Emotion, belief, and reality

In the film Contact, the scientist Ellie Arroway who discovers the ETI signal (played by Jodie Foster) is an atheist/agnostic who has a romantic relationship with a theologian Palmer Joss (played by Mathew McConaughey). The film’s creators were clearly trying to strike a middle ground between these two competing views, presumably to not alienate any potential audience segment. So they tried to soften the agnostic implications of the novel by trying to find a way to put religious beliefs on a par with science. To do so, the film essentially resurrects the convenient (but dubious) argument that science deals with the physical world while religion deals with the spiritual world.

In one scene, Arroway explains to Joss why she does not believe in god. She says it is because there is no evidence of his existence. At that point, he asks her whether she is certain that she loves her late father and she says she does. Then he asks her to prove it. Of course she can’t and he looks triumphant, as if he had made a brilliant insight.

I hear this argument a lot and it frankly puzzles me. As a justification for believing in god it makes no sense at all. The argument seems designed to make the point that there are things that are real whose existence we cannot prove and that god is of this nature. But as a justification for believing in god, it is silly. The fact that the smart scientist Arroway does not promptly destroy Joss’s argument shows how far the filmmakers were trying to strike a middle ground between belief and non-belief.

I think of ‘love’ as the label we give to a complex mix of physiological and neurological phenomena that occur in our bodies and brains as a result of particular kinds of interactions that we have with other people in specific emotional contexts. So it is ‘real’ in the same way that other emotions like anger, pride, sadness, etc. are real. We can relate the emotion to actual physical phenomena.

But why is this an argument for the reality of god? All it implies is that when we talk about ‘belief in god,’ all we are saying is that it too is just a label we give to a ‘complex mix of physiological and neurological phenomena that occur in our bodies and brains as a result of particular kinds of interactions that we have in specific emotional contexts.’ If this is what people mean by believing in god, then I would agree with it. After all, there is no doubt that when people experience something they like to call ‘spiritual’, there will be some corresponding physiological changes in their bodies, as there is for any emotion.

But we cannot extend this to assert that just because our bodies experience a real physiological change due to a belief, that therefore the thing we believe in has a reality and existence apart from us. Just because belief in god is a real experience does not mean that god is real. It would be like arguing that the love (or whatever emotion) I feel for someone or something, because it is real to me, therefore also exists independently of me.

POST SCRIPT: Common single blue-eyed ancestor

The idea of descent with modification is central to Darwinian evolution, and it implies that as we go back in time we can expect to find common ancestors (sometimes just a single one) in which some feature originally appeared. This feature can grow in the population and spread even if it provides no specific survival advantage. But its rate of growth is much slower than if it had even a small selective advantage.

Machines Like Us reports on how researchers have concluded that the blue-eyes that some people have can be traced back to a mutation that occurred in a single ancestor who lived 6,000 to 10,000 years ago.

The mutation of brown eyes to blue represents neither a positive nor a negative mutation. It is one of several mutations such as hair colour, baldness, freckles and beauty spots, which neither increases nor reduces a human’s chance of survival. As Professor Eiberg says, “it simply shows that nature is constantly shuffling the human genome, creating a genetic cocktail of human chromosomes and trying out different changes as it does so.”


  1. says

    The fact that the smart scientist Arroway does not promptly destroy Joss’s argument shows how far the filmmakers were trying to strike a middle ground between belief and non-belief.

    mild spoiler alertActually, that would’ve ruined the end of the movie: Dr. Arroway comes back with almost no proof of her encounter with the aliens, and Joss believes her inspite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

  2. says

    Yes, I noticed that the filmmakers tried to provide what they thought would be a final counterpoint to that earlier scene. But again, Joss is used to believing things without evidence, so it did not quite work, I thought.

  3. CH says

    I think the point has been missed.
    The lack of evidence for something does not mean that it does not exist. The failure to find said evidence does not rule out the existence of that for which we seek the evidence.
    The argument of un-provability is not an argument for the existence of God, but simply pointing out the weakness of that argument.
    If we believe in any number of things which cannot be proven, such as love, then that argument cannot be used when discussing the existence of God. One cannot have it both ways.
    Also, do we not need to consider whether God has just not been proven, at least to the satisfaction of some, yet?
    It seems sophmoric to point out that there were any number of truths or facts which existed eons before the proof for their existence was discovered or uncovered.

  4. says

    I agree with CH about lack of evidence not being a justification for assuming non-existence.

    But let’s stop and think for a second. Imagine if the President of the United States was sitting in the Oval Office and a naked man with mental issues started screaming at the White House from across the street. Would the leader of the free world waste time debating issues with that protester? Of course not.

    So imagine if there was a being big enough and powerful enough to make matter appear and form itself in the complex and infinite way in which our 11 dimensions are structured. Would that immense and powerful being have any obligation to prove itself to tiny specks of dust that call themselves humans? Of course not. Especially not to those who demand proof of God in a manner that rings of protest.

    However, it might make a tiny bit of sense that God might possibly stoop down and show love to those who humbly acknowledge the awe and wonder of such a powerful being. To them might be given the whispers of His existence.

    The rest can spin atoms all day and miss Him forever.

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