Saturday, September 27, 1997
Hollywood strikes out when thinking about God
By ALEXANDER VOLOKH
LOS ANGELES - "What is truth?" Pontius Pilate asked
in John 18:38. The answer is given by Jodie Foster in "Contact,"
and if you plan on seeing the movie, don't read any further.
We have heard of the controversy surrounding the movie's use
of Bill Clinton film clips out of context and without the president's
permission, but that is the least of the movie's sins.
The movie is about aliens, and it is also about the government
and science policy. But it is mainly about the conflict between
science and religion.
And while it is a rather pleasant way to while away a few hours,
it relies for most of its drama on a misrepresentation of science
and a misrepresentation of religion.
In "Contact," "scientific truth" is defined
by Occam's razor.
William of Occam was a 14th century English philosopher, and
his "razor," as explained by the scientist Jodie Foster
plays, is the principle that the simplest explanation is true.
Foster's character is the first to wield Occam's razor, when
she tries to convert a religious guru played by Matthew McConaughey
to atheism. Atheism, she points out, is clearly simpler - more
plausible, more probable - than the idea that God created the
world and left no proof.
Science hasn't killed God, she says. It's merely shown that
He never existed.
But Occam's razor cuts both ways, as Foster's character finds
out when she returns from seeing the aliens and finds that no
one believes she went anywhere.
James Woods, playing the slimy national security adviser, points
out it's unlikely that aliens would transport her away and bring
her back a split-second later without leaving any proof.
The simpler explanation was that the alien contact was all
faked by an eccentric billionaire engineer.
Foster's character, of course, was there and so refuses to
disbelieve. She hates faith, but she is forced to believe without
proof. Occam's razor is shown to be false and her argument against
So Occam's razor is false. This is nothing to write home about.
It was obviously false from the start.
Foster's character is proved wrong because her "scientist"
position was so self-evidently untenable, a straw man waiting
to be demolished. "Simplest," "most plausible"
and "most probable" are subjective.
Either atheism or religion is "simpler," depending
on how you look at it.
Any argument that tries to refute God or science based on "simplicity"
is doomed to failure.
Making that argument probably requires making some arbitrary
assumptions about God or the universe - essentially, assuming
the conclusion trying to be proved.
Anyway, the world is not designed for our convenience. Sometimes,
the "complicated," "improbable" or "unprovable"
The pinnacle of the movie, after all that brain work, is to
confirm what (even for scientists) should have been a no-brainer
from the start.
As usual in Hollywood, the movie cheats at the end.
While the Earth-based cameras recorded only a split second
from the time Foster's character allegedly "left" to
the time she "returned," her camera recorded 18 hours
So she did see the aliens after all, and this is scientifically
verifiable and buried in a confidential report.
So a serious, if overdone, philosophical point (sometimes,
the truth is unprovable) turns into one of the oldest stock plots
(the truth is provable, but the government is covering it up).
But the bigger cheating is the insinuation that this tells
us something about religion.
Throughout the entire movie, it is taken for granted that religion
is intimately bound up with alien contact.
Everyone, from McConaughey's character to a Ralph Reed-type
played by Rob Lowe and a religious-terrorist-apocalypse nut, claims
spiritual values are at stake - and Foster's character suggests
that seeing aliens will help her understand "why we're here."
But the truth is much simpler. Science has nothing to say about
the truth of religion (though it may contradict certain assertions
of some religions).
Talking to or visiting aliens has no religious overtones. Discovering
aliens is like finding that Belgium exists.
Discovering Belgium would increase our knowledge and enrich
our lives by exposing us to Belgium's unique culture, technology
and inventions - chocolates, endives, brussels sprouts and Flemish.
We might briefly (until the novelty wore off) be fascinated
that there's something we don't know. We could even get some practical
Belgian tips, like how to have nuclear technology without blowing
But Belgium and aliens don't prove or disprove God. They fit
neatly into an atheist universe and a religious universe.
They make us neither pure nor wise nor good. Everything necessary
for us to be moral and wise, as well as all arguments for and
against God, has been around on Earth, pretty much unchanged,
Of course, admit this and you have no movie, which would be
To be fair, there are silly scientists who believe that science
disposes of God, just as there are silly religious people who
believe that God makes science and exploration irrelevant. Life
is full of such caricatured morality dramas, witness the debate
The antics of such people can make a gripping movie and interesting
real life - and in a world in which people form their opinions
on science policy with substantial help from popular culture,
the two can be hard to distinguish.
But good drama is not intelligent philosophy.
Alexander Volokh, a policy analyst at the Reason Public Policy
Institute, went to the same high school as Jodie Foster. His views
are not necessarily those of Bridge News.
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