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Middle Knowledge and “The Good Place”

June 18, 2024

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NBC’s The Good Place, which aired for four seasons from 2016-2020, was one of the few television shows on air in recent years that focused explicitly on moral philosophy. As such, the show offers a number of points on which Christians can engage with the philosophy and theology of the show to see both its insights and where it fell short. Here, I will discuss how the show implicitly gives support to a somewhat obscure Catholic view about God’s knowledge in relation to his sovereignty.

Trying to Play God

The Good Place focuses around a set of six characters, four humans who have recently died, a supernatural “architect” Michael played by Ted Danson, and an artificial assistant named Janet. During two of the four seasons, either Michael or some combination of Michael and the human characters and Janet attempt to play god by “architecting” an afterlife location to get certain humans, unaware of the situation, to do certain things. In season one, for instance, Michael, whom we learn is a demon, invents the “Good Place,” truly a kind of hell masquerading as heaven, in order to psychologically torment the four humans whom he has been given to torture. Michael fails in doing this, and the humans figure out that they are not in the real Good Place but are being tortured by Michael. Michael is able to reset their memories, re-jig the setup for his “Good Place,” and try again in season two. Despite his best efforts, Michael fails each time. Despite being an eternal being who knows everything about the four human characters he is given to torture, Michael cannot get them to do what he wants them to do. Instead, despite all of Michael’s supernatural efforts, the humans end up bonding and become more virtuous versions of themselves.

God knows perfectly what every possible creature would do in every possible circumstance.

Later on in the final season, the humans and Michael, who has now been converted from his evil ways, attempt to do something similar. In an effort to show other supernatural beings that humans can really improve if given the right circumstances, they create another “Good Place” and are given four humans to work with. This time, instead of torturing them, the humans, Michael, and Janet attempt to facilitate moral growth in each of the four characters. This time, they end up succeeding, but only after taking major risks and coming quite close to failure a number of times. I believe these two seasons can show us an important truth about God’s knowledge as it relates to human free will—an age-old question.

God’s Knowledge of Free Will

The show, particularly the two seasons described above, is an excellent illustration of how difficult it is to completely predict the actions of free creatures. Despite knowing almost everything about all of the humans involved, neither the four humans nor Michael—despite being an eternal and highly intelligent being—are able to perfectly predict how these people will act. Thus, they cannot infallibly order the worlds they place these people in to achieve their ends. Michael, for his part, fails literally hundreds of times to have the original four humans psychologically destroy each other. And while he ends up succeeding in season four, such success was by no means guaranteed and the unpredictable choices some of the humans made caught Michael and his human partners off guard.

In one episode, Eleanor, the main character (played by Kristin Bell), even attempts to argue with Michael that all human decisions are utterly determined and free will is a mere illusion. Michael’s rebuttal to this is to appeal to what was described above—namely, his complete inability to predict her actions despite knowing everything about her. Michael’s response, which ultimately convinces Eleanor, raises a further question: If he were able to predict her decisions, would that prove that she was not free?

For some contemporary Christian theologians, the situation Michael and the humans faced is not so different for God. So-called “Open Theists” deny that God has exhaustive foreknowledge of the future acts of free creatures precisely for the reason mentioned above—namely, that it is impossible to predict truly free acts. While Open Theism is limited to Protestant circles, the famous Catholic philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, in a lecture at Notre Dame last year, walked dangerously close to the same position, causing quite a controversy. While it may be easy to dismiss Open Theism as simply heterodox, it is not easy to provide a robust alternative view that clearly articulates how God knows creaturely free choices even before they happen without thereby curtailing human free choice.

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This problem was particularly vexing for medieval Catholic theologians who highly esteemed Aristotle. Aristotle argues in his work On Interpretation that future contingent propositions like the propositions of what free creatures will do simply lack a truth value—i.e., they are neither true nor false. Aristotle’s view would then seem to favor Open Theism by showing that it is impossible for God to foreknow future free acts of humans. While medieval Catholic theologians offered ways to reconcile Aristotle’s view with divine foreknowledge, such attempts were not necessarily satisfying. It took until the sixteenth century for an intriguing solution to this problem to arise.

Middle Knowledge

The Catholic thinker who did attempt such an explanation was a sixteenth-century Spanish Jesuit named Luis Molina. Molina, whose work on this subject has been commended by Bishop Barron, proposed a novel theory that held that God, prior to his decree to create the world, knows within himself how all the free creatures whom he could create would act were they placed in this or that circumstance. Molina called this knowledge “middle knowledge” (Lat. scientia media) since it lay in between God’s natural knowledge of himself and his free knowledge of the created world. With middle knowledge, when God decrees to create a world, he knows exactly how to order the world so that the free creatures he creates achieve the ends he desires. Unlike the knowledge of the characters in the show, this knowledge is infallible. God knows perfectly what every possible creature would do in every possible circumstance. He does not have to guess or take risks but rather merely place the creatures in the circumstances he chooses, and they will freely do just as he knew they would in his middle knowledge.

The Good Place then offers a good illustration of a fundamental difference between God and his creatures. While humans can know some truths about what people would do in this or that circumstance, our knowledge is only probabilistic and not certain. Thus, any attempts we make to use such knowledge to our advantage is inherently risky since our beliefs about what people would do could be wrong. The god of Open Theism similarly has to take risks and make gambles based on his incomplete knowledge in an attempt to achieve his ends. Such a god, while perhaps far wiser than any character on the show, is still fundamentally in the same predicament that humans are when it comes to trying to predict free choices. God, by contrast, in his infinite knowledge of himself, knows our freedom more perfectly than we do.

With such knowledge, God knows how to draw each one of us to himself. We need not fear any mistake on his part, any oversight, or any fault of any kind. With God’s middle knowledge, his ability to ordain the world to his ends is secure. Thus we can amend a common phrase and say, “Thank God for God’s knowledge!”