Monday, February 27, 2006


Last week Sami and I went to Circuit City (what an exciting way to start a post!). This, in and of itself, is proof that if your wife doesn't share your policy of throwing out all mailed advertisements before reading them, then they might have at least some chance of getting to you. Bored, and out of legitimate reading material that wouldn't make my head hurt more than it already did, one day I started leafing through the piles of unsolicited coupons and catalogues that my wife refuses to throw away. In that pile I found a DVD ad from Circuit City, claiming that they would have RENT (follow the link to read about my relationship with that musical/movie) for the low, low price of $14.99.

RENT finally came out last Tuesday, and so, enticed by the ad (which for once did not deceive or disappoint) we found our way to Circuit City. While we were there we saw one of my all time favorite thought provoking movies, Carl Sagan's Contact, for $5.99. Since the only thing I like better than buying movies is buying good movies for ridiculously cheap prices, we proved that my anti-commercialism is all talk, and snatched it up.

Carl Sagan was a first-rate scientist (despite all of the jealous grousing about him from other scientists toward the end of his life), who earned his PhD in astrophysics from the University of Chicago, taught at Stanford (genetics), Harvard (astronomy), was the David Duncan Professor of Astronomy and Space Sciences and the Director of Laboratory for the Planetary Studies at Cornell University, and served as a long time consultant for NASA. He was also behind the landmark astronomy series Cosmos, which made the Big Bang theory comprehensible to hundreds of millions of layman (and infuriated "serious" scientists, who thought that Sagan, in presenting a view of the cosmos which people like me could actually understand, had "dumbed down" astrophysics).

Sagan even combined his interest in astronomy and genetics to create a new (hypothetical) field of study, exobiology, the study of the biochemistry of alien life.

This alone might make Sagan the "starry-eyed" mystic of the scientific community. But in addition to his fascination with potential life in other parts of the cosmos, Sagan also took religious criticisms of science quite seriously. That is not to say that Sagan was swayed by the cosmological views of any religious tradition. It is instead to say that he saw that religion had a kind of function in the lives of people, an important function which science had not yet been able to perform.

Science, at its core, is concerned with describing the natural world. Religion provides that world, and our experience of it, with meaning. Thoughtful religious people have long insisted that while science is a valuable tool it, by virtue of its aims and methodology, is not concerned with and cannot provide ultimate meaning.

Sagan had the intellectual honesty to see the value in that criticism. But he also had the kind of bold, creative vision to not let the criticism stand unchallenged. Why can't science be concerned with meaning? Why can't science, and scientific insights, touch us in the same existential places as myth? Why can't, in other words, science have a religious or even mystical component?

Contact, both the novel and the movie which followed, can be seen as Sagan's bold attempt to answer those questions. Contact can be seen, like the best in science fiction, as a kind of intersection between science and mythology. Contact is Sagan's way of arguing, in the form of a story (like the best myths), that scientific observations and discoveries can, in fact, provide our experience of life with the same kind of ultimate meaning as religion.

Mircea Eliade, the great historian of religions from the University of Chicago and author of The Sacred and the Profane, argued that religion is fundamentally concerned with encountering the holy, the other. In Contact Sagan provides us with a totally natural encounter with the other in the form of contacting advanced alien life. This encounter, this contact, has profound implications both personally and corporately.

The movie, which is more concerned with character and plot than the book, follows fringe astronomer Ellie Arroway, played magnificently by Jodie Foster. One of the most moving scenes in the movie, which sets up Ellie's motivation and Sagan's approach, involves a young Ellie and her ham radio. She is a young girl whose mother died in childbirth, and she reaches out with her radio to see how far her signal can reach, and who she can contact with it.

One morning she reaches a man in Florida. Impressed by the distance, she wonders how much further her signal can reach. Could it, potentially, reach beyond the limits of Earth? Could it, in fact, reach her deceased mother?

The adult Ellie, the scientist Ellie, listens to the stars in search of extra-terrestrial life. Though she is an atheist, her work has the air of a divine calling. She in fact recklessly endangers her bright career by her quest for extraterrestrial life, marginalyzing herself by her driven search to encounter the other. For Ellie, then, the implications of contact are personal.

But Sagan is less concerned with the personal implications, and more concerned with the corporate implications. He is less concerned with the meaning which encountering the other might have for individual humans, and more concerned with what it might mean for humanity.

For Sagan we have a collective existential problem, a feeling of being alone, isolated from other forms of intelligent life. Our fundamental loneliness is made worse by the fact the we really believe that we're alone, a belief which is not contradicted by any empirical data. It is here that Sagan begins to look much more religious, particularly in the form his arguments, made through his characters (particularly Ellie, but also through the unconventionally religious "priest" and author Palmer Joss, played by Matthew McConaughey). Ellie, for instance, who has no faith in faith, exercises a kind of faith when she is asked why she believes that there is extraterrestrial life. She responds, "Because if there isn't, if we really are alone, well that would be a tremendous waste of space."

Here you see Sagan's faith in an ordered universe, a universe which makes sense and can be understood. But you also see his over-emphasis on rationality, particularly understood in human terms.

Humans, it can easily be argued, are not alone even if there is no life on other planets. This is because of the extreme diversity of life on this planet. And if you focus not solely on rationality, but include a much wider range of traits, you can see that we have a great deal in common with, and a fundamental connection to, much of the life which surrounds us.

Evolutionarily speaking this is obvious, as one of the core tenets of Darwinian evolution is that all life evolved from a single ancestor (and if ever there were a scientific theory which had religious implications, that is it). But this is also true in more experiential ways. I am united with all mammalian life by a shared set of characteristics. More broadly, I have sentience (the ability to experience pleasure and pain, and to express preference) with a wide variety of life-forms. More narrowly, I am part of one of many types of primates who care for and are concerned about their young and their mate.

So, even if per Sagan's terms we are alone, we are still not alone, since we are surrounded by other forms of life on this terrestrial ball.

But Sagan is concerned with:

a.) extraterrestrial life
b.) intelligent life, and
c.) extraterrestrial life which happens to be (and this is crucial) more intelligent and more advanced than we are.

For him it is this encounter with the more powerful and more intelligent other which has such profound existential implications. This is in part a response to a post-modern critique of science.

Post modernism looks at the advances of the modern world, and asks what they have gotten us. This view is best represented by the character Palmer Joss, who while appearing on the Larry King Show to support his new book, which is an attack on our technological society, is asked if he is anti-technology, or anti-science. He says no. He is not opposed to science or technology per se, but he has to ask this question:

Are we better off for our technology? Are we happier because of it?

His answer is that we are not. In fact, he sees us as being a great deal less happier despite all of our technological advances, because we have looked to technology as a kind of savior, and it has failed to be that savior. Technology is a tool, neither good nor bad on its own. Its value rests in how it is used.

Palmer's position reminds me great deal of that of the Swiss theologian Hans Kung (I still can't get this program to put an umlaut over that u!), who offered a great post modern critique of science and technology in light of the first and second World Wars. Kung argued that our reliance on technology as a kind of savior led to depression and disillusionment in the aftermath of these wars, whose catastrophic death tolls devastated Europe and were the direct result of our technology outpacing our ability to use technology in a morally and spiritually responsible way.

Sagan does not dodge this criticism. In fact he himself presents it. But he does answer it, and he answers it with a kind of faith. In his story it is the technology which is a tool rather than an end which makes the extraterrestrial contact possible.

But I am less concerned with outlining plot than I am with analyzing meaning. If you are interested in how the contact comes about, watch the movie. Here I am interested in what the contact represents. This is because, in the movie, I see the extraterrestrial encounter as a kind of religious experience. I have mentioned Eliade's notion of religion being fundamentally about encountering the holy. For Sagan, in Contact the holy turns out to be a part of the natural universe. The meaning-providing experience is not with something supernatural, but with something supra-natural. It is an encounter with a higher intelligence, an intelligence which will (it is hoped) help us reorder our lives and bring us back from the brink of destruction. But that intelligence is not found outside of the natural realm, but rather within it.

Here I think Sagan is offering a sensible critique of the religious perspectives which offered him such a valuable critique of science. Here Sagan is saying that science as the heir to religion can do religion better than religion, because it does not have to posit something outside nature, distant and removed from us.

The universe is such a fantastically large place that just thinking about its quite possibly infinite size can existentially disorient you. The astronomers of the "Deep Field Project" have, using the Hubble space telescope, discovered that visible space contains over 50 billion galaxies. Our own galaxy, the Milky Way galaxy, contains over 400 million stars. Our star, the sun, contains almost all of the matter in our Solar System. Our planet, which seemed impossibly large until very, very recently, contains less than 1/10th of 1% of the matter in our solar system. So when we compare ourselves to the enormity of the known (natural) universe, we are so impossibly small as to be insignificant. Cosmically speaking there is no real size difference between us and, say, the mites which live in our eyebrows.

With such a disorienting enormity of space, why would be want to posit some Being outside that space? What good would a God even more distant and removed from us than that farthest galaxies do for us? How could that possibly help our fundamental loneliness and insignificance?

So Sagan posits a natural other, a higher power which, being limited eliminates the nasty problem of pain; and which being inside the natural realm can more easily bridge the gap between us and it.

No, this alien life is not some sort of god, but it fills some of the same needs as a god.

What are we, as religious people, to do with the critique which, through a marvelous story (and sometimes our points are made best within stories, as stories draw us in to the perspective of the story teller in a way that linear arguments often cannot - one of the many reasons I have said that Jesus teaches in stories) Sagan has given back to us? We should certainly take it as seriously as he took our critique, and hopefully that seriousness will yield as good a result.

For my part I say we need to recapture the spirit of the ancients, and look for our God within the natural realm rather than outside it. I'll explain what I mean by that another time.


Tyler Simons said...

Great post. I love Contact, too. I have vivid emotional memories of walking back to my parents house in boston after seeing it out by BU. The sense of possibility...

The character of Palmer Joss is probably one of the biggest influences on my decision to go off to Divinity School, if I take a long view of my cultural tastes. Good choice.

While I agree with the arc of your post, I'm wondering how you see a vision of God as a Tillichian ground of being fitting into Sagan's natural scheme. I think that Tillich sees this metaphysical ground of all existence as natural, so would Whitehead. Do you think that most naturalists would agree? Would Sagan? (I haven't read the book, or anything else of his.)

Also, I have a question regarding this paragraph:

Mircea Eliade, the great historian of religions from the University of Chicago and author of The Sacred and the Profane, argued that religion is fundamentally concerned with encountering the holy, the other.

First of all, how did you know that David Tracy told us to read Eliade this week? Serendipity.

Second, how does Eliade understand "the other" with in this sense? What I take to be the usual understanding of the term, it applies to the not-me, something similar to, but not identical to the self. It seems to me like your saying Eliade is elevating this other to the position of the holy here, and I find that intriguing.

But then, with regard to this superior other, your discussion (and Sagan's) centers on what we can get from contact with it. Maybe this doesn't apply to an other perceived as inferior, maybe the assistance flows downhill, if you will. (There are problems with this, which might be clear if I'm making any sense -- the idea that one is superior to an other and ought to make the other more like the self -- not the best way to relate)

Either way, if you aren't clarifying what you mean by the other here, it sounds like you're betraying one of Kant's formulations of the categorical imperative and treating the other as a means rather than an end.

I'm sure you're not trying to do that and I'm just missing Eliade's point.

Sandalstraps said...

I'm using the term other here (my term, not Eliade's) as another way of saying the holy, to clarify that by holy here we mean that which has been set apart, that which contrasts so completely with the profane or the secular.

I used "other" along with "holy" so that we could see more easily that for Sagan the alien life form fills the function of the holy per Eliade's framework. If my use of "other" alongside "holy" threw you off, blame me, not Eliade.

I don't mind flying in the face of Kant (I did it regularly as a very un Kantian philosophy major), and neither does Eliade (more of a phenomenolgist, which is why I like him); but Kant (as best as I can tell) has nothing to do with this.

Brian Cubbage said...

I haven't seen Contact, so my only vivid memories of it come from my professor in my Nietzsche seminar in graduate school (a self-styled Derridean, but a very Nietzschean one) mocking the film as proof that if you're trying to overcome God and metaphysics and all of that, you shouldn't be a scientific naturalist. Of course, if you aren't trying to overcome metaphysics, this isn't so telling a criticism...

As for Eliade, it's been a while since I've read him, but I think you're right, Chris, that our relationship to the sacred per Eliade can't be captured entirely within the framework of Kantian ethics. Let's not dismiss Kant entirely, though-- Kant's discussion of the sublime in the Critique of Judgment is an attempt to deal with the same issue, although Kant isn't coming from a history-of-religions perspective like Eliade.

I remember liking Eliade. My only problem with him was that I always felt that he was too quick to draw parallels between different traditions. For him, humanity's relation to the sacred is a permanent and irreducible feature of human consciousness; the last chapter of The Sacred and the Profane (a real tour de force) is an attempt to show how the relationship to the sacred recurs in "debased" forms in the modern secular world. Well, if you view the relationship to the sacred as a basic category of human existence, then the burden of proof you take up is showing how the same relationship manifests itself across diverse traditions. I don't know if Eliade ever quite met this burden.

I have a good friend named Sedgwick Heskett who has recently been working on trying to revive something like Eliade's approach in order to make it more rigorous. I think that her project is fruitful, but she hasn't gotten much of it out in public yet. Be watching!

Sandalstraps said...

Brian, you're right to criticize Eliade for making too many cross-cultural connections with too little evidence, but his willingness to do that must be understood in its context. Remember, he is coming on the heels of such functionalists as Tylor, Frazer, Durkhein, etc.

Functionalism was the dominant view of his day, and it assumed that there was such a thing as religion, and that as such each individual religion had roughly the same function within its culture. As such, each individual religion could be reduced to religion, which could be understood only in terms of its function, and reduced to that function. That was the foundation of religious studies at the time.

Eliade provided a strong critque of functionalism, including and especially the notion that there was a single thing called religion. He argued that you couldn't make that claim since you couldn't observe religion, just different religions. That is why he called himself a historian of religions instead of a historian of religion.

But given the assumptions of his time, even though he worked to undermine some of those assumptions, he can't really be blamed if he sometimes fell into those assumptions. For him you didn't need a great deal of evidence to demonstrate a cross-cultural trend in religious studies, because everyone was assuming that all of the time.

In other words, I read that tendency in Eliade, which you have so astutely pointed out, as being mostly a product of his age.

Of course the criticism still stands, and it is a valid criticism. But I think that he can be salvaged, particularly if you distinguish between the times in which he criticizes the functionalism of his day and the times in which he inadvertantly falls into the functionalist assumptions.

Brian Cubbage said...

Hey, brother, you're preaching to the choir here when you criticize functional explanations of religion. (I'm not sure that functional explanation generally fails, but it might.) My (our!) criticism of Eliade isn't so much about Eliade's aims as it is about his methodology.

On to your next post!

crystal said...

Great post!