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The Conundrum of Time

An explainer about Philosophy using lessons from popular culture. In Installment 7, an NBC show takes us through the nuances of time.

NBC’s (finest) sitcom, The Good Place, is a modern-day philosophy primer, which chronicles the ordeal of four individuals in trying to become ‘better people’ post their death (SPOILERS FOLLOW). After dying, the protagonists Chidi, Eleanor, Jason, and Tahani, reach what is supposed to be ‘the good place.’  Eleanor instantly realises that she should not be there because of the horrible person she has been throughout her life. The other three are oblivious to the fact that they have also been terrible people, and also do not deserve to be there. The good place is really the disguised “modern” experimental iteration of the bad place, which the ambitious “architect” Michael, along with the omniscient AI Janet, has designed, where these four people are meant to torture each other. This is their Sartre-esque version of hell.

The Good Place covers a plethora of philosophical schools of thought to expound upon what the essential qualities of a good person could be – should we live based on certain virtues of mind and character (virtue ethics), or should our goodness be determined by the consequences of our behaviours (consequentialism), or should it be determined by the utility of the action (utilitarianism)? In addition to such philosophical musings, there is another aspect that is central to the show, i.e., the concept of the space-time continuum. Throughout the show, as they realize that they are in the bad place, the characters go through reboots, in which they are reset to earlier points in their (pre- and post-death) lives, in the hope that they will make choices different than what they did the previous time(s). In this manner, the show dabbles into the concept of time (Jeremy Bearimy, baby!), which has been extensively studied in philosophy since ancient times.

One of the conundrums regarding time has been whether it is independent or contingent upon the events that occur in time. That is, if all the clocks around the cosmos stopped, and the world froze, would time continue to pass? If so, time must be truly independent of the events that occur. In such a scenario, time must flow even when everything is stagnant, and no change occurs. If time, however, is interlinked with the events that occur, and if time continues to flow, then events must also happen in that time: a “numeration of continuous movement,” as Aristotle put it.

Philosophers have also speculated about the structure of time: is it linear or cyclical? If time is linear, there must be a past that happens before the present, which happens before the future, and then, these events never happen again. Time could also be cyclical, implying that there is a wheel of time, as insinuated in early Indian and Greek philosophies. In this, all events occur in repeated motions, and there is a beginning, middle, and an end, following which there is a second beginning, middle, and end, and so on. This, however, is canopied by a “hypertime,” through which each iteration of the circle can be distinguished from the other.

Another issue philosophers grapple with is whether time is infinite or it ends at some point. Does time continue to flow and repeat itself in cycles through infinity, as is argued by ancient Hindu philosophy? Or did time come into existence when the universe was created, and therefore will cease to exist when the universe ends, as the Stoics argued?

In Season 3 of The Good Place, Michael explains that while on earth, when we are all alive, time is linear. “Time on Earth moves in a straight line. One thing happens, then the next, then the next,” he says. However, in the afterlife, “time doubles back and loops around and ends up looking something like ‘Jeremy Bearimy’-” the way the word might be written in cursive English. This ‘Jeremy Bearimy’- shaped time is independent of the linear time, in which earth and its events exist. So while 300 earth years must have passed between the characters dying and rebooting in the first two seasons, in the third season, they reach earth just minutes before they are set to die. This way, The Good Place depicts time in all its riddle-filled glory: it is linear and circular; it is finite and infinite; it is independent of and contingent upon the various events in the show.

In The Book of the Wise Philosophers, Claude Sumner has presented the view that time is something that has happened that will never come back. This is represented in the linearity of the characters’ time on earth, where they are unable to rectify their behaviours and hence automatically and inevitably are sent to the bad place every time they die. This way, they cannot make it up for the mistakes they have made.

For example, Tahani spends all her life engaging in philanthropy just to one-up her sister of whom she is jealous. She never really makes the effort to do good just for the sake of it. Post the death of these characters, this view is challenged, as the linear timeline is essentially written over. In her reboot, once she realises that she is in the wrong, Tahani tries to make amends by marrying Jason, who knows what it is like to not have money. Then, instead of donating $2 million to the Sydney opera, she decides to give random people on the street wads of cash to strangers, which improves their lives significantly in a much more real, tangible way. Tahani also makes amends with her sister because she finally understands that their parents pitted them against each other all their lives, but they could actually have an amicable relationship. Thus, in her reboot on earth, she tries to amend these two significant reasons why she is in the bad place.

Even within the characters’ journeys, when they end up making the same choices in their multiple reboots, their routes to those choices differ. For example, one of the constants is how Chidi and Elanor fall in love in almost every reboot, and Elanor is almost always the one to realize that they are in the bad place. In that sense, despite being a loopy timeline, the events cyclically occur independent of time as a construct. The multiple reboots also represent circularity of time for these characters. However, there is also an overarching “hypertime” through which the events of the show occur. That is, as these characters reboot, they also become better people. For example, Elanor spent her time on earth as an extremely inconsiderate and selfish person, who only looked out for herself. However, after thousands of reboots, she becomes a much better person; when she finds a wallet on the floor of a pub, she picks it up, driving across town to find its owner. Thus, even though they were stuck in cyclical time, they ethically improved, making each cycle distinct from the other.

Finally, time is finite on earth, but infinite in the afterlife. This is depicted especially in the bad place, where people are damned for eternity. In a funny quip, a demon connives to torture Shakespeare by describing to him the plot of the Entourage movie. If things were not complicated enough, there is also the the dot over the i on ‘Bearimy,’  where “nothing never happens,” like on Tuesdays and in Julys, apparently. This dot depicts how time in the afterlife can be independent of events, disconnected from the cursives. It is also the time where The Interdimensional Hole of Pancakes (IHOP) – the crossroads of ten dimensions, including space and time, is set. To quote The Doctor – “People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to affect, but actually, from a non-linear, non-subjective point of view it is more like a big ball of wibbly wobbly timey wimey… stuff.”  This show is indeed a good place for all the time you need.

So where do we stand with the nature of time? Only Mike Schur will tell!

About the author

Arathy Puthillam

Arathy Puthillam is a Research Assistant at the Department of Psychology, Monk Prayogshala, a not-for-profit research organisation based in Mumbai, India. Her research interests include Evolutionary Psychology, Social Cognition, and Psychological Methods.