Star Wars Epistemology

In the iconic film, Star Wars, (Episode IV) Ben Kenobi begins to instruct young Luke Skywalker in the intuitive ways of the force while traveling on the Milennium Falcon. Watch the clip and notice the language about how a Jedi is able to “know.”

It is easy to dismiss such dialogue as merely the imaginative creation of science fiction. No one could possibly “see” where the laser bolts are directed without the use of their eyes, right? Well, this example may be a bit fanciful, but it illustrates a kind of knowledge that many experts affirm as a real phenomenon. This blog post is just a quick musing on the subject.

Intuitive Knowing

For centuries, philosophers have wondered if we can know some thing “intuitively.” That is, know them without evidence or any normal process of learning. Plato believed that some knowledge exists within us from birth, (or even before birth). Later philosophers, like Kant, thought that some knowledge is present in us in virtue of our natural, built-in cognitive faculties. If they were right, then some of our intuitions about things may be more than lucky guesses. Something within our minds may enable us to truly see what or how things are in the world. Theologians like John Calvin talked about the “sensus divinitatis,” which may give us knowledge of God without ordinary evidence.

The phenomena of “chicken sexing” is often used as an example of this inexplicable, intuitive knowledge. A chicken sexer can sort through baby chicks, separating the males from the females with stunning accuracy. The strange thing is, there is no visual basis by which to tell them apart at this age. Chicken sexers can’t quite tell you how they are able to do this, but nevertheless, they can do it. This seems to be knowledge gained or possessed by intuition alone.

Most of us have had experiences where we “just knew” that a person was or was not trustworthy, or when we somehow “knew” what the right decision was. Sometimes we were right, sometimes we were wrong. Some people even seem to be better at this kind of judgment than others. But is there really anything to it?

The Science of Intuition

Psychologists have explored this subject as well. Carl Jung famously proposed the idea of intuition as “perception via the unconscious.” Star Wars creator George Lucas may have borrowed some of Jung’s ideas on this. But other researchers have tested people’s intuitive abilities, such as the ability to read nonverbal cues. In 2016, a study was published in Psychological Science showing very promising evidence of intuitive knowledge. Science writer Cari Nierenberg describes it this way:

“For the first time, researchers devised a technique to measure intuition. After using this method, they found evidence that people can use their intuition to make faster, more accurate and more confident decisions, . . . The study shows that intuition does, indeed, exist and that researchers can measure it, said Joel Pearson, an associate professor of psychology at the University of New South Wales in Australia and the lead author of the study.” 

There is little doubt that much of our thinking and judging takes place below the conscious level, sometimes enabling us to make quick decisions. This manifests to us in the form of “gut feelings” or the like. We don’t know how we know these things, since they don’t appear to be based on any rational or scientific observation or analysis. Nevertheless, it sometimes works.

The Takeaway

So, while I’m not saying that we should try to “use the force,” we shouldn’t dismiss the idea that we sometimes know things intuitively. When you have an intuition about something, that should count as a data point in your thinking process. You should then reflect on it, assuming you have time to do so, and compare it to the evidence gained from your senses, reason, and the input of others. I doubt that intuition is a superior way of knowing, as in Star Wars, or that it could yield knowledge that is inaccessible to reason and science. But it does seem to exist, and is worth paying attention to.

9 thoughts on “Star Wars Epistemology

  1. Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink was solely devoted to the research behind this phenomena. I like Gladwell and thought that Blink was an enjoyable read with some fascinating case studies.

    1. Walter’s hypothesis is certainly *possible*. It doesn’t contain any internal self-contradictions, so the hypothesis is logically possible (which is a pretty low bar to clear). It’s also consistent with what we know of how the world works. Although scientific ‘law’ doesn’t exactly demand that Walter is correct, his story doesn’t grossly violate any of the known laws of physics. So his hypothesis is nomologically possible.

      But, to put it in Bayesian terms, the prior probability of his hypothesis is…. rather low. Extremely so. He does provide testimonial evidence that his method has worked in the past. However, as his son Peter points out, he *did* just get released from a mental institution (and, no, not because he was ‘cured’). So his testimonial evidence is… somewhat suspect.

      So, how would you go about scientifically testing his hypothesis, if you decided that even bothering to test it would be worth the effort?

      And is scientific verification even the issue? What would you say about Olivia’s accepting Walter’s offer? Is she doing something rational? Foolish? Praise-worthy? Blame-worthy? Wrong but excusable? What?

      1. I’m a little confused by your question. Is this a general question about when you should believe someone’s testimony? How is this related to intuition?

        1. Just realized on my way to the store that the audience might wonder why I’m suddenly accusing you of channeling Dr. Bishop. 😀 So: Are we talking about intuition? Or about revelation?

          We do have ‘naturalistic’ explanations for how intuition works, even if the mechanisms involved aren’t consciously accessible.

          But revelation is sort of like Walter’s hypothesis. *If* God exists, then God does have the power to provide us with revelations. With perceptual experiences not (immediately) available to others.

          But there is a fine line between revelation and… well, not hallucination, as such. But I would say that the practice of religion does encourage followers to experience altered states of consciousness. No actual psycho-active drugs involved, usually, but various physical practices that tend to bring people into an altered state of consciousness.

          Atheists can experience these altered states of consciousness too, of course. But people who study and do drugs talk about how the “set and setting” shapes a psychedelic experience. The “set” is the beliefs and expectations the subject brings to the experience – and that would vary between atheists and Christians. (The “setting” would be provided, in part, by the religious practice – churches, chapels, etc. Not so much for bedrooms and walks in the forest.)

          (Note: I was thinking about this in response to the story you gave about the atheist girlfriend who was trying to convert to Christianity in order to better align with her Christian boyfriend/fiance. Or however the details of that story were, that’s the form I remember it in.)

          Given this hypothesis, how much reliance should people put in religious revelation? And what kind of ‘should’ are we talking about here?

          1. Oh, and I’m speaking of “how much stock should you put into your own religious experience,” I suppose. When it comes to relying on other’s reports of their own religious experiences (either this week or from written reports from thousands of years ago), I suppose the relevant film clip would be more like:

          2. Hey “eddie.” Well, I’m going to guess you’re familiar with the work of philosopher Alvin Plantinga. The way you described Walter’s view is almost exactly the thesis of Plantinga’s reknown work

              Warranted Christian Belief

            . So this isn’t crackpot philosophy. But if you’re trying to decide whether some experience was hallucination or revelation, the obvious way to start is by looking for defeaters for each position. You can also take an inference to the best explanation approach, without ruling out, a priori, either possibility. Using these methods, I think there are plenty of cases where it is reasonable to infer revelation. You have to go case by case. William Alston also argues in

              Perceiving God

            that there’s no principles reason to trust “mystical perception” less than any other kind of perception. All our perceptual faculties are subject to error without any non-circular way of establishing reliability.

  2. Intuition can be a useful tool for gaining information, creating hypothesis, etc. But intuitions do, to some extent or another, need to be tested. What level of testing is required no doubt depends on the context.

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