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Contact (the movie) and skepticism (or lack of?)

You can hear Ann Druyan's thoughts on "the ambivalence of our culture toward science and scientists (as she says), and how this is portrayed in Contact", at the following address: http://www.contact-themovie.com/cmp/int-druyan.html If you want to read Larry Klaes' excellent review of the movie at the SETI web site, then read below (or point your browser to the review).

 

Unless you really were not paying attention during Contact, or failed to read any number of reviews and summaries on the film, one cannot help but notice that a large amount of the plot was devoted to the struggles between the rational, objective methods of searching for answers to existence called science, and the general acceptance of things as they are without questioning called faith and religion. In one sense I understand why this battle between the two disciplines, which goes back to at least the dawn of civilization, is a part of Contact. Christianity and some other religions have long maintained that Earth and humanity are the literal and spiritual center of the Universe. We are the only intelligent, non-supernatural beings made by God in all of His Creation. Since we were less than perfect, God decided that we needed some guidance along the way. We were saved about two thousand years ago when God gave us His only Son, Jesus Christ, who died for our sins at the hands of the very humans He wished to save from oblivion. There are no other intelligent organisms anywhere else in the Cosmos because the Christian Bible never refers to any ETI (not counting Ezekiel and his fiery chariots). However, very few people grasped the concept of alien worlds and life when the Good Book was written thousands of years ago. God sent out His Son only once to save souls. Jesus would need to appear and die again and again for imperfect races on countless planets throughout space if aliens did exist. Not a terribly "dignified" concept for the offspring of the Ultimate Being in the Universe. Certainly it is no more dignified than the idea that humans evolved from lower life forms over four billion years of evolution on Earth. With this mode of thinking, it is easy to see why certain groups would have more than a little problem with the discovery of an alien intelligence. If such beings do exist, then does that mean their long-held beliefs are wrong? Disrupting a large number of people's faith is not a lightly taken matter. But this is now the late Twentieth Century. We are only a few years away from the start of a new millennium. In the two thousand years since Christianity first appeared as a radical Jewish sect in the Middle East, much has been learned about the world around us. We know now beyond a shadow of a doubt that our planet Earth does not occupy the actual center of the Universe. It is just one planet circling an average yellow dwarf star. Our Sun, as bright and powerful as it is in our sky --- not to mention vital to Earth life --- is but one of four hundred billion such luminous gas balls making up an island of stars we call the Milky Way galaxy. Billions of planets may be orbiting most of these stars. Nor is the Milky Way a unique celestial construct. Hundreds of billions of star islands populate our immense Universe. The Milky Way is just one component of a Local Group of galaxies, which in itself is an unremarkable part of a much vaster galactic supercluster. There is even the theory that our Universe may be but one of an infinite number of universes beyond our own.

 

How does a Judeo-Christian God fit into the human species and our world, now that we know it is not some unique realm in the scheme of things? Will He have to change just as our worldview has? Or does He now only exist in the human mind, and probably always did? This can explain why most of the faithful go right on believing, even after centuries of one celestial displacement after another. Rational thinking has always been far less comforting than the blanket acceptance of existence as stated by society's chosen authorities. This also makes for a less than flattering statement on the state of our education system. The previous examples bring up the reason why I question the relevance and amount of film time devoted to the tenets and differences of faith and science. We know that Earth and the Sol system are not the only collection of planets in the galaxy. Evidence keeps mounting that life may be commonplace throughout the Universe. We are no longer all just primitive farmers and warriors wondering about those lights in the night sky and fearing every celestial, meteorological, and geological event out of ignorance. As for Contact itself, it was no longer an issue that intelligent life exists beyond Earth. Despite Kitz's attempts to discredit Ellie's ETI signal discovery as a Hadden hoax and her wormhole encounter as a delusion, it has already been shown that not only did Ellie meet the intelligence behind the Message and the Machine (the eighteen hours of static on her video unit when she seemed to have gone nowhere in the Machine pod), but that the signal did come from around the star Vega and not some Hadden satellite in Earth orbit. We are left with the question of the existence of the Judeo-Christian God. Does this Supreme Being exist in reality or not? I think this whole area was given far too much time. Contact is supposed to be about the discovery of extraterrestrial intelligences and how humanity deals with this revelation.

 

Now naturally a religious element to this event is going to be involved, as it is a large part of most human mindsets and cultures. Some belief systems will be vindicated by the proven existence of ETI. They will serve as a sign to these sects that God is indeed most powerful by creating many worlds with diverse forms of life upon them. Other groups could be torn apart by their rigid dogmas if alien life is not one of the accepted concepts. The whole issue of faith versus science felt forced in Contact, especially with the presence of Palmer Joss and his debates with Ellie. Perhaps a separate film should have been made just for these issues. Palmer and Ellie could have a series of formal debates arranged by the National Science Foundation and the National Council of Churches (NCC). Most of their conversations on this subject came across in this manner anyway. "Believing" there are ETI is not the same as believing in a deity. Granted, there are plenty of people who take it on faith alone that aliens are not only real fellow members of the galaxy, but are also visiting and interacting with humans on a regular basis. However, actually attempting to either prove or disprove their existence is feasible, both with SETI programs and space probes. But as for God, just as Ellie could not contact her deceased parents with her short-wave radio, neither can we aim a radio telescope heavenward and hope to pick up a booming male voice identifying itself as the Supreme Being. God is a subjective concept, one that cannot be measured by any scientific devices. But does this mean that He (or She? Or is gender even relevant here?) does not exist just because we cannot detect God as we could an alien intelligence? While that possibility is there, making this a non-absolute theorem, there is far more evidence that people's reported encounters with God or related supernatural beings are forms of wish fulfillment, tapping into areas of thinking new to them, and outright delusions rather than reality. A good scientist would need more than just someone's word to decide if indeed God exists or not. This also applies to ETI: While mysterious signals have been detected by SETI projects over the years which seem to be of alien origin (the 1977 OSU "Wow!" signal being a prime example), they have not repeated. Thus the researchers cannot make any definite claims on the nature of these signals until they are found again and can be verified.

 

Case in point: While Ellie and Palmer Joss were in Puerto Rico at the Arecibo facility, Palmer relayed to Ellie how he had a personal experience that was so psychologically powerful to him that he could felt it could not be anything other than God contacting him. Ellie was not so sure that what Palmer really connected with was anything more than a part of his own mind. Palmer insisted that his feeling had to go beyond "mere" human thought, it was that strong to him. But the reality is, while Palmer may indeed have had an actual experience, there is no physical evidence that it was supernatural in origin. I refer back to my points on humans assigning conscious entities to events inexplicable to humans. Then we come to Ellie's experience with the Machine. The film tried to force her experience into being something like Palmer's, one that could seemingly not be taken on anything other than the faith that it really did happen to her. It was almost insulting to throw in a few tidbits of proof at the end to show that Ellie's journey through space was real. When the day comes that we do encounter an alien life form, especially an intelligent one, we will almost certainly know it. This will come from the rigorous testing that such evidence will undergo to ascertain its validity. Until then, scientists may assume life is plentiful beyond Earth because of the mounting evidence, but they will not say for certain that there is extraterrestrial life until there is undeniable proof.

 

As an example, take the case with the Martian meteorites ALH 84001 and EETA 79001. The tiny objects found in these rocks and reported in 1996 may be microfossils of Martian bacteria, but scientists will examine all the evidence thoroughly before coming to any conclusions. The scientific method may take longer than faith to find the Truth, but in the end, we will be on far more certain ground. One more comment on the reference to religion in Contact: Where did they get the number that ninety-five percent of the human population believes in God? The statistic was said twice, as a matter of fact. Seeing as twenty-one percent of the population alone either does not believe in any deities or are members of a religion that does not involve supernatural beings, this number is way off. Could those Let's Choose Who Gets to Ride in the Machine Committee members have been trying to yank down Ellie with this number? You know the old bit: Everybody else does it, why aren't you? They certainly seemed concerned that the finalist who did get to visit the ETI be a religious person as well. David Drumlin, being a much better political player than Ellie (then again, who wasn't in this film?), knew just what to say to get the coveted slot. If you want to give an ETI an honest representation of the many aspects of our many human cultures, religion naturally has to play a role in this. But was it a truly necessary feature for the one chosen to journey in their Machine? Americans usually want their pioneers to be God-fearing (generally Christian) individuals as part of their makeup. But was it necessary when visiting an alien race which may have no concept of religion whatsoever? It seemed to be more for psychologically comforting the passenger and those sending them out into the unknown, rather than serving as part of an information exchange about humans. I also think many people believe in God and the supernatural more out of fear of the alleged consequences if they don't before anything else. What they have been taught since childhood is also a large factor in this behavior.

 

I have often wondered how an ETI would respond to the image of Christ Crucified as being one of Christianity's icons of worship? Perhaps this is just a human reaction on my part, but I think that any advanced beings, upon seeing this barbaric form of torture-execution from ancient Rome in action, would consider the human race with extreme caution, fear, and perhaps even outright avoidance. ETI would require a lengthy explanation on the symbolism behind this image, and this could not come until after we had at least a basic understanding of each other's languages. Thus I hope that abstract religious symbolism would be relayed to our galactic neighbors well after we have established a more generalized system of communication and exchange of knowledge. I know they might have already picked up our uncensored microwave leakage, but one prays they won't understand all of it and will ask for explanations first.

Copyright (c) 1997 by Larry Klaes lklaes@coseti.org
The SETI League United States Northeastern Regional Coordinator
The COSETI Observatory General Coordinator

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