"The Good Place", Brain-uploading, and Eschatology
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***Warning: Massive spoilers for The Good Place ahead. If you don’t want to be spoiled don’t read this post.***
The Good Place recently ended after four seasons. The show was praised for its various twists, and it’s “exploration and creative use of ethics and philosophy”. But of course it was also a show about eschatology, in fact it may be argued that this was it’s primary subject matter. Given this focus it’s reasonable and even important to examine the nature of the eschatology it espoused. There are of course a wide variety of imagined eschatologies out there, and numerous definitions of the word itself beyond that. So what was The Good Place’s contribution to this topic?
Before answering that question we first need to set some parameters for the discussion. To begin with, I want to discuss this subject in a very practical fashion. Obviously, despite my argument that the show’s primary theme was eschatology, that wasn’t the show’s purpose. It’s purpose was to entertain, and as such it was far more interested in taking a humorous look at a potential afterlife than it was in taking a serious and consistent approach to things. On the other hand, I would like to set aside the humorous bits and strip away things which are present only for their entertainment value, but in order to accomplish this I need to do two things:
First, while a large part of this post will be dedicated to pointing out the various flaws I noticed in the show’s handling of how an afterlife might work. I need to make it clear that this should not be construed as an attack on the show, or any indication that I didn’t enjoy it or that you won’t enjoy it. In particular I don’t want people to be distracted by defending the show, as I said the show’s purpose was to be entertaining, not philosophically rigorous. And as a sitcom it was one of the best, but it did propose an eschatology, and it’s worth examining whether that eschatology hangs together.
Second, in order for those flaws to have any resonance, we have to be willing to imagine that we’re critiquing something which might actually exist, that there might, in fact, be an afterlife, and additionally that there might be god-like beings in charge of that afterlife, or at least something supernatural about how it’s put together. Otherwise any discussion of how it should work, and how that might be different than how it worked on the show, will be, at best superficial, and at worst, entirely pointless. For anyone who’s religious, imagining an afterlife and the supernatural qualities which would have to attend such a place, is easy. But I don’t want to rely too much on religion (though I can’t avoid it entirely) because it will inevitably be off-putting for those who are not religious, or who belong to a different denomination than those I ended up using in my examples.
Fortunately, this is an ideal place to bring in my extensive work imagining how certain religious ideas (including the afterlife) resemble ideas for dealing with AI risk. Meaning, that for those who aren’t religious, rather than imagining what happens or should happen to the souls of the departed, we can imagine the eschatology associated with AIs or, their close cousins, individuals who have had their brain uploaded into a virtual environment where the natural rules don’t apply (an environment which is supernatural by definition.) Obviously, I’m not going to want to type out that entire explanation every time I refer to these individuals, so instead I’ll just use Robin Hanson’s shorthand and call them Ems. Presumably even those who are not religious can imagine that someday we might develop the ability to construct (or reconstruct) a person in a virtual environment, and thereby realize a technological eschatology. And considering how that environment should work gets us to an afterlife or at least a “heaven” very similar to one imagined by many religions and by The Good Place itself.
Having hopefully given everyone a little more skin in the game on this topic, let’s proceed to our examination of what The Good Place got right, but probably more importantly what it got wrong about eschatology and potential afterlifes.
Let’s start with one of the very first things I noticed, and one of the elements the show mangled the most. To repeat, I’m sure they made things this way for entirely understandable reasons, it was both comedic and necessary for the character arcs of nearly all the people on the show. But, their representation of the “Good Place Committee” (GPC) represented a fundamental and almost insulting misunderstanding of the nature of good. I am assuming that most of those reading this had a chance to see the show, but if not, in the show, after people die, they can go either to the “Good Place” or the “Bad Place” and there isn’t much to distinguish these two places from common conceptions of heaven and hell, so I’ll be using the terms interchangeably.
Heaven is run by a committee, and apparently in this version of the world being good (or at least qualified to run the Good Place) comprises a combination of fawning politeness with absolute and total ineffectiveness. This seems clearly to be one of those things that was done the way it was for both the humor value and as a way to give the main characters something to do because certainly this bears no resemblance to the theology of any of the world’s religions, and even if we imagine that the “souls” in question are Ems and that humans are running the show rather than an omniscient creator it’s still impossible to imagine that the best governing structure they could come up with is the committee from the show (or any committee for that matter.)
Of course this leads to the question of what sort of people we should expect to be running or even just inhabiting heaven. And here I will allow that it’s a difficult question. One of the chief lessons to come out of recent philosophical work on AI risk has been the realization that coming up with a fool proof standard for morality is both enormously important and enormously difficult. That defining an objective, and it should be added, secular standard for what’s good and what’s not is a challenging task. But even with those difficulties in mind I think we should at least expect that any morality worthy of the name has to have some backbone to it, that this is in fact almost the definition of morality. And while, as I said, there were probably several good reasons for portraying it the way they did, I also wonder if they could have portrayed it in any other way, and if equating being obsequious for being good was the only way to not get overly political.
(It should be noted it’s not just the GPC, in the show the paragon of “virtue” on the earth, Doug Forcett is also a gigantic pushover.)
I feel like this was not always the case, that there was a time when you could have pointed to a society-wide morality, and that being able to draw on a more robust morality would have allowed them to construct a far more convincing heaven (can you imagine what the Good Place would have looked like in the 1920’s?) but that such universality is no longer present. All that said, perhaps I’m reading too much into things, but at its most essential when anyone imagines heaven and hell you always imagine a war existing between the two. In the show it’s clear that the Bad Place is waging such a war against the Good Place, which the Good Place has been losing for centuries, apparently without even noticing it, or having the ability to fight back if they had. And it’s hard to imagine that any functional organization, much less one designed to be the ultimate ideal, could ever be that inept. But it makes you wonder, is there any chance that this is a reflection of our own failings in this area? Because it gets worse.
In the final few episodes we find out that not only have the effective “rulers of heaven” been too polite and willing to compromise and that they are losing a war with Hell they don’t even seem to be aware of, but on top of all this they’re actually terrible at running heaven. Somehow they have managed to create another version of hell, which is so bad that when it’s announced to those souls who’ve made it to heaven that they will be allowed to effectively commit suicide in order to leave, they cheer, and it’s implied that it’s the first cheer that’s been heard there in hundreds if not thousands of years.
Here is where we turn to the things The Good Place did well. To begin with they tackle head-on the question of whether immortality would be a blessing or a curse. This idea that immortality might get old (pun intended) is one of the more interesting philosophical topics the show tackles, and a serious subject for debate among actual philosophers. One of the reasons to favor the idea that it’s a curse (which ends up being the show’s position) is illustrated by the pseudo-hell of boredom the characters find when they arrive in the Good Place. A boredom so soul-crushing that even with access to anything they could possibly imagine suicide seems preferable. Certainly claiming that regardless of how good it was, that one would eventually tire of life is not an unreasonable position to take, but neither does it feel particularly creative either. Regardless, one assumes that the GPC still could have done a better job of dealing with that boredom than they did, but if we keep our same basic emotions and appetites, even after having our brain uploaded into a virtual heaven, then boredom would still probably be a real concern. It should be mentioned that Hanson cleverly solves this problem for Ems by running them at a lower speed. As I said the “immortality is a curse” option is reasonable, but surely we can imagine ways to change that.
To flip it around and look at what people might want rather than what they’re trying to avoid, any system like this would, in theory, be trying to maximize human flourishing. One of my readers recently pointed me to an article where the Royal Society suggested that future technological systems should have “promote human flourishing” as their primary imperative. And The Good Place does a great job of illustrating how this is much easier said than done.
For all of the characters in the show it quickly becomes obvious that even in heaven in order to be happy, that is to flourish, they need to have a work to do, something to occupy their attention. It’s not clear if this is an innovation introduced by the main characters or if all the previous inhabitants of the Good Place have exhausted this avenue before they arrive, but you get the impression it’s the former. And it illustrates another failure mode of heaven and immortality, the hedonic treadmill. If you give people everything they’ve ever wanted, the increased happiness is temporary. (The classic example is lottery winners.) That along with rewards there has to be continual challenges. And it occurs to me that beyond being interesting dilemmas, boredom and a hedonic set point are problems we’re already facing without having to imagine a heaven, virtual or otherwise.
It’s something of a cliche to talk about how in a developed country even relatively poor people live better than the kings of old. And while the situation is more complicated than that, it’s remarkable how much the modern world already resembles the Good Place of the show. One of the characters, Jason, apparently wants to play Madden forever. Well it’s my understanding that you can already do that. It probably helps if your parents let you live in their basement, or if you’ve got some other minimal level of support (I don’t think it takes that much. UBI or disability might be sufficient.) But that is something that’s already within reach and is probably just going to get easier. But is it flourishing? Are we sure we know what flourishing is? One of the whole points of the show is that no one, even in the afterlife, actually does.
Hovering in the background of the show, but never mentioned, is the question of a designer. And while this part ends up being the most metaphysical, it’s also the part I find the most interesting. In most mythologies, or theologies, or even most systems in general, there’s a very prominent creation story. In Greek mythology there’s Gaia and Uranus. For the Abrahamic religions there’s Adam and Eve. For Facebook there’s Mark Zuckerberg in his dorm room. But The Good Place pays almost no attention to any sort of “origin story”.
The closest we come is to find out that the Judge can destroy creation, and then reset it, but the “demons” running the Bad Place are not affected by this destruction so they exist outside of creation? But beyond this, the list of things we don’t know is staggering. Who created the point system? Why is there a point system? Who’s the judge? Where do the GPC and the Demons come from? And those are just questions directly relating to the show. There are still all the normal questions of why suffering and evil exist. What is the point of having a hell? And what is the source of morality?
In the end it definitely feels that there had to be a designer, whatever else you may say about things they definitely don't feel organic. It seems clear from the show that someone came along and set all of this up, the point system, the existence of a Bad Place and a Good Place. The angels and the demons had to come from somewhere as well. But apparently whoever this person was, despite being effectively omnipotent, they don’t appear to have been omniscient, or even particularly wise. I’ve already talked about the various issues with the committee that runs the Good Place, but more than that the central premise of the show is revealing how poorly designed the afterlife actually is.
This is yet another similarity with our own condition. Being omnipotent without being omniscient or even very wise is not that far off from describing our own situation. Particularly if we’re ever able to upload our consciousness into a rules free virtual environment. How concerned should we be by this mismatch? If there’s one actual lesson to be taken from the show, it might be that we should be very concerned. And it actually works from both directions, in addition to showing a heaven where no one is actually happy, the show begins with the premise that, despite having infinite power to inflict torture on humans, they’re apparently looking for better ways of making them suffer as well. And part of the genius of the show is that both ring true, both happiness and misery end up being more complicated than expected, and being omnipotent is not the same as being omnicompetent.
Obviously drawing a direct connection between a TV show and hypothetical future technology is of very limited utility, but I would argue that the utility is not zero. We’ve had the ability to satisfy our appetites beyond anything our ancestors imagined for quite some time (see my episodes on supernormal stimuli) and thus far the best we can say is that results have been mixed. And while we’re definitely going to get better at satisfying our appetites, it’s not clear that we’re going to get any better at managing the outcome of that.
We’re quick to imagine that if we ever get to the point where we can upload our brains into a virtual world of our own devising, crafted in such a way that our wildest dreams become reality, that all our problems will be solved. And if it’s not exactly this scenario there are still a lot of people with the same basic eschatology as the show: There’s a Good Place out there and we need to get to it. But just like the characters, there’s some chance that when we get there, it will turn out that it’s not as straightforward as we thought. And to the extent that we’re already there this is becoming increasingly obvious.
As those of you who have watched the show know. There’s also a Medium Place, inhabited by exactly one individual. And despite being only one person out of billions and despite being deeply flawed, this person exercised disproportionate influence on the rest of “creation”. I’m guessing there’s some lesson in there about the power we all have, but mostly I’m just making the connection that there was one person in the Medium Place and there’s one person writing this blog, so donate, I guess?