Tuesday, July 23, 2013

That Jedi Bullshit

Bioware's Jade Empire will be illustrative, I think. Like most of Bioware's RPGs, the game works with a morality system, the Open Palm vs the Closed Fist. Unfortunately, they explain it rather poorly at the beginning and you might not realize what the two are supposed to represent. They look an awful look like the Light Side/Dark Side options of Bioware's KoTOR games, and that's not really a coincidence. They're presented as simple moral options, good on the one side and bad on the other (and that's more or less what it boils down to), but the way of the closed fist is presented badly, as being about personal strength and challenging your station in life. Those both sound like good things, right? But it mostly comes down to being a massive jerk for personal gain.

What the two paths are really about is daoism. Daoism is all about following the dao, the path or way, about aligning yourself with the order of the universe, following the mandate of heaven1, putting yourself in harmony with the way things are supposed to be. This is the way of the open palm. The closed fist, we now see, when talking about turmoil and "challenging your station" means putting yourself in opposition to that harmony. Thus you create turmoil and chaos, which are opposed to the harmony of the dao. This reaches its dumbest expression with Bladed Thesis, a spirit of a teacher of the Closed Fist.

He asks you to look at a river and describe what you see. The correct answer is, "I see trees tearing and water churning at the rocks, and I see time destroying all of this because it is weak." That answer doesn't mesh with personal strength or just being evil. If you squint right it can look like opposition to the order of the universe... right? Because those natural changes are part of the dao and? No, it's just kind of stupid.

However, the expressions of the way of the closed fist as being in opposition to the dao and the open palm being in harmony with it reach their ultimate expression in the final choice of the game. [spoilers, highlight to reveal]You either restore the harmony destroyed by the emperors by freeing the water dragon, or you further disrupt the harmony by slaughtering her and taking her power for yourself.[/spoilers] The way of the closed fist is disharmony, and challenging your station means challenging the order of the cosmos. Daoism really does its job at keeping the peasants in their place. The game didn't really make it clear at the time, but it really was espousing daoism, harmony with the way of things.

And so does Star Wars. And here's what I actually want to talk about: what is the Jedi Religion? This isn't just pontificating over some fictional philosophy; thousands of people follow the Jedi religion in reality, or claim to, and of course it's based on real religions that millions definitely follow.

A lot of people don't really seem to get what Lucas was trying to put together with his philosophy. Perhaps the greatest confusion was over the prophecy Anakin was supposed to be fulfilling in the prequel trilogy, which said that he would bring balance to the force. A lot of people thought that the end of the third movie was him bringing balance to the force by reducing the light side followers to a bare handful in equality with the bare handful of dark side followers. However, that's not the balance Lucas meant; he was talking about being in balance with the will of the Force (the dao), being in harmony with the order of the cosmos. in Lucas's cosmology, the Sith, the followers of the dark side, are out of harmony; the dark side is opposition to the harmony of the universe. The light side, by contrast, is all about aligning yourself with the harmony of the cosmos and allowing it to act through you. So Anakin didn't fulfill the prophecy until the end of Return of the Jedi when he killed the emperor, turned to the light, and then died; having eliminated the Sith, he had eliminated the imbalance in the force. He had restored harmony.

We also see daoism in the disdain for passion. The Jedi remove all emotion; they meditate and bring themselves in peaceful harmony with the force.
There is no emotion... There is peace.
There is no ignorance... There is knowledge.
There is no passion... There is Serenity.
There is no chaos... There is harmony.
There is no death... There is the Force.

The Sith revel in passions, focusing on, channeling, encouraging strong emotions: hatred, anger, fear, love.

Peace is a lie. There is only Passion.
Through passion, I gain Strength.
Through strength, I gain Power.
Through power, I gain Victory.
Through victory, my chains are broken.

Wait, love? What? Yeah, Lucas thinks love and marriage are bad, and that peace and harmony cannot be gained if you fall in love. Love, like other passions, leads to disharmony. Jedi are free to bang, but not to love. Anakin's fall to the dark side was precipitated by falling in love with Padme. He became a slave to passion, and thus disharmony.

Daoism, like Buddhism, believes passion to be an impediment to achieving oneness with the cosmos, as Stephen Sawyer puts it,

What is essential to this state is that the Taoists are removing the false constructs of desire, prejudice and passion, and in this way integrating the forces within the body. It is the Taoists' goal to accomplish "oneness" throughout the body, mind and spirit. Thus at this stage they are en route to realizing the "one" within the self.

At the end of the day, the Jedi religion is just Space Daoism and, like all religions. It's based on faith. Faith is nothing more than a broken epistemology, a bad way of knowing things. It leads to false beliefs. Jedi, space daoism, is as unconnected with reality as any other religion. Like Christianity and Islam, it simply fails as a way of connecting with the world. Even worse, it fails at connecting even with the fictional world of Star Wars. Perhaps the most damning indictment of Lucas's philosophy is the Star Wars Extended Universe, the collection of novels, cartoons, comics, and video games that others have written for the Star Wars franchise.

Perhaps Lucas should have exerted more control over the EU, since the many authors who explored his fictional reality were more than happy to also explore the consequences of the Jedi philosophy. One of the things they realized was that the philosophy is ultimately incoherent. The Jedi and Sith philosophies are absolutely opposed, yet both allow you to control the Force, which is supposed to be the very substance of the cosmos... if the essence of harmony itself can be controlled by deliberately invoking disharmony, there must be something wrong with the philosophy. I believe this reaches its apotheosis with Knights of the Old Republic II, which manages simultaneously to deconstruct computer role playing games at the same time it picks apart Lucas's crackpot religion.

The game, despite being rushed and put on shelves incomplete, is an excellent and absorbing game. Perhaps its best feature is that it points out that Lucas's philosophy makes no damn sense and simply does not work, even in the framework of his fictional universe. It's bad enough that supernaturalism is incoherent, but Space Daoism is incoherent even when the very fabric of reality has been defined around it.

1 - The Chinese word "Tian" or "T'ien" is usually translated as "heaven", but it doesn't always work that way. Sometimes it's heavenly worlds (Buddhism) and sometimes it's a god or gods, and sometimes it's the cosmos or blue sky,as opposed to the earthly realm, (daoism). It serves as a higher realm/being/perfect way and provides the order to the world and divine mandates in almost all cases.

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