IS THERE A CONFLICT BETWEEN RELIGION AND SCIENCE?
(CAVEAT: This discussion applies to most religious traditions but does not apply to those which require a belief in the literal truth of a religious text because, for those traditions, the definition of religion is expanded to include the determination of facts about the physical universe and its origins. The conflict between science and faith implied in the film does exist for adherents to these religious traditions.)
There is a flaw in the implication of this film that there is an inherent conflict between science and religion. The error becomes apparent when we look at the actual functions of religion and of science.
Religion seeks to answer questions about the purpose and meaning of existence. These can be boiled down to the query, “WHY DO WE EXIST?”
Science, on the other hand, addresses the question of “HOW DO EVENTS OCCUR IN THE PHYSICAL UNIVERSE.” For example, science can tell us how our bodies and our minds work, but it is our beliefs about existence that endow our lives with purpose and give us a reason to live.
Some people say that science is their “religion.” This, however, is a misapplication of the term because science puts forward only a method for finding out about the physical universe but tells us nothing about why we exist. Some persons who are skeptical about the existence of a supreme being like to point to the body of scientific knowledge as demonstrating that there is no God. There are others who find the intricate and beautiful structures of matter and life to be evidence of a supreme being. Science is the scientific method and the discoveries about how matter and energy function which were made using the scientific method. It cannot tell us “why” we exist or “why” we have a separate consciousness.
Most systems of beliefs about the nature of existence also answer questions about the way people should behave. Again, the question answered: “what should be done,” is much different than science’s query of “how” events in nature occur.
For a Christian Protestant study guide to this film which asks many questions, see Baptist Education Ministries Young Adult Resources. For a Jewish perspective, see Yom Kippur Kol Nidre sermon from Congregation Beth Judea in Long Grove, Illinois. The Catholic perspective on science and religion was stated by Pope John Paul II in 1992 upon the belated “rehabilitation” of Galileo from the judgment rendered against him in the 15th century by the Inquisition. The Pope said:
There exist two realms of knowledge, one which has its source in Revelation and one which reason can discover by its own power. To the latter belong especially the experimental sciences and philosophy. The distinction between the two realms of knowledge ought not to be understood as opposition. … [The] intelligibility, attested to by the marvelous discoveries of science and technology, leads us, in the last analysis, to that transcendent and primordial Thought imprinted on all things.
For a scientists’ view, see Albert Einstein on Science and Religion.
The best way to address the religious issues raised by the film is through Discussion Questions numbered 4 to 18.
THE SEARCH FOR EXTRATERRESTRIAL INTELLIGENCE (SETI)
SETI is an international group of scientists and lay people who scan the heavens for signs of life on other planets. See SETI Institute Online and SERENDIP at the University of California. An innovative program, SETI@home, uses the Internet to send packets of recorded interstellar radio signals to home and office computers. Any computer user can participate by running a free program that analyzes the packets of radio signals for transmissions from civilizations on other planets. The SETI@home program operates only when the participant’s computer is not being used for other tasks. The results are sent to SETI when the computer is logged onto the Internet. SETI then sends back a new packet of interstellar radio signals for analysis. (The radio signals are gathered by the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico which is the scene for the early portion of the movie.) The SETI@home program has an attractive screen saver which provides a visual representation of the analysis as it occurs. SETI@home allows any person with an up-to-date computer to contribute to SETI with a minimum of inconvenience. It is an excellent teaching tool.
When Carl Sagan, the author of the novel Contact, was looking for a way to transport his heroine through space-time, he came up with the idea of going through a wormhole. The concept of a wormhole in space-time had been around for decades. If a black hole is rotating and joins up with a “white” hole, it would be possible for matter to be drawn into the mouth of the black hole and to pop out through the white hole. The result is a wormhole. However, people could not pass through a wormhole because they would be crushed by the tremendous pressures in the black hole. Sagan asked Cal Tech theoretical physicist Kip Thorne if it was possible to design a method of travel that would protect a person in transit through a wormhole. Intrigued by the problem, Thorne and his students came up with the idea of lining the side of the wormhole with an exotic form of matter that had anti-gravitational properties. A number of papers in theoretical physics were published on this question. For more on Sagan, Kip Thorne and wormholes, see Traversable Wormholes and Wormholes: Searching for a Subway to the Stars. A wormhole could take a person to Vega in a few hours. For photographs, see Spectacular views of black holes at the centers of galaxies. What happens when a black hole is linked to a star? See Diagram of Possible Relationships.
Good science fiction often predicts coming breakthroughs in science and technology. (An excellent example is Jules Verne’s 19th Century prediction of Captain Nemo’s atomic-powered submarine in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea). In this case, Sagan’s inquiry led to a boomlet of theoretical papers on using wormholes as an intergalactic transportation system. The speculation never went anywhere and some physicists saw the effort as a waste of time.
Any integer greater than one is called a prime number if it can only be divided by one and by the number itself. Integers that are not prime are called composite numbers. The number 1 is considered neither prime nor composite but in a class of its own. When composite numbers are factored completely, each of the factors will be prime numbers. For example, the number 78, a composite number, can be factored into 2 X 39, while 39 can be broken down into 3 X 13. Thus the prime factors of 78 are 2, 3 and 13. This is an example of the application of the Fundamental Theorem of Arithmetic which states that “Every integer can be written as a product of primes in an essentially unique way.”
The prime numbers between 1 and 100 are:
2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, 17, 19, 23, 29, 31, 37, 41, 43, 47, 53, 59, 61, 67, 71, 73, 79, 83, 89, 97
The mathematicians of the Pythagorean school (500 B.C.E. to 300 B.C.E.) were interested in numbers for their mystical and numerological properties. They understood the idea of primality and were also interested in perfect and amicable numbers. A perfect number is one whose divisors sum to the number itself. e.g. the number 6 has divisors 1, 2 and 3. It is classified as a perfect number because 1 + 2 + 3 also equal 6. The number 28, with divisors of 1, 2, 4, 7 and 14 is also a perfect number, i.e., 1 + 2 + 4 + 7 + 14 = 28. Amicable numbers occur when the divisors of one number sum to the other and vice versa. The numbers 220 and 284 are amicable. There are many good websites explaining prime numbers: They include The Math Forum, The Prime Pages, and Prime Numbers.
Occam’s Razor is a principle of logic and philosophy that is perhaps most appropriately stated as “when you have two competing theories which make exactly the same prediction, the one that is simpler is the better.” It was popularized and extensively applied by a 14th-century logician and Franciscan friar named William of Occam (or Ockham)(1284-1347). Occam’s Razor describes only what is more likely. It is always subject to confirmation by experimentation. It only applies when the two competing theories make exactly the same prediction.
An example of the proper use of Occam’s Razor relates to the crop circles that appeared in England in the early 1970s. At first, circles, and then more intricate designs appeared as depressed grass or plants in fields in England. There was much speculation that they were caused by aliens coming to Earth in spaceships. Articles and books were written about them. Quasi-scientific missions set out to discover the aliens in the act. Occam’s Razor told the skeptics that the simplest hypothesis (i.e., the designs were man-made) was the most likely. The alternative, aliens mounting an expedition from a far away stellar system to Earth, arriving, making the designs and then disappearing, all undetected, was more complicated. In fact, after several years, two English pranksters revealed that they had cooked up the whole thing at the local pub over two pints of Guinness. See Carl Sagan’s article Crop Circles and Aliens: What’s The Evidence? Parade Magazine (The Baltimore Sun); Sunday, December 3, 1995. pp. 10-12, 17.
THE DRAKE EQUATION
What are the specific factors that play a role in the development of intelligent civilizations on planets? While it provides only very rough estimations of the probability of intelligent life in space, the Drake Equation is generally accepted and used by the scientific community to examine this question. The equation is: N = R* x fp x ne x fl x fi x fc x L . Where,
N = The number of communicative civilizations. (The number of civilizations in the Milky Way Galaxy whose radio emissions are detectable.)
R* = The rate of formation of suitable stars. (The rate of formation of stars with a large enough “habitable zone” and long enough lifetime to be suitable for the development of intelligent life.)
fp = The fraction of those stars with planets. (The fraction of Sun-like stars with planets is currently unknown, but evidence indicates that planetary systems may be common for stars like the Sun.)
ne = The number of “earths” per planetary system. (All stars have a habitable zone where a planet would be able to maintain a temperature that would allow liquid water. A planet in the habitable zone could have the basic conditions for life as we know it.)
fl = The fraction of those planets where life develops. (Although a planet orbits in the habitable zone of a suitable star, other factors are necessary for life to arise. Thus, only a fraction of suitable planets will actually develop life.)
fi = The fraction of life sites where intelligence develops. (Life on Earth began over 3.5 billion years ago. It was not until the last ten thousand years that intelligent life developed. On other life-bearing planets it may happen faster, it may take longer, or it may not develop at all.)
fc = The fraction of planets where technology develops. (The fraction of planets with intelligent life that develop technological civilizations, i.e., technology that sends detectable signs of their existence into space.)
L = The “Lifetime” of communicating civilizations. (The length of time such civilizations sends detectable signals into space.)
See A Pictorial Representation of the Drake Equation.
For an Internet site which explains the meaning of “Right Ascension” and the equatorial coordinate system, see The Exodus Project: Introduction to Celestial Coordinates and the Planisphere.
Interesting Notes: There are several SETI projects. Project Phoenix searches for signals from approximately 1,000 nearby sun-like stars. The SETI project described in the film resembles Project Phoenix. The director of Project Phoenix was, at the time the novel was written, a woman. One of its project directors was blind. However, the characters in the film are creations of the novelist and, so far as we know, they are not otherwise patterned on these individuals. For more comparisons between reality and the film, see SETI Institute on Contact.
After Ellie Arroway discovers the message from the aliens, the film shows President Clinton giving a press conference. This footage was taken from an incident when a Martian meteorite was discovered to have possible evidence of life. Also note that Warner Brothers, the film’s producer, and CNN were both owned by the same conglomerate, Time Warner.