Thursday, April 5, 2012

Contact - When Science and Religion Collide

Last night I stumbled upon the 1997 film Contact on AMC - complete with Story Notes. First, let me say that I love Story Notes. The nerd in me loves to learn more about the details and impetus of those who create film, and this program allows a peek into that world.

Contact, aside from being a great science fiction film, is an amazing philosophical conversation between science and religion. Ellie Arroway, the films protagonist (played by Jodie Foster) is driven by an empirical focus on science that leads her to the discovery of an extraterrestrial communication from near the star Vega. Alongside this attempt to communicate with a far off civilization is a deep internal and external conflict between faith and science. Arroway is an atheist, but romantically entangled with philosopher Palmer Joss (played by Matthew McConaughey) who is constantly presenting Arroway with soul searching quandaries. The film is truly an exploration of faith, science, and the balance between the two.

All too often our culture pits religious belief and science against each other in this false dichotomy that indulges zealots and reinforces division. We are forced to choose between two ill-fitting paradigms that poorly explain any one persons thoughts on the world. A person asserts belief in the notion of a "Big Bang" and they are automatically ostracized by the religious community. Conversely an individual ascribes to a particular faith tradition and it is concluded that they must disregard every scientific finding ever concluded. This bifurcated philosophy is ignorant, overly-simplistic, and pompous in its absolutism.

As someone who has studied several religions, faith-traditions, and perspectives on the universe, and all from an empirical point-of-view, the one thing that resonates true for me amid all the varying perspectives and cultural viewpoints is the subjectivity of reality. Anyone who is cocky enough to assert their version of absolute truth over another persons completely valid view of the world is simply ignorant to the fact that there is no absolute truth. We all operate under a set of preexisting rules that we have created for ourselves, and those rules only apply to our own finite view of the world.

At the end of the film, Ellie Arroway's stalwart stance on the godless objectivity of the universe is swayed as it seems no one will believe the account of her intergalactic journey. She concedes that, as there is no proof of her contact with this extraterrestrial civilization, she understands how science must question the validity of her experience. That being said, she still believes that this amazing journey did in fact occur.

This line from Matthew McConaughey's character succinctly summarizes what I see as the thesis of this film:

"As a person of faith I'm bound by a different covenant than Doctor Arroway. But our goal is one and the same: the pursuit of Truth. I for one believe her."
-Palmer Joss, Contact

We are all seeking the same end result. Both science and religion are attempts at understanding reality in which we live. But both fall short in their need for absolute dominance over the other. Entrenched in eons of scripture and centuries of empirical analysis, we are all guilty of assuming superiority over other viewpoints. In a world of almost seven billion people, it seems foolish to assume that a select few know the nature of the universe, and the rest are simply fools.

Go and rewatch this cinematic adventure. Written by Carl Sagan and directed by Robert Zemeckis, this film still holds its own, even fifteen years after its release. It will satiate your thirst for great science fiction, and make you question your view of the universe. What more could you want this Easter weekend?

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