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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics


Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Is the Force in Star Wars the Seed of a Great Philosophical Theory?

I have greatly enjoyed the various Star Trek series and movies over the years; and I can still remember the excitement I felt as a nerdy teenager when I first bought a book explaining all the details of the original Star Trek series. But one little complaint I have about the various incarnations of Star Trek is that none of them seems to have a spiritual bone in the body. While we may see what seems to be an occasional ghost or a spirit in Star Trek, it is always eventually explained away in non-spiritual terms. There is a hint of spirituality in the fifth Star Trek movie, involving a search for God, but the “god” turns out to be some rather malevolent local entity. About the only spiritual things I can remember in the many versions of Star Trek is the empathic ability of counselor Deanna Troi, who has an apparently psychic ability to sense other people's feelings, and also a similar ability Spock briefly displays in one episode of the original Star Trek series, in which he senses the distant deaths of fellow Vulcans in a starship.

But the Star Wars series of movies has much greater spirituality, for in them we have the recurrent theme of the Force. Here is how Obi-Wan Kenobi first describes the Force in the first Star Wars movie:

The Force is what gives a Jedi his power. It's an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us; it binds the galaxy together.

Yoda the Jedi master of the Force explains it this way: “Life creates it, makes it grow. Its energy surrounds us and binds us."


In the Star Wars movies, the Force is associated with psychic powers such as telepathy and psychokinesis. The masters of the Force known as Jedi can influence the minds of others through thought suggestion, as Obi-Wan Kenobi does when he gets out of a jam by telepathically influencing the mind of security guard. A Jedi can also sense distant important events by sensing a disturbance in the Force, as Obi-Wan does when he detects a “great disturbance in the Force” when the Death Star destroys a distant planet. A Jedi can even use the force to move objects such as a light saber. Someone can also use the Force to achieve things he could never normally do, such as when Luke Skywalker uses the Force to help him perform the difficult task of blowing up the Death Star.

I can't help thinking that in this idea of the Force there is the seed of a great philosophical theory. You could probably use the idea of the Force as a kind of launching pad or springboard to create a very interesting and viable philosophical theory, although you would probably need to go off in a direction rather different from the way the Force is depicted in Star Wars.

Here is why the idea of a cosmic life-force seems worthy of exploring. Life in the universe has done and continues to do astonishing things that we cannot explain. Contrary to the overconfident dogmatic claims of many a scientist, we cannot explain the origin of life from inanimate matter, nor can we explain how life achieved such astonishingly coordinated complexity. Shallow generalizations such as “fit stuff prospers, and unfit stuff doesn't” (a concise way of stating the principle of natural selection) are not at all sufficient to explain the intricate machinery we see within cells and the astonishingly improbable three-dimensional shapes of protein molecules.

We don't even understand how life behaves the way it now behaves. No one can give a coherent explanation of how it is that a tiny fertilized ovum is able to progress to become a baby. DNA is written in a “bare bones” language that seems to be incapable of stating the instructions for such a progression to occur. What we have in DNA is mainly lists of chemicals and on/off switches, but not either a three-dimensional blueprint nor a sequential series of instructions for building complex three-dimensional objects such as a human body.

So from an explanatory standpoint it would be great if there were some cosmic life force that could help us to explain such things. Such a force might or might not be intelligent. Perhaps it might just follow general rules. We know that the cosmic force of electromagnetism follows a set of rules, but no one thinks electromagnetism is a conscious agent.

A cosmic life force seems rather plausible when one considers that we already know of four cosmic forces, the four fundamental forces of physics (gravitation, the weak nuclear force, the strong nuclear force, and electromagnetism). But those cosmic forces are merely necessary conditions for the appearance of complex life; they are not sufficient conditions for such an appearance. (A necessary condition is something that must be present for something else to exist, but does not guarantee its existence; a sufficient condition for that thing is something that guarantees that it will exist.) From an explanatory standpoint, it would be useful to postulate some cosmic life force that acts as a sufficient condition for the appearance of life.

Such a life force might play a role in the appearance of every complex living thing. It could be that the progression from a fertilized ovum to a human baby would never occur without inputs from some cosmic life force. If so, perhaps the Star Wars movies get things a little backwards when they suggest that life creates the Force. Perhaps it is more like: the Force creates life.

A mysterious cosmic life-force might also help us explain various paranormal psychic anomalies that materialist scientists have tried to sweep under the rug. Their rug has a great big person-sized bump from all the paranormal anomalies they have swept under it.

Some might like to believe in a cosmic life-force as kind of an alternative to believing in an active deity, although one could believe in both without contradiction. A deity wishing for life to exist throughout a vast universe might create some kind of cosmic life-force to reduce the need for divine interventions to be constantly occurring throughout the vast cosmos, just as a man might create a robot to do some of his work.

Here are three suggestions I would give to any philosophical thinker trying to create a theory of a cosmic life force.

Emphasize the explanatory value of such a force. Why believe in a cosmic life force? It won't do to say, “It's a useful plot device.” But if one can describe how postulating such a force might fill some of the holes in our understanding of the universe's evolution and unexplained psychic phenomena, such a cosmic life force becomes much more plausible.

Dump the dark side of the force. In the Star Wars movies we often hear that there is a dark side of the force that leads people to evil. While that's a great plot device, I wouldn't think that it should have any place in a philosophical theory of a cosmic life-force. Evil can easily be explained by garden-variety stupidity and selfishness. We don't need a mysterious cosmic force to explain that.

Democratize the force. In the Star Wars movies the Force has rather elitist connotations. The idea is that the Force can be channeled by only an elite few, the Jedi masters. A more appealing idea would be if everyone could somehow use a cosmic life-force to benefit in some way.

If a philosophical thinker advances a theory of a cosmic life-force, that person is advancing a form what is called vitalism. Vitalism was rather popular in the nineteenth century, but vitalism has been officially declared extinct by modern biologists. But don't be deterred by that. Below is a translation of the type of things the modern biologist will say about vitalism.

Assertions Translation
Vitalism used to be rather popular, but it was killed off when DNA was discovered. No scientist believes in any type of vitalism any more. It's a dead duck. Don't even think about digging up this dead horse from its grave ! It is officially forbidden for you to advance any theory that some life force or vital force is needed to explain the appearance or workings of life. This is a taboo that cannot be violated. Anyone advancing such an idea is a damnable heretic who has committed a thought crime in violation of official orthodoxy.

What happened was that scientists declared vitalism dead in the 1950's on the ground that they had discovered “the secret of life” by discovering DNA. But DNA is only one of the many secrets of life, many of which are undiscovered. The human genome has been thoroughly analyzed, and we seem to have just as many unanswered questions about life as before DNA was discovered. The discovery and analysis of DNA has shed no light on the origin of life, and has made that origin seem all the more puzzling, since new questions were raised such as: where does the genetic code come from, and how could the first DNA have appeared? And DNA has not explained the mystery of morphogenesis, the mystery of how a fertilized ovum manages to progress to become a human baby. Nor has DNA done very much to explain the mysteries of the human mind. For reasons discussed here, such basic questions as “where and how is the body plan for humans stored?” have not been answered by studying DNA, which is mainly a list of chemicals which has neither a three-dimensional layout for body plans nor a sequential set of procedural instructions for building bodies.

Given the persistent mysteries of life, there is still tons of room for a vitalistic philosophy based on the idea of some cosmic life-force. Claiming that DNA's discovery explains life's workings is like saying you can explain the strange workings of the US Congress once you have discovered a building plan for the US Capitol building.

The Chinese have long had a theory of a vital force, one that they call qi or chi. Such a concept has been widely held for centuries, and has many serious adherents who claim to have evidence for it, in the form of medical benefits produced by making use of such a vital force. I cannot claim to have studied the evidence for such claims, so I won't say anything either for them or against them. 

Postscript: Although the latest Star Wars movie seems to have little emphasis on the Force (despite its title), in Episode 1 of the series (The Phantom Menace) it is remarkable how far the concept is developed. One character says he is sure it is "the will of the Force" that Anakin Skywalker be trained as a Jedi.  And when Anakin's mother is asked who is the father of Anakin, she says there was "no father," causing the movie viewer to get the idea that perhaps the Force can cause a virgin birth.