Interstellar was everything I expected in a Nolan movie: thought-provoking, carefully crafted and visually stunning. It also involved a (relatively) satisfying ending, moving moments between a father and a daughter separated by a chasm of inter-galactic spatio-temporal distance, and talk of five-dimensional realms. Plus, What’s not to like in a movie which involves a spherical wormhole?
Anyway, just like the old Frozen post, I don’t intend to do a full movie review here. Instead I pick things within the movie that stimulate some thoughts, with an aim of exposing what I think are worldview flaws from a Christian perspective. As I see it, as epic as this movie is, it contains all the same old conundrums posed by any non-theistic worldview. I detect at least 3. And yes, this post does contain spoilers.
1. Love and Naturalism – A Rationalist and Irrationalist Dialectic
The movie presupposes a basic naturalistic (by naturalism I mean the view that all that exists is that which is natural; entailing the rejection of the supernatural, abstract objects, and, of course, God) outlook: the supernatural is out of the window (more on this, below), and to discover truth one ought to rely on the basic powers of empirical investigation. Matthew McConaughey’s (Coop) character tells his daughter in the first thirty minutes that ghosts don’t exist (right on, Coop!) and that the way we ought to investigate truth is to rely on science: observe, pose a hypothesis, test, and draw conclusions. Any appeal to the supernatural resembles an old worldview that is no longer relevant at best or downright fundamentalistic (ah that dreaded word!) at worst: we now know a better way of getting at the truth. The movie exudes in that modernistic optimism – humanity will continue to evolve, and one day it will evolve in such a way that even time and gravity would be under its control. Positive thinking at its finest.
So the message is sent loud and clear: knowledge is accessible to man and whatever is non-accessible by way of the scientific methodology shouldn’t be counted as proper knowledge. Okay. Now, In the middle of the movie Anne Hathaway’s character (Brand) gives us a sentimental lecture about what love is. She goes on, in tears, about love being some kind of energy or force or feeling (an ineffable something!) that transcends all science and knowledge. But it’s not just that, perhaps its quantifiable too. Now she’s a scientist and the character does feel a sense of discomfort at this point – here she is as a professor of science talking about this transcendent something that she can’t exactly quantify, but feels that it must be somehow quantifiable. Here she is, a scientist, who supposedly cannot prove anything that transcends us (how do we submit that under the scientific method?) talking about this thing called love. All interesting. Anyway, the convoluted plot goes on.
So about halfway through the movie Coop and the gang enter into Mann’s planet, where they meet Mann (Matt Damon) who’s been a bit cooked up due to being alone for such a long time. On that planet they hope for the possibility of sustaining life (to no avail, as it turns out), and finds out that there was no hope to begin with. The folks who sent them on this mission (Michael Caine, particularly) thought it was impossible to get the humans off of earth unto a new planet (Plan A), and thought that the only way to go was to send Coop’s team off unto a planet to maintain the survival of the species, reproducing among themselves along with taking care of some preserved embryos (Plan B). Coop and Brand are taken by surprise, they thought that they were going in order to save the good folks on earth.
Yes, the plot is complicated.
Turns out, Matt Damon knew all about this. Coop gets furious, and says he wants to go back home to see his family. Matt Damon’s character, then, reveals the perennial scepter that haunts all naturalist philosophers and scientists alike: humanity has got to get over that old sentimental thing called love. It’s the last chink in the old naturalistic evolutionary chain – a weak link that might threaten the coherence of the survival of the fittest – why would you sacrifice yourself in order to save your family if the point of existence (if there is a point, anyway) is to survive?
Indeed, and here is the age-old conundrum: philosophical naturalism cannot account for the fact that love, or self-sacrifice is an intrinsic good and an absolute moral imperative. Nevermind the plot of the movie now: I submit that if naturalism is right, then there is no basis to count loving self-sacrifice as a basic moral good and command. In fact, from a naturalistic framework love does resist explanation: it must be rendered into an irrational feeling (or perhaps good for some pragmatic utilitarian purpose, but certainly not an imperative that one ought do in every case) – the romanticist mumbo-jumbo of which Brand’s character paints. It will have no basis in reason or reality – it can only be posited as an irrational surd non-digestible by an inconsistent rationalistic worldview. Interestingly enough, mysticism has always been birthed out of rationalism. Christianity, also interestingly, rejects both.
In fact, that the naturalist position cannot account for love is just one exemplification emblematic of a bigger conundrum. The naturalist will always fail to reconcile their position of the universe being pointless, with the belief that the universe could be subjected to the human intellect (which is itself the product of irrational chance). The naturalist will believe that humans can progress in understanding, while affirming the contrary position that there is no such thing as an absolute standard of progress. The naturalist will continue in the rationalist claim that the universe is man’s playground for scientific investigation, and the irrationalist claim that the universe may be ultimately mysterious. The naturalist will make the rationalist claim, too, that man is the measure of what is possible, while contradicting himself by arguing that his cognitive faculties are trying to assess an ultimately irrationalistic world. On what basis can man believe that the thoughts in his physical brain would have any correspondence with a chance-ladened reality? What do thoughts (which are rendered nothing but the motion of physical processes in the brain) have to do with other purely physical objects which resists meaningful interpretation? Well, optimism it may preach, but nihilism is all I can gather.
2. The God of the Gaps, again: Science and Christianity, Foes?
The film presupposes that the supernatural is something one invokes when one either (1) does not have the scientific resources yet to account for a certain phenomenon or (2) wants to make an irrationalist claim which involves the violation of the laws of nature.
This is exemplified in many scenes where Coop assures his daughter that ghosts shouldn’t be invoked, and even in the ending when they find that the unexplainable phenomena they encounter in the beginning of the movie is really the product of a future highly-evolved humanity. One day reality will be so under our grasp that we can shed all of our understanding of the miraculous, get rid of God as an explanation for the unknown, and have a comprehensive, naturalistic explanation for all things.
Right, well, I’m not sure who the polemic is aimed at here, it surely isn’t the God of Christianity. The God of Christianity is not posited as a god of the gaps – only handy to bring in when some phenomena resists our present knowledge. The God of Christianity accounts for not only the unknown but also the known – he accounts for every step of man and every unexplainable fact we encounter. This doctrine in Christianity is called concurrence: the view that God works in every detail along with the will of man and every movement of the universe (Check out the Westminster Confession 5:1). That’s why Christians (the best representative, perhaps) have never been nervous when scientists do their thing: it doesn’t, and will not, contradict the claims of Christian theism. God works through ordinary means all the time: he heals, surely, but in the Christian position he heals ordinarily, through normal means – he provides the doctors, and organizes all the basic means, care, and medical attention that is available to us. This is why the Church ought to engage in all of the endeavours of society – we believe that God works through the every day life of man, and most palpably (ideally, anyway), through the church. Those who argue that Christians don’t need medicine because the Lord would heal them (if they just had enough faith!) are simply biblically illiterate: God works through ordinary means.
Thus, there is nothing contradictory between the Christian-theist’s claims and the scientific method.
The fundamental difference, then, between the naturalist and the Christian is not about the scientific method per se but on their philosophy of law. The naturalist has to believe that the laws which govern the universe are impersonal whereas the Christian thinks that the laws are personal (also, I have not found a satisfactory answer yet in the philosophical literature from a naturalist position addressing how it is that a universe began by chance and continues in chance can sustain that there exists such a thing as natural, stable, laws) Hence, a miracle is not defined by what violates a natural law, but rather an extraordinary work of God. For the Christian, the law of gravity describes the way God’s providence ordinarily works. We can study it, and make good data of it. Whether we view those laws as personal or impersonal, however, is a question not for the scientist, but for the philosopher and theologians. Science has its limits here, and cannot pronounce beyond it.
3. Human Salvation
Interstellar suggests that human salvation will be the result of no other higher being, but humans themselves.
Humans, by means of natural progress, will be able to surpass the limitations of what we know about time and space and rescue ourselves from earth when it dies, and continue on until we keep discovering further means of survival. Of course, this is a purely naturalistic standpoint, common and popular no doubt. In principle, actually, Christians should have no qualms with it. We ought to support the progress of technological advancements and scientific progress. But the plight of humanity runs much deeper than environmental problems and a finite death. From the Christian perspective the crux of the human problem is not death, but sin. It is a moral and spiritual issue that cannot be addressed (and the undeniable existence of which will always resist the naturalist paradigm) from a purely materialistic viewpoint of life. Mankind, whether living until 1000, or rotating around Saturn, will always have a quarrel with its maker, so Whitefield would say.
Evil persists in the universe no matter where we are eating or breathing – and moral perversity exists because there is a God against whom we have rebelled. To posit salvation as human existence which exceeds the boundaries of life as we know it is to miss the heart of the matter: the problem exists within us – we are evil, depraved creatures and we know it. Our thoughts haunt us when we remember our guilt, as we fail to love our neighbor and as we fail to acknowledge the God who created us. We know that we ought to love and sacrifice ourselves but our selfish desires overcome those tendencies again and again. Our plight attests to who we are as made in the image of God.
So long as this issue is unaddressed, we have reason to remain unsatisfied even when we can transcend the five dimensions of reality.