Modern Philosophy

The Ultimate Content of The Human Will: Annihilation of the Self

How Michael Schur’s “The Good Place” Tackles Prominent Problems of History of Philosophy

I was to a considerable degree skeptical when a very close friend of mine suggested at the end of last summer that I should “definitely check” this Netflix Show about “afterlife”, called “The Good Place”, which apparently had a moral philosophy professor as one of its characters (something my friend thought would interest me) and occasional references to Immanuel Kant (something that would surely interest me since I am what they call a “Kantian freak”) . I am not a “moral philosopher” nor I am absolutely convinced there should be one, meaning I tend to agree with Aristotle who claims that deliberating about possible courses of actions is a way of thinking that is not peculiar to philosophy, since that sort of thinking is about particulars, and philosophy thinks not about what is particular but about the general, the concept. Philosophy asks for instance “what is justice?” and sets out to inquire about the limits of this concept and tries to come up with a solid answer or rather a “firm standing point” (“episteme” in Greek). The person, on the other hand, who is thinking about particulars or deliberating about matters that can be one way or another, is doing a different kind of thinking, which cannot be righteously called “philosophical”. Aristotle named the person who partakes from the latter kind of thinking phronimos (the one who has practical wisdom) and thought that only when the philosopher provided her “what is general” meaning the definition of certain concepts  -and also when she has enough experience in particular things- she would be able to discern about actions, and finally aim at the right or the just action. That is the reason why I do not consider discussions about the “Trolley Problem” for example philosophical since they pertain to thinking about practical matters, i.e. different courses of actions, and thinking about actions always requires a real event: something that has really happened, not a “thought experiment”. I was quite convinced and -apparently to a certain extent prejudicially so- that the show would include many things I would not give my assent to philosophically but by December 2020, I let my guard down and decided to hop in. In the pilot episode in which we are introduced to “the good place” we are told by the demon-architect played by Ted Danson that even Mozart is in “the bad place”, i.e. in hell. (Ted Danson is one main reason why I kept watching the show for in whatever scene he appears, he acts as if he is teaching how to act at the same time. His gestures, moves, his articulation and tone of voice make one think that these are parts of an actual drama lesson.) Later in the same episode in what is supposed to be a welcoming party for newcomers to heaven, we hear in the background a short tune being played from Mozart’s Zauberflöte (“Der Vogelfänger bin Ich ja!”). The fact that Mozart was in hell while his music was being played in heaven did not intensify my initial skepsis about the show as it should have probably, but I thought there could be something to it and I nevertheless continued watching.

The Magic Flute – ‘Der Vogelfanger bin Ich ja’ (Mozart; Roderick Williams)

I did even find out that there was an episode entirely dedicated to the “Trolley Problem” but even that did not upset me much, for problems posed by contemporary analytic philosophy were by no means elaborated in a vague or naïve way by the show. They were being dealt with rigorously (Kudos to the writers and the brilliant philosophers who counselled them.) Even though it did not represent a way of philosophizing I would generally follow or prefer, I sincerely enjoyed the topics and the problems covered by “The Good Place”. However, as I kept watching and neared the end, I stumbled upon something that was not openly discussed as a philosophical problem under a distinct heading but something in the plot that indeed took my attention as a theoretical philosophical matter: the problem concerning the faculty of “will”. What is peculiar about the faculty of will is that, it only became “popular” later in the Middle Ages and Modern Philosophy, with the particular efforts of philosophers like Don Scotus, Descartes, Spinoza and finally Kant. These philosophers attached the will an importance almost impossible to find in ancient Greek philosophy. For instance Descartes claimed in his Meditations on First Philosophy that it was with respect to the faculty of will (“voluntas” in Latin) that we could be said to resemble God. “We were created in his image” actually meant for Descartes that not any other faculty (not sensation, imagination, memory, not even the understanding or reason) in us but only this one, namely the will was truly godly. It is true for him that for everything we have in us as an effect, we should seek a direct or indirect cause in God (or rather him as a cause), but almost every faculty we happen to find in ourselves is -with regard to its possibilities- a limited version of what God had in itself. It was only this one faculty in us, he claimed, namely the will, which was no different than its godly counterpart. Of course, God had a much wider spectrum of objects, meaning his choice of objects was boundless, also the power attached to his will was much greater: we certainly couldn’t but he could do as he will, but “formally and eminently” Descartes says, our will and God’s will do not differ. This is actually a turning-point in the history of philosophy for long before Early Modern Philosophy (and its true background the Middle Ages), the Ancient Greeks, especially Plato and Aristotle considered that it could be nothing else in us but reason (“nous” in Greek) that made us look occasionally godlike or that which could be considered godly. Attaching the faculty of will a higher importance reaches a secular peak in Kant, who claims that the will when determined by reason (“Vernunft” in German) but not by the Understanding (“Verstand”) becomes the “pure will” or “the good will”. This pure will, according to him is what gives us our true value and it is on account this faculty that our true dignity as human beings finally appears.

Meditationes de Prima Philosophia

To go back to the show, as events unfold we find out that our characters are not in fact in the good place but this seemingly blissful environment is actually a version of the bad place specially tailored to torture them. From then on it is a matter of getting to the real good place once and for all for all of them, and in order to achieve that, they work on those morally problematic sides or attitudes that brought them in the bad place in the first place. However, once a place is secured for all of our characters in the actual good place, and after the initial ecstasy over the prospect of “eternal happiness” cools down, they realize that the residents of heaven that settled long before them seem bleak, without lust for any action or contemplation. Even Hypatia of Alexandria, the Neo-Platonist philosopher whom we are really happy to discover to be in the “Good Place” seems she has lost her course, doing nothing but indulging in perfect heaven-made milkshakes, unsure whether the sign on her T-shirt is a number or a letter. What has left even one of the sharpest minds that has ever lived on the planet dull is that, after a certain point, the faculty called “will” does not stretch out for an object anymore, it is only there formally but materially it is empty, it has no content. It has been determined so many times in the course of so many years or “Bearimies” (The show informs us that time according to us is different than time in the afterlife which is amusingly called “Jeremy Bearimy”.) that it reached a point where it can no longer be determined, meaning it cannot have an object anymore. The problem with this is that when the will has no object, we human beings simply stop pursuing (or running away from) things. 

When the will is thus saturated, a state of inertness takes place in the mind and other faculties which interact with the will become idle gradually. Once the will cannot perform its task and can no longer be determined, there is no use left for any other faculty in us. Reason, understanding, imagination fade. Even sensation is left bare since there is no recognition under concepts: we cannot even tell the difference between numbers and letters when we sense-perceive them.

Our characters having observed this dormant state of heaven residents and probably not wanting to end-up like them decide to introduce some alterations to the afterlife and that’s when they come up with the idea of offering them one final matter of deliberation, namely to annihilate themselves “whenever they are ready”, shut down all bits of cognition: sensation, perception, apperception, imagination, memory, understanding, reason, every mental function or reception you can think of. Thrilled by this new object of deliberation, residents of afterlife one by one decide to annihilate themselves. They deliberate the option and they finally reach out for it. It is for the last time that their will is determined and they stretch themselves out towards something: their own end.

 The saturation of the will after so many “Bearimies” and wishes fulfilled is described by the residents of the good place as “a calm washing over” them, and that’s when they start deliberating the option of annihilation. And they eventually act on that final choice or what can be called the ultimate content of the human will: to put an end to its very self.

Apparently, when what Descartes describes as godlike in us namely the will finally fulfills its purpose and reaches its end, one decides to dismantle it, and along with it and starting from it every other faculty that is directly or indirectly related to it. However, if the choice is not among our options, then as faculties stop functioning, a general inertia settles in and we lose the Self anywise eventually.

“The Good Place” not only makes you contemplate about fundamental epistemological questions, it also lets you imagine and feel how the possibility of endless determinations of the will could turn out for the human mind and disposition.

–Lale Levin Basut