Plugging In

Moment of Death is a compelling National Geographic documentary about the medical phenomenon of death. In one part, a series of experts give various opinions on whether the whole near-death light-at-the-end-of-a-tunnel phenomenon is a form of brain malfunction or a supernatural experience. One of them says something like the following.

A principle of physics is that energy cannot be created or destroyed. Some people believe life to be a form of energy. So scientifically it makes sense that life continues after death.

It’s easy to put this in the form of a syllogism.

Major Premise According to physics, energy cannot be destroyed.
Minor Premise Life is a form of energy.
Conclusion Therefore according to physics, life cannot be destroyed.

Can you spot the faulty reasoning?  Let me use some formatting to make it clearer.

Major Premise According to physics, energy cannot be destroyed.
Minor Premise Life is a form of energy.
Conclusion Therefore according to physics, life cannot be destroyed.

Two completely different senses of the word energy are being used. The first is a very narrow, precisely defined term employed by physicists. Say you’ve got a situation involving springs, moving objects, and weights at certain heights within a gravitational field. Physicists claim that you can quantify the degree of compression of the springs, how fast the objects are moving, and how high up the weights are, and if you sum these quantities together, you’ll get a number, called the energy, that remains constant no matter how the situation unfolds in time. Energy cannot be destroyed in the same sense that, in a properly balanced budget, money cannot be destroyed. Physicists may debate whether energy is an actual substance or just a bookkeeping device, but they will agree that is very precisely defined, and only has meaning within a specific context.

The minor premise employs what I’ll call the mystical sense of the word energy. I’m hard pressed to give a precise definition of this energy–am not even sure if it is a single word sense or a cluster of senses–but it has connotations of vitality and animacy. Sometimes it connotes a hard to pin down quality of a living thing (“She has a weird energy”), other times a pervasive non-physical substance (one half of Cartesian dualism, basically), and other times it’s a synonym of “soul”. There’s nothing wrong with using the word in this way, even if its New Ageyness occasionally grates. Expressing abstract, mystical, holistic concepts is part of the daily work of language. There’s also nothing unusual about the same word form being used to express markedly different concepts. (Open a dictionary to a random page and notice how most words have more than one definition.) Sure the existence of a shared term usually points to some metaphorical relationship between concepts, but this tells us more about the human propensity for creating metaphors than it does about the concepts themselves. The point of contact between energy and energy is a spandrel, not a gateway.

And yet people keep insisting that energy is energy.  If I had to guess why, it would be that the latter is a scientific term, and to many people science seems like a form of magic–an obscure form of mumbo-jumbo handed on from down high that, when used correctly, can make you very powerful. (I’d also be curious to know whether the energy/energy conflation predates the widespread adoption of household electricity.)  Regardless, you can’t tie the brake shoes in your car. You can’t shuffle the deck of a boat. And when you make an argument than pivots on the equation of your energy with someone else’s energy, you’re putting words in that person’s mouth.

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One Response to Plugging In

  1. Miz Crankypants says:

    Godless heathen.

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