May The Force Be With You

I take my title from the modern pop-culture greeting, so common as to be known even to me, who am far from being a fan of Star Wars. When people start putting “Jedi” on their census forms, perhaps we should consider what people actually mean by it. What exactly is The Force supposed to be?

More urgently, perhaps, we might as ourselves why we have chosen precisely that word as a shorthand for something-or-other. The thing that Jedi Knights are supposed to employ for good, the heart of the universe, is given a name that in other contexts means either a body of soldiers, the police, or thumping somebody to make him do what we want – but was this really a good idea? I doubt people truly want to go round saying, “May the Military Formation be with you” or “May Violence be with you”. But that is what they risk suggesting.

As a term of physics, on the other hand, “Force” is part of a very unfortunate metaphorical conglomeration chosen several centuries ago. The operations of a “clockwork universe” were described in terminology taken from human concepts of rules and coercion. (Biology had to wait its turn, the model 17th-century sciences were mechanics and chemistry.)

Calling an observed correlation or regularity a “Law” of Nature was by no means logically inevitable. It was driven by a belief in a creating deity that could hardly, in those days, be publicly repudiated. The nearest that age could get to a godless universe was Deism, according to which the Sky Man wound up the clockwork and set it ticking, but then refrained from day-to-day interference. In theory observed regularities might instead be called just “patterns”, but since the concept of god was modelled both conceptually and emotionally on human kingship, taking the terminology from human legislation was probably unavoidable. The term “Laws” thus implies someone standing behind Nature and giving her orders. Or at least, it implies a something that compels the phenomena to happen in “obedience” to these “laws”.

But that compulsion is just precisely the thing that we cannot observe. As far as I know, David Hume was the first to point out that we do not see this thing called “causation” happening. What we do see is regularity, or correlation. If X occurs, then Y occurs. It always occurs, and occurs close in time and space to X. That is what we observe, end of story. We must go beyond the empirical evidence to speculate that in some way Y had to happen. Our minds, conditioned by millennia of reward and punishment under monarchs and warlords, attribute to the phenomena of the natural world the coercion that we know in our own flesh. Even consciously regarding phenomena of mechanical or planetary motions as entirely inanimate, does not stop us projecting onto them the familiar patterns of human power.

Motivation for our own action we understand so to speak from inside, which means understanding what is nowadays called social engineering. The king threatens to flog us, behead us or torture our families if we do not do as he says; or at best he bribes us to do his will; we then imagine a similar coercion happening to inanimate objects, and denote this by the impersonal-seeming word “force”. But the term “force” is not actually impersonal, it is a metaphor. A third party can observe the king giving us a motivation to do something, but we cannot observe an equivalent “compulsion” acting on a billiard ball, or on a planet.

Ultimately, therefore, the term “force” is just hand-waving – it says that stuff always happens, with the question of why it happens remaining beyond our reach. Names such as “gravity” are merely ignotum-per-ignotius dodges for transferring the problem to a higher level of generality. When Sartre said that Nature had no laws, only habits, he was using another anthropomorphism; but at least he reminded us that we could have used a language other than that of obedience to law and coercion by superior force.

The attraction of the ideas of law and force must surely lie in the illusion of someone – rather like the warlord we already know – operating the gears and levers of an inanimate universe in much the same way that the warlord dispatches his soldiers and police. If there really were such a personage, we might then influence him, both to benefit ourselves and to punish everyone who annoys us. We project our own intra-group violence and its later elaboration in “law” onto the whole universe, because it has to be all about us. And yet the universe is under no obligation to conform to our monkey-hierarchy metaphors.

In the last analysis, asking “why?” of any inanimate phenomenon is therefore a category mistake, a projection onto the universe of what we know about ourselves – namely that we have “reasons” for doing things. Unless the universe as a whole is actually sentient and has reasons not unlike our own, asking why things happen is sheer anthropomorphism. The Thusness of things may not require a Why.

Posted on May 10, 2018 at 11:28 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink
In: THE LONGEST CON, From Rationalism to New Age

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