Field of Science

Has Carl Sagan's "Contact" aged well?

I have watched "Contact" several times and was watching it again the other day. Carl Sagan got a lot of things right in it, including the truth that even scientists have "faith" in matters disconnected with science. But one of the key parts of the film hasn't aged well for me.

For those who haven't seen it or read the book, Ellie Arroway, a brilliant astronomer played by Jodie Foster, is on a shortlist of people selected to be passengers on an interstellar machine constructed according to blueprints received by radio transmission from the Vega constellation. As earth's first ambassador to space, she is interviewed by a panel on her views on different topics. What would be the most important question she would ask the alien civilization?
An old flame who is on the panel - and who has a personal vested interest in not having her go since he still has romantic feelings for her - asks her squarely if she believes in God. The other members of the panel think that it would be unwise to pick as earth's first interstellar ambassador, someone who does not believe what 95% of the world's population believes. They think that one of the foremost questions Ellie should ask the aliens, should she meet them, is, "What God do you worship?". Elie being a scientist naturally says that she can't believe anything without demonstrated evidence. Candidate rejected.
It seems to me that Sagan really had an opportunity here, if not in the film then in the book, to showcase the theological and intellectual debates and problems concerning religion. The first question Ellie should have asked the panelists is: "When you ask whether I believe in God, I would ask you, *What* God? Those 95% of people you are referring to worship a zillion different Gods, from Jesus to Brahma. But there's even more, now-extinct Gods that their ancestors believed in, including Odin and Huitzilopochtli. Which God am I supposed to believe in? And do we think the aliens wouldn't ask me which one of these many Gods I believe in? What if I say the wrong name?". That would have driven home the central dilemma with believing in God right there.
But there might have been another, much more important question regarding religion that Arroway could have asked, and it would have been one that is independent of specific Gods. Religion clearly serves an important biological and evolutionary purpose, one explicated by numerous scientists. Instead of asking what God the aliens worship, the scientifically relevant question would be, "What are your deepest beliefs and how do you satisfy them?". This would have been a relevant question that is science, and yet one that would have provided an important answer about religion as, in Daniel Dennett's words, a "natural phenomenon".
As it turns out, the answer Arroway gives regarding the question is one I would have given myself: she says she would have asked the aliens how they did it; how they avoided blowing themselves up while developing such advanced technology. Especially in our present circumstances, asking a technologically advanced civilization that seems to have lasted much longer than us how they prevented self-extinction would be perhaps the most question we can ask.
But I can understand why Sagan had his character ask that question: it sets her up for the climax. After being transported to another world, Arroway sees and has a conversation with her loving father, one who had done everything he could to develop her interest and skills in science before tragically dying of a heart attack when Ellie was ten. When Ellie comes back after having that heartrending conversation, she comes to know that from the point of view of people here on earth, she was gone for only a short time, and her audiovisual equipment recorded nothing but noise. She is kept holding on to her vision of what is effectively an out-of-body experience and conversation with her father by the same slender thread which she had rejected before - faith. Sagan's point is that even scientists can have powerful experiences which they have to take on faith because there's no other way to explain them.
But upon watching that part again I still wasn't convinced of what Sagan was trying to say. If he was trying to propose reconciliation between science and religion, he was picking the wrong argument based on faith here. A scientist's "faith" that the sun will rise tomorrow is very different from faith that Jesus was born of a virgin. The former is predicated on well-understood laws of science that result in a probabilistic model which we can believe with high confidence; if the sun indeed failed to rise tomorrow, not just common sense but much of our understanding of physics, astronomy and planetary science would suddenly be called into question. That means that other phenomena that depend on this understanding would also be called into question. A scientist may take some things on "faith", but this is not really faith so much as it is informed judgement based on confidence limits and well-constructed models of reality.
Ultimately though, as much as I think Sagan could have done a much better job with these matters, I think the most important point he makes is still valid: that point simply is that, as monumentally useful and important science is, holding on to it is very hard and needs a lot of rock-solid conviction. That's a message we can all be on board with

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