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Thursday, January 11, 2018

He Tries to Pump Some "Star Wars" Glamour into Panpsychism

In his post “Why Panpsychism is the Jedi Philosophy,” BigThink.com columnist Scott Hendricks starts out by describing the Force, the mysterious cosmic energy source depicted in the Star Wars movies. 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."

After describing the Star Wars depiction of the force, Hendricks says, “There is a name for this philosophy in real life, panpsychism.” But Hendricks errs. The depiction of the Force in the Star Wars movies is not any statement of the philosophy of panpsychism.

Panpsychism is the idea that all matter is to some degree conscious. But the Star Wars idea of the Force is not an idea about matter.  It is an idea about a cosmic energy. No one in the Star Wars movies ever makes the panpsychist claim that all matter is conscious, nor does any such character claim that any nonliving material thing is conscious.

Hendricks incorrectly describes how the Force is depicted in the Star Wars movies. He tells us, “While only some things, notably Force-sensitive characters, can manipulate the Force, every object in the universe appears to be able to interact with the Force.” He provides a link to try to back up this claim, which merely takes us to the first description of the Force in the Star Wars movies:

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.

But that quote does not at all back up the claim that “every object in the universe appears to be able to interact with the Force,” an idea never presented in the Star Wars movies. To the contrary, the two quotes above (by Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda) tell us that the force is created specifically by living things, not by material things in general. 

Poster of the latest Star Wars movie

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 a 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.

None of this has anything to do with panpsychism, and panpsychism is not associated with any claims or beliefs about psychic powers. Panpsychism has never been associated with any types of claims about a cosmic force, mysterious or non-mysterious.

From the table below we can see there is basically nothing that panpsychism has in common with the Star Wars concept of the Force.



Panpsychism Star Wars concept of the Force
Make a claim about matter? Yes No
Claims all matter is conscious? Yes No
Makes a claim about a cosmic energy field? No Yes
Makes a claim about psychic powers (telepathy, psychokinesis)? No Yes
Differentiates between living and non-living things? No Yes (the Force is described as a product of all living things, not all matter)
Suggests some cosmic will? No Yes (“will of the Force” in episode 1)
Associated with post-mortal survival? No Maybe (ghost of Obi-Wan Kenobi twice seen)

Although the Star Wars movies tell us nothing about how the Force might relate to life-after-death, the movies hint that there may be such a relation. In Episode 4 we hear the voice of the deceased Obi-Wan Kenobi telling Luke Skywalker to “use the force.” In Episode 5 we see the ghost of Obi-Wan Kenobi appearing to Luke Skywalker. In Episode 6 we the ghost of Obi-Wan Kenobi, Darth Vader and Yoda all appearing to Luke Skywalker. Since these were all great masters of the Force, we can infer some relation between the Force and their post-mortal survival.

Hendrick's attempt to glamorize panpsychism by calling it “the Jedi philosphy” is erroneous. If we want to find philosophical ideas that partially mirror the metaphysics of Star Wars, the two below are much better matches:

Vitalism: Vitalism is the idea that there is some mysterious life force involved with all living things. This sounds a little like the claim twice made in the Star Wars movies that the Force is created by all living things.
Spiritualism: Spiritualism is the idea that people survive death, and can communicate with the living. When the deceased Obi-Wan Kenobi communicates to Luke Skywalker in Episode 4 and Episode 5 of the Star Wars series, this is very much a fictional expression of the idea of spiritualism. 

Panpsychism is largely an attempt to help deal with the problem that there is no apparent reason why the neurons in a brain could ever generate a mind such as humans have.  The panpsychist kind of tells us that such a thing is not so unthinkable, because every little neuron (and every other little thing) is a tiny bit conscious. The problem is that similar reasoning would lead us to believe that the boulders at the seashore or the trees in the forest have bigger minds than we have, since they have even more material particles than are in our brains.  A better way to deal with the "How could minds arise from brains?" problem is to simply conclude: they don't.  The claim that minds arise from brains has been asserted countless times, but never proven.  There are good reasons for doubting such a claim, as you will sometimes read about on this blog.