How can we know reality? As a SETI scientist, Ellie Arroway is in the business of quantifying and measuring things. For Ellie, something can be known if it can be measured. God — whoever or whatever that is — cannot be dealt with in these terms, so Ellie is unwilling to weigh in on the God question. This belief that God cannot be known makes Ellie an agnostic: she refuses to either believe or disbelieve because she sees God as being outside her area of expertise.
However, Palmer Joss challenges Ellie’s assumptions about reality:
(Ellie) So what’s more likely? That an all-powerful, mysterious God created the Universe and decided not to give any proof of his existence? Or, that He simply doesn’t exist at all, and that we created Him so that we wouldn’t have to feel so small and alone?
(Palmer) Did you love your father?
(Palmer) Your dad. Did you love him?
(Ellie) Yes, very much.
(Palmer) Prove it.
In this scene, Ellie begins to learn that there are aspects of human experience which we know to be true but which cannot be quantified. Later in the film, Ellie is left believing that the only tangible evidence of her experience in the wormhole machine is simply that: her own experience of it. In Contact, we see that reality is more expansive than what we can measure. Science is limited because it measures only some aspects of reality — if all aspects of reality are even capable of being measured. Reality and truth is not something we must always seek using science and certainly not something that must be proved definitively. In other words, the fact that we can’t quantify something does not make it unreal.
As for things that are real but unquantifiable, Contact presents faith as an essential part of human living. We all have presuppositions or assumptions about reality, whether we are fundamentalist preachers or SETI scientists. Often our assumptions are unconscious and they may not even be consistent. Science may run on pure empiricism but our own lives cannot: there are assumptions that we make but which cannot always be tested. Even the most hard-nosed scientists like Ellie make assumptions about how reality is constructed and how we interact with it.
Throughout Contact, Ellie becomes more aware of her assumptions about reality and has some of them challenged. Our assumptions can be wrong, but does this matter? Having our assumptions challenged is significant because we make assumptions about some very big questions. Like Ellie, we may assume that God cannot be known when it may actually be possible to know God. We may assume that knowing God is unimportant when knowing God may be the key question in human existence. Whether we get these kind of assumptions right or wrong could be crucial for our lives. What would it take for our own most basic ideas about life and reality to be challenged?
Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.