The Good Place


I’ve been watching The Good Place. It’s a silly sitcom centered around a morally horrible girl who dies and goes to “the good place” (heaven) rather than “the bad place” (hell). She soon realizes someone must’ve made a huge mistake because she obviously doesn’t belong in the good place.

The show’s idea of who goes to the good place is based on simplistic merit. People get points for the good they did on earth and points subtracted for the bad they did. At the end of their lives, the points are tallied up. If their points are high enough, then they go to the good place. Otherwise, the bad place. The show’s idea of what constitutes positive points happens to be things like raising millions for charitable organizations, being a Buddhist monk who takes a vow of silence, being an academic who teaches and writes on ethics, etc.

By contrast, the Bible teaches no one can do anything to earn their way to heaven. The Bible teaches our most moral acts are often morally tainted (e.g. giving to charity in order to look good to others). The Bible teaches a good act doesn’t cancel out a bad act; there still needs to be forgiveness for the bad act. And the Bible teaches all have done wrong and as such deserve to go to hell.

Also, the show’s idea of religion is every religion has around 5% of the truth. It’s pluralistic. Still, the broad ideas underpinning the show seem to be Judeo-Christian based. For one thing, there’s a good place and a bad place. For another, there are angels and demons. There are architects who have designed the good and bad places. There’s an omniscient judge. And so on.

The bad place is more akin to Dante’s idea of hell than anything in the Bible. Such as demons or monsters made of fire and brimstone torturing people.

Major spoiler alert! There’s a huge reveal: the good place wasn’t actually the good place (i.e. heaven), but the bad place (i.e. hell) made to look like the good place. What’s more, the four main characters on the show illustrate two ideas: we are our own worst enemies and hell is other people. Outwardly, the characters live in paradise. They each have beautiful homes, fancy clothing, fine dining, fun events to attend, they can do anything and everything their heart desires (e.g. flying like Superman), their every whim is instantly met. Nevertheless, they not only torture themselves (e.g. they’re wracked with guilt for various wrongs they’ve committed), but they torture one another endlessly throughout the season through sins big and small (e.g. grating peccadilloes of one person’s personality which annoy another person). What’s interesting is this is a picture of hell that’s arguably consistent with the biblical hell. End of spoiler.

In addition, The Good Place broaches classic philosophical problems. Such as the trolley problem. At best, the show is superficial in its treatment of moral and ethical dilemmas, but I guess at least there’s an attempt made to figure out how to be ethical and moral i.e. “good”.

The Good Place is a Michael Shur production. For those who don’t know him, Shur has been heavily involved in other television series. Most notably: The Office (USA), Parks and Recreation, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine. If you appreciate the humor of these shows, then you’ll most likely enjoy The Good Place‘s humor too.



Here’s Catholic philosopher Ed Feser on hylomorphism (pp 219-223 in The Philosophy of Mind):

Another possibility lies in the conception of the material world in general and of the human body in particular that Descartes, along with his materialist contemporaries, rejected in favor of mechanism: the hylomorphism associated with Aristotle (384–322 BC), St.Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274), and the schools of thought deriving from them.

The term “hylomorphism” derives from the Greek words hyle, meaning “matter,” and morphe, meaning “form,” and the central idea of the view is that a concrete substance is a composite of matter and form, and cannot properly be understood except as such. The form of a substance is its organizational structure; the matter is that which is given organizational structure by the form. (If a chair has a round seat, for example, the roundness is an aspect of the chair’s form, and the wood or plastic or whatever it is made of would constitute its matter.) Substantial form is that specific aspect of a substance’s organizational structure by virtue of which it is the kind of substance it is. (A seat’s roundness isn’t part of the substantial form of a chair – a chair could have a square seat instead, for instance, and still be a chair – but having some kind of seat would be.) Form on this view is understood in a decidedly realist way: it is abstract and universal, irreducible either to any particular material thing or to some aspect of our classificatory practices. Form exists in some sense out there, independent of our minds. Hylomorphists are generally Aristotelian rather than Platonic realists, that is, their view is that form generally exists in the substances it informs (rather than subsisting in a kind of Platonic “third realm” of the sort briefly described in chapter 3). Because a piece of matter wouldn’t be the particular thing it is without its specific form, however, hylomorphism entails that no material thing can be said to be “nothing but” a collection of particles (or whatever), after the fashion of materialistic reductionism. If form generally does not exist apart from matter, neither does matter exist without form; and thus, without grasping a material object’s form, we cannot understand it.

The fact that understanding a thing entails, in the hylomorphic view, understanding the form that makes it what it is indicates how different the view’s concept of explanation is from those of contemporary materialism and Cartesian dualism. In the classical hylomorphism of Aristotle and Aquinas, a full explanation of a material substance involves identifying at least four irreducible causal components: its material cause, its formal cause, its final cause, and its efficient cause. A heart, for example, cannot be understood except as being an organ having a certain material constitution (its material cause), as possessing a certain form or principle of organization (its formal cause), as serving a certain function – to pump blood (its final cause) – and as having been brought about by antecedents such as the genetic programming inherent in certain cells that led them to develop into a heart rather than a kidney or liver (its efficient cause). Materialism and Cartesian dualism alike eliminate formal and final causes from the explanation of material things, replacing the classical hylomorphic conception of material substances as inherently purposive composites of matter and form with a conception of them as collections of particles or the like devoid of either intrinsic purpose or objective, irreducible form, and explicable entirely in terms of efficient causation.

Living things have form no less than chairs and the like, and the form of a living thing is precisely what a hylomorphist means by the soul. There is a sense in which plants and non-human animals have souls just as human beings do (though as we’ll see, this by no means entails that they can think or continue to exist after death). The nutritive soul is the sort which informs the matter of which plants are composed, and imparts to them powers of nutrition, growth, and reproduction. The sensory soul is the kind of soul possessed by animals, and includes the powers of the nutritive soul as well as its own distinctive powers of perception, appetite, and locomotion or movement. Finally, the rational soul is the kind of soul possessed by human beings. Incorporating the powers included within the nutritive and sensory souls, it also imparts the further characteristics of intellect, will, and memory. The rational soul is the substantial form of the human body, in virtue of which human beings are what they are: rational animals. This is a very different concept of the soul from that of the Cartesian dualist, who regards it not as a substantial form – which is, in the hylomorphic view, only one aspect of a complete substance – but rather as a complete substance in its own right, devoid of material properties but nevertheless (somehow) capable of efficient causation.

There is a tendency in Cartesian thinking – though Descartes himself, contrary to popular belief, did not take this view – to regard the Cartesian res cogitans as the person, with the body being an inessential excrescence. Materialists, by contrast, often identify a person with the body, or some aspect of the body. But in the hylomorphic view, just as the form of a chair is not a chair, neither is the soul of a person a person; and just as the matter of a chair is, apart from the form a chair, not a chair, neither is a person’s body qua body a person. A person is, rather, essentially a composite of soul and body.

One consequence of this is that the disappearance of the person that seems entailed by Cartesian and reductionist accounts of personal identity is not entailed by hylomorphism. Since the soul is the substantial form of the body – of, that is, a certain material thing – there seems to be no difficulty in determining when a person’s soul is present. Just as you know that a certain object has the form of a chair just by virtue of its being a chair at all, so too you know that a person’s body is associated with the person’s soul just by virtue of its being that person’s body. The soul is present as long as the person’s body is present, for that body just wouldn’t be the body it is without the person’s soul informing it. And, contrary to reductionist views, the person isn’t reducible to some bundle of psychological or bodily characteristics. Contra Parfit in particular, there is indeed a “further fact,” over and above one’s having certain bodily and psychological traits, that constitutes being a person, just as there is a further fact over and above the existence of chair legs, a seat, and a back that constitutes a chair being a chair. It is that these various bodily and psychological traits are organized in just the way they are – that they involve a substantial form informing a certain kind of matter – that makes them a person, just as it is a chair’s various components being organized in just the precise way they are that makes them into a chair.

Another consequence of the hylomorphic view is, arguably, that there is no mystery about how soul and body get into causal contact with one another, for the soul-body relationship is just one instance of a more general relationship existing everywhere in the natural world, namely, the relationship between forms – the form of a chair, the form of a tree, the form of an animal – and the matter they organize. If this general relationship is not particularly mysterious, neither is the specific case of the relationship between soul and body. The mistake of Cartesian dualists and materialists alike, according to the hylomorphist, is to think of all causation as efficient causation. When it is allowed that there are other irreducible modes of explanation – in particular, explanation in terms of formal causation – the interaction problem disappears.

What things really exist?

I think Roger Penrose is at heart a pure mathematician. At least I suspect that’s what’s primarily driving his fascinating speculations. That’s his main “prejudice” as he puts it, I think.

Anyway, I wonder, surely a man of Penrose’s intelligence and erudition would at some point in his life have considered his three realities (the physical, the mental, the mathematical) could have their “true reality” or “deeper reality” (as he says) in “the mind of God” (to borrow a phrase from his friend Hawking)?

Instead, Penrose appears to retreat into the relationship between the three realities being ultimately that of “mystery” and “paradox”.


Jumping off this good point, if the B-theory of time is correct, then ancient cities co-exist with modern ones. Tenochtitlan co-exists with Mexico City and bombed-out WWII cities co-exist with their modern counterparts. Likewise ancient flora and fauna with modern flora and fauna. Likewise pre-modern landscapes with modern ones (e.g. forested areas with deforested areas). And so on and so forth. In short, all sorts of physical entities (e.g. people, places, animals, plants) could be present but indetectable to us.

So I suppose there’s what’s unobservable by unaided human senses but observable by instruments or other aids (e.g. subatomic particles). It’s possible we could detect more entities or phenomena that we can’t currently detect if we had better instruments or advanced technology. Yet, of course, just because we can’t presently detect certain entities or phenomena doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t exist or don’t exist until we can detect them. These could include indetectable physical entities or phenomena which have been there all along.

Related, one could formulate a plausible and reasonable theory about the existence of indetectable entities based on detectable effects. That’s what scientists have done in molecular and cellular biology (e.g. RNA, DNA, proteins, cancers) as well as particle physics (e.g. atomic and subatomic particles).

Of course, an indetectable non-physical entity or phenomena could be: the existence of other minds (e.g. the problems of p-zombies) or mathematical numbers and laws. These could exist outside the spacetime continuum too.

And even on the air waves, there are multiple signals simultaneously sent out, but typically we only tune into one of the signals. The other signals are indetectable to us, not because they don’t exist, but because we haven’t tuned into the other signals, but because we have chosen to focus on a singular signal at the exclusion of the others. Similarly with the electromagnetic spectrum. Our naked eye can detect visible (white) light in the range of 400–700 nm, but not other wavelengths. Not because other wavelengths don’t exist, but because our unaided senses aren’t able to pick them up.

Top 3 books

Cameron Bertuzzi at Capturing Christianity asked Christian philosophers and apologists to name their top 3 books for apologists to read.

No one asked me (and why should they? I’m a nobody), but here are my three anyway:

1. The God Who Is There: Finding Your Place in God’s Story (D.A. Carson). The entire Christian faith is based on the Bible. Hence the Christian apologist needs to know the Bible in order to defend the Bible and Christianity. Every Christian including every Christian apologist should master and be mastered by the word of God, our only weapon against the devil (Eph 6:10ff).

Yet so many Christians including Christian apologists don’t know their Bible very well. I suppose that’s in large part because an increasing number of Christians (myself included) have come from secular and similar backgrounds which are biblically illiterate.

In any case, I think a good way to know the main storyline of the Bible as well as its most relevant particulars, and to see the whole from the sum of its parts, is to read the Bible alongside a book of biblical theology like The God Who Is There: Finding Your Place in God’s Story. If Carson’s book isn’t enough, the book comes with a companion “Leader’s Guide” in which Carson offers further book recommendations and other aids. In addition, there’s audio as well as video for each chapter of the book (the book was based on Carson’s talks).

Of course, I could have listed books which more explicitly defend the existence of God, the argument from design, the debate over neo-Darwinism, the historical and textual reliability of the Bible, miracles in general as well as the resurrection of Christ, pro-life arguments, how to deal with various religions and cults, and many other topics in apologetics, and those are each important to understand and deploy, but for one thing I think Capturing Christianity’s apologists and philosophers already gave good recommendations. For another, these will inevitably come later if one is serious about engaging in apologetics. However, I think what’s really and truly most fundamental, yet oft-neglected, but which can’t wait to be rectified later, is knowing the Bible like the back of one’s hand and falling in love with its story of redemption and ultimately its divine author. It’s easy for Christian apologists to overlook or hasten past this aspect, hence my placement of it here.

We don’t wish to end up like the person Dr. David Martyn Lloyd-Jones described in his Spiritual Depression: Its Causes and Its Cures (p 57):

There were people then whose only interest in the gospel was their interest in theological problems; and they argued about them and discussed them. Their minds were very much engaged; this was their intellectual hobby and interest. But the tragedy was that it stopped at that interest, and their hearts had never been touched. Not only was there an absence of the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ in their lives but there was often an absence of the ordinary milk of human kindness. Those men would argue and almost fight about particular doctrines, but they were often hard men to approach. You would never go to them if you were in trouble; you felt that they would neither understand nor sympathize. Still worse, the truth they were so interested in was not at all applied in their lives; it was something confined to their studies. It did not touch their conduct or behaviour at all, but was confined entirely to the mind. Obviously they were bound, sooner or later, to get into difficulty and to become unhappy. Have you ever seen a man like that facing the end of his life? Have you seen him when he can no longer read, or when he is on his death-bed? I have seen one or two and I do not want to see another. It is a terrible thing when a man reaches that point when he knows that he must die, and the gospel which he has argued about and reasoned about and even ‘defended’ does not seem to help him because it has never gripped him.

In the end, we are a people of the Book, by the Book, and for the Book, all thanks to the One who scribed the Book and who continues to scribe the lives of his people in his book: “all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be” (Psa 139:16). In the end, it’s all about knowing the word of God and knowing the God of the word, and making him and his word known.

2. The Character of Physical Law (Richard Feynman). One can likewise watch videos of these lectures on which the book is based. In fact, I believe the book is an edited transcript of these lectures. At any rate, Feynman gets to the heart of what science is or should be all about in these lectures.

I don’t agree with all his presuppositions, and some of what he says is dated, but the core is still relevant and readily accessible to most people everywhere, even those without a scientific background, I think. In addition, Feynman himself had amazing physical intuition, a nose like a bloodhound which sniffs out the truth, and it shines through in this book.

I recommend this for would-be Christian apologists because the scientific endeavor is a black box for many if not most Christian apologists, but it really shouldn’t be. Anyone can learn to “think” like how scientists think (e.g. critical thinking in science overlaps with critical thinking in general). Anyone can learn to “do” science too. There’s nothing particularly special about it. (Likewise mathematical thinking and mathematics.)

So, in a sense, this book is like a philosophy of science in that it teaches people what science is, how to think about science, and so on – at least from Feynman’s perspective, which is a good foundational perspective to have, even if one eventually moves on from it. But we all have to start somewhere.

3. Musica Mundana (Steve Hays). A fine instance of Christian apologetics as fiction. As C.S. Lewis has noted:

I thought I saw how stories of this kind could steal past a certain inhibition which had paralysed much of my own religion in childhood. Why did one find it so hard to feel as one was told one ought to feel about God or the sufferings of Christ? I thought the chief reason was that one was told one ought to. An obligation to feel can freeze feelings. And reverence itself did harm. The whole subject was associated with lowered voices; almost as if it were something medical. But supposing that by casting all these things into an imaginary world, stripping them of their stained-glass and Sunday School associations, one could make them for the first time appear in their real potency? Could one not thus steal past those watchful dragons? I thought one could.

3. Am I cheating if I announce there’s a tie for #3? I’d say one could insert a number of Christian biographies and autobiographies here as well. A pair of recent biographies or rather autobiographies in these cases that I’d recommend are Walking Through Twilight: A Wife’s Illness – A Philosopher’s Lament (Doug Groothuis) and Theology of My Life: A Theological and Apologetic Memoir (John Frame).

I say this because individual Christian lives, in and of themselves, can serve as an “apologetic” for God. After all, a pious saint could not be pious without God’s grace effectively working in and transforming their lives. Such lives are therefore a witness and a testimony to the one true and living God. Sanctified believers are “jars of clay” which hold a precious treasure “to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us” (2 Cor 4:7). As the apostle Paul said in 2 Cor 3:2-3: “You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everyone. You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.”

Introduction to free will


1. Free Will, Moral Responsibility, and Reformed Theology (Paul Manata)

2. Free Will (Joseph Keim Campbell)

By Paul Manata on February 4, 2017

It’s unfortunate that this book [Free Will (Joseph Keim Campbell)] hasn’t been reviewed on Amazon. I’ll write up something brief to fill that lacuna. In the interest of full disclosure, I’m a compatibilist. However, I’ve always recommended Bob Kane’s introduction as the best introductory text on the subject. Kane is a libertarian, but his book is fantastic. I’d still recommend it. That said, I’m pleased to have an introduction to free will which is written by a compatibilist, and which, in my estimation, rivals Kane’s. To be sure, Kane is a legend in the field. Joe Campbell is a humble man, and I think he might blush at my putting the two on a par. But Campbell’s book serves not only as an excellent introduction to Free Will, it also contains material which isn’t covered by Kane. This is partly to be expected, because Campbell’s book was written later than Kane’s. But Campbell’s contributions are unique for other reasons besides postdating Kane’s. I’ll mention a few reasons in closing out this brief review.

First, Campbell gives much more attention to free will skepticism than Kane. Such is to be expected, given that FW skepticism is more popular today than when Kane wrote. But in addressing FW skepticism, Campbell makes one of the most interesting points I’ve come across in debates on FW. Campbell’s early work was in epistemology, and here he makes the connection between debates about free will and debates in epistemology. Libertarians and, moreso, skeptics, are analogous to those who placed a high bar for achieving knowledge–e.g., epistemic infallibilists. Campbell thinks both should be “brought down to earth.” Once we do so, both epistemic and FW skepticism loses much of its force. This point is very interesting, and the connections between epistemology and free will need to be explored more rigorously (epistemic/moral blame; epistemic/moral luck; etc).

Second, Campbell’s discussion of the Consequence Argument is simply excellent. This is largely so because Campbell discisses his unique contribution to debates on the CA–the No Past argument. This argument is, simply put, brilliant. It legitimately moves the ball forward, and demonstrates true advancement in philosophy–a rare feat! Some have replied to the No Past argument by yawning, and claiming that they only care about _our_ freedom. Campbell has things to say here (and has more things to say coming down the pike), but the point to be made here is that this sort of response brings to light differences between those involved in the in/compatibility debate. In this book, Campbell stands in the traditional strain by taking the problem of free will coupled with the threat of determinism, to be a _metaphysical_problem or thesis, which is true/false at all possible worlds.

Third, and finally, Campbell’s discussion of the direct argument and manipulation argument argues that one cannot accept the results of these arguments and accept the results of Frankfurt style counterexamples. Many libertarians do accept the latter, and so do most compatibilists. Since Frankfurt style counterexamples are widely endorsed by both in/compatibilist, that they stand in tension with popular arguments for incomparibilism is an interesting result. This broadens the set of ‘costs’ typically assumed to come with incompatibilism, which, especially coupled with the thesis that we are free, were already pretty high to begin with.

Of course, these briefs points are just some highlights I picked out. Campbell’s book is rife with more insights, is up-to-date, and is enjoyable to read. I highly recommend this book for those who want to get up-to-speed on the state of the art.

3. A Contemporary Introduction to Free Will (Robert Kane)