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Contact: Science vs. Religion

In the 1997 film Contact, astronomer Ellie Arroway detects a signal seemingly from the star Vega. It communicates prime numbers and contains an enhanced version of the first human TV signal powerful enough to escape into space: Hitler’s opening speech at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin. As clear evidence of extraterrestrial life, news of the signal spreads and turns Ellie's world upside-down.

Later, more data is discovered in the signal, but it can’t be deciphered. The key is given to Ellie by S. R. Hadden (a wealthy equivalent to Elon Musk), who financed Ellie’s project and gained access to the data. The key reveals that the signal contains blueprints for a giant machine that, when activated, is designed to drop a capsule carrying a human into it. Ellie is selected to be this human. When dropped, she has the experience of traveling, via wormholes, to the center of the galaxy, where she meets an alien who takes the form of her deceased father. He explains that this is how first contact is made with civilizations once they start sending signals into space.

After what seems to be a total trip time of ~18 hours for Ellie, and a trip back to Earth, she splashes into the ocean beneath the machine. But to those observing from the outside, it appears that Ellie merely dropped straight through the machine. Instruments show that she was out of contact only for a second, and the video that shows her capsule falling through the machine is only a few seconds long.

Ellie is brought before a Congressional committee to provide evidence of her encounter. But besides her experience, she has none. National Security Advisor Michael Kitz, the antagonist of the film, suggests it’s more likely that her experience was a hallucination and that the whole thing was a hoax perpetrated by Hadden. He faked the signal from a satellite to trick the government into paying for his experimental machine. That’s how he had access to the embedded blueprints and why only he knew how to decode them. Ellie agrees that this is the better, simpler explanation (that it’s even what she would think if she were in Kitz’s position), but, she can’t doubt her experience. “I can’t prove it,” Ellie says. “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.”

Personal Experience vs. Scientific Reasoning

Despite the fact that Contact is clearly critical of closed-minded religious fundamentalists like the evangelical spokesman Richard Rank, the film clearly defends the thesis that science and religion are compatible. Ellie’s love interest in the film is Palmer Joss, a reverend who says that his belief in God is justified by a vivid religious experience. He was looking into the sky, felt a presence, and knew “it was God.” He wasn’t alone.

Ellie initially dismisses his experience as wishful thinking. However, at the end of the film, Ellie ends up doing just what Palmer did: trusting her own experience, even though she openly admits that it’s more likely a result of wishful thinking. Palmer’s last line in the film has him saying that he believes Ellie’s experience was legitimate. But if Ellie is justified in believing she visited aliens based on her own personal experience, isn’t Palmer justified in believing in God based on his personal experience?

The moral lesson of Contact (a story written by the agnostic Carl Sagan) seems to be that belief in God can be justified, even for those that are scientifically minded. But this moral lesson is true only if Ellie actually is justified in believing her own personal experience above and beyond the simpler scientific explanation.

Science so successfully describes and predicts the world because it recognizes, and is designed to guard against, the myriad of ways personal experience can lead us astray. For example, our sight is not as reliable as we assume; we hallucinate, and optical illusions fool us. Mistakes in intuitive reasoning also mislead us. The upshot is that even if something seems real, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it is.

To discover the way the world is, science requires us to follow specific procedures to guard against the many ways we lead ourselves astray. For example, if you want to know if a medication really works, you have to perform a repeatable, double-blinded, placebo-controlled trial. And history has shown this works. Science has a proven track record of exposing the truth. Though scientific theories continue to be upgraded, it doesn't mean that the scientific models were initially entirely wrong. Science advances by improving on past theories.

Because science is more reliable than personal experience, it would seem that, when there is a conflict, we should trust the former over the latter. There are examples that might make one think that violating this conflict rule can sometimes be rational. For example, when Willem de Vlamingh first saw a black swan in Australia in 1697, all previously observed swans were white. Consequently, “all swans are white” was the prevailing scientific view. Yet Willem wasn’t doing anything irrational when, after seeing a black swan, he concluded that “some swans are black.” And this is true. So, one might argue, if we could never rationally violate the conflict rule, scientific knowledge could never advance. We need personal experience to reveal if and when the scientific consensus is wrong. But this is not the kind of personal experience the conflict rule is talking about. Indeed, Willem didn’t have a personal experience; he made an observation—a testable, verifiable observation.

Notice that if Willem had merely seen what he thought was a swan as it flew away, the “all swans are white” theory would have remained intact. It’s because he and his team were able to verify and confirm that the swans were black, that the consensus view was overturned. Thus, personal experience doesn’t advance scientific knowledge. Verified observation does. But if the conflict rule is right, and personal experience can’t override scientific evidence, shouldn’t Ellie have doubted her experience in favor of what she admitted was the better, more scientific explanation—that she hallucinated and the whole thing was a hoax? It seems so. Not only is that what other people should conclude, given that they aren’t directly aware of Ellie’s experience, but that is what Ellie should conclude herself.

Some might argue that Ellie can believe what she wants, and even do so rationally (even scientifically) because there is no way to prove, with observation and experiment, one theory over the other. But this suggestion demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of how scientific reasoning works. Contrary to what is found in textbooks, scientific reasoning is not merely making observations, forming theories, making predictions, and then preforming experiments. The shortcomings of this definition can be summarized in this way:

1. It fails to recognize Thomas Kuhn’s realization that observation is theory-laden. Without a background theory to indicate what is relevant, observation can’t produce anything useful.

2. It says nothing about how to generate theories or how to decide between rejecting or revising a theory if it fails to make accurate predictions.

Because every hypothesis’s prediction is informed by background theories, all predictive failures can be excused away by changing the background theory. Sometimes this is acceptable, such as when Newtonian mechanics failed to correctly calculate the perihelion precession of Mercury. But sometimes it’s not acceptable, such as when creationists excuse away the fossil evidence for evolution by saying that “the devil planted the fossils to test our faith.”

Most importantly, this understanding of scientific reasoning fails to recognize the importance of comparing hypotheses. The best way to prove your theory right is to try to prove it wrong. If you only try to find evidence for your theory, you can’t be surprised when you do. But if you honestly try to prove your theory wrong and can’t, that’s a really good indication that it’s right. And the best way to do this is by trying to prove a competing theory right. But to do so, you need a set of criteria by which to compare them:

1. Testability: making novel predictions.

2. Fruitfulness: getting those predictions right.

3. Scope: having explanatory power.

4. Conservatism: aligning with already establish beliefs.

5. Simplicity: not invoking extra assumptions.

Because making successful predictions in experimental conditions is only relevant to testability and fruitfulness, an inability to perform an experiment doesn’t prevent us from drawing a scientific conclusion. We can and should still compare the hypotheses according to simplicity, scope, and conservatism.

Ellie can’t prove the alien/contact hypothesis, and Kitz can’t prove the hoax/hallucination hypothesis. But the hoax/hallucination hypothesis is simpler (because it doesn’t invoke aliens), is more conservative (because, given the size of the universe, it aligns with how likely alien contact really is), and has a wider scope (it explains perfectly why Hadden had access to the blueprints and was the only one able to decode them).

Thus, setting aside evidence that Kitz may have hidden—given what Ellie knows at the time of her testimony, it doesn’t seem that she is justified in believing that she contacted aliens. The same is true for Palmer. Of course, we can’t perform an experiment to determine whether his religious experience was legitimate or a hallucination, but that doesn’t keep one explanation from being better than the other. The hallucination hypothesis is simpler; it doesn’t invoke supernatural entities. It’s more conservative; it aligns nicely with what we know about how the brain can produce such experiences. And it has wider scope; the wishful thinking explanation accounts for why religious experiences in all major religions don’t align. It seems wrong, then, to suggest that Ellie’s belief in aliens (and, in turn, Palmer’s belief in God) were rational given the experiences they had.

The Compatibility of Science and Religion

The film’s moral message about the compatibility of science and religion is on shaky ground. But are there other ways of defending it? Some argue that science and religion must be compatible because many scientists are religious. But the question is not whether there are people who believe in both science and religion; the question is whether such persons are being consistent, or rational. Is there is an epistemological incompatibility between scientific reasoning and religious faith? Can one rightly say that one is fully devoted to science and also embrace religious belief? The thesis that science and religion are compatible was most notably defended by another agnostic, Stephen Jay Gould, who called his position the nonoverlapping magisterial (NOMA) thesis. His suggestion was that science and religion cannot conflict because they are about two entirely different things.

Science is about the physical facts of the universe, what it’s made of, and why it works as it does. Religion is about “proper ethical values and the spiritual meaning of our lives.” And while the two domains, Gould argues, “bump right up against each other,” making our “deepest questions call upon aspects of both magisteria for different parts of a full answer,” the two never overlap and thus cannot conflict. According to Gould, science gets “the age of rocks, and religion retains the rock of ages; scientists study how the heavens go, and they determine how to go to heaven.”

But the NOMA thesis relies on the assumption that religion is only about ethics and meaning—that religious belief is never about that which is within science’s purview. But this clearly isn’t the case. Science’s purview goes beyond the makeup and functioning of the universe. Science investigates what’s happened, makes predictions, determines what exists and doesn’t—the list is extensive. Religion often does exactly the same thing. Indeed, a great number of religious doctrines conflict with science, and they include doctrines that are central to most people’s faith.

For example, take the resurrection of Jesus, the defining doctrine of Christianity. Although it has ethical implications, the doctrine itself is a statement about what happened in the physical world: 2,000 years ago, a man was dead and then was brought back to life through supernatural means. Such a claim has no scientific credibility. All our scientific knowledge suggests that the reanimation of an actual corpse is impossible. Even if we grant that Jesus was crucified and buried, having a purely non-supernatural worldview in mind, it's most likely that false rumors of sightings and his survival circulated after his death. Such rumors may have prompted the authors of the gospels to construct resurrection narratives. Or maybe those authors just borrowed from previous stories of other resurrected gods. Or maybe robbers stole his body, and not finding his body later caused the disciples to believe he resurrected. Or maybe Jesus survived his crucifixion; the apostles buried him thinking he was dead, but he woke up after a day and a half and walked away.

An actual resurrection would not only violate multiple physical laws (unlike the other scenarios), but invoking the supernatural makes the hypothesis less simple and eliminates its scope by invoking the inexplicable. One cannot fully be a scientifically minded person and believe that a man rose from the dead 2,000 years ago. You are free to believe what you want, but you can’t call a belief scientific if there is a better (or simpler, wider in scope, and more conservative) explanation.

But at the end of the day, take what we learn in Contact after Ellie’s testimony on Capitol Hill. Although Ellie’s device recorded only static, it recorded 18 hours of it, exactly how long she perceived her journey to be. Kitz kept this information classified presumably because he feared what proof of alien contact would do to society. If Ellie had known this, her conclusion would have been justified.