What happened to the good place?
Posted Oct 12, 2019
An intelligent hell is better than a stupid paradise. -Victor Hugo
Life is happening now. -E. Rudolf Krüger
Humans, and as far as we know only humans, can ponder the idea of an afterlife, and many do so from time to time, at least when they are not busy doing the dishes. However wild-eyed metaphysicians might be dissenting, I will argue that a state of perfect happiness is a logical impossibility, and if that is what Paradise means, it should be tossed. If you wish, you can replace the word ‘Paradise’ with ‘Heaven’ or any term that you think represents perfect happiness. But let me begin with a personal memory from 1971.
In 1971, I was a student in a Lutheran night class preparing for confirmation. Pastor Korn told us the famous story about the two medieval monks who were endlessly discussing what Paradise might be like (Barth, 1968/1933). Years passed without progress. They gave up, but they agreed that whoever died first would report to the survivor in a dream so that at least one of them would get foreknowledge of perfect happiness. After one monk had died, the other one hoped for a message each night when he retired to bed. Nothing happened and he gave up. Then, one night, his friend appeared in a dream.
This is how Pastor Korn told the story. He continued: “The monk in the dream said only two words.” Pastor Korn paused for dramatic effect, at which point I trumpeted “Ein Bier!” (one beer). At the time, there was a popular TV commercial in Germany, where a man gravely announced that he’d say only two words: one beer (see here). Pastor Korn was thunderstruck, and then he burst into a belly laugh, for which I love him to the present day. None of my classmates got the joke. Perhaps they hadn't been listening to the Pastor. In time, Pastor Korn continued with the story, revealing the two words: totaliter aliter – totally different. The lesson, as I remember it, was that humans should not worry about what Paradise is like; but they should believe in it.
If you'd like to see what Pastor Korn looked like back in the day, he's the man on the right in the second photo (the old one) on this site.
Now, before submitting to blind faith, let us put our psychology hats on.
How good can the good place be? Suppose you are asked to rate your happiness on a scale from 1 to 10, just like you might rate the intensity of your pain at the doctor’s. What does a 10 indicate? Is 10 the level of happiness you would experience just before passing out or dying? This would make little sense in Paradise because you are there in order to experience maximum happiness and not to break under it. Yet, intense pleasure eventually gets mixed up with pain, which undercuts efforts at uni-dimensional scaling. East of Eden, it is impossible to conceive of a sustained and uncontaminated state of perfect happiness. It is not even possible to imagine any perfectly stable hedonic state whatever that state is supposed to be.
Parducci’s (1965) range-frequency theory, grounded in the psychophysics of sensation and perception, illustrates the point. When each individual experience has a hedonic value, these values form a distribution, and a distribution has a range from a minimum to a maximum, and it has a median at the point where half of the experiences are better and half are worse. The overall happiness score, as seen in human responses, can be modeled as a compromise between splitting the range and going with the median. A happy person has a negatively skewed distribution of experiences. If this person were to eliminate all bad experiences, the range of the distribution would collapse and the median would be indeterminate. It follows that when experiences have the same scale value, this one number is meaningless. 
If there must be motion and change, wouldn’t you want levels of bliss, or pleasure, or happiness to increase little by little and ad infinitum? If like this kind of positive progression, know that it entails that your state of happiness at Time -1 is less than it is at Time 0. That is, at Time -1 you were not as happy as you could have been, as proven by your experience at Time 0. Yet, you want progress. If Paradise is to be a place of everlasting growth, a place where things get better and better, it must also be a place where perfection can never be never reached. There might, at best, be an asymptotic approach.
Let us add contents to these abstract ideas. Theologians like Albertus Magnus (Führer, 2019) or my Rabbi think of Paradise as being close to God . Informal observation suggests that many ordinary people think more concretely. They hope to be in the presence of loved ones, such as their mother. If this being with a loved one is not to be static, and we suspect that stasis is incompatible with ‘experience,’ we need to allow movement, action, and change. How might it be done? Consider two scenarios.
In the first scenario, Paradise is a place where you get to relive the happiest day of your life. Perhaps it was a day with that loved one. You relive it today, again tomorrow, and again and again all the way past Groundhog’s Day. This scenario requires amnesia. If tomorrow you remember how you relived that perfect day today, it is no longer the same experience. The new memory would be a reconsolidation, and thus altered, version of the old one (Alberini & LeDoux, 2013). Without reconsolidation, you are trapped in an infinite loop without knowing it; nothing is added and nothing is subtracted. This picture of Paradise extracts a price. It will take your essence, your self, and your soul if you believe you have any of these things (Krueger, Heck, & Athenstaedt, 2017). With perfect amnesia at all conscious, preconscious, and subconscious levels, there is nothing that binds the you of today to the you of tomorrow, or the you of the day after together. There would be no You. And that would be just as well because You are dead anyway.
The second scenario exchanges this problem for another one. Here, you allow the blissed arrangement (e.g., being with that loved one) to continue indefinitely without the tedious repetition of a particular day, however blissful it might have been. But now, in order to keep things moving, you need to allow change and growth. This arrangement will take you ever farther away from the self that chose this sort of Paradise. Two thousand years ahead, you and your loved one – if you haven’t tired of each other – or no longer what you were when the journey began. If the temporal horizon is long enough, there will be little left to justify the idea of an essential You. In this scenario, you are immortal, particularly if the happiness you sought when choosing your Paradise resembles experienced reality, at least at first. You carry on with ever new and blissful experiences coming your way. Relative to the ever-growing stock of paradisiacal experiences, your stock of earthly ones will diminish and become infinitesimally small. If so, why have them in the first place?
My skepticism regarding Heaven, Paradise, or anything ‘perfect’ that is not geometrical, is deeply rooted. About 10 years before the totaliter aliter episode, I refused to say my prayer one night. My father, whose religiosity was skin-deep, told me that if I didn’t pray, I wouldn’tt go to Heaven. My reply was: “Dann bleibe ich eben zu Hause.” (In that case, I’ll just stay home.)
I searched for public domain images of Paradise and the consensus appears to be that Paradise is tropical. But then there's also Malibu, as seen in the photo at the top.
Note . This site provides a brief and clear introduction to the Dominican distinction between imperfect [felicitas] and perfect happiness [beatitudo] (see also van Dyke, 2015). Whereas the former is the most you can achieve in this life, the latter can only be attained after. Psychology can only model the former and show constraints about speculations about the latter. Anything else is metaphysics. Philosophy has approached the question of perfect happiness in a number of ways. One approach, which is of particular relevance here, is Nozick's (1981 thought experiment of the experience machine. Nozick's project was to refute hedonism (Krueger, 2015). My goal is to show that the question of perfect happiness cannot be addressed by hedonism at all, and is therefore irrelevant for its evaluation.
Note . The popular TV show "The good place" gives a nod to Parducci's theory when Michael (Ted Danson) comments on the ready availability of yogurt. He says, and I paraphrase, 'This is typically human: take a perfectly good thing and make it a little bit worse, so that they can have more of it.'
Heaven and hell seem out of proportion to me: the actions of men do not deserve so much. [. . .] I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library. -Borges
Alberini, C. M., & LeDoux, J. E. (2013). Memory reconsolidation. Current Biology, 23, 746-750.
Barth, K. (1968). The Epistle to the Romans. Translated by Edwyn C. Hoskyns. Oxford: Oxford University Press. First published in German in 1933.
Führer, M. (2019), Albert the Great. In Zalta, E. (ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2019/entries/albert-great/
Krueger, J. I. (2015). The experience machine reloaded. Psychology Today Online. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/one-among-many/201504/the-experience-machine-reloaded
Krueger, J. I., Heck, P. R., & Athenstaedt, U. (2017). The search for the self. In T. Nelson (Ed.). Getting grounded in social psychology: The essential literature for beginning researchers (pp. 15-36). New York, NY: Routledge.
Nozick R. (1981). Essays on anarchy, state, and utopia. Totowa, NJ: Rowman & Littlefield.
Parducci, A. (1965). Category judgment: A range-frequency model. Psychological Review, 72, 407-418.
Van Dyke, C. (2015). Aquinas’s shiny happy people: Perfect happiness and the limits of human nature. In J.L. Kvanvig (Ed.), Oxford Studies in the Philosophy of Religion 6 (pp. 269-291). Oxford: Oxford University Press.