The Good Place has blown up its afterlife premise and put it back together again so many times that you’d be forgiven for getting confused. Here’s where we’re at (spoilers, of course): for the last 521 years, nobody has made it into Heaven because the world got too complicated. Our hero Eleanor wants to change the entire Heaven-Hell system to be more forgiving. The higher-ups set her a challenge: take four bad people and make them change their ways. This, it turns out, is pretty tricky.
One of the people they have to change is neuroscientist Simone. When she first claps eyes on the village constructed for her afterlife, she thinks it’s all in her head. The only thing that changes her mind is a chat with Chidi, a philosopher and her friend from the mortal world. Over frozen yogurt, Chidi tells her, “if I understand your state of mind, it’s basically solipsism.”
This essentially means that Simone believes that she’s the only person that exists, that everything else is a simulation. Stuff like this is familiar territory for The Good Place, which often uses the story to explain philosophy in an accessible and entertaining way. So, in that same spirit, let’s unpack what Simone believes.
Maybe you used to believe that your parents had all the answers or that Ross from Friends wasn’t a jerk, but now you know better. We all used to believe lots of things that we don’t believe anymore – or as Men In Black put it: “15,000 years ago, everybody knew that the Earth was the centre of the universe. 500 years ago, everybody knew that the Earth was flat… Imagine what you’ll know tomorrow.”
All this gave a 17th-century philosopher named René Descartes a bee in his bonnet. He thinks, ‘if some of the things I believed turned out to be false, then the same could happen to all the things I believe.’ His solution is to not believe anything, at least for a little while. The analogy he offers is this: say you’ve got a basket of apples with a few rotten ones. You have to empty the basket and inspect each of the apples. That’s what Descartes tries to do: interrogate each of his beliefs to see which are true.
He starts with things we believe because of our senses. These tend to be the beliefs we’re most confident in. “I saw it with my own eyes!” you might exclaim about a UFO that was really a frisbee. You can see the problem here: our senses can play tricks on us. Take the Jastrow illusion. Which of these shapes is bigger?
Even though you know this is an optical illusion, you probably see B as bigger than A. But, it’s not. It just looks that way because the shorter edge of A is right next to the longer edge of B. There are loads of illusions just like this. You’ve surely come across plenty before. So, why do we trust our senses at all?
For Descartes, it gets worse. Have you ever seen Inception? If you have, you might have walked away wondering, “What the heck was that?” But you might also have wondered, “Am I dreaming right now? Am I in a dream inside a dream?” This troubling thought came from Descartes. There are tons of other stories that draw on this idea. There’s the Doctor Who episode ‘Last Christmas’, in which the Time Lord growls, “No one knows they’re not dreaming. Not one of us. Not ever. Not for one single moment of our lives.” Similarly, in The Matrix, what Neo thinks is real life is just a simulation.
Let’s step back from Descartes for a moment and look at a similar line of thought from another philosopher. Bertrand Russell asks: what if the universe was created just five minutes ago? In this scenario, the creator of the universe could have just made some stuff seem old even though it isn’t. It could create your table pre-worn, bury dinosaur bones for us to find, and even give you a crooked nose complete with fake memories of the seven times you faceplanted in your clumsy childhood. There’s no way to prove that this isn’t the case. Philosophers have spent almost 400 years trying to settle this one way or the other and have turned up empty-handed. Instead, they ask: does it matter?
Well, let’s bring this back to The Good Place. Chidi’s response to all this is to put his finger in Simone’s frozen yogurt. When she objects, he’s quick to respond: “if none of this is real, then it really shouldn’t matter, right?” Then he wipes the yogurt onto her nose and challenges her to leave it there for the rest of time. The point here is that even if nothing is real, Simone can still feel things like pain and discomfort. It’s still possible to hurt her. So, straight away, a lot of our ideas about right and wrong still apply. That’s a lot of apples back in the basket. Plus, in the very same way you can’t prove the world isn’t a simulation, you also can’t prove that it is a simulation. So, as Chidi says, “Why not treat [people] better just in case they’re real? I mean, what do you have to lose by treating people with kindness and respect?”
Of course, in Simone’s case, there’s one small snag: it really is a simulation. She’s wrong when she says that the whole thing is a construct of her own mind, but the village in which she’s currently spending her afterlife is fake. Though their reasons are noble, the sticky truth is that Eleanor and her friends have set up Simone’s entire environment with the goal of tricking her into doing what they want her to do. The whole physical space was created by reformed demon Michael and his guide, Janet.
What does Descartes have to say about this? Well, he’s a religious man. When you read him, there’s a clear sense that even when he questions anything and everything, he seems anxious to prove the existence of God by any means. If nothing else, in his political context, to do otherwise would put him in hot water fast. As part of his effort to dodge that bullet, he suggests the existence of an evil demon deceiver who’s tricking you into thinking you’re reading the Mary Sue right now. Descartes doesn’t actually think such a being is likely to exist, but he realises there’s no way to rule out its existence.
Michael in The Good Place is essentially Descartes’ demon deceiver. He doesn’t create the mortal world, but he does create the village and trick Simone and Chidi into believing they’re in the Good Place. The first season sees him pull this trick on Eleanor. We, the audience, only realise that the village isn’t really the Good Place when Eleanor figures it out – and that takes until the end of the season. Later, we see a version of the village shut down and disappear into nothingness. Simone, being as smart as she is, will probably piece together that she’s not in the Good Place – and that’s likely to be a major ‘I told you so’ moment.
In the meantime, you might be looking around yourself and thinking, ‘Am I in a simulation? Is this all a construct created by an evil demon?’ Maybe you’ve thought that some of the people around you aren’t real, like characters in a video game. Unlikely as that is, you can’t disprove it. But, what difference does it make in anyone’s life? If the simulation is so perfect, what would change if it was real instead? Nothing at all. So, listen to Chidi and don’t go pulling your hair out over this one.