Knowledge and Happiness Pumps, “Don’t Let the Good Life Pass You By” (S3E9) Feb. 16 2022 Strange Lounge Main Hall

Join us Wednesday, February 16th at 4:30pm in the Strange Lounge in Main hall for the next installment of the Strange Thing!

In this episode, Michael and Janet visit Doug Forcett, played by Michael McKean. Doug is described in the series as the first and only human being to discover the point system for getting into the Good Place. They are visiting him to determine how our main protagonists should act in order to get into the Good Place. I’d like to explore a couple of general directions of inquiry, though I would be interested to hear about any other issues that stuck out to you as well.

One question I had is: Does Doug know that the system to get into the Good Place is what it is? He is described as having been the only human begin to have ‘discovered’ it. But he formed the belief while high in the 70s, seemingly out of thin air. And they don’t mention that he ever got corroboration. But without such corroboration, it is not clear to me where his motivation comes from to abide by the system as exactly as he does. Indeed, knowing that one has ingested a mind-altering drug is a classic sort of circumstance often used to provide us with reason to doubt the beliefs we form during that time, however true they may seem to us at that time. So not only might Doug not know about the system, he may actually have reason to doubt that the system is the way he thinks it is.

Putting issues concerning Doug’s epistemic position aside, Doug is described as a happiness (or utility) pump, since, in an effort to maximize his chances of getting into the Good Place, he does everything he can to make others happy to accrue as many points as possible. This involves him living in such a way that he leaves as small a carbon footprint as possible, and participates in the morally repugnant supply chains of modern society as little as possible. It also involves him doing whatever the local teen sociopath (or anyone) tells him to do. The idea of a happiness pump has been raised as a criticism of utilitarianism, the view that what is right is what maximizes overall happiness. I thought it would be worth discussing why a happiness pump poses a problem for utilitarianism, and whether it is an effective criticism of the view. Of course I’d also like to discuss “story-internal” questions like, “Is Doug’s way of life enough to get him into the Good Place, especially given that his motivations might be corrupted due to his potential knowledge of the system for getting in?”.

Parents and Children & Determinism and Freedom of the Will, (S3E5-7) Feb. 9/22 Strange Lounge Main Hall

Join us Wednesday, February 9 at 4:30 p.m. in the Strange Lounge of Main Hall for the return of the Strange Thing. This week, we have a pair of episodes about relationships to loved ones–especially, parental relationships–and an extended philosophical discussion between Eleanor and Michael about determinism and freedom of the will. I think we should start with E7 and the discussion of freedom of the will. But, I’ll say a word about E5-6 after that, as they imply interesting issue about humanity’s natural goodness.

Episode Seven spins off of Episode Six, in which Eleanor reconnects with her mother. The emotional reunion shakes Eleanor. She ends Episode Six blaming her mom for the fact that she was never really able to experience human love. But, then, Michael says that, “In one of the reboots, you and Chidi fell in love…deeply, and you told him that you loved him, and he told you that he loved you back.” Episode Seven opens with Michael and Eleanor having wandered into a public library, because they need somewhere quiet for the Earthly Eleanor to experience memories of her afterlife (and, as Michael says, “there’s no place more deserted than a public library in Arizona.”) Eleanor views her afterlife memories. There are some side-effects.

Side Effects of Viewing Afterlife Memories

Eleanor’s reaction to these afterlife memories is to believe all of her actions are deteremined. This leads to a long debate between Eleanor and Michael, which focuses on determinism and freedom of the will, but also touches on divine foreknowledge. Eleanor helpfully finds a philosophy book on the shelves and reads the definition of determinism, as “the theory that we have no control over our own actions. Everything we do happens because of some external force beyond our control.” We might–perhaps equivalently (perhaps not)–define determinism instead as the thesis that the entirety of the facts that are true of the universe at T1 fully determine the entirety of facts that are true of the universe at T2. Given T1, T2 could not have been otherwise. Eleanor has become enamored of this view and Michael–a divine, eternal being–attempts to argue her out of it. A few philosophical thesis other than determinism come up during their debate.

Incompatibalism: Incompatibalism is the position that determinism and human freedom are incompatible. It holds that if determinism is true, we are not free. Eleanor, at least, seems to be assuming incompatibilism. But are determinism and free will really incompatible?

Divine Foreknowledge: An important component of Michael’s argument that Eleanor has free will rests on the idea that she surprised him, a divine being, who (I think we are to presume) has special foreknowledge. For example, Eleanor surprised Michael by admitting she belonged in the bad place, back in Season 1. But is divine foreknowledge incompatible with freedom of the will? Our could God create us, know everything we are going to do in our entire life before creating us, and yet us still be free? Does divine foreknowledge entail determinism or are the two independent?

Freedom of the Will: Most generally, Michael and Eleanor’s discussion might prompt us to ask what is it to act freely? If we are incompatibilists, then we hold that we are not free if we are determined. Some incompatibilists–called hard determinists–hold that determinism is true, and so we lack free will. Other incompatibilists–called libertarians–hold that determinism is false; we have free will. But some philosophers, such as David Hume, are soft-determinists who hold the compatibilist position that determinism is true and yet we are free. Which of these positions seems most plausible to you? What arguments might you deploy to defend it?

In addition to this discussion of determinism, I was struck by the three vignettes involving family that comprise the bulk of episodes 5 and 6. Parents weigh heavily in these episodes: Jason reconnects with Donkey Doug, who has been in prison many times, once for selling “counterfeit truck nuts”. Tahani and Kamilah bond over their shared psychological trauma, wrought by their parents. And Eleanor confronts Donna Shellstrop, the mother she believed dead, but who had simply faked her own death and started a new life in Nevada. Both Tahani and Eleanor express, at some point, the sentiment that at least some of their own moral short-comings in life are due to their parents. This resonates with the foregoing considerations about determinism and free will. But, it also raises questions about the natural goodness of human beings. To what extent is our morality natural to us and to what extent is it the result of up-bringing? *Could* children, who were never instructed about morality nor were the subjects of moral reprimand by parents (or society in general) grow into moral adults? Or, is moral training in childhood required to get moral adults? What sorts of arguments might lead us to one conclusion or the other? Here’s a possibility: If morality is dependent on cultural influence, then we might expect to see different moral codes in different cultures. Do we? Here’s another: If our morality is, at least in part, natural to us, then we might expect to see strong repulsive reactions to immoral acts. Do we?

Finally, there are some really great digs on Arizona in E7. Every establishment is used to shoot pornography after closing. The sex education section of the public library contains only the Bible. The poetry section is all Jeff Foxworthy.