were truly fully evil, he’d be passive and lazy and incompetent. Instead, passivity and laziness and incompetence are marks of the good place architects. They are not good. They are just a different kind of evil.

It’s not an easy choice between hell and heaven in their world. Sure, butthole spiders and penis flatteners do not sound like fun. But neither does an endless zombie existence where all pleasure turns to ash in my mouth. My intuition is that a Dostoyevsky in the bad place becomes a deeper and more profound soul. Not that his suffering is good, but at least he can keep who he is! Hypatia in the good place loses that, and so did all the others.

Why does this problem exist? Because there’s a fundamental flaw in having equal and opposing good and evil forces. That problem is that a fully and fundamentally evil force has nothing good in it. Nothing good. Including things like cunning, intelligence, ambition, drive, courage, or even existence. Existence itself is a good, and so if there is a fully evil fundamental force, it ends up being self defeating. This force can never be an enemy!

No, the foundation force must be good, because it must be the most existent thing, and existence is good. It must be Existence Itself. It must be God. The Good Place shows us the incoherence of this dualism. Even Satan, the most evil thing, is a good thing twisted to evil, and is not a fundamental being but a derivative being. That’s how it must be.

The dualism in the show is self-awaredly silly, and has to be silly because it is actually incoherent. If it were not presented as silly, and if we thought about the metaphysics presented a bit more carefully, we’d start to see the holes in it.

A Good Afterlife

In the last two episodes, our heroes encounter something horrific: the millennia that the good humans have spent in the good place have ruined them. They’ve become mindless zombies, numb to all pleasure, incapable of all deep thought, robbed of all ambition or drive.

It’s easy to see why this happens. With no struggle and nothing to strive towards, they become lazy and complacent. With every possible desire immediately fulfilled, they’ve lost the ability to even have deep desires!

The solution in the show is to reintroduce death. Death, apparently, gives life meaning. Things only matter if eventually you will permanently stop existing. By creating the door and creating a potential end for each person, they have given back purpose to the people in the good place.

This is the current secular zeitgeist. Paradise is nothing more than wish fulfillment: getting whatever you want as soon as you want it. The ultimate good, according to the modern secular worldview, is having your will fulfilled. Everything comes back to the autonomous human will as the source of everything. Only what you want matters, only what you will for yourself matters for who you ought to be and what you ought to be given.

This is what Eastern Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart talks about in his book Atheist Delusions, in the chapter The Age of Freedom:

There is no substantial criterion by which to judge our choices that stands higher than the unquestioned good of free choice itself

And later:

The will, we habitually assume, is sovereign to the degree that it is obedient to nothing else and is free to the degree that it is truly spontaneous and constrained by nothing greater than itself. This, for many of us, is the higest good imaginable. And a society guided by such beliefs must, at least implicitly, embrace and subtly advocate a very particular “moral metaphysics”: that is, the nonexistence of any transcendent standard of the good that has the power (or the right) to order our desires toward a higher end.

And later

For us, it is the choice itself, and not what we choose, that is the first good

What Hart has seen is the idolatry of the autonomous will and the free choice above all else. And that is the good place! They just get whatever they want whenever they want it. That’s how the world sees a good afterlife! Eternal wish fulfilment.

The problem is that eternal wish fulfilment, when there is no normative force on what we wish, is not going to actually be eternally fulfilling. Our heroes, after however many thousands of years of the good place, end up running out of things to satisfy their wills. Nothing more to choose. And out of things to choose, they have nothing left to fulfil them, and they leave. And why shouldn’t they? In this universe, they have exhausted all the goods. Finitely many goods for an infinite time do not satisfy, and so they cut their time short.

But in the real world, this is not the case. There is a normative force on the will, and if John Piper and the Christian Hedonists are to be believed (and they are), God’s end goal is for us to desire Him. Those who have attained eternal life by the blood of Christ will not have go-kart racing with monkeys as their highest desire (because how could that ever eternally satisfy?), they will have God as their highest desire. Finite goods couldn’t fulfil our heroes for eternity, but God, the infinite good, could! The Good Place, both the show and the location in the show, are missing God. They are missing the highest good. But heaven without God would not be good, and it would turn us all into lifeless zombies like Hypatia.

The Good Show

I am glad I watched The Good Place. It has prompted these thoughts, and many more. I have thought very deeply while watching it, more than any other Netflix show. I would love to see more like it.

Saturday Links 21/12/19

Bumping Our Heads Against a Secular Ceiling

Charles Taylor too long and dense for you? I understand. Here’s a nice podcast on the topic of secularism, with a focus on pastoring and discipleship.

“That’s life in a secular age. That’s belief under the conditions of doubt. That’s pastoring and leading the church under the conditions of doubt. Because even watching things happen—whether you’re watching people move from death to life, through salvation, or whether you’re watching people experience healing, physical or emotional or whatever—the reality of secularism is that there’s this nagging, needling condition of doubt.” — Mike Cosper

Van Til on the Problem of Induction

The third argument from Van Til that we will examine is the argument from induction. Van Til argues (rightly) that we must be able to use induction in order to be able to reason about the world. That is, we have to be able to reason from our past experiences as individuals and as a society and infer the future. But to reason this way, we must assume that reality has a kind of uniformity or intelligibility. And according to Van Til, the only way we can know this is through theism.


Does Christianity offer a solution to induction?

The first step in evaluating Van TIl’s argument is discussing whether Christianity can actually justify induction as we use it. I am not currently aware of any serious arguments that induction is impossible under Christianity, and I think it’s reasonably clear that under Christianity we can perform induction. How do we know that reality is regular or predictable in the right kind of way? Because the God of order and knowledge created not only a world that is ordered and knowable, but also our minds. And since He created our minds intending that they would know the world, we can know the world through induction.

It’s true that some argue that under sceptical theism, we cannot do induction. We may discuss this more when we discuss solutions to the evidential problem of evil, but it doesn’t apply to theism in general.


Secular justifications of induction

In order for Van Til’s argument to succeed, it must not only be the case that theism allows for induction, but that there is no coherent secular response to the problem as well. Many attempts have been made at secular answers to this problem, we will have a brief look at some of them here.


Popper: Falsification, Not Induction

Karl Popper has famously argued that inductive reasoning ought not to be performed in the manner that is normally considered here. Instead of looking for observations to confirm or verify our hypothesis, we should instead look for observations that falsify the hypothesis. And if we don’t find any, we don’t consider the hypothesis true, we just consider it to be not yet falsified.

This approach is perhaps the dominant approach in philosophy of science and indeed in the practice of science. However, I think it is somewhat difficult to swallow. We end up not really believing that things are “true”, instead we believe they are “not yet proven false”. But that’s simply not how we reason about the world, we do think it is true that our various inductive hypotheses are correct. We do think it is true that the sun will rise tomorrow because we have observed it doing so in the past. So while here we do have a coherent way of reasoning, it doesn’t save our normal, everyday reasoning using induction. Therefore this is not a good enough response to the problem of induction


Law of Large Numbers

This is another, less popular (though I think stronger) response to the problem of induction. Helpfully explained by this Reddit comment (the whole /r/askphilosophy subreddit is pretty great by the way), we can justify induction essentially a priori using some mathematics. However, it is not without its issues as well. I will quote the SEP:

The more problematic step in the argument is the final step, which takes us from the claim that samples match their populations with high probability to the claim that having seen a particular sample frequency, the population from which the sample is drawn has frequency close to the sample frequency with high probability. The problem here is a subtle shift in what is meant by “high probability”, which has formed the basis of a common misreading of Bernouilli’s theorem. Hacking (1975: 156–59) puts the point in the following terms. Bernouilli’s theorem licenses the claim that much more often than not, a small interval around the sample frequency will include the true population frequency. In other words, it is highly probable in the sense of “usually right” to say that the sample matches its population. But this does not imply that the proposition that a small interval around the sample will contain the true population frequency is highly probable in the sense of “credible on each occasion of use”. This would mean that for any given sample, it is highly credible that the sample matches its population. It is quite compatible with the claim that it is “usually right” that the sample matches its population to say that there are some samples which do not match their populations at all. Thus one cannot conclude from Bernouilli’s theorem that for any given sample frequency, we should assign high probability to the proposition that a small interval around the sample frequency will contain the true population frequency. But this is exactly the slide that Williams makes in the final step of his argument. Maher (1996) argues in a similar fashion that the last step of the Williams-Stove argument is fallacious. In fact, if one wants to draw conclusions about the probability of the population frequency given the sample frequency, the proper way to do so is by using the Bayesian method described in the previous section. But, as we there saw, this requires the assignment of prior probabilities, and this explains why many people have thought that the combinatorial solution somehow illicitly presupposed an assumption like the principle of indifference. The Williams-Stove argument does not in fact give us an alternative way of inverting the probabilities which somehow bypasses all the issues that Bayesians have faced.

In simpler terms, it has been objected that this response to the problem of induction incorrectly assumes that the sample distribution matches the population distribution. That is, it incorrectly assumes that what we have observed is representative of some sort of universal law. Which is in fact precisely the thing that we are trying to prove. Presumably, the proponents of this solution would argue that in general, we assume that a sample is drawn randomly unless we have any reason to suspect otherwise unless we can demonstrate a bias. But that’s not necessarily true, often sampling measures come under scrutiny and must demonstrate their random methodology.

I think this solution is stronger than the previous one, however.

Perhaps in the future, we will consider more solutions to the problem of induction, but here I have presented the most common one and one that I think is quite interesting.

Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age

Many of you will have noticed that I reference the book A Secular Age by Charles Taylor quite regularly. Outside of scripture, no other book has been more influential in shaping my thinking about the Western world. Where we are, how we got here, what it means, and where we’re going.

If for some reason you don’t feel like spending 4 months digging through this 900 page tome, then there is an alternative that I haven’t read myself, but some of my friends recommend. From James Smith, the author of You Are What you Love, it is a summary of Taylor, containing many of his most important ideas, and it seems to attempt to make them explicitly and directly relevant to the Christian apologist. I also believe that Smith is Reformed, which always wins points in my book.

If those are too hard (and I strongly encourage you to take one of those two options, even as audiobooks or something) then I have found a reasonably good series of YouTube videos, they seem to be recordings of a philosophy class at a university discussing the book. They are not an alternative, but they may be helpful.

Charles Taylor on the Nature of Modern Atheism

…the prospect that religion might disappear under the forces of scientific refutation is abandoned, but the prediction that in humanity’s search for meaning in the future, religious answers will be relegated to the margins

But religion as a whole dissapear or be marginalized in this fashion? At first sight, there seems to be a difficulty with this, in that the very self-understanding of unbelief, that whereby it can present itself as mature, courageous, as a conquest over the temptations of childishness, dependence, or lesser fortitude, requires that we remain aware of the vanquished enemy, of the obstacles which have to be climbed over, of the dangers which still await those whose brave self-responsibility falters. Faith has to remain a possibility, or else the self-valorizing understanding of atheism flounders. Imagining that faith must just disappear is imagining a fundamentally different form of non-faith, one quite unconnected to identity. It would be one in which it would be as indifferent and unconnected to my selse of my ethical predicament that I have no faith, as it is today that I don’t believe, for instance, in phlogiston or natural places. This I suppose is something like what Bruce is predicting

Religion remains ineradicably on the horizon of areligion, and vice versa. This is another indication that the “official story” needs to be understood on a deeper level, as I have been suggesting above.

Something to think about as we engage with our atheist friends, especially those of the New Atheist tradition. It is always good to try to understand the deeper motivations and frameworks of the debates that we have, as well as critically evaluating arguments. We are not just out to win minds, but hearts.

All Religions are the Same: Secular Propoganda

We’ve all heard it before. It’s not really even an argument, just a rhetorical flourish. “All religions are basically the same”, says the atheist. They don’t even intend to argue for this point, they assume everyone will agree with them, and this is, in fact, the premise of their (normally implicit) argument that atheism is superior to religion. And of course, we might just chalk this up to the endemic ignorance that characterizes the New Atheist movement. But I think that there is actually a deeper and more insidious reason why this particular piece of ignorance is so prevalent.

Secularism is founded on what Charles Taylor calls “subtraction narratives”. The idea that religion and silly superstition were holding us back, and once we threw off these burdens and broke free from these chains, we were able to pursue science, rationalism, and humanism. That merely subtracting religion creates a secular person, a scientist and a rationalist and a humanist. Or at the societal level, once we stopped spending all our time worrying about religion and started actually thinking about the real world, we were able to produce the Enlightenment. Religion only holds us back and represses us, and once it is gone we advance.

This is, of course, a false narrative. In reality, the turn from Christendom to the secular age was not one of subtraction, but substitution. We didn’t lose a worldview of religion, we substituted an enchanted worldview for a disenchanted one, a theistic one for an atheistic one, a communal one for an individualistic one, etc. For a fuller treatment, read Taylor’s A Secular Age. But the point is this: we didn’t strip back the religion to find the bare “secular” man ready to be a humanist. Religion was replaced with a secular worldview, with humanism, with another set of values and presuppositions.

The secularist, now embedded in this new worldview (which is often naively accepted and never questioned) must now build a narrative of progress. And in this narrative of progress we contrast the regressive religion with the enlightened secularism. This is what motivates the grouping of all religions together: to maintain their worldview, the secularist has to see all religions as fundamentally the same, so that secularism can be fundamentally different from each, and fundamentally better. A sign of progress of humanity.

But in reality, secularism is just another worldview. It’s not fundamentally different to a “religious” worldview, and in fact I’d call it a religious worldview itself. It attempts to situate us in the world with grand narratives of progress and humanism (as opposed to grand narratives of salvation and redemption), it provides its own set of values and doctrines which can’t be questioned. It even gives a “sacred order” from which we derive a “social order” (see: Rieff’s Deathworks). But the secularist can’t accept that secularism is one competing religion among many, and must find some way to make it fundamentally different.

The truth is that not all religions are the same. They differ not only in doctrine or history, but in values, in the kinds of community or society they create, etc. Some religions are implicitly hostile to what we today think of as science, while one religion (Christianity) gave birth to science. Only a Christian worldview can give rise to something like science, while a Buddhist worldview cannot. For a fuller treatment, see Rodney Stark’s The Victory of Reason. Some religions lead to ethical treatment of minorities and disadvantaged groups, some do not. Some religions lead to societies governed for the welfare of the citizens, and some do not.

Look at all the secular values that I have appealed to there: science, humanism, rationalism, equality. The reason I do this is to point out that even from a secular point of view, treating all religions as fundamentally the same is foolish and ignorant. But of course the secularist has deep pressure to remain ignorant and foolish here, because part of the narrative of their religion requires that all other religions are the same.


Saturday Links 18/8/18

Modern Culture – A Sickness Unto Death

“A Theological Sickness Unto Death – Philip Rieff’s Prophetic Analysis of our Secular Age” is the title of a paper published in TGC’s Themelios journal. I have read Rieff’s My Life Among the Deathworks and am working my way through the related A Secular Age by Charles Taylor. For evangelists and apologists wondering what is going on in our culture, and wanting to survey the cultural landscape in order to better strategise our evangelism and apologetics, this article may be helpful.

In Rieff’s view, therapeutic ideology, rather than Communism, was the real revolution of the twentieth century. Compared to Freud, the neo-Marxists were cultural conservatives who still believed in the notion of authority and the idea of a cultural code. The proponents of Freudian therapeutics, on the other hand, would not countenance authoritative frameworks and normative moral codes. In a therapeutic culture, authority disappears. In place of theology and ethics, we are left with aesthetics and the social sciences. Thus, therapeutic culture was born. This tradeoff would turn out to be so destructive that Rieff would describe the United States and Western Europe (rather than the Soviet Union) as the epicenter of Western cultural deformation.

In contrast to the first and second world cultures whose social order is undergirded by a world beyond the visible and a moral authority beyond the self, third world cultures (contemporary Western cultures) sever the connection between sacred order and social order, limiting the “real” world to the visible and locating moral authority in the self. Similarly, whereas each of the first two worlds sought to construct identity vertically from above, our third world rejects the vertical in favor of constructing identity horizontally from below. Rieff knew the result of this rejection would be nihilism: “Where there is nothing sacred, there is nothing.

The construction of a fourth world will involve a recovery of sacred order and, by extension, recoveries of revelation and authority, and of transcendent meaning and morality. Recoveries such as this do not enact themselves; they await a people who will speak and act responsibly. This fourth world “people,” Rieff argues, must articulate and embody seemingly defunct notions of truth and virtue, a formidable task in our radically disenchanted and morally permissive third world culture. Nonetheless, in spite of the formidable challenges posed by third world order, there are already cracks in the foundations; although it once seemed liberating to fire God from his post and live without limits, the third world will soon realize that a world without boundaries is a frightening—not a freeing—place. Thus, a responsible people must arise to manifest the beauty of the “thou shalt” and “thou shalt not.”