Dumb quote of the day--I can't help myself, it's a new religion edition

>> Wednesday, June 13, 2012

[Prometheus is] definitely not anti-science. In fact, if anything I think it's pro-science because it advances the idea that part of our own programming as human beings, we're many ways just as governed by our programming as David is. We have to seek out the answers to these questions, even though we know we'll never get satisfying answers. We're curious about what happens as we die. We need to know where we come from. What the meaning of life is. What kind of life we're supposed to lead. These are all sort of nonscientific, philosophical, religious, and spiritual questions. But the idea that we can find some comfort in science, that science can sort of give us a path to follow in understanding our roots. I think we're better off from understanding that we're descended from apes than we are looking at some book that was written 2000 years ago that gives us an explanation for our own roots.

I'm most definitively pro-science, but I think that the movie advances the idea that, can the two live along side each other? Is it possible to be a scientist and maintain some fungible faith in the unknown? And are you rewarded for having blind faith? I do think that the movie is making the meta-commentary in saying well Shaw is the true believer on board, and she's the one who survives. So what are we trying to say by telling that story?
- Damon Lindelof, quoted by Meredith Woerner,
"All of Your Lingering Prometheus Questions, Answered!"
io9, June 11th, 2012

Prometheus is a gift that just keeps on giving. Sort of like a really awful decorative plate someone gave you at Christmas that you will never put on display (unless, perhaps, the giver is coming for a visit) and doesn't seem to deserve the attention, and yet nevertheless provides hours of laughter and entertainment as the butt of jokes, rants, complaints, etc. Soon, everyone in the household is in on the show--adults, children, even the family dog understands something is going on and perhaps even that it somehow involves this object that looks a little like a Frisbee even if no one ever throws it for him. And an outsider might wonder, if you hate the plate so much, why do you keep talking about it and showing it to everybody, why don't you just stick it in the closet and forget about it or drop it off at a Goodwill when they re-open after the holidays, and of course you can't really explain why or how conversation at the plate's expense has become a thing with its own existence, the plate just happens to be there as the common starting point everything blooms from and curlicues back to.

So it is that a lot of people are conversating about Prometheus on Facebook and writing entertaining blog posts like this one and this one. I fear someone is going to ask why don't people just let it go if this movie is so terrible, but those folks are missing something crucial: that Prometheus is bogglingly terrible (like that decorative Christmas plate), so bogglingly terrible you wonder if it was just you (because nothing could be that bad, could it?) and then have such great relief when you discover just about everybody else noticed it, too; and then it's just tons of fun to exchange notes and quips and cheap shots and really deep thoughts about all the boggling terribleness.

All of that's a little bit of a digression, though. What I really wanted to talk about was the above dumb quote from Prometheus' author, Damon Lindelof. It goes back to something I wrote in my review of the movie a couple of days ago:

This is where Prometheus' basic stupidity extends gooey pseudopodia into insulting stupidity, in that Prometheus is clearly a pretentious movie that thinks it's raising serious cosmic questions about spirituality and science, and what Damon Lindelof apparently thinks is a conflict between them. (Lindelof evidently thinks the conflict between science and faith is over whether we might have been created, if we were created, by gods or by monsters, when any conflict between them is over ways of knowing--i.e. do we understand experience by testing it against our assumptions or by assimilating it into our assumptions? Given that everybody, even the supposed "skeptics" in Prometheus pretty much engages entirely in the latter, it's probably fair to say there are no actual scientist characters in Prometheus, just characters who listed the word on their job applications.)

I was just drawing an inference from the way science and faith are treated in the movie, but there's Lindelof confirming it: he really doesn't get it. At all.

What I was about to add to that was, "And it's writers like Lindelof who are what's wrong with science fiction these days." Which would be a dumb line on my part, because I think that's a pretty dubious premise. There's a lot of decent science fiction out there--perhaps as much as there ever was--and a lot of it can even be found in movies and television, though perhaps rarely. It would also be dumb of me to say something like that because Lindelof and his ilk aren't just what's wrong with some science fiction, but also what's wrong with a lot of speculative fiction dealing with religious themes, and probably what's wrong with a lot of religious entertainment, though I'm really less qualified to get into that, as I usually avoid it.

The core problem is that Lindelof doesn't get that science (at least in the context we're discussing it) isn't this catalogue of claims that stands in juxtaposition to religion. Science is, rather, an epistemological approach to knowing, where religion or faith is another. As Wikipedia conveniently puts it:

Science (from Latin scientia, meaning "knowledge") is a systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe. [links omitted]

That's as well as I could put it, or better. I was curious about what Wikipedia might say about faith, and it's not a bad reference point, either:

Faith is confidence or trust in a person or entity.


Religion is a collection of cultural systems, belief systems, and worldviews that relate humanity to spirituality and, sometimes, to moral values. [links omitted]

Fair enough. Maybe we could quibble over nuances, but I think that's a fair enough framework.

The point being: the difference between science and faith (or science and religion) isn't, to pick one example, that science says "all existing species of living organisms derive from common ancestry, exhibiting differences acquired over many generations due to the operation of environmental pressures 'selecting' certain heritable traits over other traits" and religion says "all existing species of living organisms were created by God over the course of three non-consecutive days in the midst of a hectic week involving six days of labor and one of rest". The difference between the two enterprises is that science says, "if all species derive from a common ancestry and generations of naturally selective breeding, we would expect to see certain indicators within the fossil record, the morphology of existing animals and plants, comparisons of genetic material, etc.; and if we see these things there is a great likelihood that this is how species differentiated and if we don't see these things in nature, our original hypothesis must be revised or discarded"; and religion says, "we know this is what happened because this is what we have been taught".

So science might say, "If there is a creator god, we might make these observations...." Except that it is generally outside the nature of what most would consider to be a deity to be pokeable in quite that manner. We certainly observe things that are inconsistent with things we'd expect to see if a deity existed as he or she is specifically presented by certain groups of people, but that doesn't mean there isn't some kind of mystical force, only that there is no proof that a specific kind of mystical force exists and/or there's evidence contradicting the existence of certain specified forces. In other words, science can't say there is no God, but if it is a necessary attribute of God that He created the universe in six twenty-four hour days, the existence of that specific form of God is contradicted by available evidence. If you were to say, "God is the reason there are certain fundamental laws of nature and He created the universe by allowing those laws to operate in their own fashion once the universe was set in motion," I doubt science has anything to say about your version of God one way or another.

This is why science and faith aren't in the conflict a lot of people think they are. Yes, science contradicts specific claims that are made by certain religious traditions--physics and astronomy and geology and biology all contradict the specific religious claim that the Earth was invented in 4,004 BCE, and if that's a cornerstone of your belief system, I'm very, very sorry: the best explanations of the best available evidence say that you're almost certainly wrong beyond all but the most fanciful doubt. (We are imaginative creatures, and we might imagine God cheats, or that radioactive decay and the speed of light and continental drift and evolution don't work the way we think--but I might add those aren't comforting scenarios, especially if you live near a nuclear reactor.) Where there potentially is a subtle conflict between science and faith, it's an epistemological conflict: the question is whether one should base what one believes on testable explanations and observation or whether one should base one's beliefs on received wisdom; and if one chooses the former, should he always choose the former? That is, it arguably doesn't make sense to say one defines one's world by testing possible explanations against observable data six-and-a-half days a week but refuses to apply this methodology on Sunday mornings. Arguably. Just making the point; feel free to get into that one yourself in the comments thread, I'm not sure I feel like poking it much more than that.

To get back to Lindelof: what he's calling "science" isn't science, it's a form of religion. It's secular mythology. It's accepting what you think the received wisdom of the new oracles is, not because you've done the testing yourself, or at least have approached the work of others with a critical and appropriately skeptical eye and have evaluated it from a scientific mode of thinking. It's believing in the Big Bang not because it seems to be the best explanation at the moment for the observed expansion of the universe and cosmic microwave background energy, but because a classroom prophet imbued you with this knowledge from the Holy Text Of Physics; believing in evolution by natural selection because that's what respectable people in your community believe. You might as well believe Odin has two ravens who are compensation for his missing eye (sorry if that sounds judgmental against any pagan Norse amongst the readership). And when he talks of "comfort'--science isn't there to provide you with comfort, it's there to provide you with a means of rationally organizing information about your experience of the universe, and if that comforts you, well, great, but that's as incidental to the main point as is the fact that you can apply an objective understanding of the universe's inner workings to inventing new ways to murder someone.

If this is Prometheus' notion of "science"--and Lindelof says it is--then the movie isn't about science versus faith, it's about secular faith versus religious faith, about a new religion versus an old one. And I have to say that this doesn't just cheapen real actual science, it also cheapens traditional religious faith by reducing it to something squirming and blind, like one of those species of eyeless albino cave fish that haven't seen light in thousands of generations. I'm not a big defender of faith largely because I think it's an overly trusting way of knowing that does not reliably lead to consensual truths (there are way too many dead gods on the books these days to hold that it does); but if I can't defend it personally, nor for its own worth as an epistemological approach, I'll nonetheless defend it against the shallow way someone like Daniel Lindelof (or Ridley Scott) treats it; it's worthier than that, and at least deserves whatever respect its long part in human existence accords it.

So Lindelof is pitting one straw man against another, and seems to think that this is profound and important: well, it isn't--it's a puppet show, a couple of sewn-together marionettes held over the performers' heads and poked ineffectually against one another to make it look like they're sparring. A bright child could tell they're inert.

If this is the best you can do as a writer (or filmmaker), just stop. Don't do it. You might think you're treating profound subjects profoundly, but you're not. You might think you're asking big questions, but you aren't. You're comparing caricatures--you'd be better off asking if Superman can beat Captain Marvel. At the very least, maybe try to understand what science and religion are as actual human endeavors, as great human projects with ancient roots; that the significant thing about them as human endeavors is not the questions they ask (which at their very bottom may be so universal as to not require a specific human endeavor in order to be raised) nor the answers they offer (which could very well be fungible), but how each chooses to cross the space between the Q and the A. A film about that space could be astonishing. Prometheus isn't.


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