"Prometheus" and Picking Apart the Providence Argument
The concept of Providence (that God is concerned with and therefore spends time and energy guiding each and every human's destiny) implies that there is a thoughtful (and caring) rationale behind why God bothered to create humans in the first place. The implication of that is that each individual human serves some purpose in God's plan. Of course, most humans accept that we're probably ill-equipped to comprehend God's plan, but our ambiguity about it is something we make peace with because we've convinced ourselves that God's plan is ultimately benevolent toward us.
Most of the reviews I've read about the film Prometheus, the highly anticipated "prequel"* to Ridley Scott's powerful 1979 look at human paranoia about all things slimy and "other" (Alien), have suggested that in addition to gasping at the amazing visual grandiosity, viewers will come away debating the "big, metaphysical questions about the origin and ultimate fate of humanity" hovering over all the scary stuff (quote from The New York Times' A. O. Scott review). Well, we saw Prometheus over the weekend, and indeed I'm interested in debating one of the big metaphysical questions it raises.
First let me say that we lo-o-o-o-o-o-oved the film. It's far from flawless, but it's amazing to go on that journey (see it on a BIG screen). Second let me say that the following is a smallish spoiler (there are certainly other, larger themes and plot points than this), so if you haven't seen it yet, you may wish to skip this post.
In the beginning of the film we're given access to a dream of our cryongenicly slumbering heroine (Dr. Elizabeth Shaw) whose mother passed away when she was young. In her dream, Shaw's younger self is again talking with her father about what happens after you die. Her dad says you go to heaven or paradise. When his daughter asks him how he knows this, he offers what is a currently very vogue way of defending one's faith against atheistic inquiry. He says, "Because that's what I choose to believe."
This concept that because we don't really know the truth about the afterlife, what we choose to believe is as valid as what we choose to discount, goes hand in hand, to my mind, with the point I make about the concept of Providence. We choose to believe there's a heaven or paradise, because we have convinced ourselves that God's plan must be benevolent and that we must be important enough a part of it that He cares about and tends to our destiny.
Even as a kid, I always wondered why an omnipotent being would create such obviously inferior toy things. The weaknesses of humans, both physical and moral, could easily be corrected should God wish to do so. And this obvious fact led me to assume our weaknesses were part of the plan. But I could only take that argument as far as it concerned our individual choices in life and the resulting eternal rewards or punishments (you're weak so that your choice to follow God's rules is more meaningful...or something like that). But zooming out, to where you take the species as a whole, this weak-by-design argument begins to fall apart, at least as far as the concept of Providence is concerned.
***Spoiler alert (and all quotes are approximates)***
Later in Prometheus there is a fabulous conversation between a rather arrogant human, Dr. Charlie Holloway, and the wonderfully creepy robot David (played by the endlessly watchable Michael Fassbender). David, who seems to know things about what's really going on that none of the humans around him do, and Hollowway are discussing the point of their mission to find humankind's "engineers" (or creators). Holloway makes an impassioned argument for wanting to know why humans had been created, but he's so self-absorbed and clearly a little robot-phobic, that when David asks why the humans had created android servants like himself, Holloway scoffs (and yet answers quite honestly), "That's easy. Because we could."
"Wouldn't you be disappointed to hear your creators say the same thing about you?" David then asks.
It was the most powerful of the "big, metaphysical questions" parts of the film for me. Indeed, Holloway's answer to the robot seems the most logical and probable answer to why God created humans. Because God could. That answers all the questions I've ever had; it ticks all the boxes.
But it makes the notion of Providence a fair bit less likely.
None of the characters in Prometheus cared as much about David as they did each other. When things begin to go terribly wrong, he's the last of their concerns, except where it's obvious he's essential to their survival. He is even forced to make this argument to one character (I'm trying not to spoil too much here)...that she needs him...for that character in turn to agree to help David out of a bad situation he ends up in.
Extrapolated to the wider human experience, the concept of Providence (that God cares and is watching over each of us, guiding us) raises long-wondered questions (such as, Why would a Providential God permit genocide?etc.). Theologians can only answer these questions by falling back on the assertion that we're ill-equipped to understand God's plan. But, they'll assure you, He still cares about you. He's still in control of your destiny. He'll take you up into paradise eventually, just hang tight. And of course, being weak as we are, we're not in much of a position to argue anyway.
But if you consider the alternative, that God's interest in creating humans was more callous. That He did so "because He could," and our role in the plan is not much grander than that, then Providence makes less sense and concepts like genocide make more sense (theologically speaking). Like David, we're rather disposable with regard to the goals of the plan.
*It's "prequel-ish" anyway.