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Sunday, November 4, 2018

TV, Philosophy and the Big "G" word - armchair philosophy

Lately it's occurred to me that Philosophy, and more precisely, Religious Philosophy has been getting a good run on TV.

There are actually 3.5 shows that I want to talk about.  Those shows are "The Big Bang Theory" on CBS, a spin-off called "Young Sheldon" also on CBS (and since it's a spin off, I'm counting it as a 1/2 show), "The Good Place" on NBC, and finally, "God Friended Me" also on CBS.  As they say check your local stations for times and episode listing.


I'm going to start with The Good Place for a few reasons.   For one thing much has been made of its use of moral philosophical questions that are the premise of the show.   Indeed, what "makes a good person."  

For those of you that may not be familiar with the show, the main character wakes up dead.  She finds herself in the "Good Place" (Heaven) only she feels that there is a mistake.  Not wanting to go to the "Bad Place" (Hell).  She hooks up with a moral philosophy professor to teach her how to be good.

Comedy ensues.

As the show progresses however we quickly learn that Heaven is actually Hell. For example, in moral philosophy there is what is called the trolley problem.  Imagine you are at the controls of a train.  You are out of control and can see a "Y" before you.   You can pull the train to a safe stop at either junction. 

However in so doing you will accidentally kill either 1 man working to the right.  Or 5 men working to the left.

In either case you are responsible for someone dying.   What lever do you pull?

It gets even more fun as you add in layers of complexity. 

Frankly you don't expect a comedy show to get involved with complex layers of ethics.  Quote Kierkegaard or discuss the failings of Deontological ethics.

In the first part of this video, the character of Chidi is a philosophy professor.  He chooses not to pull any levers.   Since murder is always wrong in Deontological ethics, he can not be held morally responsible, even though his inaction the 5 workers die painfully.   Of course, in choosing not to act...he still has made a choice.  He's responsible for "not acting." 

Make sense? 

As the show states "This is why people hate moral philosophy."

The Big Bang Theory has been around for a while, and as the show grew in popularity it became less and less about "Geek Culture" and more about the relationships of the people.   Mining the same ground as 1001 other sitcoms before it.

Where the Big Bang differed however was they touched upon subjects like "A belief in God", and Nietzche's "Master - slave morality.

I'm going to tackle the "Master - slave" morality first because of Sheldon Cooper's atheism ties into the Young Sheldon show as well.

The Sheldon Cooper character is originally all ego.  All pride and power.  In fact, he goes so far as to have a bathroom schedule he adheres to; maintaining as much power as he can over his body and outside world.  His inability or unwillingness to tell a lie or keep secrets and his enhanced sense of self worth all play into this archetype. 

Many people have, correctly or incorrectly, identified Sheldon Cooper as autistic.  He does seem to exhibit some form of Asperger's.  Or perhaps even OCD.

I'll give into that theory to a great degree, having known people with Asperger's.  Most of them have gone on to lead successful lives.   However the Cooper Character is more than that.   His desire to "bend the world" to his desires seems more Ubermench.  

The show does deal with a few other philosophical issues.   It's discussed ethics, relativism, the philosophical basis of science and subtly touched upon issues of racism and sexism in that field as well.

Sheldon Cooper is also the only openly atheist character that I can think of in the history of television.  One that one subject he has not changed is world view.

In the show Young Sheldon, they have explored this a bit more.  They often make his mother the butt of jokes when it comes to here religious beliefs (She is Baptist) but also expose some complex arguments in doing so. 

One episode in particular had Mary, his mother, explaining that God was all loving and would forgive sinners...only to explain that God would also forgive sinners by sending them to hell in the next sentence.  Missing the contradiction completely.

They do a whole episode on religion, where they poke good fun at Baptists, Catholics and Jews.  The jokes were fast, very funny and spot on for the most part.  The part about Jews living in Texas was very pointed as well.

The biggest issue I have with this however is that Sheldon is 10.  I am struggling with my agnosticism at 52, and it took me a long time to accept the idea that there may be no God.

Which brings us to the last show.  God Friended Me. 

The premise is pretty simple and has been done on other shows before.   Something magical happens, in this case God befriends an atheist on Facebook.   Please note that God does indeed have a Facebook account, but it's not the same God.   I'll have to IM him and see if he's a consultant or not...but I regress.

God sends Friend suggestions to our helpless hero, who then goes out and tries to help these various people reconnect with lost loves, parents, kids, etc.  Nothing big, like saving a bus load of kids from driving over a cliff.   Which, honestly, I commend the show for.   It's a little more believable this way.

The show is only 6 episodes into its first season and it's not really dealt with any philosophical issues yet.   The main character, Miles, is opening up to the idea that he might be dealing with a divine being...while keeping open the idea that he is being hacked for some notorious purpose.  His hacker friend, Rakesh, sees it as a technical challenge.

Well not great TV, the show is more about connections and learning to talk to each other instead of at each other.   For that reason alone it's worth watching.   Who knows if it will get into any philosophy, such as "fate and destiny" and "free will. "

However the reason I wanted to write about these 3.5 shows is simple. 

WE live in interesting times.   We are questioning exactly what the "truth" is.  We are questioning both political parties, what it means to be "American" in this country. 

WE are having a debate about how to talk to each other.  What is our "moral" compass?

I'm not stating that TV can show us a way, but the fact that we are even seeing shows that deal with these things is interesting.   Entertainment is often a reflection of a societies moral center.  In looking into questions like these, we are asking ourselves "what" we want to be.

I welcome it.

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