The Question of Contact

On the 20th anniversary of Contact, let’s reconsider the big questions it raised

Posted Jul 10, 2017

July 11, 2017 heralds the 20th anniversary of the release of Contact, the sci-fi classic based on Carl Sagan’s novel of the same name. Carl Sagan was, to some, a controversial figure. Indeed, the first time I heard his name as a teenager, the Christian punk rock band One Bad Pig was calling him a pagan for believing in evolution. (They suggested he would fry like bacon.) But even though he was a prolific science communicator (he hosted the first Cosmos), and was renowned for his skepticism of the supernatural (he authored Demon Haunted World), Sagan never professed to be an atheist. In fact, he called himself an agnostic and was expressly critical of atheists because they, according to him, arrogantly claimed to be “certain that God does not exist.” Indeed, he maintained that science and religion could be compatible and even suggested that science could be a source of spirituality (although he just meant that studying the universe could generate a sense of elation and humility).  

Sagan’s views come across in Contact. Not only is Dr. Eleanor (Elle) Arroway (Jodie Foster) elated and humbled by what she learns (and sees) of the universe, but the movie also portrays science and religion as compatible and even seems to vindicate (but not necessarily validate) the theistic belief of Rev. Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey). Although Contact demonstrates the close-mindedness of religious fundamentalists through the comments of evangelical spokesman Richard Rank (Rob Lowe) and highlights the dangers of religious fanaticism through the terrorist attack of an albino priest, Joseph (Jake Busey), Palmer’s theistic belief, which is inspired by a religious experience, is portrayed in the end as rational.

How so?

Early in the movie, Elle dismisses Palmer’s religious experience, despite its vividness, as something that is more likely just the consequence of wishful thinking—he “needed to have it.” In the end, however, Elle ends up doing just what Palmer did: trusting her own experience, even though she openly admits that it is more likely that it was just a result of wishful thinking. She even uses some of Palmer’s words to explain why she can’t help but believe that her experience was genuine. “It changed me forever…[it was a] vision that tells us that we belong to something that is greater than ourselves, that none of us are alone.” 

What experience does Elle have? Shortly after Elle decries Palmer’s experience, she detects a beacon from space, and humanity builds the machine (apparently for space travel) for which the beacon contains blueprints. The machine operates by simply dropping a person, in a capsule, into the machine while in operation. When Elle is dropped, she apparently experiences traveling to the center of the galaxy via wormhole and conversing with an alien (that takes on the appearance of her dead father); the whole ordeal seems to take about 18 hours.

It appears to outside observers and instruments, however, that she simply falls straight through the machine. Senator Kitz (James Woods) points out that, given this, the better (more scientific) explanation is that the “alien signal” was the result of a hoax perpetrated by Hadden Suit (Michael Chaban) and she hallucinated (dreamed?) contacting the aliens. Elle agrees—yet she still believes that she contacted aliens anyway. “I had an experience. I can’t prove it. I can’t even explain it. But everything I know as a human being, everything I am, tells me that it was real.” In other words, she prefers her own personal experience to the scientific explanation.  

The big question of Contact is, of course, what really happened? Did she just fall through the machine or did Elle really travel to another world? As director Robert Zemeckis and producer Steve Starkey make clear in the audio commentary, the movie is intended to be ambiguous; they even wanted people to leave the theater arguing with each other about whether Elle or Kitz was right. What is not ambiguous, however, is that Rev. Palmer believes Elle and that Sagan means for us to believe her too—or, at least, for us to think that she is justified in her belief. And since she is doing the same thing Palmer did regarding his experience of God, clearly Sagan means for us to believe Palmer as well—or, at least, to think that he is justified in his belief. In this way, by vindicating Elle’s belief in aliens, Contact seems to vindicate Palmer’s theistic belief as well.

But herein lies the important question. Even if we can’t settle the issue of what really happened to Elle, we can still ask whether Elle is justified in her belief. Even if you think she hallucinated, whether it was rational for her to continue to think she traveled to another world is still an open question. On the one hand, the experience seems to her to be legitimate—and people usually trust their experience, right? On the other hand, she admits that the hoax/hallucination hypothesis is (scientifically) the better explanation. Shouldn’t she thus embrace it? After all, by refusing to do so she isn’t just violating Occam’s Razor (the scientific maxim, referred to in the movie, which suggests that, all other things being equal, one should always prefer the simplest explanation). She is also violating a common practice in science: not trusting one’s personal experience above and beyond scientific reasoning. Of course, Elle may not have volitional control of all her beliefs—she may not be able to keep herself from believing in aliens, given her experience. But the question is not about what she could believe, but what she should believe—what it is rational for her to believe.

This question is more important than figuring out what happened to Elle because answering it can reveal what we should likely believe about a great many things in the real world. Our daily lives constantly present us with the choice of whether to believe our experience or the evidence—about everything from vaccines and global warming to politics and religion. So should we always favor scientific reasoning over personal experience? Or are there exceptions to this rule? And if so, when do they apply? By figuring out whether they apply to Elle and Palmer’s situation, we could end up revealing something important about the justification of our own beliefs—perhaps even about God’s existence.

Why Trust Science Over Personal Experience?

To begin, we should clarify why it is a common practice in science to distrust personal experience when it conflicts with scientific reasoning (i.e., scientific evidence or the best scientific explanation).

It’s well established that personal experience is biased and can be easily led astray. Expectation bias, pareidolia, anthropomorphic bias, the autokinetic effect, subjective validation and the forer effect, selective and constructive memory, even confirmation bias and availability error (I could go on and on)—all can make us see what isn’t there or even remember something that never happened. What’s more, optical illusions happen naturally (e.g., it’s an optical illusion that causes the moon to look bigger near the horizon) and hallucinations happen much more often than people realize—even in healthy people. Our perception of ourselves can even be wrong. The powers and limits of our senses are strong. To paraphrase my favorite critical thinking text, How to Think About Weird Things, the fact that something seems real doesn’t necessarily mean that it is. Indeed, more often than you realize, it’s not.

Science, on the other hand, is designed specifically to avoid such biases and limits. It takes them into account (along with the many ways our intuitive reasoning can lead us astray) so as to control them and thus reveal the way the world actually is (beyond the way it merely appears to be, given our perceptions). Science admits, of course, that our perceptions are usually reliable enough for everyday ordinary purposes, but also realizes that they cannot be trusted in extreme or special circumstances and generally cannot prove as much as people think.

For example, if you take an unproven medication and then feel better, that might seem to you to be proof that it works, but it’s not. For that you would need a repeatable, double-blinded, placebo-controlled study. Now, a personal experience like this might be a reason to perform such a study on the medication in question—and if such studies have already proven the treatment works, you could rightly conclude a causal connection in your own case. But because of the variable nature of illness, the placebo effect, and possible overlooked causes, by itself such an experience is not reason enough to think that any medication is an effective treatment for anything.

Something similar can be said about vaccines. The fact that a single child was diagnosed with autism after receiving the MMR vaccine is not evidence that vaccines cause autism (even if the child was your own). For such a link to be established, a controlled double-blinded study would be needed. (All such studies have shown no link; the rates of autism are the same in vaccinated and non-vaccinated children. It can appear to some that there is a causal link because the age at which a child’s immune system is advanced enough to receive the vaccine is sometimes around the same age that diagnosable signs of autism first appear.)

Now, that’s not to say that it’s impossible for personal experience to get it right while scientific reasoning gets it wrong. Of course it’s possible. The scientific method is an inductive form of reasoning. Since inductive arguments don’t guarantee their conclusions (they, instead, make them highly likely), scientific conclusions can be wrong. And personal experience can be right. So, obviously, it’s mathematically possible for two such events to line up and thus for your personal experience be right while the science gets it wrong. But the fact that something is possible is not a reason to think that it is true. The question is whether or not one could ever be justified in believing, in a particular case, that such a thing had happened. Since science is much more reliable than personal experience, when there is a conflict between the two, it would seem that (unless other evidence comes to light) the rational person should always embrace the former.

Let me explain by analogy: Suppose Bob is especially honest and only lies 1% of the time. Suppose Don is a compulsive liar and lies 99% of the time. And suppose you know these statistics to be true. If Don tells you something is true, but Bob tells you it is false, who should you believe? Clearly Bob, right? Sure, it’s possible that, in some circumstance, Don would just so happen to be telling one of his rare truths while Bob is telling one of his rare lies—but, in any particular case, that’s really unlikely. So, unless new evidence comes to light, if Don is telling you one thing, but Bob another, you should believe Bob.

The same, it seems, holds for when there is a conflict between evidence or argument and personal experience. The greater reliability of the former seems to entail that, all other things being equal, you should trust the former. Of course, if you can find flaws with the evidence or argument, then there really is no conflict. But, it seems, if one acknowledges that the scientific reasoning about something is cogent, one cannot be justified in citing personal experience as a reason to reject what it suggests. We might put this in the form of a rule:

The Conflict Rule: When there is a conflict between one’s personal experience and the conclusion of cogent scientific reasoning, one should reject the former and embrace the latter.

But are things really that simple? Can personal experience never override science? Should we always follow this rule? Let’s look at some specific cases where the rule is violated to find out.

Violating the Conflict Rule

First, let’s look at some cases where people violated the conflict rule but shouldn’t have. To begin, I’ll paraphrase a conversation I’ve had on Facebook.

Glen: I think the Earth is flat because when I look out to the horizon it sure seems flat.

Kyle: All available scientific evidence indicates that it’s round. All scientists agree. We even have pictures. Its apparent flatness is an illusion due to its size.

Glen: Sure, but every day when I look out, it sure looks flat. So I believe that it is flat. 

Now, Glen’s not kidding. (Trust me, I’ve checked.) He’s also violating the conflict rule, when he shouldn’t. Indeed, the scientific evidence not only entails that Glen’s personal experience is wrong—but explains why it is wrong. The reason the Earth looks flat (from our own personal perceptive), even though it is not, is because it is enormous (while we are tiny).

A similar thing could be said about one who believes in ghosts, because they thought they saw one, despite scientific evidence to the contrary.

Nicole: I think ghosts exist because one night shortly after my grandmother died, I awoke to see her sitting on the edge of my bed.

Kyle: The existence of ghosts would violate multiple laws of physics (conservation of energy and the causal closure of the physical) and is inconsistent with neuroscience (which suggests that one’s mind is dependent upon one’s brain—it does not float away after death). Given how easily our perception is manipulated, and the power of expectation, it’s much more likely that you had a vivid visual hallucination. Indeed, such hallucinations usually seem more real (than their veracious counterparts) to those who have them, and such things are even more likely to occur around the time you are sleeping. Indeed, what is most likely is that you mistook a dream for reality.

Nicole: I know all that, but I still believe. You don’t know how vivid my experience of the ghost was!

Nicole is also violating the rule when she shouldn’t. You can’t invoke the vividness of an experience as a reason to favor it over the evidence—especially when the evidence in question explains why the experience would seem vivid even though it is erroneous. Given that Nicole is aware of this, her belief in ghosts is clearly unjustified.

Or consider this discussion about color that really gets to the heart of the matter.

Lori: That dress has the property of being blue and black, not white and gold.

Kyle: Actually, Locke showed us (and science has confirmed) that color is a “secondary property.” Objects don’t have colors as properties; they have other properties that cause them to reflect certain wavelengths of light that cause us to see certain colors, depending on how we interpret those wavelengths. So the dress isn’t white and gold, but it also is not blue and black either. The only kind of thing that actually has the property of being blue or black are things like your experience of the dress.

Lori: I know that, but it sure looks blue and black. I can’t seem to help but believe it is blue and black…so it is.

A similar conversation might be had about the solidity of objects. We perceive objects as solid, but science has proven that objects are mostly empty space. They are made of atoms, and atoms consist mostly of the empty space between their constituent parts (i.e., their electrons and protons). They seem solid to us because (roughly put) the electrometric fields of objects and our bodies repel each other; but if one were to continue to really (“ultimately”) believe they are solid, despite acknowledging the scientific evidence, it seems that one would be acting irrationally. The same is true about objects’ color.

These are all examples of when violating the conflict rule is irrational, yet it seems that I can produce real life examples where violating the conflict rule is not irrational.

Consider, for example, when Willem de Vlamingh first saw a black swan, in Australia, in 1667. All previously observed swans were white, so a cogent argument existed which suggested that all swans were white. Indeed, that was the prevailing scientific view. Yet it doesn’t seem that Vlamingh was doing anything irrational when he favored the conclusion “some swans are black” based on his personal experience of seeing a black swan.

Or consider Alexis Bouvard’s early observations of the orbit of the planet Uranus, taken at a time when science told us that there were only 7 planets. When astronomers Adams and Verrier realized that Bouvard’s experience didn’t put Uranus where Newton’s laws of planetary motion predicted, did they dismiss Bouvard’s observations as faulty in favor of protecting Newton’s laws and the prevailing theory about the number of planets? No, they instead hypothesized the existence of another planet (which was pulling Uranus “off course”)—and that’s how we discovered Neptune.

Something similar happened with Mercury, the closest planet to the sun. Newton’s theory couldn’t account for precession of the perihelion of Mercury (i.e., Newton’s theory couldn’t account for Mercury’s unusually wonky orbit). We tried looking for another planet that might be throwing it off course. We even named it: Vulcan. But we couldn’t find it. Did we therefore conclude that our observation of Mercury’s orbit was wrong, or that Vulcan really was there even though we couldn’t see it? No, we started considering alternative theories—and, it turns out, Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity’s ability to perfectly explain the orbit of Mercury was one of the biggest reasons it replaced Newton’s theory of gravity.

So we can’t say that we should never trust personal experience over cogent scientific arguments. Experiencing something that the current, well established, theories don’t predict or can’t explain drives advancement in science! That’s how we can come to recognize if our current theory is wrong. If we could never violate the conflict rule, we could never make scientific progress. 

When to Trust “Personal Experience”

So the question remains: When is it okay to violate the conflict rule, and when is it not? The differences in the examples from the last section can, I believe, illuminate our answer.

First, notice that whether a personal experience can overturn a theory seems to depend partly on how well established the theory in question is. For example, the ghost and the swan stories are similar—they both involve someone experiencing something the current theory doesn't predict. But the evidence behind the two theories is very different. The swan theory was based merely on all current observations of swans. Given that, at the time, there was much of the world we hadn't explored, it's not too surprising that we eventually found an exception. (Something similar could be said about our theory that there were only 7 planets.) The ghost hypothesis, however, is contrary to not only neuroscience (which is based on rigorous study and experiment) but also established physical laws (like the conservation of energy and the causal closure of the physical). Of course, they could be false too, but given how well established they are, the bar for proving them false is much higher than the bar for "all swans are white." A single experience isn't going to cut it.

Second, notice that in all the examples where the violation of the rule was irrational (flat Earth, ghosts, color, and solidity) the scientific theory the experiences were trying to overturn included within it an explanation for why the experience would be faulty (e.g., the Earth looks flat because it is so large and we are so tiny). The same could even be said in the vaccine/autism example. (They might seem to be casually related in a single case because they happen at around the same age.) If the scientific theory accounts for your personal experience by explaining how it is illusory, you can’t overturn the theory by pointing out how vivid the illusion is. This was not true, however, of the theories that were rightly overturned. Newton’s theory, for example, did not include an explanation for why Mercury would appear to have a wonky orbit even though it didn’t. If it had, the fact that Mercury appeared to have a wonky orbit wouldn’t have been a reason to reject Newton’s theory.

Third, in the cases where breaking the rule was rational, the personal experience in question was verifiable—they could all be independently confirmed, and indeed were.  Vlamingh wasn’t the only one to see the black swans (he had a team), and he saw more than one of them (and was able to verify that, indeed, they were swans). The location of Uranus, and the orbit of Mercury (and non-existence of Vulcan) are independently verifiable (and were verified). Indeed, what actually overturned the theory in question wasn’t the experience itself—it was the confirmation of the outside event or object to which the experience drew our attention.

This is not true of the other examples. Take the ghost sighting. We can’t go back to that night and see for ourselves whether there was a ghostly grandma apparition on the edge of Nicole’s bed. Of course, if Grandma appeared every night and we could confirm it with multiple reliable witnesses and cameras, and rule out other explanations (like a hologram projector), then we'd have something much more akin to the black swan example and we might have to start rethinking our theories. (Unfortunately, controlled tests always make ghosts disappear.) But by itself, because of its non-repeatability and non-verifiability, Nicole's experience won't be enough. It’s just too easy for our senses to lead us astray. 

The other examples are slightly different. Everyone can “verify” that (from the ground) the Earth looks flat, and that objects appear to “be colors” and “be solid.” But these experiences are still subjective in a way that the other experiences (of black swans, and the location of planets) are not. Indeed, I could confirm with objective measuring devices planetary orbits, or even that the feathers of swans in Australia absorb, rather than reflect, all wavelengths of light. I could never measure, however, what your experience of color, solidity, or even flatness is like. (Indeed, as philosophers are fond of pointing out, I can't even confirm that we all experience colors the same way.) And so verifiability seems to be something else that sets the examples apart.

Notice that if only Vlamingh had seen the black swan as it flew away, but was unable to verify its existence (or the fact that it was a swan) to his colleagues, and never saw another, he wouldn’t have been justified in rejecting the “all swans are white” hypothesis. If we hadn’t found Neptune and no one else was able to observe the kind of anomalies in Uranus’ orbit that Bouvard had, we probably would have concluded that Bouvard had simply mismeasured its orbit.

Indeed, confirmation of such anomalous observations seems to be necessary for them to overturn scientific theory. When the scientists running the OPERA particle detector thought that it had measured neutrinos going faster than the speed of light, they didn’t jump to the conclusion that relativity had been overturned. They tried to confirm the measurement in every possible way. Only if they had done so (instead of finding the error that led to the mismeasurement) would they had even come close to being justified in thinking that relativity was false.

With this in mind we can refine our rule. Personal experience that is confirmed and verified—what we might call an “observation”—can overturn established scientific theories or be given preference over the prevailing scientific explanation. How easily it can do so (i.e., how much confirmation is required) will depend on how well confirmed the theory or explanation already is, but that is how scientific progress is made. Personal experience that cannot be (or, at least, has not been) confirmed or verified, however, cannot overturn established scientific theory or explanation—especially if the established theory or explanation accounts for why the personal experience in question is not reliable or was likely illusory.

What this Means for Elle and Palmer

Elle’s argument against the veracity of Palmer’s religious experience—“there’s no chance that you had this experience because some part of you needed to have it?”—is a bit sophomoric. In Lecture 10 of “The Big Questions of Philosophy” I explained that religious experience cannot justify religious belief for essentially two reasons. First, since every religion in the world contains examples of religious experiences that tell its followers that their religion is true, but at best only one religion is true, most of the time religious experience leads to false belief. Philosophically, therefore, religious experience can’t provide the justification necessary to generate knowledge. It’s just not reliable enough.

In a similar vein, science has revealed that religious experiences can be explained, without reference to the supernatural, by simply looking at the inner workings of the brain. Indeed, temporal lobe epilepsy is thought by many to be responsible for the visions and writings of the Prophet Muhammad and the Apostle Paul. Although the full explanation is not yet fully flushed out (this is true in most of neuroscience), it seems that for any given religious experience, the better explanation for it would be rooted in the physical, not the supernatural.

Rev. Palmer would, of course, insist that the vividness of his experience enables it to override such concerns—but his does not seem to be a situation where such a conclusion is warranted. His experience cannot be verified, and the scientific explanation accounts for the illusory nature of such experiences. He can’t justifiably counter such an argument by pointing out how vivid the experience was. Without further evidence of God’s existence, it would seem that Palmer’s experience cannot be trusted as veracious.

The same, it seems, is true for Elle—although her situation is slightly different.

Earlier in the film, Elle suggests that, as a scientist, she always demands “proof” or evidence. But this isn’t an entirely accurate description of the scientific method. While making observable novel predictions (testability) and getting them right (fruitfulness) are two things a hypothesis can do to “prove” itself to be better than its competitors, those are only two of five criteria. The explanatory power (scope) of a hypothesis, whether it is consistent with what we already have good reason to believe (its conservatism), and the number of assumptions it makes or entities it requires (its simplicity), are equally important. (The latter is Occam’s razor.) So science actually provides us with the ability to rationally accept one hypothesis over the other, even when the two hypotheses make all the same observable predictions—that is, even when there is no “proof” one way or the other. 

Consider the heliocentric (sun-centered) and geocentric (earth-centered) models of the solar system. It is possible to construct a geocentric model that correctly describes and even predicts the movement of all the planets. But to do so one has to make a plethora of arbitrary assumptions. (For example, the geocentric model has to account for the occasional retrograde of Mars by suggesting that it doesn’t orbit the Earth…but orbits an arbitrary spot that itself orbits the Earth.) The hypothesis that the Sun is at the center (and so Mars only appears to retrograde as Earth passes it as they both orbit the Sun) generates a model which is so much simpler that it was accepted long before we had the ability to observationally differentiate the two theories—that is, before we had the ability to “prove” one right and the other wrong. (We eventually did so by observing parallax.)

The same is true for God. It’s often said that you can’t prove God does exist, but you also can’t prove that he doesn’t. Even if that is true, we can still compare the two hypotheses to see which is the more rational to accept. As Elle puts it, “What’s more likely? An all-powerful mysterious God created the universe and then decided not to give us any proof of his existence, or that he simply doesn’t exist at all, and that we created him so we wouldn’t have to feel so small and alone?” Clearly, the latter is simpler, and it explains religious diversity to boot.

Elle could respond with a similar answer to Palmer’s challenge that she provide proof that she loved her father. Of course, after she gives an account of all the ways that she behaved that clearly demonstrated love for her father, Palmer could point out an alternative hypothesis: that she was faking it. But what would be the simpler, more conservative, wider scoping explanation? 

But, of course, the same logic applies to conundrum at the end of the film. She is presented with two hypotheses: the Alien/Contact hypothesis and the Hoax/Hallucination hypothesis. Given what she knows, it seems the latter is the best explanation (even though it is essentially a conspiracy theory). We have proof of neither, but the latter is certainly simpler (it doesn’t invoke aliens or wormholes). It also explains quite nicely how Hadden had access to the classified blueprints, and why he was the only one able to figure out how to decode them. And it seems more conservative in that it is more in line with what we know about how likely contact from alien life is.

Elle seems to recognize this herself; she just trusts her experience over and above the better scientific explanation. Yet it doesn’t seem that an exception to the conflict rule is warranted in Elle’s case either. Her experience can’t be verified, and the alternate hypothesis comes ready-made with an explanation for how her experience is illusory; she can’t cite the vividness of her experience to prove that it isn’t a hallucination. So, even if Elle can’t help but believe what she does, it seems that Sagan is wrong to suggest that she is justified in her conclusion.    

Answering Contact’s Big Question

But there are two things Elle doesn’t know that seem to indicate that, although it wasn’t justified, her conclusion was right—and these things, I think, keep the movie from truly having an ambiguous ending.

The first is the exterior effects of the machine. Right before Elle is dropped, as the machine reaches full capacity, it creates an apparent gravitational effect that pulls an observing ship, the water it sits in, and the control room itself, towards it. This makes perfect sense if the machine is creating a wormhole; to do so, it would have to bend spacetime significantly and thus generate just such an effect. This makes no sense, however, if this machine is just part of an elaborate hoax. Even if Hadden had developed some edgy experimental technologies that he was trying to trick the government into trying out, something that could create such an effect is too far beyond our current capabilities. This makes the Hoax/Hallucination hypothesis non-simple and non-conservative. The best explanation for the exterior effects of the machine is alien technology.

The second fact is classified and revealed to the audience at the end of the film: although Elle’s personal video recorder records only static, it records 18 hours of it—a time that coincides with how long Elle’s experience seems to be. The Hoax/Hallucination hypothesis predicts that, no matter what it records, it shouldn’t be longer than a few minutes. So it simply can’t account for this. This makes the Alien/Contact hypothesis fruitful but the Hoax/Hallucination hypothesis unconservative.

These two things together clearly indicate that, indeed, Elle does contact aliens. Although, given what she knows, trusting her personal experience over the available evidence is irrational, it happens (in this case) to drive her to the right conclusion. (Again, although this is rare, because inductive reasoning doesn’t guarantee its conclusion, the rational conclusion can sometimes be wrong.)  If only she was made aware of this other evidence, she’d be justified in her true belief. It wouldn’t require faith.

In fact, even though at the time of her testimony her personal experience isn’t reason enough to justify accepting the Alien/Contact hypothesis, it is different enough from Palmer’s experience to potentially have the power to do so. Why? It’s repeatable; it’s verifiable. Just send someone else through the machine! I mean, it’s already built, right? How expensive could it be? Hell, send Senator Kitz. If he falls through without experiencing anything, then okay—it was a hoax. But if he experiences traveling through a wormhole…well, there you go.

What can all this reveal about belief in God?

If God’s existence can neither be proven nor disproven, then it’s entirely possible that God exists, even if (as we saw above) that isn’t the justified conclusion to draw given what we know. But, until additional, reliable evidence is brought to bear, it seems the rational conclusion is to embrace atheism. Unfortunately for the theist, although people have been trying to bring such evidence to bear for hundreds of years—the cosmological argument, the teleological argument, the ontological argument, etc.—they are considered by most philosophers and scientists to be entirely unconvincing. (I lay out why in lectures 15-17 of “Exploring Metaphysics.”) Unless a breakthrough in these arguments is yet to be had, just like Elle’s belief in aliens at the end of the film, it seems that theistic belief is destined to remain a matter of faith.

Now, I’m not saying it’s certain that God doesn’t exist. As we’ve seen, even Sagan would object to such a strong position. But one need not do so to be an atheist. An atheist is merely someone who doesn’t believe that God exists. (We are all atheists of a sort; like me, you probably don’t believe in Zeus.) Indeed, one doesn’t need certainty to even claim to know that God doesn’t exist. Knowledge doesn’t require certainty; it only requires justification. (Otherwise, given movies like Inception and The Matrix, I couldn’t even know that the world was real.) And if atheism is the better explanation, then embracing it is justified. So if, in fact, God does not exist, the atheist has a justified true belief—and that, traditionally, counts as knowledge. 

But whether you are an atheist like Elle, a theist like Palmer, or an agnostic like Sagan, you have to agree that twenty years later, Contact still proves to be a science fiction classic. It makes us think, it challenges our beliefs, and still makes us wonder: what really would happen if we made contact?  


What originally inspired this post was a discussion with colleagues about how something similar to the conflict rule is utilized in philosophy. Can one ever use personal experience—specifically personal experience that cannot be verified—to justifiably override what one admits to be a cogent philosophical argument? In other words, can one admit that a philosophical argument is convincing—indeed, admit that one has no good objection or answer to that argument—and yet justifiably deny its conclusion because one’s own non-verifiable personal experience suggests that the conclusion is false?

It seems not. To demonstrate why, let me give you examples of when philosophers sometimes are tempted to violate a philosophic version of the conflict rule. We’ll see a pattern similar to the one we saw above: You can’t break the rule, unless the personal experience is verifiable and the original argument doesn’t account for the illusion.

An example where personal experience can override philosophical argument is with Zeno type paradoxes. Consider this argument that motion is impossible. To go from A to B, you would have to first arrive at some halfway point C. But before you could do that, you would have to arrive at a halfway point between A and C, call it D. And before that, a halfway point called E….etc. So there are an infinite number of half way points you would have to traverse to get to B. But you can’t traverse an infinite series, thus getting to B (and motion itself) is impossible.

It seems my personal experience of arriving at point B (and of my own motion) is enough to dismiss the conclusion of this argument. But notice, just like in the exceptions mentioned in the article, this personal experience is of something objective and verifiable—it is an observation. Notice also that the argument, as stated, does not offer an explanation for why it might seem like you move to point B when you really don’t. And so, it seems, there is a similar rule for when we can break the conflict rule in philosophy. A “personal experience” can override the conclusion of a seeming cogent philosophical argument, as long as the personal experience is an “observation”—something that objectively measureable and confirmable.

Interestingly, Zeno’s original arguments actually aimed to show that movement was an illusion; he acknowledged that it seemed like motion occurred, but denied that it really did. Notice that, now, it doesn’t seem that one’s personal experience of motion can provide a reason to ignore the conclusion of the argument. What Zeno meant, and whether he was right, has received much philosophical attention—but that proves my point. If an argument suggests that the way things seem is an illusion, you can dismiss the argument by appealing to the way things seem; that’s why so much ink has been spilled on this problem. Scientists and philosophers seem to treat their corresponding conflict rules in the same way.

Let’s consider some examples where the rule shouldn’t be broken.

In many of my classes, we discuss the existence of free will. In my article, “Does Free Will Exist?” I overview the major philosophic and scientific reasons that most philosophers and scientists (especially neuroscientists) believe that we don’t have (libertarian) free will. Many students are convinced, while others are not. Discussion between them often go like this:

Student 1: I believe I have (libertarian) free will.

Student 2: But numerous scientific and philosophic arguments suggest that free will doesn’t exist and that your sense of free will is just an illusion created by how your brain functions. How do you answer those arguments?

Student 1: I can’t, but it sure seems like I am free. Indeed, as I go about my daily life, it doesn’t seem that I can believe otherwise. So I am going to believe I am.

For the same reasons I mentioned in the article, it seems Student 1’s reasoning here is fallacious. You can’t just ignore the arguments if you can’t answer them, and you can’t cite the vividness of an experience as evidence against such arguments if they entail that the experience is an illusion. If Student 1 is to continue to justifiably believe in free will, she will have to find a flaw in the arguments Student 2 mentions—not simply appeal to personal experience. 

In my philosophy of mind class, we explore all the major theories of personal identity which try to account for how one remains, numerically, the same person over time. Each is subject to major objections, and in the end, some students conclude that nominalism—the suggestion that persons don’t really exist—is the best theory. (The theory is touted by James Giles, and is similar to Hume’s Bundle Theory and Buddah’s No-Self theory. It doesn’t deny that bodies exist; only that there is no “extra thing” above and beyond bodies, called a person, that does or could exist over time. Giles suggests that we can still speak, conventionally, as if persons exist; but they do not really exist in an ultimate, or metaphysical, sense.) Other students can’t shake the belief that persons exist. The conversations between such students often go something like this:

Student 1: I believe I (a person) exist.

Student 2: But our own philosophical investigation has revealed that no account of what persons are (i.e., what preserves numeric personal identity over time) is defensible. Isn’t the best explanation that persons don’t exist—that the fact that they seem to exist is just an illusion created by how your brain functions and organizes the world?

Student 1: Yeah, it is. But it sure seems like I exist, so I believe that I do.

Again, and for the same reason, it seems Student 1 is engaged in fallacious reasoning. If you acknowledge that nominalism is the best explanation, then (rationally) you should embrace it. You might argue that the nominalist’s argument is self-contradictory. How can “your brain” create an illusion if “you” don’t exist. But (a) that’s beside the point since the question is whether one can appeal to personal experience to object to such an argument, and such an argument is not appealing to personal experience. And (b) since the nominalist makes a distinction between conventional and ultimate speech, there actually is no contradiction. Such a statement is just conventional shorthand for “that persons seem to exist is just an illusion created by brains to aid in the organization of the world.”

In the same philosophy of mind class, we also explore the nature of mind and its relationship to the brain. We consider all the major theories, and consider objections to them. The fact that all are subject to difficult objections convinces some students that eliminative materialism—the suggestion that minds don’t exist at all (all that exists is the brain and its activity)—is the best explanation. (After all, it is consistent with all the scientific data, it is not subject to the objections that plague most other theories—like the problem of downwards causation—and is undeniably the simplest explanation among the alternatives.) Their conversation with other students in the class often goes like this.  

Student 1: I believe minds exist.

Student 2: But our philosophical investigation has revealed that no account of what minds are, what they do or how they do it, is defensible. The best explanation is that minds don’t exist; that minds seem to exist is merely an illusion created by how brains function.

Student 1: Yeah, but it sure seems like minds exist. After all, I’m directly aware of my mind. Indeed, I can’t help but believe that it exists. So I am going to believe minds exist anyway.  

Now, if anything is an example of when personal experience could override a philosophical argument that one cannot answer, this would seem to be it. Can’t my personal experience overturn an argument which concludes that personal experiences don’t exist? But again, for the same reason, it seems that such an argument would be fallacious. You can’t counter an argument which suggests that X is illusion by pointing out how vividly it seems that X exists. All you’d be doing is essentially begging the question—assuming that X is not an illusion when whether it is, is the very issue at hand. And I’m not saying this because I myself am an eliminative materialist—because I’m not. This simply seems to be a fact of logic. To counter such arguments you have to find the flaw in them; you can’t just appeal to personal experience.

In the case of argument for eliminative materialism above, I believe the flaw is easy to find: the argument is self-contradictory. How so? Not in the way that many have suggested. “Eliminative materialists contradict themselves if they say they believe their theory, because a belief itself is a mental construct.” While that may be true, eliminative materialist don’t have to say that, and the theory itself is not a belief so it is not contradictory for this reason. But if the eliminative materialists says that the existence of the mind is an illusion created by the brain (just like our sense of free will and personhood), there is a problem. This suggestion itself seems to contradict eliminative materialism because the very notion of “an illusion” denotes a mental construct. An illusion is a perception of the way things are that is inaccurate, but eliminative materialism suggests that perceptions don’t exist. The brain can’t create the illusion that there are illusions when in fact there are no illusions. Your brain can’t make it seem like there is seeming when in fact there is none. If there is no seeming, it can’t make it seem like anything. What the eliminative materialist should do is just deny that it seems like we have minds. (If I understand the arguments presented by the Churchlands correctly, that is what they suggest. But that is a very tough philosophical pill to swallow.)

Of course, one might think that the eliminative materialists could appeal to a Giles type “conventional/ultimate” speech distinction to avoid this objection, but they cannot do so for two reasons. (A) They reject this distinction. Indeed, one of the main goals of eliminative materialism is to eliminate all talk of the mental. (B) In order for the illusion to do the philosophic work it needs to do to account for our personal experience, it would have to exist in the ultimate sense—it could not simply be a convention.

I suppose that one might re-describe this final example as one where personal experience is countering the original argument, but even so it would seem that this is the only example of when personal experience can override an argument. Unless the argument is about the very existence of personal experience itself, one cannot appeal to (non-verifiable) personal experience alone as a way to legitimately counter any philosophical (or scientific) argument.


Authors Note: This piece (minus the endnote) was also published by The Sci-Phi Journal, in combination with the journal's re-launch, at 10am UTC on July 11th, 2017 at I have reposted it here with permission.


Copyright, David Kyle Johnson 2017