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Saturday, September 27, 1997

Hollywood strikes out when thinking about God

By ALEXANDER VOLOKH

Bridge News

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 faith discredited.

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" is right.

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 of static.

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 ourselves up.

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, for millennia.

Of course, admit this and you have no movie, which would be a pity.

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 on cloning.

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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