Ridley Scott’s movie “Prometheus,” the 2012 prequel to the Alien series, is visually stunning though somewhat confusingly plotted. What makes it interesting to me is that it deals with some serious philosophical and theological issues. I will highlight just two here: Directed Panspermia and the nature of Christian Faith.
Panspermia is the theory that life originated on earth because it was carried here from somewhere else in space. Directed Panspermia holds that this happened, not naturally, but deliberately: life arose on earth because the pre-biotic soup was seeded with DNA by aliens. This is not just an outlandish science-fiction trope: There are serious biologists who believe in it, such as the late Francis Crick, the co-discoverer of DNA.
Why would anyone take such an idea seriously? Because standard versions of naturalistic evolution have two fatal problems which their adherents need to overcome. First is the problem of time. Granting that the universe is some thirteen billion years old and the earth four or five billion years, there simply has not been sufficient time for an intricate information system like DNA to reasonably have arisen by chance. In his famous paper “Mathematical Challenges to Neo-Darwinism,” MIT mathematician Murray Eden calculated that the odds of this happening by pure random chance in the time frame given by the theory were indistinguishable from zero. For life to have arisen by chance is so mathematically improbable as to be practically impossible.
The second problem is the particular kind of intricacy required for DNA to work. It is what information theorists call “specified complexity,” the kind of complexity you get in a language. Nature can produce some kinds of patterned complexity randomly, but this is not one of them. Imagine that you are walking on the beach and see sand dollars spelling out the English sentence “Beware of shark!” Nobody will theorize that the waves just randomly washed them up that way. Why not? Because waves do not know English words, English grammar, English phonetics, or the Roman alphabet. There are four separate and independent systems that have to be made to work together for the message to function. There is no evidence—none—of specified complexity having ever arisen without the intervention of an intelligent agent. DNA is a code: it has specified complexity. How did it get it?
Alright, if you are committed to maintaining naturalistic evolution no matter what, these facts leave you in a rather desperate position, as Crick understood. One can see how desperate this problem is by looking at the solutions proposed to it. One is the multiverse theory: If there exists an infinite number of parallel universes covering every conceivable possibility, then the conditions for life would have to obtain in one of them, and we just happen to be in the lucky winner. (Never mind that there is no evidence for the existence of these other universes except the naturalistic evolutionist’s visceral psychological need for them to exist in order to salvage his untenable theory.) The second desperate solution is Directed Panspermia. If there wasn’t time for life to develop naturally on earth, well, maybe it was brought here by Space Aliens. Right.
To its credit, “Prometheus” has a character who sees the problem with this very clearly. Dr. Elizabeth Shaw is a Christian. When it seems to be proved that life on earth arose through Directed Panspermia on the part of the “Engineers,” her colleagues all expect her to have a crisis of faith. She doesn’t. When pressed for a reason, she turns the tables by asking, simply, “Who created them?” If life could not have arisen by chance on earth, then it could not have arisen by chance on the aliens’ home world either. Appealing to their intervention simply pushes the problem back one level. Panspermia is an illusory solution which solves nothing. (We won’t go into the fact that Shaw should still have had a problem reconciling Panspermia with the Genesis account of creation. The point here is that she is right to point out that it is a non-answer to how life could have arisen in a naturalistic world.)
THE NATURE OF FAITH
The second issue the movie addresses is the nature of Christian faith. It is heartening to have a main character with both intelligence and an active faith in Christ. But here, unfortunately, instead of the incisive analysis that we got on the other question, “Prometheus” lapses into the clichéd and superficial understanding of faith that characterizes American society at large—and too much of the church—but not the historic Christian faith. (For more on this topic, see my Facebook Note “Kahless and Christ,” http://www.facebook.com/notes/donald-williams/kahless-and-christ-on-faith-fictional-and-factual/10150896528320520).
When asked a reason for the hope within her, Shaw’s only answer is “I choose to believe.” Faith is not a response to evidence or reality or even religious experience: it is an existential choice, an act of arbitrary preference that cannot be justified rationally because it creates a meaning that is purely personal and subjective. This is particularly disappointing because Shaw’s character has been shown to be capable of better. She does not say, as she could have said, “Well, naturalistic explanations like Panspermia don’t make sense, as I have shown, and an intelligent Creator actually explains well what they cannot explain at all.” She does not make any of the hundred other responses a Christian of her intelligence should be capable of making. No, she just chooses to believe because that is how she creates meaning for her own life. It is an arbitrary personal choice. If that is what the world thinks faith is, then it is no wonder that more and more people choose not to bother with it. And it is no wonder that many Christians who still retain their faith remain so shallow and superficial in it.
In the New Testament, by contrast, faith is always grounded in reality. When people were asked to believe in Christ as the Jewish Messiah in the earliest evangelistic messages recorded in Acts, they were given reasons to do so. Appeals were made to recent history they knew about, to the Hebrew Scriptures which some of them already accepted as divine revelation, to eye-witness testimony, to things they had experienced in their own lives. Verbs like “persuaded” and even “demonstrated” abound. Luke even goes so far as to refer to “many convincing proofs” (Acts 1:3). This is a different world from the world of “Prometheus,” or even the world of much of the twenty-first century church. In the world of the New Testament, faith gives personal meaning to your life, but only because it is first a matter of truth. Faith is a response you make to the truth, a stance of trust and commitment you take towards what you are convinced is true. It is simply impossible to imagine an early Christian facing the flames or the lions saying, “Well, I just choose to believe.” One needs a better reason to face the lions than that!
Are the persuasions, demonstrations, and proofs offered by the New Testament convincing? That is an important but a separate question. Christians who truly understand their faith have concluded that they are. But before we consider whether they are right so to conclude, we must first understand the nature of what it is that they have concluded. They are not just making an existential choice because they find it meaningful on a personal level. They are not just taking a leap into the dark. They are responding in trust and commitment to the Person who is pointed to by a series of facts and propositions that they are convinced are true. This does indeed bring a great sense of meaning and significance to their lives. But the truth comes first. That is how they differ from their neighbors and from the people who wrote “Prometheus.” Do we have the courage to consider whether they might be right?
For more information on this topic, see my article “Body of Evidence: On Liberal Klingons and the Hard Facts of the Christian Faith,” Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity 26:2 (March/April 2013): 20-22.
For more on the relation between faith and truth, see Dr. Williams’ book Reflections from Plato’s Cave: Essays in Evangelical Philosophy (Lynchburg: Lantern Hollow Press, 2012). Order ($15.00 plus shipping) from http://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/. While there, check out Dr. Williams’ other Lantern Hollow books: Stars Through the Clouds: The Collected Poetry of Donald T. Williams (Lantern Hollow, 2011), and Inklings of Reality: Essays toward a Christian Philosophy of Letters, 2nd edition, revised and expanded (Lantern Hollow, 2012). And look for his newest book, from Square Halo Books: Deeper Magic: The Theology Behind the Writings of C. S. Lewis, due out September 2016!