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I've been debating with a hard core Star Wars friend who loves repeating Yoda's "Do or do not, there is no try" knowledge.

I tried to explain that the DO (B) and DO NOT (C), are end results, you have to attempt to reach them by TRYING (A). You can't have not tried something but still reach the end result of either B or C.

I set up my argument this way:

All Trying are Attempts. Doing is an Attempt. Therefore, Doing equals Trying.

I have read some discussions that the point of Yoda's statement is that you have two end results. Do or Do not. However, you have to have a path to reach either Do or Do not. You can't jump straight to the end result. You must attempt the action to reach the conclusion.

Am I beating a dead horse here or am I headed in the right direction with my logic?

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    If "Doing equals Trying" then "Do or do not do, there is no try" equals to "Do or do not do, there is no do" – Mauro ALLEGRANZA Apr 13 at 12:44
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    Yoda's point is that one should not do anything half-heartedly, which "I tried" often signals. "Doing" is not the end result, your "attempting" is his doing, not "trying", if it is done full steam. You are simply using words differently, more literally, which is a bad idea with idiomatic quips. And fallacies are intended arguments that are invalid. Yoda is not making an argument, he is advising a certain disposition to act. Good or bad, advice, by its nature, is incapable of being a fallacy. – Conifold Apr 13 at 13:20
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    @BeachBum, remember that when Luke says, "I'll give it a try." he's very despondent, and lacking conviction. Yoda's intent was to remedy that defeatist attitude. It's a great line imo, because yes it sounds cool. But it gives a great deal of "instruction" with a very few words. It's also great writing for a movie... I mean Yoda could have given a very literal speech about Luke's attitude, but that would waste screentime and bore the audience. Like an elegant poem, the line conveys a lot of information quickly, even if it is not "literally" correct. – Ameet Sharma Apr 13 at 20:16
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    The extra "do" in all these paraphrases is figuratively killing me. "No! Try not! Do - or do not. There is no try." youtube.com/watch?v=h5SNAluOj6U – Tim Sparkles Apr 13 at 22:58
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    I just realized that another example of this phrase is: "Stop trying to hit me and hit me!" - Morpheus. Same thing, an attempt to break a character from their mindset. – Oskuro Apr 14 at 14:15

11 Answers 11

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The argument you're trying to formulate (as a rebuttal to Yoda) is this:

do successfully IMPLIES try  
fail to do IMPLIES try
THEREFORE
(do successfully OR fail to do) IMPLIES try

However, this critically misses the point. Your argument is uncontroversial, it matches the way Luke (along with most of the rest of us) sees the world. But the entire purpose of Yoda's statement, as with most real-world philosophical aphorisms, is its paradoxical nature. It's meant to shock the listener (Luke) out of a common mode of thinking. It doesn't represent a failure to recognize your claim about the world, it represents a deliberate denial of it.

Jedi philosophy is a synthesis of a number of different real-world philosophies, and in this case the message is very existential, in the Sartrean mode. Sartre once claimed that even a man with a gun to his head is still responsible for his freely willed choices (he can choose to comply and live, or not comply and die). In the same way, Yoda equates "will" with "action". In his conception, "trying" is a meaningless concept. A being makes a choice. If they fail it is because they have chosen to not succeed.

That, of course, is not the experience most of us have of the world, but it's a category mistake to call it a fallacy. It's a controversial, existentialist philosophical claim, not a mistake in logic.

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When read as a literal statement, it would be called a fallacy. However, Yoda is not saying that "there is no such thing as trying".

Suppose there is a heavy rock in front of you. You can choose to lift it, or not. "I'm going to try to lift it" is more accurately interpreted as "I'm going to undergo actions intended for lifting it, and if those actions do not successfully lift it, I will cease actions intended for lifting it".

From this framing of the concept of "trying", the act of "trying" is really just giving up on the action if it's not easy.

Yoda's statement is not intended as a literal claim, but rather a poetic one, intended to impart the wisdom that a mindset of giving up if it's difficult will result in failure where success could be achieved. He could have said it as "Stop thinking of it as 'trying'; if you are not confident that you will do it, it is likely that you will not do it"... but that's just not as pithy.

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There is no fallacy, there's a misinterpretation of the situation.

There are situations where trying and failing isn't particularly bad. There are situations where trying and failing is extremely bad. Say someone points a gun at you and demands your wallet. You can "do" (grab the gun and smack him offer the head with it), good result. You can "not do" (hand over your wallet, a small loss). Or you can try (try to grab the gun but fail and get shot). Yes, this is a situation where "Do or do not do, there is no try" is the correct advice. If the cost of failure is much less than the benefit of succeeding, it's wrong. Or when the cost of failure is practically the same as the cost of not doing - that's when you try.

Since people in "Star Wars" live quite exciting lives, Yoda's advice will often be correct for them.

And there's another point: Some things are difficult, and only achievable if you are really focussed and in the best mental state. If you consider the possibility of failure, that may be enough to stop you from succeeding. A used car dealer comes to you and doesn't try to sell a car, he comes to you and sells the car, at least that's the mental attitude. It doesn't always work, but it works better than doing it with the attitude that you just "try". Preparing yourself mentally to "Do" and not to "Try" can give you just the edge that you need to succeed.

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    You forgot the situation where you hand over the wallet and still get shot. Also, a car salesperson that doesn't try to sell me a car, but rather answer questions and gives me fair advice and reliable info is more likely to make a sale than someone who expects to make a sale by selling me on the car. – computercarguy Apr 15 at 16:40
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enter image description here

Steve Caballero asking himself "Do or Do not".

I always remember this quote when I want to drop in with a skateboard on a very steep ramp (but still much lower than on the above picture).

If I merely "try", I can be sure I won't put all my weight into the ramp, and I'll fall backwards and get badly injured.

So I either :

  • have to accept I will not do it,
  • or I have to put all my energy and my will into a drop-in, and know, before I do it, that I will succeed.

Fear is allowed, but doubt isn't.

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  • Mere commitment to something isn't a guaranteed way to succeed, either. You need the commitment to learning as well as doing, otherwise you're just hurting yourself for sport. – computercarguy Apr 15 at 16:42
  • @computercarguy: Indeed. Commitment is necessary, but not sufficient, so you can commit and fail. But if you succeeded, it means that you commited, and if you don't commit, it means you automatically fail. And for the specific example above, it's possible to train on much mellower wooden ramps, or even put mattresses. – Eric Duminil Apr 15 at 17:27
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    @computercarguy ahah. But would you say "do or do not, there is no try" before throwing stuff into boxes? :) – Eric Duminil Apr 15 at 17:43
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    No, but I'd say "What was a heck of a bounce" when something goes in. Especially when I do it with my non-dominate hand. When I do this, I'm trying to get it within 2-3 ft, so I can scoop things into the target box/bin/shelf/etc. easier. I'm not even pretending to be Jordan and "follow through" with the shot, just a-chuckin'-it closer to where it needs to be. :-P – computercarguy Apr 15 at 18:19
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    @DikranMarsupial: Skateboarding is much more a mental struggle than a physical one. It's not easy to achieve the correct mindset, and it takes a lot of work until it's possible to mentally visualize the desired trick. Once it happens, it's magical and exhiliarating, because the feet and board suddenly do what they're supposed to do. Until it happens, it's frustrating to no end. I don't know what other activities are similar. (Possibly computercarguy's example, of Jordan's mentally extending his arm towards the hoop). – Eric Duminil Apr 16 at 16:09
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I think there is a deeper philosophical point here... the nature of "willing" or "attempting" isn't all that clear.

What exactly does it mean to "will" my hand to move? It would be clearer if there were two separate entities... 1) the trying to move my hand. 2) the hand moving.

But for moving my hand... or for breathing... or thinking... I'm not so sure there's a "try" separated from the action itself. When something goes wrong, we say he "tried" to move his hand. But when things are going normally we don't think in terms of "trying".

This kind of reminds me of what Bruce Lee says about training one's body and expressing oneself. He's talking about an intimate connection where it's very difficult to separate the attempt at moving one's body and actually moving it. A quote from Enter the Dragon, " I do not hit, it hits all by itself." So Bruce goes a step beyond Yoda... Bruce there's no "try" but there's also no "do". It is just done all by itself.

The more confidence/control one has... the harder it gets to separate attempt and action.

Suppose every action requires an attempt... does the attempt also require an attempt? That gives an infinite regress. The nature of action itself is mysterious.

So it's not completely obvious to me that a "do" requires a "try". Actually I'm not so sure about a "do" either. Both doing and trying are mysterious.

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    As with many subjects in philosophy, the notion of "trying" becomes clearer when you look at it in the context of AI agents. This allows a more external, impartial perspective. What does it mean for an AI agent to try something? It means that the agent takes an immediate action a, in service of some larger goal g. The agent is "trying" to achieve g, via a. We may say that the part of the agent's mind that is seeking to accomplish g, is causally responsible for this immediate action a. – causative Apr 14 at 8:16
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    And by "the part of the agent's mind that is seeking to accomplish g," we mean that some part of the agent's mind can be understood as performing an optimization procedure whose optimum is the achievement of g. This part of the agent's mind, in other words, selects actions to minimize or maximize some function, a function that reaches its minimum (or maximum) when g is achieved. – causative Apr 14 at 8:19
  • @causative, so the try itself is an action a. so the AI doesn't need to "try" to perform action a... or if it does, then the chain needs to end somewhere to avoid infinite regress... So that would involve some action that starts the whole thing without a prior 'try'. Translating this to humans, it would mean there are some actions that don't involve a 'try'. – Ameet Sharma Apr 14 at 9:22
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    It doesn't need to try to perform a because a is an immediate action that can't fail (or at least is modeled as never failing), e.g. directly sending current to a motor. It does need to try to perform g, because g is an uncertain future outcome, e.g. picking up a box. – causative Apr 14 at 9:35
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    The firing of a single neuron is an immediate action. Perhaps it can fail, but more importantly is that it seems not to be an end goal of any optimization process - it's something a neuron just does. – causative Apr 14 at 10:15
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A similar quote is used in a Karate Kid movie.

That line was about walking to one side of the road or the other. Don't walk down the middle or get squished like grape. Either commit to learning Karate, or go do something else.

Similarly, Yoda is telling Luke to commit to using the force.

"I'll try" is often used to set up an expectation of a failure of an attempt to do something. It was certainly implied with Luke's distinct lack of enthusiasm for the task in front of him.

I believe that is what Yoda is exhorting from him.

Commit! And believe it can be done.

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Often my manager will set a deadline for a project, and ask me if I can finish a project by that date. If I'm pretty sure I can achieve what he asks, I'll tell him "I will" or "I think so."

If I think the deadline is completely unrealistic, I'll tell him I can't do it that quickly, and we can discuss changing the timeline (or he needs to discuss this with his superiors).

But in the middle there are situations where I'm not sure, and I also believe that there's enough elasticity in the timeline that it's not worth trying to discuss the precise dates. So I'll get him off my back by answering "I'll try." It means I'll do my best, but I'm not making any promises.

This kind of wishy-washy non-promise may be acceptable in many day-to-day business projects -- the world isn't going to end if a video game is delayed a few days. But a Jedi Knight has to deal with life-and-death situations. They need to be totally committed to resolving the problem, not just making half-hearted attempts.

This is the distinction Yoda is making. While it's literally true that trying is a necessary step in doing, when he refers to trying he means "merely trying" without a serious expectation of succeeding. If you have fear or doubt, that's a hole for the Dark Side to get in.

Additionally, "I tried" is often an excuse used after failing. But since you didn't succeed, what it really means is "I didn't try hard enough." Of if the goal was impossible to begin with, it suggests that you wasted your time, since you should have realized that beforehand. So you should know your abilities and limits -- if something is within your abilities, Just Do It®; if not, don't even try.

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It's not a logical statement. It's about that mental processes that go on in your head. Trying is not the goal. If your goal is to try, you won't succeed, because it's easier to just try and then stop.

Should you wake up in the morning and say to yourself "Today I am going to try to fix my car"? No! You should say "Today I am going to fix my car." At least, if you are in the habit of talking to yourself when you wake up. Otherwise, just think it.

You may fail to fix your car, in which case, you have tried and failed, and if your goal was to try, you have succeeded at your goal.

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Yoda's point is that like a lot of mental and physical coordination skills, it matters how you think about it. He isn't saying "don't try", he's saying "don't think of it as 'trying'", which is an entirely different statement.

It's actually a very common observation when learning new skills. Initially you 'try' to do it, thinking about how you move, constantly checking yourself, and mess it up. Your conscious motor control is very flexible in what it can get the body to do, but also relatively slow and clumsy. But after repeating the action hundreds of times, the subconscious part of the brain learns it as an automatic movement. You don't have to think about it, you just do it. It's like walking, or running, or writing, or typing, or catching a ball. If you had to think about how to move your limbs into the right position, you would be far too slow, and would constantly make mistakes. The subconscious control is more limited in what it can do, but what it does is done with a grace and speed the conscious mind cannot match, and is commonly not much involved in. You can walk and think about other things at the same time. It's like dancing - if you think about what you're doing - if you 'try' to do a particular dance - it looks awkward. If you let the automatic control take over and just 'do', it looks much better.

This experience is so common with athletes and others who have learnt amazing skills of mind-body coordination - the feeling of that point where the automatic subconscious control learns the trick and what previously felt awkward and difficult suddenly becomes smooth and easy, and the euphoria it arouses - that it has created numerous mystical and near-mystical beliefs around it. Scientists talk about muscle memory, athletes talk about 'The Zone". Eastern martial arts have a concept called 'chi' - a mysterious force that flows through nature, and that if you let it guide you gives you supernatural grace, skill, and power. (Sound familiar?) Taoism has a saying, that you should "do without doing" that tries to get across this same idea. You do it without having to think about doing it. "Doing" is using the planning parts of the brain to control it consciously, which is clumsy and usually messes it up. "Do without doing" means the subconscious does it for you, without your conscious awareness or direction, and achieves the result with a power and perfection your conscious mind cannot match.

"The Force" in Star Wars is fairly obviously modelled (for those who know about them) on Taoist ideas about the Tao, or Chi. Yoda is very obviously modelled on Taoist stories about ancient masters and sages, and "Do or do not, there is no try" is a close approximation to the Taoist ideal of "Wu Wei": action through non-action. It is advice to stop using your conscious control to "try" to do something, and let your subconscious automatic control just "do" it.

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  • Yes, the zone! or flow experience. As Bruce Lee says, "I do not hit. It hits all by itself." – Ameet Sharma Apr 14 at 18:36
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IMO The point of this statement is to say that there is no such thing as trying. If you try you are already doing it, and either you may fail or not and you have to live with the consequences. You can not try and if it doesn't work out, you just reset and try again pretending nothing happened, because that attempt is now part of your history.

So you only have a choice of doing nothing and live with that consequences, or do it and live with these consequences. Not doing something is just the same a choice as doing it.

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Taken literally Yoda committing a fallacy is. If you try to do something that you didn't realize is impossible, whether you end up doing or not doing is not up to you and the only way you will find out is trying. For example Hilbert (via his program) tried to establish the consistency of mathematics, but he failed because it is an unattainable goal. This ended up as a "or do not do" and it wasn't through any lack of effort, will or belief on Hilbert's part. All Hilbert (et al.) could rationally do is try.

Now what Yoda was probably trying to get across is that humans are not very rational and are unable to reach their potential if they harbour any doubts about whether they will succeed, and tend to give up too easily. So they need some degree of self-delusion in order to maximise their success.

This doesn't work for everybody. I play cricket and for years I had my team-mates telling me again and again that I wasn't scoring runs because I lacked self-confidence. So for many years I worried about my self-confidence and continued to fail to score runs. Then I realised that actually it doesn't matter whether I am confident or not. What matters is what I actually do on the field. So I stopped thinking about whether I was confident or not and just concentrated on watching the ball, on the game situation (and its requirements) and what the bowler was trying to do. Oddly enough, I started to score runs. For some, being rational is more effective than self-delusion.

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