Friday, October 24, 2014
Did Carl Sagan Flinch?-Kenneth Marshalak
Astronomer Carl Sagan was one of America's most famous and admired spokespersons for science and reason. An agnostic and skeptic, Sagan was a long-time supporter of the secular humanist movement. The hit movie Contact was made in cooperation with Sagan, and based on his book of that title. Remarkably for a blockbuster movie, the hero in Contact, wonderfully played by Jodie Foster (who is herself nonreligious), is an outspoken atheist. Indeed, the conflict between religion and science is one of the principal themes of Contact. There has been great debate among humanists about the merits of Contact the movie, and whether it does justice to non-theistic beliefs. Although the film was warmly welcomed by secular humanists, many felt that the demands of Hollywood populism must have diluted the original non religious message of Sagan, who tragically died before completion of the film. However, a comparison of the film to the original book suggests otherwise. The book Contact's lead character, Ellie Arroway, is an astronomer interested in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, just like her creator, author Carl Sagan. The plot calls for Arroway to discover a radio message from the star Vega containing instructions for building a machine to go there. As she carries them out, she holds discussions delineating the different values of science and religion with the other leading character, preacher Palmer Joss. Converted by a near-death experience, Joss questions evolution because no one was around to see it happen. Arroway, who describes herself as a Christian agnostic, says that Joss may just as well deny that electrons exist because he has never seen one. He wonders whether she ever feels lost in her universe without God. She suspects that he is not worried about being lost but about not being central to the universe. Echoing Sagan, Arroway asserts that all of science elicits a sense of awe and provides the means to perceive the numinous directly, e.g., by looking through a telescope. if sensing the numinous is at the heart of religion, she asks, who is more religious—the true believer or the scientist? The story line becomes disappointing in the final quarter of the book, when the aliens make their appearance during Arroway's trip to Vega. One takes the form of her father, who died when she was nine years old: "It was as if her father had these many years ago died and gone to Heaven...." Oddly, she asks the extraterrestrial about the myths and religions of his world rather than its biology. The alien then reveals that a message is hidden in the transcendental number, pi. From the perspective of those on Earth, the star machine never went anywhere. Like Joss, Arroway has had a profound experience that she cannot prove. She begins searching for the message in pi as evidence that the trip occurred. Her new project is described as "experimental theology," which Arroway thinks accurately characterizes all science. She explains to Joss that if the message in pi is found, "Everyone could be a believer." In the final chapter, Ellie's mother dies, leaving behind a letter disclosing that Ellic’s stepfather, whom she always resented, is her real father. The:only apparent purpose of this plot device is to show that scientists are capable of holding beliefs That later proved to be myths. On the book's final page, the computer finds that alternating digits, deep in pi, form a perfect circle: "The universe was made on purpose, the circle said.... In the fabric of space and in the nature of matter, as in a great work of art, there is, written small, the artist's signature ... there is an intelligence that antedates the universe." Arroway, the anguished agnostic, gets the unambiguous message she sought from God. The book's ending is a terrible blow to anyone not secretly hoping that God exists. Hollywood's Treatment The movie version of Contact has much to recommend it as an entertaining story and a refreshing discussion of ideas. Arroway is transformed into a professed atheist, and the book's major flaw, the Designer in pi, is eliminated. Still, the screenplay contains many unexpected messages troubling to humanists. In the movie, movie version of Contact has much to recommend it as an entertaining story and a refreshing discussion of ideas. Arroway's parents die in her childhood. No information is provided on who raises her. As a child, Ellie wonders if it is possible to contact her dead mother with her ham radio. Her father replies that not even the biggest radio could reach that far. No information is provided on who raised Ellie after her father dies. Some may infer that the orphaned Ellie drifted aimlessly into atheism absent a normal family environment. When Palmer Joss first approaches Arroway at a restaurant, she brushes him off. When they next meet, she appears intrigued that he is an ex-seminarian and hops into bed with him. Joss's faith is justified by personal experience—upon looking up at the sky one night, he suddenly sensed God's presence and no longer felt scared or alone. She goes off to discover the Vegan message, and Joss becomes the religious advisor of the president of the United States. They meet again years later. When Joss charges that scientists have failed to provide meaning to humanity, Arroway counters that scientists did not kill God but maybe only revealed that he never existed. Insisting on proof herself, she is stymied when Joss requests that she prove she loved her father. At the selection hearing for the Vegan voyage, Joss demolishes his ex-lover's chances by asking her if she believes in God. Like Sagan, Arroway avoids a direct response but finally replies that as a scientist she relies on empirical data, stating there is no evidence either way. Joss later confesses that he asked the question because he selfishly wanted her to remain on Earth. The film's other religious figure is even more despicable—a fanatic who blows up the machine. Ellie takes a second machine to Vega, where she meets her beloved dead father. Although it is clearly stated that he is an alien manifestation, these lines will be easily ignored by believers in an afterlife. Again, from Earth's perspective, there was no trip. Arroway concedes that she may have hallucinated and that skepticism is justified; however, she personally believes her experience was real. She received a wonderful message from the aliens: "We are insignificant, yet precious" (a common Sagan theme) and "We are not alone" (the same message Joss received when he looked at the sky). Arroway has had an experience she cannot prove, which is portrayed to validate Joss's religious experience. Apparently, scientists, too, must make leaps of faith. As they depart together, Joss states that as a person of faith he is bound by a different covenant than she but that their goal is the same, i.e., the pursuit of truth. Their holding hands seems to symbolize the marriage of science and religion, implying there is no conflict between the two. Finally, the film advances a conspiracy worthy of the "X-Files"—government officials have a confidential report disclosing that Ellie's video unit recorded 18 hours of static during her voyage. Sagan's Message Sagan's views on science and religion are well presented in his nonfiction works. His one work of fiction greatly muddles his message. This final work bearing Sagan's name, coupled with the decision to hold his memorial service at St. John the Divine Cathedral in New York City, will serve as evidence to many that Sagan made a deathbed conversion. For the record, Ann Druyan discloses in Billions and Billions that "Contrary to the fantasies of the fundamentalists, there was no deathbed conversion, no last minute refuge taken in a comforting vision of a heaven or an afterlife. For Carl, what mattered most was what was true, not merely what would make us feel better.... Carl was unflinching." Unfortunately, Contact clearly gives the impression that he flinched. Kenneth Marsalek former President of Washington Area Secular Humanists and a member of the board of the Council for Secular Humanism.. Contact, by Carl Sagan (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1985, ISBN: 0-671-43400-4) 434 pp., S6.99 paper. Contact, starring Jody Foster, directed by Robert Zemeckis, (Warner Bros.) 2 hours 40 minutes. Now available on video.