In my last two posts on Prometheus I have explored the question of origins from both philosophical and scientific points of view. The question “Where do we come from?” is clearly central in the film, but perhaps a more interesting subtext in the story is a question about knowledge: how can we know the answers to such ultimate questions as where we come from? And a related question: who or what can we trust to tell us?
The film presents two sources of answers that are portrayed as being at odds with each other. Simply put, one source is science, the other religion. They voyage of the “Prometheus” is a scientific quest to gather hard, empirical evidence to prove that human life originated from a particular alien race. One of the two lead scientists, Elizabeth Shaw, wears a Christian cross on a necklace. The daughter of missionaries, she identifies herself with Christianity. When they discover the evidence they were looking for: a DNA match of the alien DNA to human DNA, another scientist asks Elizabeth if she will take the cross of now, concluding that there is nothing special or unique about the creation of life on earth after all. She says no, asking “Where did they [come from]?”
Her response implies that there is a limit to what science can tell us. Science has given us knowledge of the structure and composition of DNA, how it functions, how it changes, how it accounts for variance in species, and so on. Even if scientists really did discover that DNA originated from another planet, Elizabeth’s question would still remain. While science can provide us with clues about the origins of life and the universe, it cannot answer such questions definitively.
So perhaps we should look to religion for the answer. We learn a little about Elizabeth’s religious upbringing in a flashback scene with her father. He is teaching her about what heaven or Paradise is like, describing the wondrous beauty of the afterlife for his daughter. She asks, “How do you know it is beautiful?” Her dad answers, “It’s what I choose to believe.” This same line is repeated later in the film after they’ve made contact with the alien “engineers,” but I don’t remember the exact context.
Notice in this response how differently religious knowledge is portrayed from scientific knowledge. If someone asked you “How do you know that metal expand when heated?” would you reply, “It’s what I choose to believe”? Of course not! You would either appeal to authority (“I learned that in science class”) or to empirical evidence (“whenever we add heat to metals they get bigger and this has happened over and over again”). We assume that scientific knowledge is independent of what we choose or want to believe, and demand that scientific claims be supported by external proof. But as a culture we are skeptical of religious knowledge as having such objective credibility, but instead hold it is a private, personal matter with no external validity. It is not true based on anything outside myself, but is only true on the basis of my personal experience, feelings, and choices. In other words, we are not accustomed to making rational arguments with an appeal to evidences to support religious knowledge claims. Because we are so skeptical of religious truth claims, at best we can say we know that it is true for me (because I choose to believe it), but are reluctant to assert it is true for everyone.
This mindset about religious knowledge is why answers to ultimate answers that invoke supernatural explanations are dismissed as quaint and antiquated at best, and foolish or even dangerous at worse. Believing that God designed life may comfort you and be meaningful to you, but you dare not argue for that hypothesis in the public arena and suggest that this answer is true in a universal sense. Such explanations should be kept private and are especially not acceptable in academic discourse. While few are seriously advocating for the claim that life originated from aliens, I would conjecture that many in academia are more receptive to this claim than to the “God hypothesis,” because it is a natural explanation that hypothetically could be supported with scientific evidence.
What I have described here is a deeply held bias against the supernatural in the realm of knowledge. While most Americans believe in the existence of supernatural beings, we largely exclude theology and theological considerations from our knowledge of science, math, ethics, politics, and so on. I became aware of the reality of this kind of bias when I was an undergraduate student. I invited an atheist classmate with me to hear a special scholarly lecture on “The Historical Evidence of the Resurrection.” The lecturer made what I thought was a very strong argument for the claim that Jesus’ resurrection actually happened in history. I anticipated, though, that my friend, who described himself as an atheist through and through, would not be so easily persuaded and find plenty of flaws in the argument. Thus I was stunned when afterwards he told me that he believed the argument and accepted the resurrection as a historical fact. But he quickly added that he still did not believe in the existence of God because the resurrection did not prove this. He said that just because we could not explain it naturally doesn’t mean there wasn’t a natural explanation: “it could have been a freak, one-time biological phenomenon, it could have been space aliens for all I know.”
A thought emerged in my mind as I was listening to him: he won’t accept a supernatural explanation no matter how much evidence there is. This is the first time I remember having this realization. So I asked him, “It sounds to me that you have a philosophical bias against the supernatural.” He replied bluntly, “You’re right. I do!”
I discern the same kind of bias at work in Richard Dawkins and his intellectual comrades. When presented with overwhelming evidence for design in living things, they think, “This doesn’t tell me anything about God…it could have been space aliens for all we know.” Such are the kind of absurd conclusions we come to when we do not depend on God and what He has revealed in our reasoning about such questions. As the venerable Francis Schaeffer exclaimed, “He is there and He is not silent.” God has not left us to grope in the darkness after answers to life’s ultimate questions, but has revealed the answers in His Word, the Bible. Only with the Bible as our foundation can we have confidence in our knowledge of where we came from, not because choose to believe it but because the One with the authority to answer these questions has spoken.