Consciousness and pop stuff

The Star Warses (1977-2005)

Posted in Brain+mind dualist by Trevor on November 16, 2009

Okay, I like Star Wars. You can sort of tell by looking at me really. And as far as it being a political allegory is concerned, I think it’s very clever – what with the republic being overthrown by power-hungry baddies who whip up a fake threat so they’ll be granted emergency powers. That’s all good.

As philosophy of mind though, it’s a bit confused. On the face of it, the Star Wars universe appears to be a Brain+Mind Dualist sort of place. The obvious example of this is the fact that living things can tap into The Force. “Luminous beings are we,” says Yoda in Empire Strikes Back, “Not this crude matter. The Force flows through all living things, blah blah blah, it binds us all together and flows between us and rocks or something.” (I might be paraphrasing a bit there.) Anyway the point is that The Force is something which living things can use but droids cannot.

The Force also allows you to live on after the death of your body, as a blue ghost.

Blue ghosts at the Ewok party

Jedi afterlife: Doesn't look very appealing.

The implication seems to be that this is what happens if you’re a “light-side-of-the-force” person. The dark-siders don’t get this perk. For all their Machiavellianism, the dark-siders aren’t interested in being blue ghosts for all eternity. Perhaps it’s a bit boring, doing nothing but hanging around the edges of Ewok parties.

BUT … despite all that, consciousness is actually a separate question. There isn’t any indication that it’s The Force that actually makes things sentient. There just seem to be many sentient things, some of which also use The Force.

So the question which sticks out is: are the droids sentient? If so, this would be a vote for the Consciousness-as-Property camp, as the droids are just mechanical devices. Of course, Exhibit A is C-3PO, the droid who appears to experience all the emotions from anxiety to fear. Is he sentient? I always thought he was. What do you think?

C-3PO: Perpetually looks a bit surprised

C-3PO: Perpetually looks a bit surprised

It turns out that this question has been debated quite a bit by the Star-Wars-loving multitudes. A great many supporters think they are sentient which has led many to question whether it’s ethical to destroy them wholesale, as the “good guys” often do. As one forum plaintiff said: “one might argue that they are only droids, but the seem kinda sentient to me with each having a quite difrent personality, so it is realy o.k. to just kill them all the time?”

And even better: “I’d like think that these personality quirks are just programming effects, otherwise it means that there’s some pretty brutal slavery even by the goodguys in Star Wars.” See the discussion here.

Generally the consensus seems to be that the droids probably are sentient and so should have political rights. However, in the Star Wars universe, they don’t.

I looked into this and – in the vast literature that makes up the “expanded Star Wars universe” – it turns out that there was a thing called the “Rights of Sentience” in the Old Republic (i.e. the political system which the evil emperor and Darth Vader overthrow). This says that all sentient beings have equal rights and cannot be made slaves. The article that describes these rights coyly says: “It is not known how the Old Republic determined which species were sentient.”

However it’s also mentioned that the Rights of Sentience were not extended to droids, leading to several droid revolutions. One of these is described in a short story enticingly entitled “Therefore I am”, referring to Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am” AKA the cogito. The cogito can be read as a statement of one’s own sentience – and I think it should be – but it isn’t always. If you want to get into that debate, go for it. Come back in a few years, when you’re done.

The gist of the story is that the bounty hunter droid IG-88, who plays a walk-on role in Empire Strikes Back (in fact, not even that, it’s just a stand-at-the-back role), is actually sentient. He hatches a plot to kill all the inferior biological lifeforms so droids can take over. He nearly succeeds but is unfortunately foiled by some pesky kids.

One of the notable things about IG-88 is that the writers always talk about how fearsome and dangerous he is. This is partly because he’s obviously made out of old car parts, and looks like he’d blow over in a stiff breeze so they have to big him up. I strongly suspect the designers spent all their time on the Boba Fett outfit – the best outfit in all of science fiction – and then threw IG-88 together 10 mins before filming that day.


IG-88: Supposed to be very dangerous but looks a bit stiff and top-heavy for mine. Good poker face though.

But the other notable thing-point is that IG-88 is sentient. He can even quote Descartes. And according to Wookiepedia there are a number of other Star Wars stories which are told from the droid’s point-of-view. So given that they can be sentient, why were they never granted the Rights of Sentience under the Old Republic? This keeps me awake at night sometimes.

On the other hand, there’s also Obi-Wan’s passing comment in Attack of the Clones: “If droids could think, there’d be none of us here, would there?” Is this supposed to be a denial of droid sentience? Not necessarily, I would say.

Hmmm (stroke beard here), deep waters. There’s no answer of course, because it’s all made up. But marvellously, the Star Wars fan multitudes debate this sort of question quite often. And some of it is smarter than some of the painful palaver which has passed for academic debate over the years (in my slightly-arrogant opinion).

So what’s the verdict? If the droids are sentient, which generally people think they are, this would make Star Wars a Consciousness-as-Property sort of world. And would also make the Jedi a bunch of bad guys.

However, based on the movies, I think the writers just forgot about the droid sentience question. Given the overwhelming mysticism of the Star Wars universe, I’m gonna say that it’s Brain+Mind Dualist.

But it’s a debatable point (if you’ve really got nothing else to do). Which of these offends us more? That Threepio has no feelings, or that the Jedi are evil slavers? Think carefully, young padawan, much depends on your answer …


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