There be dragons!

Monday, May 21, 2007

Contact, Aquinas, Aristotle, and Faith

My lovely partner in the conspiracy and I saw the movie “Contact” the other night with Jodie Foster and Matthew McConaughey (yes I know it came out in 1997 and I’m behind the times; so what?). It was a fairly decent movie. Jodie Foster was excellent to watch, as usual, John Hurt was creepy, James Woods, Tom Skerritt, and William Fichtner all gave solid performances. The movie had some hokey things to it; beginning the movie with the young Jodie Foster character and showing elements from her childhood seemed a bit superfluous; the early sex scene between Foster and McConaughey was unnecessary and, though I know Hollywood knows no other way to show love, ruined the romantic tension later in the flick; the treatment of religious zealotry was absurd (Christian suicide bombers? Um, how many of those are there?), but overall these things could be ignored. What was intriguing about the movie was its central theme of faith versus skepticism.

The story was written by Carl Sagan, leading astronomer, physicist, atheist, so I doubt he was so generous to religion as the director, Robert Zemeckis, seems to have been in the movie. But the addition of the character of Palmer Joss, played by McConaughey, seems to have really put the zip into the story. Jodie Foster plays Ellie Arroway, a young (gorgeous, they’re always gorgeous) scientist working on SETI, the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence, after her father died. She is skeptical about religious belief and faith, preferring to look at the world as a “scientist” who sees only those things which can be empirically proven and thinking that religion is a form of mass self-delusion. The McConaughey character, however, challenges these assumptions with some pretty powerful refutations. Instead of philosophizing her to death he says “did you love your father? Prove it!” That seems a pretty powerful argument. Well, anyway, a message from intelligent lifeforms is received on earth, they build a big machine to travel through a wormhole, Ellie goes through the wormhole and sees another world (several other worlds, actually) and makes contact with other intelligences in the universe. She is overcome by the experience and weeps for the beauty of it. Unfortunately, when she returns, no one seems to believe her as she apparently never seemed to have left this world despite her protestations that she was gone for eighteen hours. All she can do is plead with others to accept the vision she has been given on faith. Thus Ellie is suddenly put in the position of being the religious visionary whom no one believes. Only McConaughey, out of love for her, believes her story.

Whether Sagan wanted to create a story about religious experience, or whether he wanted to create a scientific alternative to religious experience is unclear. But the idea that generations of people have mass-deluded themselves in order to escape being so alone is an interesting take on the religious experience. Even more interesting is that the McConaughey character refuses to accept this facile explanation of the mystic vision, partly because it is the belief of the majority of the race and partly because he simply knows, without doubt, that God is.

Here for me was the interesting point; there are two ways of looking at creation. Either one sees order & pattern, or one sees no order or pattern; either providence or chaos. If chaos, then the chaos cannot be limited only to some areas but must extend to all areas. Language, thought, emotions, experience, all of it is mere meaningless chaos. But if this is the case then even discussion about the issue is impossible and one can never find out if the truth is chaos or order. Aquinas speaks to this in the Summa Contra Gentiles;

THERE is then a twofold sort of truth in things divine for the wise man to study: one that can be attained by rational enquiry, another that transcends all the industry of reason. … our cognitive faculty has different aptitudes for the knowledge of divine things. To the declaration therefore of the first sort of truth we must proceed by demonstrative reasons that may serve to convince the adversary. But because such reasons are not forthcoming for truth of the second sort, our aim ought not to be to convince the adversary by reasons, but to refute his reasonings against the truth … alleging the authority of Scripture confirmed from heaven by miracles.


The Being we call “God” is order itself. To deny God is to deny order, pattern, reasoning and discussion itself. Thus, no amount of reasoning can succeed in persuading. Rather a transcendent from of truth, a metatruth has to take place in which the individual accepts certain fundamental principles such as “reason and argument are about something and lead to something.” Aquinas addresses this in his Summa Thelogica introduction when he says;

As other sciences do not argue in proof of their principles, but argue from their principles to demonstrate other truths in these sciences: so this doctrine does not argue in proof of its principles, which are the articles of faith, but from them it goes on to prove something else…

Thus mathematics does not begin by arguing whether a “one” or a “two” exist; nor does it argue whether addition and subtraction are valid procedures. Euclid himself begins his Elements with certain definitions:

Definition 1.
A point is that which has no part.
Definition 2.
A line is breadthless length.
Definition 3.
The ends of a line are points.
Etc.
Were he to prove whether “point” is a valid concept, or “partness” is indeterminate, or were he to excurse upon what the “that” is the Elements would never see completion. Every system of thought assumes some basic principles and proceeds from those principles to “demonstrate other truths in these sciences.” Thus to deny that there is an order & pattern, to deny that there is an orderer & patterner, a “kinoun akineton” as Aristotle calls it in the Metaphysics, is to completely end the conversation; emasculating oneself and preventing any success in discovering whether any of this yackity-yack connects to something real.

If, on the other hand, there is an order & pattern one has to then ask whether that pattern repeats. Is it consistent? Is the pattern transferable from one thing to the next in the physical world? In what way does the pattern connect to something beyond this world? What does the pattern say about the patterner? Such inquiry leads not to being stymied but to true wisdom; as Aquinas notes,
...they are called 'wise' who put things in their right order and control them well.
Wisdom consists in taking that first foolish step and accepting on faith that which cannot be immediately proven empirically; an experience, a relationship, The Forms (ala Plato), or the Neteru (ala the Egyptians). One accepts on faith that these things are, and then one can see them. The Psalm says “the fool in his heart has said ‘there is no God.’” This isn’t in reference to some cosmic fool wandering around in some Nietzschean state of denial, but rather to the fact that denial of such existence makes one foolish, incapable of seeing the Neteru.

As truth is a correspondence to reality, one seeks not truth but the reality to which it corresponds. But one cannot find that reality if one has previously denied its existence. Thus to really comprehend truth, acceptance of what seems outrageous, impossible, ludicrous to the rational mind, this very thing becomes necessary. With such acceptance one gains the wisdom that transcends reason. With denial one remains only a rational fool.

1 comment:

  1. thx for posting, i appreciate you logic, it's not very often that i can learn so much from one post

    ReplyDelete