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How Do You Know?

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I watched the movie, Contact, based on the book by Carl Sagan. The story itself was not that compelling, but there were some fascinating statements made in the movie.

The lead character in the film is a scientist who insists that the only way to know anything is through scientific experimentation. This opinion is not surprising in the modern age. Since the enlightenment, western culture has believed that what science discovered was true and what science could not verify could not be trusted.

Two things happen in the movie that modestly challenge this assumption:

1) A character who represents Christianity asks the scientist about her father’s love for her, then challenges her to prove it: and

2) The scientist is investigated by a government committee - suggesting that she might have been involved in a hoax. Her response is that she had a life-changing experience that she cannot prove.

But after further review, I am not so sure that this is a breakthrough. That which is presented to us as another way of knowing is personal experience. The way in which it is presented might just contribute to the problem of relativism that is saturating our thought processes at present.

Someone might say, my experience is what is true. My experience is what counts. You cannot judge my experience; you cannot say it is false. You cannot say yours is more authentic. The scientist sat before the committee and insisted that what she experienced was true. Was there any way that someone else could know if she had an authentic experience or if she was hallucinating? Do we just have to accept someone’s experience as valid and allow everyone’s experience to be equally true? What a mess that would be!

Paul Little in his book Know What You Believe (InterVarsity Press, 1988) talks about the hypothetical insistence of a man who came through the door of the church with a fried egg over his ear, saying, “This egg really gives me joy, peace, purpose in life, forgiveness of sins, and strength for living.” Little suggests two questions to ask about experience: 1) who else has had this same experience; and 2) is it connected to any objective reality?

(In Contact, it turns out that there is some objective reality to support the scientist’s experience, but she is not aware that such evidence exists).

Let me make one other observation about the film. There is a statement that recurs in the film that says in regard to the universe, if there isn’t any life out there, it is an incredible waste of space (not a direct quote).

BUT! If the heavens declare the glory of God (which the Bible affirms) then that space is not wasted. Extravagance in praise of God is not waste; it is exactly appropriate.


Written by Tim Ysteboe

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