Paradox: Dealing in Absolutes
‘If you’re not with me, you’re my enemy.’
‘Only a Sith deals in absolutes. I will do what I must.’
‘You will try.’
> Anakin and Obi-Wan
Welcome to episode one of “Galatea Institute,” a new series in which we will use the lens of the Liberal Arts (philosophy, history, literary analysis, political science, etc) to examine the Star Wars world - or use Star Wars to understand concepts in the liberal arts. Today, I thought I’d start off with this pretty infamous (for many) exchange from the prequels, with its self-contradictory declaration: ‘Only a Sith deals in absolutes.’ And I’d like to examine it using one of the most interesting philosophical concepts we have: the paradox.
What is a paradox?
Wikipedia gives perhaps the simplest explanation of a paradox: “A paradox is a logical statement that seems to contradict itself”. Let’s break that down into two pieces then. First, the statement must be logical. In the case is philosophy, this phrase must be evident from a series of logical statements. Let’s take an example, a fairly famous one, by Carl Gustav Hempel, by supposing for a moment that we are scientists making a hypothesis as follows:
All Ravens are black
How would we, as scientists, prove such a supposition? Well, we cannot collect every raven on earth that exists, so we cannot prove it authoritatively by observation. For the moment ignoring such genetic abnormalities as albinism, etc, let us suppose we do not have access to an instance of a raven which disproves the hypothesis. So we do not have a way of guaranteeing all ravens are black, but neither do we have a way of disproving it. This leaves us with what is the primary tool of science: evidence. So, let’s look at a single raven. Is it black? It is, and thus this gives evidence that our hypothesis is true. If we look at another and another and another, we further suggest that it’s true. That’s seems straightforward.
Now what if I bring you a crow? It’s black, but it’s not a raven. Is this material to our case? Well, we are not trying to prove that all black things are ravens, or even that all black birds are ravens. Only that ravens are black. There could a near infinite number of other black ire’s, and his outdoor provide no evidence or or against our hypothesis. So, this we can dismiss - it is immaterial.
Now, what if I bring you a white bird? You look at it, and you say, “ah, that is a turtle dove. Not a raven.” This, unlike the crow, IS material evidence. Why? Well, there are non-black birds in he world, but we’ve just presented evidence that these birds are not ravens, at least this one. Put this another way: to prove that all ravens are black is also to prove that all birds which are not black are not ravens. And how do you prove that? Evidence, by finding more and more instances of birds which are not black and not ravens. Because the two statements are mutually inclusive, anything that makes one make true makes the other more true as well. So, the more birds we see that are other colors, and that we can clearly identify as not being ravens, the more evidence we have that all non-black birds are not ravens, and by extension, the more evidence we have that all ravens are black.
Now lets extend this outward - if all ravens are black this means all OBJECTS which are not black are not ravens,- the fact that they are or are not birds is actually immaterial. All green things are not ravens, and every time we see a green object, we have further evidence that all green objects are not ravens simply by virtue of its not being a raven. Once again: if all ravens are lack, all non-black objects are not ravens. If all on-black objects are not ravens hen all ravens must be lack. If I can add more evidence that all non-black objects are not ravens, then this conversely adds evidence that ravens are always black.
By this supposition, then, I can increase my surety that all ravens are black by looking at all the apples in my refrigerator, seeing that they are green, and that they are not ravens. By extension, I could sit in my house, for the rest of my life, I could literally never see a Raven from the day I am born to the day I die, and nonetheless collect evidence that all Ravens are black.
(This entire paradox, actually, is an interesting mind problem for considering the strengths and weaknesses of inductive reasoning as well as the scientific method more broadly, and I highly recommend a good perusal of a more thorough explanation than mine)
So this is the first part of a paradox: it must be something one could logically suggest. The next part of a paradox you can probably see already in the Raven problem above: the conclusion that logic leads you to must seem contradictory to reality: ie, if I tell you that the greenness of my apple suggests that all ravens are black, you will probably think that is absurd, that the statement I am making is impossible. If I show you my entire line of reasoning, then you can combine the two: you can say the statement is logical (it follows the rules of logic) but contradictory (it suggests something which seems manifestly false). Voila, paradox.
Of course paradoxes can be much simpler than this - I gave you a longer example here simply because I think it is easier to understand the concept of a logical statement if you have to think through the logic to get there. But another paradox is the sort you might hear in a brainteaser: “This statement is false.” To place it in more explicitly logical terms, we might break it down thusly:
If the statement, “This statement is false” is false is false, hen the statement is true.
if the statement “this statement is true” is true, then the statement is false.
(There are other , better ways to phrase this as well, but I’d like to get back to Star Wars here at some point)
The Sith Paradox
Now that we’ve said that, let’s break down Kenobi’s Paradox into a series of logical assertions.
1) Obi-Wan is not a Sith
2) Only a Sith deals in absolutes
3) Obi-Wan makes the pronouncement, “only a Sith deals in absolutes.”
4) “only a Sith deals in absolutes” makes a claim to be absolutely true
Now how do we resolve this paradox? Well, let’s start with the most straightforward solution: proving that the line of reasoning is illogical.
Is Obi-Wan wrong?
Let’s see, then, if we can resolve this paradox by dismantling it. If the suppositions behind a logical statement are untrue, then it’s no longer a logical statement. This should be pretty self evident. Take the following simpler example:
Womp rats are not much bigger than two meters
Luke Skywalker is a womp rat
Luke Skywalker is bigger than two meters
If I presented this to you as a logical proof you’d think I was a fool: because Luke Skywalker is not a womp rat, after all. (Or is he? OR IS HE?). Similarly if we can prove one of the statements false in Kenobi’s Paradox, we will be able to dismiss it.
Start with point 4, let’s get it out of the way: unless we are going to dicker over the meaning of the word absolute, this statement is absolutely either true or false. Either only Sith deals in absolutes, or else others also deal in absolutes. Grand, that leaves us three other lines of attack.
Number three is similarly a no-brainer. Kenobi did in fact make the statement. I can present perhaps a conspiracy theory about this, but... no.
So, this leaves us with two options: we can either prove that Obi Wan is a Sith (plot twist), or that His statement was false. It’s a pretty easy point to argue, after all, and by far the easiest reaction. Obi Wan often claims things are true - in truth all people claim things are true, either implicitly or explicitly all the time. Such a claim is an absolute statement. So the first solution is to say simply, “Obi-Wan is wrong.”
This is called a falsidical paradox, one that not only appears false, but actually IS false, due to an error in the logic that led up to it. This process of examining he logical proposition o ero is one way in which paradoxes are useful - they allow us to phrase arguments in ways hat suggest weaknesses in our underlying assumptions.
The paradoxical phrase “Only a Sith deals in absolutes”, if we assume this line of reasoning, allows us in this case to examine the Jedi order more closely (if, and I know this is a bold assumption, we assume the error was not simply the result of poor scriptwriting). The Jedi declare themselves opposed to absolutes - but not only does it appear that hey don’t really oppose absolutes, but one has to ask: can you truly be opposed to that?
The Jedi are prey to weaknesses, perhaps, in their own philosophy. To suggest that you can make an organization who will fight for balance is perhaps a contradiction in terms. Is it possible to fight against absolute ideas without having an absolute idea to oppose it? Can you fight evil, without a conception of what good is? Or at least a conception of what evil is? And or this conception o be useful, does it not need o assume hat Old is (absolutely) good and evil is evil?
But what if Obi-Wan is right?
What if, instead of proving that I’m wrong, we approach the paradox differently? Instead of proving that what seems false is false, what if we find a way to show that what seems false is actually true? It seems absurd that Kenobi would present an absolute that seems to contradict itself, but what if it doesn’t contradict itself at all? Let’s look at what he says more closely:
Only a Sith deals in absolutes
If we replaced the word “deals” with “believes” then I think the statement would be indefensible as argued above. But this one word feels like the lynchpin of ambiguity that could save this particular paradox.
To understand this , then, let’s look at the wider context - what is going on in the scene? A negotiation. Is Kenobi with Annie, or against him? But that very act of negotiation uses an absolute in a truly terrifying way. It offers his brother an ultimatum: you cannot disagree with me without becoming my enemy. You are either absolutely with me or absolutely against me.
Annakin does not perhaps realize yet how evil he has become, but Kenobi is trying, perhaps to help him see it: Negotiating (is, dealing) with an ultimatum (ie, an absolute) dooms any disagreement to conflict, and by extension, suffering. Which is to say that to deal in absolutes is to invite suffering as a means of exerting power over others, which is really what the Sith are about, whether or not you happen to belong to the cult or not (I accept here that the word Sith is often used metaphorically to include a devotion to the ideals the Sith hold, more generally, such that one might consider, say, Tarkin a Sith in this metaphorical sense).
This is called a veridical paradox, one in which we find that what appears absurd is, in fact, nonetheless true. The power of the paradox in this case is that it invites us to truly consider what the meaning of a statement is. To say “Anakin, ultimatums make people suffer” lacks the rhetorical power that invites self examination. Paradox is fascinating to us as humans, it is a puzzlement and humans are uncomfortable with puzzles they cannot solve. To present an enigma, then, or a paradox, is to give the listener the opportunity to consider your ideas carefully, and to truly think through their conclusions.
What if Kenobi’s statement is impossible?
Remember, for a moment our previous example of a paradox, now:
‘This statement is false.’
This sort of statement is, truly, self-contradictory and can leave us in a state in which neither of the above solutions is available, and the statement is simply unresolvable - we cannot dismiss it as a logical statement, but we also cannot make sense of it. Famed philosopher Immanuel Kant used these to great effect, calling such conflicts antinomies.
In order to examine an antinomy, it is useful to present the conflict of the paradox as a question with two equally logical but mutually exclusive responses: the thesis and antithesis. Let’s take for an example the example above: this statement is false.
Question: is the phrase ‘this statement is false’ true or false?
Thesis: the phrase is false
Proof: That which is not true is false. By identity that which is false is false, so if the statement is false, it is false. If the statement is true then the supposition that it is true is not true, and it is therefore false. Thus the phrase is false.
Antithesis: the phrase is true
Proof: If the statement is true, then that which is true is true, by identity. If the statement is false, then it meets the requirements of the supposition and is therefore true
Self referential statements are hard to read. And either one of these statements feels confusing - it is in fact, as Soren Kierkegaard puts it, impossible to think them. But, let’s get back to Kierkegaard later.
Kant’s antinomies are more, let us say, material than this little brainteaser, and perhaps more relevant to what Kenobi is tying o do. For instance (and we won’t go through the proof here, Kant wrote a painfully thick book that jumps off of this subject, called ‘A Critique of Pure Reason’), he writes fairly reasonable proofs showing that time is eternal, but also that time has a beginning and end, or the same with the infinite/finite boundaries of the universe.
That being said, within the confines of this article, I don’t think we have the evidence to reasonably argue that Kenobi’s Paradox is an antinomy. Each of the premises are insufficiently precise to provide a truly self evident set of contradicting, but logically taut proofs. If one were to clearly agree upon the precise meaning of terms like ‘Sith,’ ‘Jedi’, and ‘deals’, perhaps you could however, and it’s entirely possible that within the context of the relationship between our participants, they would have sufficient mutual understanding to argue the point.
And yet... they don’t. And perhaps that can help us to understand perhaps, in my mind, the most interesting question:
Why is Obi-Wan using a paradox in the first place?
Paradoxical statements, no matter which of these varieties they are, are actually very useful tools.
One such purpose is as a way of expressing a thorny larger issue, either practical or theoretical. Let’s take the raven example from earlier. It feels like rather a pointless exercise in mental gymnastics at first glance. But for a moment, let’s relate it to a larger question, something like:
‘Is evolution real?’
To say yes or no is our normal response - indeed, one might say that our normal response to questions of debate is a rather Sith-like one, we choose an absolute answer and then presume to impose that absolute through argument. But really, with science, in soemthing like evolutionary biology, we make hypotheses and then we collect evidence to test the hypothesis (please note that I use the word test, not prove - this is an important distinction and one we often forget). The more nuanced answer then is to say, just as the ornithologist in our paradox might, “there is a high level of consensus amongst those who specialize in collecting and interpreting evidence on this question that evolution is the most reasonable description of the nature of gradual change over time that we have currently formulated.
Now, the paradox becomes useful. It is a way, without getting into the complex specifics of evolutionary biology, to discuss the complexities of the truth value of a description of evolution. On the one hand the raven paradox points out that evidence has tremendous power, allowing all sorts of disparate data to be combined to examine a proposition indirectly - we cannot perhaps directly see evolution, but indirect evidence can be used through the power of the scientific method to examine a proposition. That is otherwise difficult to test.
On the other hand, one can also use the paradox to discuss the weaknesses of the scientific method. It is worth pointing out, for example, that, until one finds a counter example, finding the white doves in the example provides equal evidence of both the hypothesis that ravens are black and the hypothesis that ravens are red. In this sense to say ‘only a Sith deals in absolutes’ can be a means to discuss the more contentious immediate problem of ‘you wish to murder me because I won’t support you and I’m not cool with that.’ If both sides accept the challenge of the paradox they can use it as a tool to explore the subtleties of the question at hand. Perhaps this leads to a veridical or falsidical conclusion where one side convinces the other. Or perhaps it simply leads to an understanding of the honest intent of both sides, encouraging a more tolerant mutual understanding.
Another use, however, returns us to Mr Kierkegaard, mentioned earlier. Kierkegaard posits that humans have a desire to think that which is impossible to think, that we seek paradox: for good reason: because these paradoxes are our point of access into truths beyond reason. As a Christian for instance (and I’m way, way oversimplifying here) he might point the paradox that if one believes that God came to earth in the form of Christ, it means that God’s omnipotence gives him sufficient power to make himself powerless and lowly, subject to death, the very typifier of powerlessness. Or put differently:
God is omnipotent, in that he has the power to perform any imaginable action.
Death is a state in which one loses he ability to perform actions that require a body.
To die is an action.
God has the power to make himself unable o are actions.
To e omnipotent would be to be ale to action in death, but this negates he definition of death as a state in which has no power of the body.
It is the impossibility of this that breaks the mundane confines of reason and allows humans to have faith: to believe a thing which cannot be proven or disproven (a paradox in its own rite).
Zen Buddhism which is the inspiration I believe for much of the Zjedi religion, expresses paradoxes in explicit mental exercise called Koans, meant to inspire enlightenment in the listener. This the famous ‘what is the sound of one hand clapping; riddle. Riddles and paradoxes in Zen (oversimplifying again here) are a way of providing a lens for looking at things we cannot see directly. As Emily Dickinson puts it:
Tell the truth, but tell it slant —
Success in circuit lies
Or to put it differently: if you wish to know something that you, as a human, are incapable of thinking, you must find it by looking at the space around, not at it directly. In religion, a related concept is called Apophatic. Theology, which is a way of seeking to understand what god is by describing what god is not.
Let us take the indulgence then, of assuming this use of paradox as a slant-truthed apophatic way of discussing the incomprehensible complex nature of the Force, much as Zen monasteries would use a koan. Now imagine yourself as Kenobi, looking at your student, giving in to the dark side. How do you get through. To them? Direct reason? No, after all Palpatine has already presented an argument that, by pure reason, is pretty compelling. And if Anakin has accepted that argument Nd begun to hate, hate comes from anger, anger comes from fear. What soothes fear? Fear is dark, and darkness is relieved by light. Light comes not from simple persuasion but by, quite literally enlightenment. In that moment of desperation, then, what better tool could the teacher exercise than the paradox that brings the light which it is impossible to think? That you have to feel instead?