I watched the 1997 movie Contact once again. I love this movie because most of the time it seems to be truly wrestling with questions of philosophy, science, and theology. It asks questions that don’t get answered (just like real life). It recognizes that there are fundamentalist zealot Christians and there are fundamental zealot scientists. It describes scientists with an openness to faith and describes people of faith with an openness to science. It struggles with the problem of absolute skepticism and with the problem of faith when we have no hard evidence on which to base our faith. It recognizes that some experiences go beyond what can be measured with scientific methodologies. These are very good questions to ask.
I encourage the reader of this blog to give the movie a thoughtful viewing and allow the questions of the movie to become questions we also ask about life, faith, and science. I will quote a few of my favourite scenes from the script to whet your appetite for this movie and this discussion.
The movie is about one woman’s determined effort to detect evidence of intelligent life beyond this planet. Early in her life she has this interaction with her father.
“Ellie: Dad, do think there’s people on other planets?
Ted Arroway: I don’t know Sparks. But I guess I’d say, if it is just us, it seems like an awful waste of space.”
Ellie’s father passes away and she grows up to become a world renowned scientist who continues to ask the question she asked of her father. She uses large radio telescopes to “listen” for signs of life on other planets. She is part of the SETI (search for extraterrestrial intelligence) project. It is at this time that she meets Palmer Joss, a charming man of faith. Trained in a catholic seminary, but rejecting some of the vows of ordination, he calls himself a “man of the cloth without the cloth.” Ellie asks Joss “So what’s more likely? That an all-powerful, mysterious God created the Universe, and decided not to give any proof of his existence? Or, that He simply doesn’t exist at all, and that we created Him, so that we wouldn’t have to feel so small and alone?” This question is left open for the rest of the movie.
Ellie Arroway eventually receives a message from the Vega star system with instructions for how to build a large machine that transports her to the far reaches of the universe far beyond Vega. As she seeks to describe the things she sees she finds herself at a loss for words.
Ellie Arroway: [Witnessing a celestial light show up close] Some celestial event. No – no words. No words to describe it. Poetry! They should’ve sent a poet. So beautiful. So beautiful… I had no idea.
Eventually, Ellie meets one of the intelligent beings who sent the message to earth. The being comes to her in a form that makes it possible for it to communicate. It comes in the form of Ellie’s father, Ted Arroway.
Alien: You’re an interesting species. An interesting mix. You’re capable of such beautiful dreams, and such horrible nightmares. You feel so lost, so cut off, so alone, only you’re not. See, in all our searching, the only thing we’ve found that makes the emptiness bearable, is each other.
At the end of her journey Ellie finds herself back on earth but with no evidence that the journey even took place. From her perspective, she was away from earth for about eighteen hours; but from earth’s perspective she was never gone. The recording devices show nothing but static and she is left trying to explain a personal experience for which she has no physical evidence.
Panel member: Doctor Arroway, you come to us with no evidence, no record, no artifacts. Only a story that to put it mildly strains credibility. Over half a trillion dollars was spent, dozens of lives were lost. Are you really going to sit there and tell us we should just take this all… on faith?
[pause, Ellie looks at Palmer]
Michael Kitz: Please answer the question, doctor.
Ellie Arroway: Is it possible that it didn’t happen? Yes. As a scientist, I must concede that, I must volunteer that.
Michael Kitz: Wait a minute, let me get this straight. You admit that you have absolutely no physical evidence to back up your story.
Ellie Arroway: Yes.
Michael Kitz: You admit that you very well may have hallucinated this whole thing.
Ellie Arroway: Yes.
Michael Kitz: You admit that if you were in our position, you would respond with exactly the same degree of incredulity and skepticism!
Ellie Arroway: Yes!
Michael Kitz: [standing, angrily] Then why don’t you simply withdraw your testimony, and concede that this “journey to the center of the galaxy,” in fact, never took place!
Ellie Arroway: Because I can’t. I… had an experience… I can’t prove it, I can’t even explain it, but everything that I know as a human being, everything that I am tells me that it was real! I was given something wonderful, something that changed me forever… A vision… of the universe, that tells us, undeniably, how tiny, and insignificant and how… rare, and precious we all are! A vision that tells us that we belong to something that is greater than ourselves, that we are not…, that none of us are alone! I wish… I… could share that… I wish, that everyone, if only for one… moment, could feel… that awe, and humility, and hope. But… That continues to be my wish.
William James in an essay on mysticism has said that one of the marks of a mystical experience is its ineffability. That is, for the person who has the experience, “no adequate report of its contents can be given in words.”* The movie Contact is exceptionally good at describing this ineffability. One of the last scenes, which would have made a better final scene than the one used, shows an interaction between Palmer Joss, representing faith, and Ellie Arroway, representing science.
News Reporter: Reverend Joss! Reverend Joss, what do you believe? What do you believe?
Palmer Joss: [pause] 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.
At the end of the day, both science and theology seek to find truth. May this movie encourage each of us to pursue truth with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength.
*James, William. “Mysticism.” In Philosophy of Religion: An Anthology, by Louis P Pojman and Michael Rea, 98-114. Belmont: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2008.
Contact. Directed by Robert Zemeckis. Performed by Jodie Foster, David Morse, Matthew McConaughey. 1997.