11:00 am EDT, November 12, 2018

‘The Good Place’ took on free will and had its most profound episode yet

The Good Place is never shy about tackling complicated philosophical ideas, but “The Worst Possible Use of Free Will” takes that engagement to a meaningful new level.

The concepts of free will and determinism have plagued humanity for centuries. People of faith grapple with how their choices can be their own, if an omnipotent deity (or deities) governs all existence. Rationalists struggle with the idea of making choices when the endless variables of reality seem to predetermine their paths. Whether your approach is spiritual or empirical, free will is pretty much the Mount Everest of the endless ontological range that is moral philosophy.

So naturally, The Good Place season 3, episode 8 decides to scale that height in about 20 minutes… and do it really well.

In “The Worst Possible Use of Free Will,” Michael shows Eleanor her memories of the romance she and Chidi enjoyed in the Bad Place. Having believed that her relationship with her parents made her incapable of love, Eleanor is awed to learn that she really did engage in a deep and committed relationship with Chidi. So strong was their connection, in fact, that she calls him her soulmate (a term that, of itself, raises no shortage of questions about free will.)

But Eleanor’s delight is short-lived. Having seen the full scope of Michael’s impact on her experiences in the Bad Place, she decides that her love for Chidi was simply a result of Michael’s manipulation. Eleanor had no choice in the matter, and was incapable of loving after all. Oh well — let’s get burgers!

It is at this point where The Good Place season 3, episode 8 levels up to direct philosophical debate mode. Eleanor goes whole-hog on determinism, whipping out both the spiritual and empirical arguments against her own free will in a remarkably concise summation of the problem.

“Everything in my life has been determined by my upbringing, my genetics or my environment,” Eleanor declares. “And everything in my afterlife was determined by you. There is no such thing as free will!”

Fascinatingly, it is Michael who rejects determinism and plays the dissenter to Eleanor’s defeatist view of fate. The Good Place could have inserted the philosopher Chidi or opinionated Tahani (both very human) into this role, but instead, they chose Michael — a literal demon, and Eleanor’s version of the omnipotent deity presiding over all of her choices.

Michael’s presence anchors the argument for free will; after all, by Eleanor’s definition, Michael shouldn’t even be capable of making the case against her. “Can’t blame a demon for being evil,” she says earlier, excusing Michael’s cruelty to her in the afterlife as an instinct over which he had no control.

But in Michael’s new perspective, all of Eleanor’s excuses, even those made on his own behalf, completely miss the point. As he reminds Eleanor, none of Michael’s considerable scheming and omnipotence bore fruit. In afterlife after afterlife, Eleanor’s unpredictability — her choices — rebounded on the demon, ultimately leading him down the lane of unexpected virtue.

“I tried to script your whole afterlife,” Michael tells her. “I devised a 15-million point plan to torture you. You made choices I never saw coming. I call that free will.”

Eleanor’s only retort to this is to suggest that her own fated unhappiness may be a result of Michael’s ongoing punishment in a “mega demon torture chamber.” While this is the kind of upper-echelon determinism isn’t exactly refutable (who knows, maybe the tarantula squid really are running this whole deal?) Michael punctures Eleanor’s fervor with a dose of practicality.

Amazing what an iced tea shower and a little positive action can accomplish.

After all, this rigid determinism isn’t exactly something that Eleanor really believes in. It’s something she wants to believe in, a defense mechanism to relieve herself of the burden of connection to Chidi — and the non-determined choices that go along with it. That’s not something Michael can prove, but he knows (as Eleanor does) that it is true.

Ultimately, Michael concludes his argument with, rather touchingly, a declaration of faith. Michael can prove empirical free will in the Bad Place, but here on Earth? Well, it’s something he has to believe in.

“If everything is determined and we have no free will, then all the stuff we’re doing to put more good into the world is pointless,” he says. “And I wanna believe that it matters.”

It’s this subtle point that makes “The Worst Possible Use of Free Will” one of The Good Place‘s most profound and applicable episodes to date. After all the back-and-forth between Michael and Eleanor on free will and determinism, the ultimate lesson does not prove one concept over the other. Instead, the heart of the matter lies in what we believe, and how we act based on our faith.

the worse possible use of free will

Acting with faith in our free will, The Good Place says, is just as important as free will itself. Predetermined or not, our challenging choices — to love, to improve humanity, to pick up our friends from the airport even though it’s like, super annoying — is what defines us as humans. (Or, in Michael’s case, a demon.)

This is the path that Eleanor chooses when she apologizes to Michael at the end of the episode. Eleanor doesn’t just embrace her newfound freedom, she is determined to act upon it — use her status as a “truly free being” to improve humanity.

The Good Place has consistently rejected the darker hues of moral philosophy. The show has eschewed Chidi’s brief rendezvous with nihilism and casts serious shade on the whole “points” system that seems to arbitrate right and wrong. In dedicating an entire episode to the concept of free will, The Good Place not only tackles a daunting philosophical problem with humor and compassion; it illustrates with profound directness the power in embracing our own choices.

Whether free will or determinism is ultimately our empirical reality isn’t really important; what matters is the good we can create when we follow Eleanor and Michael, and take that leap of faith.

The Good Place season 3, episode 9, “Don’t Let the Good Life Pass You By,” airs Thursday, Nov. 15 on NBC.

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