Reflections on Carl Sagan’s Contact

Contact_Sagan.jpgI’m about 37 years behind on this, but I finally got around to reading Carl Sagan’s Contact (it was originally published in 1980, and made into a film in 1997). I was interested in the book because I’m interested in the larger science-religion relationship in our culture, in which Carl Sagan is a kind of iconic figure. I want to understand scientific worldviews in the way that Atticus Finch talks about as “seeing the world through another person’s eyes”—that is, in a careful, generous, un-caricatured way. Contact, as the best-selling English-language science book of all time, is a good entry point into these larger worldview issues.

Approaching the book with these interests, I was surprised by its literary quality. It has nuanced characters, a meticulously organized plot structure, and an imaginative sensitivity to details, such as human psychology and conversation. Most books about aliens are essentially about combat and warfare (Alien, Independence Day, War of the Worlds, etc.). Contact is about a peaceful interaction with benevolent aliens, which to my mind is much more interesting because it allows you to say more about human beings in terms of how they respond. So the plot necessarily involves geopolitical, religious, and cultural dynamics, and Sagan narrates all this with realism and subtlety. It was interesting, for instance, to note the impact of contact from another civilization on prejudice and identity:

Its hard to think of your primary allegiance as Scottish or Slovenian or Szechuanese when you’re being hailed indiscriminately by a civilization millennia ahead of you…. Suddenly, distinctions that had earlier seemed transfixing—racial, religious, national, ethnic, linguistic, economic, and cultural—began to seem less pressing” (261).

Some readers will probably find the narration a bit slow at times, and the character development feels a bit labored (he goes on for pages giving a background profile—I much prefer the way a writer like C.S. Lewis develops his character through narration and dialogue). Nonetheless, the ideas of the book are so momentous and interesting that it holds your attention. Basically, human beings receive a message from a star about 26 light years away, and the message instructs them to build a machine in which to travel to meet them. This is a drawing of the machine:


What is most interesting to me about the book is its theological and spiritual implication. There are lots of Augustine and Aquinas quotes to start off chapters, and science-religion dialogue is a huge feature of the plot—chapter 10, for instance, features a sharp debate between leading scientists and religious figures. Here and throughout, Sagan portrayed religion more sympathetically than I expected. Granted, there are hideously ugly expressions of religious fanaticism, and the scientific characters recite some of the stock critiques against popular religion (e.g., Arroway’s comments throughout 161-70). At the same time, one of most sympathetic and intriguing characters is a Christian pastor (Palmer Joss, the guy played by Matthew McConaughey in the movie, though the movie changes the plot a lot). Through Joss and other means, Sagan often emphasizes the harmony of science and faith: thus, science is, in itself, limited (131); it is inspired by the same source as religion (the “numinous,” cf. 143, 153); it produces religious feelings (315). The climax of the dialogue in chapter 10 is not Arroway (the scientist) “winning” over and against Rankin (the unpleasant religious leader) so much as Joss’ comment: “perhaps we are all wayfarers on the road to truth” (173).

Moreover, the events of the novel seem to rub against a rationalistic, skeptical worldview. When the scientists return from their journey to Vega, they are given no proof. Thus, not only is the truth disbelieved and covered up, but the critiques against them are the same arguments leveled earlier in the book against religion: it appeals to experience, it lacks verifiable data, etc. This is a great irony in the story: the skeptical Arroway, long-time critic of religion, finds herself as “the bearer of the profound religious experience I can’t prove” (420).

In addition to this, the aliens themselves play a kind of spiritual or religious role in the book. They are not simply objects of natural, scientific inquiry, but bring up transcendent questions of meaning, morality, and human destiny. For instance, Arroway’s early travel into space is described as a kind of religious experience (283); her first vision of another civilization fills her with transcendent hope and joy (342); her first encounter with the aliens fulfills deep longings for reunion with lost loved ones (356) and heals her, exorcising her demons and making her more capable of love (407). Her request to the alien suggests the human desire for transcendent relationship: “She wanted to ask him how he honestly felt about humans. Curiosity? Compassion? No feelings whatever, just all in a day’s work?” (361, italics his). This is not some detached, objective experiment: the aliens are fulfilling a need in the human heart, the human capacity for wonder, the human desire for transcendent connection, for ultimate “contact.”

It’s as though the aliens fulfill roles that traditionally have been fulfilled by religion. Arroway’s feelings toward the conclusion of her conversation with the alien suggest this explicitly:

How … theological the circumstances had become. Here were beings who live in the sky, beings enormously knowledgeable and powerful, beings concerned for our survival, beings with a set of expectations about how we should behave…. How is this different, she asked herself, from the old-time religion? (371).

But surprisingly, in playing a spiritual or theological role, the aliens do not replace God; rather, they ultimately point beyond themselves to make the traditional question of God all the more pressing. Because the alien civilization that contacts humanity did not build but only found the transit system of wormholes through which the scientists travel to Vega, and because they don’t know the answer to the coded data hidden in the number Pi (but recognize it is a purposeful message), the book seems to suggest a larger purpose and design to the universe. The “contact” envisioned here is not just from another star in the galaxy, but from a deeper, more transcendent source. Indeed, the last few sentences of the book almost amount to a teleological argument: “in the fabric of space and in the nature of matter, there is, written small, the artist’s signature. Standing over humans, gods, and demons, subsuming Caretakers and Tunnel builders, there is an intelligence that antedates the universe” (431).

In other words, the book is not ultimately about extraterrestrial intelligence, but supernatural intelligence—not physics but metaphysics, not aliens but (some kind of) a Creator.

Sagan himself was an agnostic who considered the impersonal god of Einstein and Spinoza. Nonetheless, the “artist” who designed the universe in Contact is not presented as a solution to scientific riddles so much as the fulfillment of deeply existential human longings. In the final pages of the book, the main character, Ellie Arroway, realizes something devastating about her past. Sagan writes, to conclude the book:

contact_movie_header.jpgShe had spent her career attempting to make contact with the most remote and alien of strangers, while in her own life she had made contact with hardly anyone at all. She had been fierce in debunking the creation myths of others, and oblivious to the lie at the core of her own. She had studied the universe all her life but had overlooked its clearest message: For small creatures such as we the vastness is bearable only through love (430).

This is a surprisingly inward, personal conclusion to a book about contact from aliens. Sagan ultimately seems as interested in the human heart as in outer space.

So: I go to a leading scientific figure to learn about how scientific people look at the world. And what do I find? An astonishingly religious appeal: a story in which the hard skeptic finds the need for faith, alien life suggests a supernatural antecedent, and faraway regions of the galaxy are easier to penetrate than the human heart. Amazing!

A lot of people have the idea that science is somehow replacing religion. Sagan himself has advanced ideas like this, calling traditional theistic arguments “god-of-the-gaps” appeals. But in this story, scientific discovery and advance ultimately brings you back to dealing with the more basic, interior questions of God, faith, and fulfillment.

And this what what I most basically saw in the book: science, so far from replacing religious questions, seems to only amplify them. These questions are unavoidable—even when you’re having a conversation with an alien on another planet!

That is how the book affected me, anyway. Thank you, Carl Sagan, for an interesting story!

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