By David K. Johnson, Ph.D., King’s College
According to many philosophical and biological accounts, the notion of free will is just an illusion. But if we don’t choose our actions, it’s only logical to conclude what we do is determined by fate. And indeed, many argue that a supreme entity like God or some secret all-powerful organization like the Illuminati determines the fate of humanity.
The Force is My Shepherd
We can imagine free will and fate as two sides of the same coin; if we don’t possess free will, it seems our actions are predetermined. Some people argue that instead of God or clandestine organizations, we might be fated by the will of the Universe itself; perhaps the Universe has a plan—a bit like the Fates from Greek mythology; the Moirai—the three sister goddesses responsible for everyone’s destiny. With the possible exception of Zeus, not even the gods could defy their plan.
The sci-fi concept most similar to this view is the Force, from Star Wars—the “energy field [that] surrounds us, and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together.” The will of the Force became even more pronounced in the Star Wars universe once Disney bought the franchise.
This is a transcript from the video series Sci-Phi: Science Fiction as Philosophy. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
The Will of the Force
Consider Rogue One and the scene in which Chirrut—the blind staff wielding warrior-monk—walks through the battlefield on Scarif to reach the master switch. As he walks through the field chanting, “I am one with the Force, and the Force is with me,” every stormtrooper misses as they try to shoot him down. The troopers miss because the Force wills them to.
But could the Force actually be real and thus have a plan for the Universe? Well, of course, in the broadest sense of the word, it could—it’s logically possible. But given that such a power would violate the laws of physics, it seems unlikely.
Learn more about the good versus evil in Star Wars.
Magicians and Skeptics
Some might argue, however, that people with Jedi-like powers do exist: psychics like Uri Geller, telekinetics like James Hydrick, and healers like Peter Popoff. It’s just that scientists are so stubbornly wedded to their current theories that they refuse to admit it.
They are like the scientific establishment in J. J. Abrams’ TV series Fringe that’s always laughing at the mad scientist, Dr. Walter Bishop, and his crazy theories, but it turns out he was right. Scientists laugh at psychics too. If they’re real, maybe something like the Force gives them their power.
However, psychic powers have been investigated, and no convincing evidence has ever been found. Famously, magician James Randi had a standing monetary offer to anyone who could prove, in controlled conditions, the existence of the supernatural or paranormal. The prize went as high as a million dollars. But in 51 years, no one ever claimed it.
Some would retort that the only thing people like Randi do is excuse away the evidence for the supernatural by concocting ridiculous natural explanations. But in reality, that’s not what Randi is doing.
Consider when James Hydrick took Randi’s challenge. Hydrick claimed he could move the pages of a phonebook with his mind. But Randi, fully aware of how magicians do similar tricks, suggested that Hydrick was merely blowing on the pages.
To prevent this, Randi simply placed packing peanuts around the phonebook and said that if Hydrick really was turning the pages with his mind, he should be able to do so without also moving the peanuts.
Of course, Hydrick couldn’t. He made up a few excuses of his own for why his power suddenly disappeared, but none of the judges bought it.
Randi did something similar with Uri Geller. He showed how all of Geller’s “psychics powers”— like bending spoons and reading minds—could be replicated with simple sleight of hand and misdirection. When Geller went on The Tonight Show, in conditions controlled by Randi to ensure he couldn’t cheat, Geller’s powers suddenly disappeared.
Learn more about knowledge and reality through The Matrix.
Natural Vs. Supernatural Explanations
Some will argue that this makes Randi close-minded, but in reality, to be open-minded, you must consider all possibilities—natural explanations along with supernatural ones. It’s close-minded when you only consider supernatural explanations.
If the supernatural explanation turns out to be better than the natural explanation, then great—you’ve got good evidence for the supernatural. It’s just that, in practice, this has never happened.
There’s always turned out to be a natural explanation that’s simpler, wider in scope, more conservative and more fruitful. Indeed, supernatural explanations might always fall short because they almost always are not as simple, wide in scope, conservative, or fruitful as their natural competitors; they invoke extra entities, raise unanswerable questions and defy established physical laws.
That’s not to say established physical laws can’t be overturned. This has happened in the past; Einstein’s theory of relativity overturned Newtonian mechanics. Indeed, many theories that were initially considered fringe, like Maxwell’s electromagnetism, are now accepted as true. Their acceptance was the result of a long process of verification, experiment and peer review. And for every fringe theory that was proven to be true, there are hundreds that weren’t.
The Force as a Natural Law
So, even though the Force could be real, it most likely isn’t—and the same is true for any such “force” that you might think fates us to behave as we do. It’s difficult to defend the notion that we have free will, but it’s equally difficult to defend the notion that our actions are fated.
In fact, if the existence of the Force were ever proved by a Jedi winning something like Randi’s million-dollar challenge, it would not necessarily legitimize belief in the supernatural. Because the Force would likely come to be understood as just another part of the natural world—a force, like electromagnetism, that is governed by laws and that one can learn to manipulate.
All these considerations raise more general questions about the compatibility of science and religion. Applying scientific reasoning to claims about the supernatural suggests that the supernatural doesn’t exist. But the fact is many religious people are themselves scientists or ardent believers in science.
Common Questions about Explanations for Human Actions
They argue people with supernatural psychic powers do exist. It’s just that scientists are so stubbornly wedded to their current theories that they refuse to admit it. They reason that Galileo was laughed at too, but it turns out he was right.
Compared to supernatural explanations, natural explanations are simpler, wider in scope, more conservative and ultimately more fruitful. Indeed, supernatural explanations usually invoke extra entities, raise unanswerable questions, and defy established physical laws.
Many theories that were initially considered fringe, like Maxwell’s electromagnetism, are now accepted as true. Their acceptance was the result of a long process of verification, experiment, and peer review. But for every supernatural explanation or theory that was proven true, there are hundreds that weren’t.