The Question of Contact

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On the 20th anniversary of the release of the film starring Jodie Foster, let's reconsider the big questions it raised

July 11, 2017 heralds the 20th anniversary of the release of Contact, the sci-fi classic based on Carl Sagan’s novel of the same name. Carl Sagan was, to some, a controversial figure. Indeed, the first time I heard his name as a teenager, the Christian punk rock band One Bad Pig was calling him a pagan for believing in evolution. (They suggested he would fry like bacon.) But even though he was a prolific science communicator (he hosted the first Cosmos), and was renowned for his skepticism of the supernatural (he authored Demon Haunted World), Sagan never professed to be an atheist. In fact, he called himself an agnostic and was expressly critical of atheists because they, according to him, arrogantly claimed to be “certain that God does not exist.” Indeed, he maintained that science and religion could be compatible and even suggested that science could be a source of spirituality (although he just meant that studying the universe could generate a sense of elation and humility).

Sagan’s views come across in Contact. Not only is Dr. Eleanor (Elle) Arroway (Jodie Foster) elated and humbled by what she learns (and sees) of the universe, but the movie also portrays science and religion as compatible and even seems to vindicate (but not necessarily validate) the theistic belief of Rev. Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey). Although Contact demonstrates the close-mindedness of religious fundamentalists through the comments of evangelical spokesman Richard Rank (Rob Lowe) and highlights the dangers of religious fanaticism through the terrorist attack of an albino priest, Joseph (Jake Busey), Palmer’s theistic belief, which is inspired by a religious experience, is portrayed in the end as rational.

How so?

Early in the movie, Elle dismisses Palmer’s religious experience, despite its vividness, as something that is more likely just the consequence of wishful thinking—he “needed to have it.” In the end, however, Elle ends up doing just what Palmer did: trusting her own experience, even though she openly admits that it is more likely that it was just a result of wishful thinking. She even uses some of Palmer’s words to explain why she can’t help but believe that her experience was genuine.

It changed me forever… [it was a] vision that tells us that we belong to something that is greater than ourselves, that none of us are alone.

What experience does Elle have? Shortly after Elle decries Palmer’s experience, she detects a beacon from space, and humanity builds the machine (apparently for space travel) for which the beacon contains blueprints. The machine operates by simply dropping a person, in a capsule, into the machine while in operation. When Elle is dropped, she apparently experiences traveling to the center of the galaxy via wormhole and conversing with an alien (that takes on the appearance of her dead father); the whole ordeal seems to take about 18 hours.

It appears to outside observers and instruments, however, that she simply falls straight through the machine. Senator Kitz (James Woods) points out that, given this, the better (more scientific) explanation is that the “alien signal” was the result of a hoax perpetrated by Hadden Suit (Michael Chaban) and she hallucinated (dreamed?) contacting the aliens. Elle agrees—yet she still believes that she contacted aliens anyway. “I had an experience. I can’t prove it. I can’t even explain it. But everything I know as a human being, everything I am, tells me that it was real.” In other words, she prefers her own personal experience to the scientific explanation.

The big question of Contact is, of course, what really happened? Did she just fall through the machine or did Elle really travel to another world? As director Robert Zemeckis and producer Steve Starkey make clear in the audio commentary, the movie is intended to be ambiguous; they even wanted people to leave the theater arguing with each other about whether Elle or Kitz was right. What is not ambiguous, however, is that Rev. Palmer believes Elle and that Sagan means for us to believe her too—or, at least, for us to think that she is justified in her belief. And since she is doing the same thing Palmer did regarding his experience of God, clearly Sagan means for us to believe Palmer as well—or, at least, to think that he is justified in his belief. In this way, by vindicating Elle’s belief in aliens, Contact seems to vindicate Palmer’s theistic belief as well.

But herein lies the important question. Even if we can’t settle the issue of what really happened to Elle, we can still ask whether Elle is justified in her belief. Even if you think she hallucinated, whether it was rational for her to continue to think she traveled to another world is still an open question. On the one hand, the experience seems to her to be legitimate—and people usually trust their experience, right? On the other hand, she admits that the hoax/hallucination hypothesis is (scientifically) the better explanation. Shouldn’t she thus embrace it? After all, by refusing to do so she isn’t just violating Occam’s Razor (the scientific maxim, referred to in the movie, which suggests that, all other things being equal, one should always prefer the simplest explanation). She is also violating a common practice in science: not trusting one’s personal experience above and beyond scientific reasoning. Of course, Elle may not have volitional control of all her beliefs—she may not be able to keep herself from believing in aliens, given her experience. But the question is not about what she could believe, but what she should believe—what it is rational for her to believe.

This question is more important than figuring out what happened to Elle because answering it can reveal what we should likely believe about a great many things in the real world. Our daily lives constantly present us with the choice of whether to believe our experience or the evidence—about everything from vaccines and global warming to politics and religion. So should we always favor scientific reasoning over personal experience? Or are there exceptions to this rule? And if so, when do they apply? By figuring out whether they apply to Elle and Palmer’s situation, we could end up revealing something important about the justification of our own beliefs—perhaps even about God’s existence.

Why Trust Science Over Personal Experience?

To begin, we should clarify why it is a common practice in science to distrust personal experience when it conflicts with scientific reasoning (i.e., scientific evidence or the best scientific explanation).

It’s well established that personal experience is biased and can be easily led astray. Expectation bias, pareidolia, anthropomorphic bias, the autokinetic effect, subjective validation and the forer effect, selective and constructive memory, even confirmation bias and availability error (I could go on and on)—all can make us see what isn’t there or even remember something that never happened. What’s more, optical illusions happen naturally (e.g., it’s an optical illusion that causes the moon to look bigger near the horizon) and hallucinations happen much more often than people realize—even in healthy people. Our perception of ourselves can even be wrong. The powers and limits of our senses are strong. To paraphrase my favorite critical thinking text, How to Think About Weird Things, the fact that something seems real doesn’t necessarily mean that it is. Indeed, more often than you realize, it’s not.

Science, on the other hand, is designed specifically to avoid such biases and limits. It takes them into account (along with the many ways our intuitive reasoning can lead us astray) so as to control them and thus reveal the way the world actually is (beyond the way it merely appears to be, given our perceptions). Science admits, of course, that our perceptions are usually reliable enough for everyday ordinary purposes, but also realizes that they cannot be trusted in extreme or special circumstances and generally cannot prove as much as people think.

For example, if you take an unproven medication and then feel better, that might seem to you to be proof that it works, but it’s not. For that you would need a repeatable, double-blinded, placebo-controlled study. Now, a personal experience like this might be a reason to perform such a study on the medication in question—and if such studies have already proven the treatment works, you could rightly conclude a causal connection in your own case. But because of the variable nature of illness, the placebo effect, and possible overlooked causes, by itself such an experience is not reason enough to think that any medication is an effective treatment for anything.

Something similar can be said about vaccines. The fact that a single child was diagnosed with autism after receiving the MMR vaccine is not evidence that vaccines cause autism (even if the child was your own). For such a link to be established, a controlled double-blinded study would be needed. (All such studies have shown no link; the rates of autism are the same in vaccinated and non-vaccinated children. It can appear to some that there is a causal link because the age at which a child’s immune system is advanced enough to receive the vaccine is sometimes around the same age that diagnosable signs of autism first appear.)

Now, that’s not to say that it’s impossible for personal experience to get it right while scientific reasoning gets it wrong. Of course it’s possible. The scientific method is an inductive form of reasoning. Since inductive arguments don’t guarantee their conclusions (they, instead, make them highly likely), scientific conclusions can be wrong. And personal experience can be right. So, obviously, it’s mathematically possible for two such events to line up and thus for your personal experience be right while the science gets it wrong. But the fact that something is possible is not a reason to think that it is true. The question is whether or not one could ever be justified in believing, in a particular case, that such a thing had happened. Since science is much more reliable than personal experience, when there is a conflict between the two, it would seem that (unless other evidence comes to light) the rational person should always embrace the former.

Let me explain by analogy: Suppose Bob is especially honest and only lies 1% of the time. Suppose Don is a compulsive liar and lies 99% of the time. And suppose you know these statistics to be true. If Don tells you something is true, but Bob tells you it is false, who should you believe? Clearly Bob, right? Sure, it’s possible that, in some circumstance, Don would just so happen to be telling one of his rare truths while Bob is telling one of his rare lies—but, in any particular case, that’s really unlikely. So, unless new evidence comes to light, if Don is telling you one thing, but Bob another, you should believe Bob.

The same, it seems, holds for when there is a conflict between evidence or argument and personal experience. The greater reliability of the former seems to entail that, all other things being equal, you should trust the former. Of course, if you can find flaws with the evidence or argument, then there really is no conflict. But, it seems, if one acknowledges that the scientific reasoning about something is cogent, one cannot be justified in citing personal experience as a reason to reject what it suggests. We might put this in the form of a rule:

The Conflict Rule: When there is a conflict between one’s personal experience and the conclusion of cogent scientific reasoning, one should reject the former and embrace the latter.

But are things really that simple? Can personal experience never override science? Should we always follow this rule? Let’s look at some specific cases where the rule is violated to find out.

Violating the Conflict Rule

First, let’s look at some cases where people violated the conflict rule but shouldn’t have. To begin, I’ll paraphrase a conversation I’ve had on Facebook.

Glen: I think the Earth is flat because when I look out to the horizon it sure seems flat.

Kyle: All available scientific evidence indicates that it’s round. All scientists agree. We even have pictures. Its apparent flatness is an illusion due to its size.

Glen: Sure, but every day when I look out, it sure looks flat. So I believe that it is flat.

Now, Glen’s not kidding. (Trust me, I’ve checked.) He’s also violating the conflict rule, when he shouldn’t. Indeed, the scientific evidence not only entails that Glen’s personal experience is wrong—but explains why it is wrong. The reason the Earth looks flat (from our own personal perceptive), even though it is not, is because it is enormous (while we are tiny).

A similar thing could be said about one who believes in ghosts, because they thought they saw one, despite scientific evidence to the contrary.

Nicole: I think ghosts exist because one night shortly after my grandmother died, I awoke to see her sitting on the edge of my bed.

Kyle: The existence of ghosts would violate multiple laws of physics (conservation of energy and the causal closure of the physical) and is inconsistent with neuroscience (which suggests that one’s mind is dependent upon one’s brain—it does not float away after death). Given how easily our perception is manipulated, and the power of expectation, it’s much more likely that you had a vivid visual hallucination. Indeed, such hallucinations usually seem more real (than their veracious counterparts) to those who have them, and such things are even more likely to occur around the time you are sleeping. Indeed, what is most likely is that you mistook a dream for reality.

Nicole: I know all that, but I still believe. You don’t know how vivid my experience of the ghost was!

Nicole is also violating the rule when she shouldn’t. You can’t invoke the vividness of an experience as a reason to favor it over the evidence—especially when the evidence in question explains why the experience would seem vivid even though it is erroneous. Given that Nicole is aware of this, her belief in ghosts is clearly unjustified.

Or consider this discussion about color that really gets to the heart of the matter.

Lori: That dress has the property of being blue and black, not white and gold.

Kyle: Actually, Locke showed us (and science has confirmed) that color is a “secondary property.” Objects don’t have colors as properties; they have other properties that cause them to reflect certain wavelengths of light that cause us to see certain colors, depending on how we interpret those wavelengths. So the dress isn’t white and gold, but it also is not blue and black either. The only kind of thing that actually has the property of being blue or black are things like your experience of the dress.

Lori: I know that, but it sure looks blue and black. I can’t seem to help but believe it is blue and black… so it is.

A similar conversation might be had about the solidity of objects. We perceive objects as solid, but science has proven that objects are mostly empty space. They are made of atoms, and atoms consist mostly of the empty space between their constituent parts (i.e., their electrons and protons). They seem solid to us because (roughly put) the electrometric fields of objects and our bodies repel each other; but if one were to continue to really (“ultimately”) believe they are solid, despite acknowledging the scientific evidence, it seems that one would be acting irrationally. The same is true about objects’ color.

These are all examples of when violating the conflict rule is irrational, yet it seems that I can produce real life examples where violating the conflict rule is not irrational.

Consider, for example, when Willem de Vlamingh first saw a black swan, in Australia, in 1667. All previously observed swans were white, so a cogent argument existed which suggested that all swans were white. Indeed, that was the prevailing scientific view. Yet it doesn’t seem that Vlamingh was doing anything irrational when he favored the conclusion “some swans are black” based on his personal experience of seeing a black swan.

Or consider Alexis Bouvard’s early observations of the orbit of the planet Uranus, taken at a time when science told us that there were only 7 planets. When astronomers Adams and Verrier realized that Bouvard’s experience didn’t put Uranus where Newton’s laws of planetary motion predicted, did they dismiss Bouvard’s observations as faulty in favor of protecting Newton’s laws and the prevailing theory about the number of planets? No, they instead hypothesized the existence of another planet (which was pulling Uranus “off course”)—and that’s how we discovered Neptune.

Something similar happened with Mercury, the closest planet to the sun. Newton’s theory couldn’t account for precession of the perihelion of Mercury (i.e., Newton’s theory couldn’t account for Mercury’s unusually wonky orbit). We tried looking for another planet that might be throwing it off course. We even named it: Vulcan. But we couldn’t find it. Did we therefore conclude that our observation of Mercury’s orbit was wrong, or that Vulcan really was there even though we couldn’t see it? No, we started considering alternative theories—and, it turns out, Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity’s ability to perfectly explain the orbit of Mercury was one of the biggest reasons it replaced Newton’s theory of gravity.

So we can’t say that we should never trust personal experience over cogent scientific arguments. Experiencing something that the current, well established, theories don’t predict or can’t explain drives advancement in science! That’s how we can come to recognize if our current theory is wrong. If we could never violate the conflict rule, we could never make scientific progress.

When to Trust “Personal Experience”

So the question remains: When is it okay to violate the conflict rule, and when is it not? The differences in the examples from the last section can, I believe, illuminate our answer.

First, notice that whether a personal experience can overturn a theory seems to depend partly on how well established the theory in question is. For example, the ghost and the swan stories are similar—they both involve someone experiencing something the current theory doesn’t predict. But the evidence behind the two theories is very different. The swan theory was based merely on all current observations of swans. Given that, at the time, there was much of the world we hadn’t explored, it’s not too surprising that we eventually found an exception. (Something similar could be said about our theory that there were only 7 planets.) The ghost hypothesis, however, is contrary to not only neuroscience (which is based on rigorous study and experiment) but also established physical laws (like the conservation of energy and the causal closure of the physical). Of course, they could be false too, but given how well established they are, the bar for proving them false is much higher than the bar for “all swans are white.” A single experience isn’t going to cut it.

Second, notice that in all the examples where the violation of the rule was irrational (flat Earth, ghosts, color, and solidity) the scientific theory the experiences were trying to overturn included within it an explanation for why the experience would be faulty (e.g., the Earth looks flat because it is so large and we are so tiny). The same could even be said in the vaccine/autism example. (They might seem to be casually related in a single case because they happen at around the same age.) If the scientific theory accounts for your personal experience by explaining how it is illusory, you can’t overturn the theory by pointing out how vivid the illusion is. This was not true, however, of the theories that were rightly overturned. Newton’s theory, for example, did not include an explanation for why Mercury would appear to have a wonky orbit even though it didn’t. If it had, the fact that Mercury appeared to have a wonky orbit wouldn’t have been a reason to reject Newton’s theory.

Third, in the cases where breaking the rule was rational, the personal experience in question was verifiable—they could all be independently confirmed, and indeed were. Vlamingh wasn’t the only one to see the black swans (he had a team), and he saw more than one of them (and was able to verify that, indeed, they were swans). The location of Uranus, and the orbit of Mercury (and non-existence of Vulcan) are independently verifiable (and were verified). Indeed, what actually overturned the theory in question wasn’t the experience itself—it was the confirmation of the outside event or object to which the experience drew our attention.

This is not true of the other examples. Take the ghost sighting. We can’t go back to that night and see for ourselves whether there was a ghostly grandma apparition on the edge of Nicole’s bed. Of course, if Grandma appeared every night and we could confirm it with multiple reliable witnesses and cameras, and rule out other explanations (like a hologram projector), then we’d have something much more akin to the black swan example and we might have to start rethinking our theories. (Unfortunately, controlled tests always make ghosts disappear.) But by itself, because of its non-repeatability and non-verifiability, Nicole’s experience won’t be enough. It’s just too easy for our senses to lead us astray.

The other examples are slightly different. Everyone can “verify” that (from the ground) the Earth looks flat, and that objects appear to “be colors” and “be solid.” But these experiences are still subjective in a way that the other experiences (of black swans, and the location of planets) are not. Indeed, I could confirm with objective measuring devices planetary orbits, or even that the feathers of swans in Australia absorb, rather than reflect, all wavelengths of light. I could never measure, however, what your experience of color, solidity, or even flatness is like. (Indeed, as philosophers are fond of pointing out, I can’t even confirm that we all experience colors the same way.) And so verifiability seems to be something else that sets the examples apart.

Notice that if only Vlamingh had seen the black swan as it flew away, but was unable to verify its existence (or the fact that it was a swan) to his colleagues, and never saw another, he wouldn’t have been justified in rejecting the “all swans are white” hypothesis. If we hadn’t found Neptune and no one else was able to observe the kind of anomalies in Uranus’ orbit that Bouvard had, we probably would have concluded that Bouvard had simply mismeasured its orbit.

Indeed, confirmation of such anomalous observations seems to be necessary for them to overturn scientific theory. When the scientists running the OPERA particle detector thought that it had measured neutrinos going faster than the speed of light, they didn’t jump to the conclusion that relativity had been overturned. They tried to confirm the measurement in every possible way. Only if they had done so (instead of finding the error that led to the mismeasurement) would they had even come close to being justified in thinking that relativity was false.

With this in mind we can refine our rule. Personal experience that is confirmed and verified—what we might call an “observation”—can overturn established scientific theories or be given preference over the prevailing scientific explanation. How easily it can do so (i.e., how much confirmation is required) will depend on how well confirmed the theory or explanation already is, but that is how scientific progress is made. Personal experience that cannot be (or, at least, has not been) confirmed or verified, however, cannot overturn established scientific theory or explanation—especially if the established theory or explanation accounts for why the personal experience in question is not reliable or was likely illusory.

What this Means for Elle and Palmer

Elle’s argument against the veracity of Palmer’s religious experience—“there’s no chance that you had this experience because some part of you needed to have it?”—is a bit sophomoric. In Lecture 10 of “The Big Questions of Philosophy” I explained that religious experience cannot justify religious belief for essentially two reasons. First, since every religion in the world contains examples of religious experiences that tell its followers that their religion is true, but at best only one religion is true, most of the time religious experience leads to false belief. Philosophically, therefore, religious experience can’t provide the justification necessary to generate knowledge. It’s just not reliable enough.

In a similar vein, science has revealed that religious experiences can be explained, without reference to the supernatural, by simply looking at the inner workings of the brain. Indeed, temporal lobe epilepsy is thought by many to be responsible for the visions and writings of the Prophet Muhammad and the Apostle Paul. Although the full explanation is not yet fully flushed out (this is true in most of neuroscience), it seems that for any given religious experience, the better explanation for it would be rooted in the physical, not the supernatural.

Rev. Palmer would, of course, insist that the vividness of his experience enables it to override such concerns—but his does not seem to be a situation where such a conclusion is warranted. His experience cannot be verified, and the scientific explanation accounts for the illusory nature of such experiences. He can’t justifiably counter such an argument by pointing out how vivid the experience was. Without further evidence of God’s existence, it would seem that Palmer’s experience cannot be trusted as veracious.

The same, it seems, is true for Elle—although her situation is slightly different.

Earlier in the film, Elle suggests that, as a scientist, she always demands “proof” or evidence. But this isn’t an entirely accurate description of the scientific method. While making observable novel predictions (testability) and getting them right (fruitfulness) are two things a hypothesis can do to “prove” itself to be better than its competitors, those are only two of five criteria. The explanatory power (scope) of a hypothesis, whether it is consistent with what we already have good reason to believe (its conservatism), and the number of assumptions it makes or entities it requires (its simplicity), are equally important. (The latter is Occam’s razor.) So science actually provides us with the ability to rationally accept one hypothesis over the other, even when the two hypotheses make all the same observable predictions—that is, even when there is no “proof” one way or the other.

Consider the heliocentric (sun-centered) and geocentric (earth-centered) models of the solar system. It is possible to construct a geocentric model that correctly describes and even predicts the movement of all the planets. But to do so one has to make a plethora of arbitrary assumptions. (For example, the geocentric model has to account for the occasional retrograde of Mars by suggesting that it doesn’t orbit the Earth…but orbits an arbitrary spot that itself orbits the Earth.) The hypothesis that the Sun is at the center (and so Mars only appears to retrograde as Earth passes it as they both orbit the Sun) generates a model which is so much simpler that it was accepted long before we had the ability to observationally differentiate the two theories—that is, before we had the ability to “prove” one right and the other wrong. (We eventually did so by observing parallax.)

The same is true for God. It’s often said that you can’t prove God does exist, but you also can’t prove that he doesn’t. Even if that is true, we can still compare the two hypotheses to see which is the more rational to accept. As Elle puts it, “What’s more likely? An all-powerful mysterious God created the universe and then decided not to give us any proof of his existence, or that he simply doesn’t exist at all, and that we created him so we wouldn’t have to feel so small and alone?” Clearly, the latter is simpler, and it explains religious diversity to boot.

Elle could respond with a similar answer to Palmer’s challenge that she provide proof that she loved her father. Of course, after she gives an account of all the ways that she behaved that clearly demonstrated love for her father, Palmer could point out an alternative hypothesis: that she was faking it. But what would be the simpler, more conservative, wider scoping explanation?

But, of course, the same logic applies to conundrum at the end of the film. She is presented with two hypotheses: the Alien/Contact hypothesis and the Hoax/Hallucination hypothesis. Given what she knows, it seems the latter is the best explanation (even though it is essentially a conspiracy theory). We have proof of neither, but the latter is certainly simpler (it doesn’t invoke aliens or wormholes). It also explains quite nicely how Hadden had access to the classified blueprints, and why he was the only one able to figure out how to decode them. And it seems more conservative in that it is more in line with what we know about how likely contact from alien life is.

Elle seems to recognize this herself; she just trusts her experience over and above the better scientific explanation. Yet it doesn’t seem that an exception to the conflict rule is warranted in Elle’s case either. Her experience can’t be verified, and the alternate hypothesis comes ready-made with an explanation for how her experience is illusory; she can’t cite the vividness of her experience to prove that it isn’t a hallucination. So, even if Elle can’t help but believe what she does, it seems that Sagan is wrong to suggest that she is justified in her conclusion.

Answering Contact’s Big Question

But there are two things Elle doesn’t know that seem to indicate that, although it wasn’t justified, her conclusion was right—and these things, I think, keep the movie from truly having an ambiguous ending.

The first is the exterior effects of the machine. Right before Elle is dropped, as the machine reaches full capacity, it creates an apparent gravitational effect that pulls an observing ship, the water it sits in, and the control room itself, towards it. This makes perfect sense if the machine is creating a wormhole; to do so, it would have to bend spacetime significantly and thus generate just such an effect. This makes no sense, however, if this machine is just part of an elaborate hoax. Even if Hadden had developed some edgy experimental technologies that he was trying to trick the government into trying out, something that could create such an effect is too far beyond our current capabilities. This makes the Hoax/Hallucination hypothesis non-simple and non-conservative. The best explanation for the exterior effects of the machine is alien technology.

The second fact is classified and revealed to the audience at the end of the film: although Elle’s personal video recorder records only static, it records 18 hours of it—a time that coincides with how long Elle’s experience seems to be. The Hoax/Hallucination hypothesis predicts that, no matter what it records, it shouldn’t be longer than a few minutes. So it simply can’t account for this. This makes the Alien/Contact hypothesis fruitful but the Hoax/Hallucination hypothesis unconservative.

These two things together clearly indicate that, indeed, Elle does contact aliens. Although, given what she knows, trusting her personal experience over the available evidence is irrational, it happens (in this case) to drive her to the right conclusion. (Again, although this is rare, because inductive reasoning doesn’t guarantee its conclusion, the rational conclusion can sometimes be wrong.) If only she was made aware of this other evidence, she’d be justified in her true belief. It wouldn’t require faith.

In fact, even though at the time of her testimony her personal experience isn’t reason enough to justify accepting the Alien/Contact hypothesis, it is different enough from Palmer’s experience to potentially have the power to do so. Why? It’s repeatable; it’s verifiable. Just send someone else through the machine! I mean, it’s already built, right? How expensive could it be? Hell, send Senator Kitz. If he falls through without experiencing anything, then okay—it was a hoax. But if he experiences traveling through a wormhole…well, there you go.

What can all this reveal about belief in God?

If God’s existence can neither be proven nor disproven, then it’s entirely possible that God exists, even if (as we saw above) that isn’t the justified conclusion to draw given what we know. But, until additional, reliable evidence is brought to bear, it seems the rational conclusion is to embrace atheism. Unfortunately for the theist, although people have been trying to bring such evidence to bear for hundreds of years—the cosmological argument, the teleological argument, the ontological argument, etc.—they are considered by most philosophers and scientists to be entirely unconvincing. (I lay out why in lectures 15-17 of “Exploring Metaphysics.”) Unless a breakthrough in these arguments is yet to be had, just like Elle’s belief in aliens at the end of the film, it seems that theistic belief is destined to remain a matter of faith.

Now, I’m not saying it’s certain that God doesn’t exist. As we’ve seen, even Sagan would object to such a strong position. But one need not do so to be an atheist. An atheist is merely someone who doesn’t believe that God exists. (We are all atheists of a sort; like me, you probably don’t believe in Zeus.) Indeed, one doesn’t need certainty to even claim to know that God doesn’t exist. Knowledge doesn’t require certainty; it only requires justification. (Otherwise, given movies like Inception and The Matrix, I couldn’t even know that the world was real.) And if atheism is the better explanation, then embracing it is justified. So if, in fact, God does not exist, the atheist has a justified true belief—and that, traditionally, counts as knowledge.

But whether you are an atheist like Elle, a theist like Palmer, or an agnostic like Sagan, you have to agree that twenty years later, Contact still proves to be a science fiction classic. It makes us think, it challenges our beliefs, and still makes us wonder: what really would happen if we made contact?

David Kyle Johnson
David Kyle Johnson is an associate professor of philosophy at King’s College (PA) and is currently working on his third course for The Great Courses: Science Fiction and Philosophy (due out in 2018). His first two courses, The Big Questions of Philosophy (2016) and Exploring Metaphysics (2014), are available at www.thegreatcourses.com.

Kyle was published in the first three issues of Sci-Fi Journal, has written articles on Doctor Who, Star Trek, and Battlestar Galactica for philosophy and pop culture books, and collected over half-a-million views on his Authors@Google talk for his book Inception and Philosophy.

Academically Kyle specializes in logic (both formal and scientific), metaphysics and philosophy of religion, and is also the author of The Myths that Stole Christmas. He maintains two blogs for Psychology Today (“Plato on Pop” and “A Logical Take”) and most of his writings are available (for free) on academia.edu.

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