Contact — Are faith and science mutually exclusive?

When I finished reading the award-winning critical darling 𝘛𝘩𝘳𝘦𝘦 𝘉𝘰𝘥𝘺 𝘗𝘳𝘰𝘣𝘭𝘦𝘮 trilogy by Cixin Liu (translated from Chinese into English by Ken Liu), it reminded me of the film 𝘊𝘰𝘯𝘵𝘢𝘤𝘵. I wanted to introduce it to people who haven’t seen it yet. Contact is one of those films that not only leaves an impression on you but makes you think of what you really believe in. As the name suggests it is a time-tested “first contact with aliens” story by Carl Sagan who was a master science communicator (he was the yesteryear, Neil deGrasse Tyson). He not only popularized science with his multitude of stories and TV series, but he also inspired a new generation of space enthusiasts.

Given the sheer number of galaxies (2 trillion as per the latest estimates) in the known universe, it is reasonable to assume there must be other civilizations other than humans in the vast Cosmos. In 1961, Frank Drake proposed a probabilistic argument to estimate the number of civilizations (that we might be able to communicate with) based on the average rate of star formation, a fraction of those stars having planets, and other variables. This came to be known as the 𝘋𝘳𝘢𝘬𝘦 𝘌𝘲𝘶𝘢𝘵𝘪𝘰𝘯 and it’s famous among people who argue for the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence. It is also reasonable to presume any intelligent civilization might emit electromagnetic transmissions as we humans do on a day-to-day basis in the form of satellites and other communications. SETI (𝗦earch for 𝗘xtra 𝗧errestrial 𝗜ntelligence) sits at the nexus of these two ideas.

SETI, as some of you may know (a non-profit organization that runs on research grants from multiple entities including NASA and a few universities) is dedicated to the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence by analyzing the space noise inside and outside our solar system using powerful radio telescopes, and combing through the electromagnetic emissions for any signs of intelligent life. The program was officially defunded around 25 years ago by the US Congress, but there’s a recent revival of the effort aided by some sumptuous cash infusion from the Russian tech billionaire Yuri Milner and supported by Stephen Hawking. SETI programs mostly buy dedicated radio telescope time from established observatories like the Arecibo (in Puerto Rico) and Very Large Array (in New Mexico). Until recently they had a citizen computing project called SETI@Home that tried to use the distributed power of millions of computers of enthusiasts to process the radio signals that are being recorded. I remember when I watched Contact in the ’90s for the first time, I went to the SETI@Home website using my trusty 36.6 kbps US Robotics modem to download their program and started to run on my Windows desktop! If there’s any chance for humans hitting pay dirt in their search for extraterrestrial communications, that hope lies with China. In 2016 China launched the world’s largest radio telescope FAST(Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Radio Telescope) which could become the linchpin in the human SETI mission. For people who are wondering about aliens who might be listening akin to our SETI effort, NASA launched the Voyager program in the 1970s to send interstellar probes that carry a “golden record” of our history, math, and culture for any intelligence scouring the Cosmos (Fun fact: Carl Sagan was part of the committee that decided what would go on that golden record, Bonus fun fact, this one my favorite: It includes a recording of Chuck Berry’s Johnny B. Goode).

Enrico Fermi, the famed physicist and Nobel laureate when discussing the Drake Equation said “Where’s everybody?”, if the Drake Equation is correct, there must be millions of intelligent civilizations out there in the universe, why hasn’t any one of them contacted earth? This is known as the 𝘍𝘦𝘳𝘮𝘪 𝘗𝘢𝘳𝘢𝘥𝘰𝘹. Descartes said, “Cogito, ergo sum” (I think therefore I am), if we extend the concept to the universe, the fact that we’re here and able to think about our existence, proves that the conditions were ripe for our existence. This forms the basis for what’s known as 𝘈𝘯𝘵𝘩𝘳𝘰𝘱𝘪𝘤 𝘗𝘳𝘪𝘯𝘤𝘪𝘱𝘭𝘦, which states that “in order for it to be observable in the first place, it must be compatible with the conscious and sapient life that observes it.” Of course, we are assuming that whatever intelligent life that’s out there is capable and willing to use radio transmissions/electromagnetic transmissions. This is seriously limited because we can’t think beyond the known (three) dimensions. What if the beings that are out there exist and communicate in a dimension that’s totally out of our realm of understanding? According to Cixin Liu, “Earth’s suitability for human life was no coincidence, much less an effect of the anthropic principle, but rather was an outcome of the long-term interaction between the biosphere and the natural environment”. There’s so much unexplored and unfathomable in the universe, we as a civilization haven’t even scratched the surface of it.

Scientific exploration inextricably wrapped up in trying to answer the “what” question while religion and spirituality try to answer the “why” question. “Scientific method” involves hypotheses, collecting data, and refining your hypotheses. For a scientist, this is their fundamental charter when approaching a microscopic atomic problem or the macroscopic nature of Cosmos. But, once you start exploring the nature of physics, much of it is subject to speculation, theorization, prediction, proposition, and frankly ‘belief’, the best example is a “wormhole” (popularized by the 2014 film 𝘐𝘯𝘵𝘦𝘳𝘴𝘵𝘦𝘭𝘭𝘢𝘳), until we see empirical evidence, we can’t prove that a wormhole exists. Until 2016, gravitational waves couldn’t be detected by humans at all (though predicted by Einstein as early as 1916). Many of the theories in science start as hypotheses until enough data proves or disproves them, but we can’t discount scientific observations [or sensory experiences]. Experience is personal and belongs in the realm of faith because we can’t prove it (yet). But, can’t this be said of religious experience as well? Just because the person doesn’t have enough data to prove it, it doesn’t discount their feelings/emotions. If you think I am trying to legitimize religious experiences, not at all. I am talking about a conflict between your fundamental value system (scientific) and an encounter with personal experience. The perpetual conflict between scientific method and faith has been debated ad nauseam, and sometimes the conflict becomes internal, stirring up a person’s psyche.

𝘊𝘰𝘯𝘵𝘢𝘤𝘵 is the story of Eleanor “Ellie” Arroway, a passionate scientist attached to the SETI project who intercepts an alien communique in the radio waves recorded at the VLA like observatory in New Mexico (Much like in real life, her funding is pulled by a political gadfly, but she fortuitously finds a private backer to continue her research). How she manages to decode the message and the aftermath of it forms the rest of the story. I don’t want to give anything away, but once the humans are summoned to make contact with the alien civilization, an international committee is galvanized to select the person who would make the journey. A frenetic Ellie lands in a quagmire when confronted by the committee members about her religious/spiritual beliefs. If she is to make contact with the aliens, she needs to represent the majority of the humans who in one way or the other believe in a higher, universal power. Her ambivalence and rationality almost cost her the chance to be the chosen candidate. Eventually, when Ellie does contact the aliens, she has a personal experience that she won’t be able to prove to the scientific community because the journey lacks the empirical evidence that I talked about before. Even religious, spiritual people concede she had a personal experience, but it doesn’t count for a scientific breakthrough which is her bailiwick. In the end, she resorts to the argument of good old…. Faith. She asks the committee to accept her experience based on her word. Well, being a sci-fi work, the movie does exonerate her by providing some enigmatical evidence that involves time dilation (another concept popularized by 𝘐𝘯𝘵𝘦𝘳𝘴𝘵𝘦𝘭𝘭𝘢𝘳), so I will let you watch the movie and enjoy for yourself. Contact is not just a story of science fiction, but a universal story of an underdog, where one person pitted against insurmountable odds and succeeds through her passion, hard work, convictions, and sheer perseverance. Contact is firmly ensconced in the pantheon that comprises thought-provoking sci-fi movies like 𝘈𝘳𝘳𝘪𝘷𝘢𝘭, 𝘊𝘭𝘰𝘴𝘦 𝘌𝘯𝘤𝘰𝘶𝘯𝘵𝘦𝘳𝘴 𝘰𝘧 𝘛𝘩𝘪𝘳𝘥 𝘒𝘪𝘯𝘥.

The movie as I said was based on the eponymous Carl Sagan’s award-winning bestseller and it was directed by Robert Zemeckis (right after Forrest Gump). Jodie Foster just melts your heart with her powerful portrayal of Ellie and Matthew McConaughey plays Palmer Joss, a serene, level-headed Christian philosopher who thwarts Ellie’s hopes of becoming the human representative for the alien contact. Though it didn’t win at the Oscars, it won multiple other awards for its story, acting, and sound and visual effects. It was a commercially successful film though some critics call it preachy because of the juxtaposition of religion and science and accused it of foisting religious views on to science, it is undeniable that much of science starts with a belief then looking for evidence to prove your beliefs, in a way, we are either discovering the “laws of nature” or inventing them to explain what can’t be explained. Contact doesn’t try to proselytize you rather opens up a new way to debate and explore the nature of the cosmos and I love Contact for that. I hope you and your family love it too.

Finally, let’s circle back to my original trigger for writing this essay, Cixin Liu’s “Three-body problem”. If you are planning to read the book and don’t want spoilers, skip this paragraph. In the book, he posits that the nature of the universe is like that of a “Dark Forest” (name of the 2nd book in the trilogy). The universe is a dark forest. Every civilization is a hunter with a gun and earth as a relatively infantile civilization (300K years) could be seriously outgunned. They pass quietly through the forest like a ghost. They must be extremely cautious and try their best to keep silent, because they know there are a number of hunters out there. And if a hunter discovers another, no matter if he is an angel or a demon, an old or a young …. The only thing he can do is to kill it, not out of malice or avarice, but in this forest, others are the eternal threat. Anyone who reveals its location will be destroyed. This is a diabolical albeit logical explanation to the Fermi Paradox. I highly recommend everyone to read the trilogy, it’s eminently enjoyable.

Written on May 27, 2020

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Bhaskar Gandavabi

Bhaskar Gandavabi

I love to build software and write.

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