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Full Contact

My dream dialogue with Ellie Arroway

by Regis Nicoll

If we've been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. We're no longer interested in finding out the truth. The bamboozle has captured us. It is simply too painful to acknowledge—even to ourselves—that we've been so credulous. —Carl Sagan

In the 1997 movie Contact, Jody Foster plays Dr. Ellie Arroway, a scientist in a quest to establish contact with extraterrestrials. Written by the late Carl Sagan, this creative and entertaining film is an apologia for scientific materialism—the naturalistic worldview where everything is understood as a product of physical laws, interpretable through the rubric of science. Thus, Ellie’s journey is chartered through the empirical realm of matter and energy, where things like spirit, soul, and the supernatural exist only along paths of the human imagination.

In the story, Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey) is Ellie’s romantic interest who also happens to be a theologian; and it is through their strained relationship that the viewer is exposed to the clash of worldviews between naturalism and theism. In one edgy dialogue, Palmer challenges Ellie’s skepticism about God and the supernatural, which triggers Ellie’s response: “I hold to Occam’s Razor that when various solutions are offered to a problem, the simplest is the preferred.”

Though Palmer could have gone for the “slam-dunk” at this point, his passive dissent comes as no surprise, given that this is Sagan’s tour de force for naturalism. So indulge me in picking up where Palmer left off—in a fantasy dialogue, if you will.

Regis: Dr. Arroway, it is certainly an honor to speak with such a scientific authority as you. I’ve read your work and admire your passion. But if you’ll forgive me, it seems that your passion has an almost religious fervor to it. I mean, this fevered search for extraterrestrial intelligence seems to be a quest to find ultimate answers. You know, to solve all of the world’s problems and make sense outta life.

Dr. Arroway: In a way you’re right, Regis. I guess you could say that my SETI project is a religious pursuit. With the infinite expanse of the universe, billions of galaxies and billions upon billions of stars, there has to be life out there; it’s almost ridiculous to think there wouldn’t be. And surely there must be advanced life—far beyond what we have achieved here—intelligent beings that have evolved and survived all of the struggles and horrors civilizations endure to reach their full potential. My belief is that we will make contact with these beings—it’s only a matter of time, if we apply ourselves to the task. They hold the answers up there, answers for avoiding our own destruction and the annihilation of the planet, answers to put us on the fast track of progress toward peace.

Regis: Wow, that would sure be great, I must agree! But, but . . . huh.

Dr. Arroway: Yes?

Regis: Oh nothing. Say, do you mind if I ask you a personal question, Dr. Arroway?

Dr. Arroway: Sure, go for it!

Regis: I was wonderin’—just wonderin’, mind you—have you ever given any thought to the possibility of a Creator-God?

Dr. Arroway: Oh, yes, when I was a kid. But science is beautiful. It’s a liberator. You’ve heard of Occam’s Razor?

Regis: Oh yeah. Let me see now. I know we covered that in physics at Catholic High: “When various solutions are offered to a problem, it’s usually the simplest that’s correct.” Right?

Dr. Arroway: Right! Isn’t it wonderful that science has taught us we don’t need superstition or the supernatural to explain those things we can’t understand? Which only makes sense. Just think about it. Since everything is the product of natural processes, everything should eventually be explainable by science, right? That’s why science has been such a successful tool in bettering society through technological advancement.

Regis: Gee, Dr. Arroway, I can’t say as I’ve thought about it quite that way before. By the way, I read the other day that scientists now acknowledge that the universe had a beginning, what they call the “Big Bang," some 15 billion years ago. It got my curiosity rollin’ and spun this idea in my head that I couldn’t shake. That is, what do they think existed before the “Big Bang?”

Dr. Arroway: Why, nothing!

Regis: Nothing? Seriously? That’s odd. I mean, how did the massive expanse of the cosmos come into being out of nothing? I dunno . . . it seems to me that would violate the first law of thermodynamics: you know, that matter or energy can’t be created or destroyed. I learned that in high school physics, too, from Sister “Wizard”—that’s what we called her.

Dr. Arroway: How interesting?! Well, now, it all makes sense when you understand the principle of quantum uncertainty. Because of uncertainty at the quantum level, energy is allowed to pop into existence, as long as it disappears before its creation is “noticed.” It exists only for a blink of time so that the law of conservation can be maintained over measurable time lapses. The larger the energy, the faster it must vanish. 

Regis: Wow! You’re kidding, right?

Dr. Arroway: Not at all.

Regis: It’s just that it sounds so magical, quite contrary to intuition and common sense, dontcha think? Hmm. So what “drives” this quantum uncertainty?

Dr. Arroway: You’re right, Regis. Quantum theory is very counter-intuitive. As to its “engine,” quantum uncertainty is a fundamental characteristic of the quantum field that is infinitely extended throughout the cosmos. It is something that . . . just is!

Regis: Sounds like Aristotle’s uncaused Cause to me. Which, by the way, Aquinas later said was God—the Creator-God, that is. So my question is this: How does all this happen without such an intelligent agent?

Dr. Arroway: The latest narrative of cosmogenesis says that the wild, fluctuating probabilities of quantum uncertainty caused all of the matter of the universe to appear, suddenly, in a tiny “space-nugget,” much smaller than an atom.

Regis: Now that’s downright spooky! But, come to think of it, wouldn’t that colossally dense nugget immediately collapse under its own gravitational pull? Good ol’ Sister Wizard taught me something about gravity too!

Dr. Arroway: Well, yeah, normally that would be true. But, you see, something else happened in that brief moment of time: inflation. Once that cosmic nugget was formed, the frenetic environment caused “mutations” in physical laws, resulting in something like anti-gravity. And that allowed the universe to instantaneously expand beyond the point of gravitational collapse.

Regis: Gee, now that’s something! But help me understand a little detail I’m having trouble with here. I remember Sister Wizard telling us that Einstein’s theory of relativity says that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light. Wouldn’t instant expanse break that cosmic “speed limit?”

Dr. Arroway: Um . . . a . . . well! You see, relativity says that nothing can travel faster than light in space-time. But during inflation it is space-time itself that is expanding.

Regis: You know, I almost see that. But there’s something strange about it. I mean, doesn’t Einstein’s gravitational theory tell us that space-time is merely the cosmic fabric of matter and energy? If that’s so, I don’t see how inflation avoids breaking the speed of light barrier.

Dr. Arroway:  Well, you probably wouldn’t understand all the technicalities of Einstein’s field equations, but trust me—that’s the way it works out!

Regis: You don’t say!

Dr. Arroway: Anyway, the universe exists, and we’re here; what better explanation could there be?

Regis: Just one more thing, Dr. Arroway. Has this phenomenon of inflation or anti-gravity ever been observed or experimentally reproduced?

Dr. Arroway: I can’t say that it has. But it’s our best account for how the Big Bang was sustained and why the universe appears to be so uniform in every direction.

Regis: Dr. Arroway, you could be right. But, as I see it—as a layman, mind you—is that your explanation requires at least two rather strange phenomena, one of which has never been directly observed or replicated. Your explanation also requires unique exceptions to the well-accepted principles of thermodynamics and relativity. It would certainly seem to me that if an experimenter witnessed any one of these phenomena, he could rightly call it a miracle, couldn’t he? But your explanation depends on four such miracles.

Ya know, Dr. Arroway, Sister Wizard also taught me one more thing. Something that explains the universe with only one miracle: God spoke and it was! According to Occam’s Razor, wouldn’t that explanation be simplest?

Dr. Arroway: (Under her breath) Oh, God—what a throwback!

Regis: What'd you say?

Dr. Arroway: Oh, I gotta go back . . . er . . . a . . . to review the SETI datalogger. I really need to run, but we can talk about this at length another time.

Regis: Oh yeah? I’d really like that. I can’t tell you what a pleasure it’s been to chat. Well, you have a good day, Dr. Arroway.

Dr. Arroway: Yeah, see ya around. •

From Salvo 35 (Fall 2015)
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