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God and Carl Sagan: A review of Contact

"Have you seen Contact?" Embarrassed at having said no to that question more often than to my teenagers' requests for money, I overcame my lukewarm attitude toward science-fiction and ventured forth, ending my bid to be the only un-Contacted person in Shreveport.

My reaction: If Contact were called "Green Eggs and Ham" I could say like Dr. Seuss's Sam-I-Am, "I do like Green Eggs and Ham!" Overcoming my tendency to use movie theatres for napstops, and skepticism towards astronomer/author Carl Sagan's peculiar mixture of science and religion, the film kept me hooked through the full two and a half hours. It even made prime numbers interesting!

In fact, judging from the few conversations I've had, its success at engaging the audience in the adventure may cause it ultimately to fail. Surprisingly, despite the fact that the lead character, astronomer Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster) often quotes verbatim from Sagan's writing and interview sound-bites, even many professional critics miss the film's purpose of promoting Carl Sagan's scientific, philosophical, and most importantly, religious beliefs. In what follows, I try to pick up where many left off and examine some of the dominant religious claims Sagan advances, with which I disagree in spite of the good time I had watching the show.

To Carl Sagan, up until his death this past summer, the three most important issues in the world seemed to be science and darkness, science and darkness, and science and darkness, by which he often meant truth and religion. His last book, {Demon-haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark}, even elevates this motif to the title. Religion, it should be noted, is normally a pseudonym for Christianity (other religions being less malignant but nearly as muddleheaded).

The few exceptions to this stark dichotomy occurred in crusading for social causes such as nuclear disarmament or global warming when, showing characteristic audacity, he invited church leaders to join him by using their influence in these moral struggles.

Contact's Religion

So what is religion to Carl Sagan and why does he equate it with darkness, or at best a benign fuzzyheadedness? To understand why Sagan might have represented religion with stock hyper-fundamentalists and air heads (Mother Teresa is absent from this show), we listen to interactions between Arroway and Palmer Joss, a lovable, thoughtful, sensitive priest (Matthew McConaughey). His romance with Ellie provides the movie's vehicle for continuing reference to religion, although he turns out to be as much a tongue-tied chump as a hunk before Ellie's tart one-liners concerning God.

In short, from these conversations we learn that Sagan believes religion (particularly Christianity) and science are irreconcilable opponents in a war that science has won, making belief in God implausible. Nevertheless, to his chagrin, belief in ``the God hypothesis'' persists in spite of the evidence because people want, or need it to be true.

A sampling of Sagan/Ellie's zingers, ``You act as if science killed God. What if science just revealed that God never existed in the first place?'' Or, responding at beginning and end of the movie to ``Do you believe in God?'' we get condescending negatives accompanied by Sagan's common mantra ``As a scientist I must go where the evidence takes me.'' This evidence is that either ``an all powerful God created the universe and didn't leave any evidence he exists or he doesn't exist at all.'' Undissuaded by poor old Palmer's only evidence, personal experience, she comments, ``and there is a chance that you had this experience because part of you just needed to have that experience?''

A Dissenting Opinion

It looks dark indeed for Christians when an internationally recognized astronomer applies the same techniques he used to unlock Mars's secrets to investigate our God and finds no evidence of the old fellow's existence. However, a little closer scrutiny produces a brighter outlook. It seems Sagan confuses assumptions for evidence, and provides sufficient personal data to discredit his claim to go only where evidence leads him.

Most importantly, when we get to the actual argument his conclusion turns out to be an assumption. A large part of his ``no evidence of God'' assertion rests directly on: 1) his assumptions concerning God's nature, a nature largely at odds with the classical traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and presumably Islam; and 2) his assumption concerning the likelihood that God exists.

Before she can look for evidence, a scientist must assume what might constitute valid evidence; that assumption determines what questions can be answered. Garbage in--garbage out. Bad assumptions--bad answers.

In our case it is not clear precisely what form Sagan assumed evidence for God's existence would take, but it seems he thought God should leave a sign that can't be explained by natural processes (i.e. science). He seemed to assume that any God would interrupt the orderly function of creation so that even skeptical scientist Carl Sagan would be convinced. Interestingly, in the book {Contact}, Ellie suggests some means by which God could do this including ``a monster crucifix orbiting the Earth.'' or ``the surface of the moon covered with the Ten Commandments '' (p. 164). Presumably relatively less evidence for biological evolution might also make Carl more inclined to trust the Almighty but that's a much less interesting alternative.

Sagan's failure to find flying crosses or holes in evolutionary theory invites many explanations including: 1) bad assumption; God exists, but not in the way Sagan assumes him to exist 2) God's positive and secure self-image means he doesn't have to prove himself to every gun-slinging scientist challenging his existence--even ones of Carl Sagan's stature; and 3) God's doesn't exist. Note that what one chooses from this list depends strictly on one's assumptions, rendering this useless as an empirical test. If you begin thinking it probable God exists you reject option 3; begin assuming God's existence doubtful and you reject the first 2 possibilities. The ``evidence'' doesn't change peoples minds; only reinforces prior prejudices. To claim otherwise, as Sagan does, is self-deception. Speaking quite bluntly he's missed the difference between an assumption and a conclusion, going where prejudice takes rather than where evidence leads.

The dubious logic in Sagan's statements bear an instructive symmetry to the Russian Cosmonaut Yuri Gugarin's statement after returning from the first manned space flight: He knew God didn't exist because he had looked for and not found God while in outer space. Identical logic! Make an assumption of God's signature--if you don't find it conclude God's non-existence.

Of secondary importance, his ``go where the evidence takes him'' claim proves to be mere pretension. The movie, the book it came from, and his other writings contain so many statements that the evidence not only didn't take him to, but are unsupportable (or wrong) that we might seriously question whether evidence ever leads him anywhere (well--except when he actually does astronomy).

Some examples: Mathematics, the universal language--a putative claim of the movie. That's news to the linguists among us. Similarly, no evidence mentioned for his famous, ``The cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be'' that opened his Cosmos television series. OK class, this week we examine the evidence for whether the universe is all that is. Next week we study whether it is all that ever was.

In addition, of great relevance for this review, his picture of unrelenting warfare between science and Christianity were largely based (by his own admission) on Andrew Dickson White's {A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom}. Written in the 1800's, Sagan remained unaware that professional historians have largely discredited its relentless warfare thesis. Ironically, the most obvious evidence--that science developed in the Christian west rather than elsewhere--indicates Sagan might have it all wrong; Christianity and science may be friends! Might he have gone where self-justification rather than the evidence lead him?

So where does that leave us?} It is helpful here to keep in mind that natural science provides remarkably reliable, but not infallible, answers to a very restricted set of questions concerning the physical properties, behavior, and history of the world (including the history of life). For example science can answer questions such as "What is the function of DNA," "How old is the universe," and "Does life have a history?" because the universe was created (or merely exists) with order.

However, science is powerless to investigate anything beyond the physical world. To try to do so is analogous to trying to investigate the properties of the smallest fish in a lake using a net with a two-by-two inch mesh. It's the wrong tool for the wrong job.

Science is, in a very real sense, quite democratic about religious belief or unbelief. As a consequence, to investigate religious belief be it Judaism, Christianity, Islam, atheism, or anything else, the seeker must go to the sources, and learn from the community of the faithful, the people for whom God is not just an intellectual question. To be sure there still may be intellectual issues of coherence, and truth, etc. to be resolved, but we should not delude ourselves into thinking that science can help us.

Joel W. Cannon
Dept. of Physics
Centenary College of Louisiana
P. O. Box 41188
Shreveport, LA 71134-1188

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