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Tuesday, 28 February 2012

When is energy not energy?

The word “energy” refers to the ability of a physical system to do something. It comes from the Greek words “en”, meaning “in or internal” and “ergon”, meaning “force or work.” As a concept, it has it origins in the scientific work carried out mainly in the 19th century but building on earlier work into the relationship between work, power and heat.

Thus, we can think of energy as the ability to do work. Whenever something happens, whenever something physical does something we have a relationship between the work and power; we have energy!

We can measure a physical system's ability to do work and we use the unit joules or sometimes watts for that measurement. From working with physical systems, we find that we have different forms of energy such as potential energy (form an objects position in space), kinetic energy (from an objects motion in space), pressure energy, internal energy (a type of kinetic energy of molecules) and types of “energy in motion” such as electrical energy and heat energy. [Wal]

What about other forms of energy?

Scientists have recently proposed another form of energy called “dark energy”; the energy need for the expansion of the universe. Not measured but theorised from the observations of the expansion of the Universe. Couldn’t we, therefore, have other forms of energy like chi or other kinds of “spiritual energy”?

Well, no!

Things like chi or “spiritual energy”, despite the use of the word “energy”, do not exemplify energy in the same sense as kinetic or potential energy as “spiritual energy” has nothing to do with the workings of physical machines but everything to do with people and their emotions. We cannot detect “spiritual energy” using scientific instruments, we cannot measure it in terms of joules or watts, we cannot find any relationship between “spiritual energy” and the workings of machines. We cannot convert “spiritual energy” to scientific forms of energy like kinetic energy. It does, however, appear when dealing with people.

The ancients proposed the concept of a vital force that animated matter. Something that surrounds us and passes through us. People claim to feel its presence and have the ability to direct or control it. The idea of vitalism declined in the West as science showed errors in the concept through experimentation (especially the synthesis of organic compounds [SafKin]). However, the idea did not die out completely (and still pops up in some areas of science such as psychology [Tho]) but retuned as “spiritual energy” (taking a more scientific name but having the same properties as a vital force). Not surprisingly, as “spiritual energy”presents a more intuitive, emotionally satisfying, understand of the world [InaHat, [kei]] than the scientific explanation. Thus, “spiritual energy” has more to do with a “vital force” than the scientific concept of energy.

The concept of a vital force has a long history and goes back to the far ancient past. Similar concepts appear in different human cultures the world around (such as chi). It reflects our intuitive understanding of the world around us. People tend to use anthropomorphisms to understand the world around us. We have emotions that motivate us to actions so we use a similar model to understand nature and assume that some kind of force motivates nature to action.

Energy in the Design

The concept of energy plays an important part in our design for an alternative socioeconomic system but only the scientific concept of energy as our design has its roots in science and engineering. We use the concept as a way to measure what a real physical system does and what state it has.

We cannot use “spiritual energy” in our design. As a concept it offers nothing to measure and has no relationship to how the physical world works. We can explain much of what the concept of a vital force covers through other concepts that we can demonstrate such emergent phenomena.

Does that mean it has no place at all in what we propose?

Well, no. The concept of “spiritual energy” does seem to play an important part in some people's lives. Therefore, it has an important role to play on the people side of our design and important part in building up communities and for people interactions, among those people who seem to need the concept. So long as the concept of “spiritual energy” remains on the people side, then it has a positive role to play in a future society.


[SafKin] E Kinne-Saffran and R.K.H Kinne. “Vitalism and the Synthesis of Urea.” visited 2012-02-28

[Tho] Roger K. Thomas, Ph.D. “Hazards of “Emergentism” in Psychology”. visited 2012-02-28

[Wal] Göran Wall. “Exergetics”. visited 2012-02-28

[Ste] Victor J. Stenger. “The Breath of God: Identifying Spiritual Energy”. visited 2012-02-28

[InaHat] Kayoko Inagaki and Giyoo Hatano. “Vitalistic Causality in young Children's naïve Biology”. visited 2012-02-28

[kei] Frank C. Keil. “Folkscience: coarse interpretations of a complex reality. visited 2012-02-28

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