Trip Adler Expository Writing 20 Essay 4- Final Draft 1/10/03 Melding Science and Religion in the Movie Contact: The

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Throughout history the dividing line between science and religion has been fickle. Awed by the accomplishments of the past several hundred years, and oftentimes ignorant of the real workings, the modern world looks upon science as being almost godlike. The result of this myth is that contemporary society has tended to deny the separateness of science and religion and fuse these two belief systems into one. The movie Contact, which is directed by Robert Zemeckis and based on the book by Carl Sagan, exemplifies this inclination of people today. The movie tells the story of Ellie Arroway, a scientist working for the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute, who discovers an alien signal that contains instructions on how to build a transportation device. Ellie is eventually chosen to represent all of humanity by using this machine to travel to a distant place in (or outside) the universe. This series of events involves much debate over the scientific and religious aspects of the discovery. While Ellie represents the scientific side, Palmer Joss, a fictional advisor to the President of the United States on religion, represents the religious side. Hoping to inspire the viewer, the movie thoroughly mixes the two belief systems to the extent that they lack any separateness. Ultimately, this fundamentally flawed endeavor to meld the two systems of belief results only in confusion and an awkward cinematic premise. In reality, science and religion are not the same, and like oil and water, they are not easily combined. This can best be understood using the ideas of the writer and theorist Mikhail Bakhtin, who describes the concept of

2 speech genres, which are different ways of speaking. By attempting to fuse science and religion into one belief system, Contact ends up appearing unnatural and at times awkward. To develop the above argument it is important to first establish the concept of speech genres and how they can be used to explain the inherent separateness of science and religion. The author Mikhail Bakhtin defines a speech genre as the certain type of “utterance” that is associated with a particular “sphere of communication” (81). Because science and religion are each associated with its own speech genre, they must by definition use different types of utterances. But how does this communication disparity lead to inherent separateness between the two belief systems? Bakhtin emphasizes that an utterance must be considered “as a link in the chain of speech communication and with respect to other, related utterances” (86). The connectedness of utterances therefore affects their creation. Bakhtin goes on to explain that an “utterance is constructed while taking into account possible responsive reactions, for whose sake, in essence, it is actually created” (87). The possible response to an utterance is so important that it is what makes a genre unique: “Each speech genre in each area of speech communication has its own typical conception of the addressee, and this defines it as a genre” (87). Applying these ideas to the scientific and religious speech genres, we can understand how each involves utterances that are created in anticipation of responsive utterances that belong to the same genre. Therefore, what defines the scientific way of speaking is the use of utterances that are created with the notion of a scientific addressee, who could be anyone from a scientist to nature itself. Meanwhile, what defines the religious way of speaking is the use of utterances that are created with the conception of a religious

3 addressee, who could be anyone from a priest to God himself. Because the two different types of utterance anticipate a different addressee, it is impossible for an utterance from one genre to be a response to an utterance from the other genre. The existence of different addressees creates separateness between the two speech genres and prevents their mixture. Since communication is necessary to bring science and religion together, the inability to combine ways of speaking prevents fusion into a unified belief system. We will now illustrate how Contact attempts to combine science and religion into one system of belief, and how this premise and the associated incompatible speech genres make for an awkward storyline. The first example directly shows the importance of the addressee in a conversation composed of utterances. When Ellie Arroway is being interviewed about her discovery on national news, the interviewer asks her to comment on the safety issues involved with the transportation device. She responds by saying in a scientific manner that she thinks it would be safe to build and use the machine because the extraterrestrials who sent its instructions are probably millions of years ahead of humans in technology: “I have to believe that a civilization that advanced knows what they’re doing. All it requires on our part is…” She pauses for a moment to think of the correct scientific word to insert into her sentence. But before she speaks again, the interviewer quickly asks, “Faith?” The entrance of religion into a scientific discussion leads to an awkward pause in the conversation for Ellie. While Zemeckis is attempting to show how science and religion cannot be separated from one another, the awkwardness of the moment instead seems to show the difference between the two belief systems. Using Bakhtin’s vocabulary, we know that Ellie considers possible reactions from the interviewer when she creates her utterance. Because she is speaking with language from

4 the scientific genre, she expects to hear a scientific utterance in return, or in other words, she expects an utterance from a scientific addressee. However, when the response to what she says uses vocabulary from a different genre, the chain of speech communication is interrupted, and this is confusing for the viewer. This scene vividly illustrates the difficulty of combining utterances from both religion and science into one fluent conversation. There are other examples of mixing belief systems in the film that are not directly related to speech, but where the ensuing awkwardness can be explained by speech genres. One such example is when the movie tries to show science being used to answer traditionally religious questions. At the beginning of the movie, the young Ellie asks her dad how far radio signals can reach. When he answers that humans can talk to distant planets, Ellie responds, “Dad, could we talk to Mom?” Because her mother has passed away, he answers, “I don’t think even the biggest radio could reach that far.” This dialogue implies that science cannot answer questions that belong to the sphere of religion. However, by the end of the movie, the viewer is asked to accept the notion that science can answer the ultimate religious questions, as Ellie’s scientific discovery enables her to rejoin her long diseased father. In another example of the same philosophy, Bill Clinton, playing himself in the movie as President of the United States, pronounces that this scientific breakthrough “promises answers to some of our oldest questions.” A personal friend of Carl Sagan, Joan Campbell, who is from the National Council of the Churches of Christ, explains that “religion talks about ultimate, or primary questions” (257). It is logical that the “ultimate, or primary questions” are the same as the “oldest questions” that Clinton speaks about. Therefore, it could readily be interpreted that

5 Clinton is talking about science answering religious questions, in yet another instance of the director trying to fuse both into one belief system. Here again the idea of science answering religious questions is nonsensical. While a scientific experiment is not directly a form of speech, it can be thought of as a question in the language of science. When one of these scientific utterances is constructed, the conception of a scientific addressee is present, and a religious response is totally out of place. As long as a question is grounded in science, only a scientific response will suffice. This phenomenon stems directly from how the question is created. The director of Contact tries to show that a scientific experiment can prove the existence of religion. Toward the beginning of the movie, it is suggested that this cannot be done. Ellie Arroway explains this when she refuses to believe in religion without proof, and Palmer Joss responds by saying that some things simply cannot be proven. It is implied in this scene that what separates science from religion is empirical evidence. But in an illogical twist, the ultimate conclusion of the movie is that the existence of religion can be scientifically proven. This is because all the work done by scientists in the movie, which can be thought of as one big experiment, supposedly leads to these extraterrestrials communicating their thoughts about religion. Although it can be argued that the words of the aliens are not supported empirically, it is clear that Zemeckis wants viewers to think that they are. We are expected to believe that the simple fact that the extraterrestrials are advanced enough to send a human to their world is proof that what they say is correct. When Ellie arrives at her destination and is greeted by her father, who is in some manner is supposed to represent the extraterrestrials, he responds to one of Ellie’s scientific statements by saying, “That’s my scientist,” in a sardonic tone

6 suggesting that science is not always the best way to think. He then goes on to say that the human race feels “so lost, so cut off, so alone. Only you’re not. See, in all our searching, the only thing we found that makes the emptiness bearable is each other.” By these words he implies that love, the same thing that Palmer claims cannot be proven, forms that foundation for religion and is the ultimate force in the universe. To further substantiate this argument it is worth noting that Carl Sagan, the author of the book on which the movie is based, explained to Campbell that he believed in “a direct, empirically verifiable, peer-reviewed experience of divine revelation” (255). Now upon returning to Bakhtinian thoughts, it should be noted that if a scientific proof is thought of as an utterance, the result of the proof must be the response of the addressee, which in this case would be nature. It is therefore illogical for the final conclusion to come from a religious addressee. In attempting to illustrate the fusion of science and religion, the film searches for common ground. But in doing so, it tends to oversimplify and this results in considerable awkwardness. The first commonality to be discussed is faith. Joan Campbell describes that not only religion, but also “science offers facts for men and women of faith” (258). Contact attempts to demonstrate this presence of faith in science when Ellie returns from her trip to the ends of the universe without any evidence that she traveled anywhere. It is later discovered that the camera she has with her during the trip records eighteen hours of static, thereby leading the viewer to know that Ellie’s experience is substantiated by empirical evidence. But before this discovery is revealed, the only evidence of Ellie’s journey is her story. Without proof of an extraterrestrial encounter, the viewer is expected to simply believe that it happened. In doing so, the director is suggesting that faith is

7 important in both science and religion. If the experience of faith is thought of as a conversation, then believing would be an utterance, while that in which one has faith would be the addressee. Since the scientific addressee would be nature, while the religious addressee would be God, it is obvious that there are two different types of faith. Although this may be a commonality, the two ways of being faithful are ultimately incompatible. A second commonality to which this movie alludes is a sense of awe. Campbell explains that the two belief systems “share an emotion about the universe’s beauty, mystery, and energy” (258). In most cases, this emotion tends to be awe. When Ellie is traveling through the universe, she stops moving at one point and observes a celestial event. She begins crying as she says, “No words to describe it. […] They should have sent a poet. It’s so beautiful. I had no idea.” By revealing the overwhelming emotion that she feels for the universe, this scene reflects the admiration that scientists have of nature, which is similar to the sentiments that a priest might feel about God’s creations. The importance of emotion is also depicted when President Clinton expresses in the movie that the discovery’s “implications are […] awe-inspiring.” But the film’s attempt to meld the two is unnatural because the type of admiration is different in both cases. Let us again think of this as a conversation. Within the scientific speech genre, nature creates an utterance, or reveals its awe-inspiring aspects, and someone scientific reacts by expressing emotion. Within the religious speech genre, God creates an utterance, and someone religious reacts by expressing emotion. Therefore, the addressee will differ depending on whether nature or God creates the sentiment-evoking utterance, which suggests that there are two types of awe. The movie’s claim that a sense of emotion fuses

8 the two systems of belief is an oversimplification. The awkwardness of the film Contact stems from its proclivity to gloss over fundamental incompatibilities. Because of the importance of the addressee in defining a speech genre, science and religion cannot be fused into a unified belief system. It could almost be said that the movie’s attempt to combine the two has a lot in common with cold fusion, which is a way of fusing atomic nuclei using very little energy. It was exciting when the existence of cold fusion was first announced to the world, the same way it was exciting for the director of Contact to announce his idea for a belief system fusion. But cold fusion was eventually determined to be an illusion, just like our finding for the film’s version of fusion. In both cold and belief system fusion, little energy is required, while in reality, fusion needs a large driving force. Since it is true that nuclear fusion can take place if enough energy is present, could it be possible for science and religion to mix if a special hybrid speech genre existed? If such were real, might it be possible for humans to have the vocabulary to comprehend the exact relationship between science and religion? But until then, these two systems of belief are necessarily separate.

9 Works Cited

Bakhtin, Mikhail. “The Problem of Speech Genres.” The Bakhtin Reader. Ed. Pam Morris. London: Edward Arnold, 1994. 80-87. Campbell, Joan. “Science and Religion.” Carl Sagan’s Universe. Ed. Elizabeth Bilson and Yervant Terzian. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1997. 254-260. Contact. Dir. Robert Zemeckis. Warner Bros., 1997.

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