Monday, June 11, 2012

"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.


Anonymous GAAM said...

I haven't seen the movie yet, so I'll approach this from a tangent.

I can remember when I realized that my parents wouldn't ask me for money, but that didn't mean they couldn't find a good use for it if i gave it to them anyway. And Im sure if I asked them why they created me, it would probably be more of a side effect to what they were doing.

Just so, that maybe our creator didn't have us as the apex of whatever was going on when we were created, and certainly likely doesn't need our love to get by, but that doesn't mean that if we were to offer it, it wouldn't be joyfully reciprocated.

I've always thought that what happens on the eighth day was more important then on the first 7.

Maybe it isn't the how or why, by the therefore which is more important.

6/11/2012 12:20:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If we were indeed 'created' by the 'creator", it may have been for no bigger reason than to be its reality television.

Interesting post Ed. The theologians view seems to be 'Jesus loves me yes I know, for the Bible tells me so". Either way, waiting for the next opus from Ridley Scott.

----ondine nyc

6/12/2012 01:09:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If we are talking about the creation of all space energy and matter, then it is quite possible and likely probable (as Hawking himself beleives) that no creative consciousness was necessary. With regard to human life, it seems that there are endless possibilities.

Of these possibilities most scientists find the blue planet model in which our planet and its nature simply reached a sufficeint natural state to harbor life and hence it developed along an ever increasing trajectory of complexity with humans at the present top end. We can of course discuss the God creator model in which all is pre-ordained and set in place across all space and time---or we can merge the two and consider the notion of a process theology in which matter on a micro and macro level develops consciousness in much the same way that humans developed consciousness and self-awareness.

I am not only excited by the notion of an emergent consciousness in a cosmic realm, but I also beleve that it is as viable an explanation as any other at this point. On the othere end of possibility, I am equally frightened and bewildered by the possibility that we could be experiments engineered by a far supereior cosmic intelligence which may not have bnevolent intentions towards us. All the same I tend to entertian possibility while realizing that I am quite likely to never safisfy teh depth of my desire to have full disclosure of my eternal origins.

6/12/2012 09:51:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Random Thoughts

Great Movie

I want a table dance from Meredith Vickers.

If i was in the market for a robot man servent i would choose the Michael Fassbender Ruthless Gay David Get er done at all cost's model.

I always thought planet earth was seeded .

6/13/2012 10:50:00 AM  
Blogger Nancy Natale said...

I don't believe in the great creator theory of life so that eliminates a lot of the questions as to why or what. Recently I've been thinking about the finality of death. (Perhaps it was Donna Summer's passing so soon after Whitney!) I was thinking about how quickly the world forgets our existence as individuals - even forgetting those who do something exceptional. This becomes all the more apparent when talking with young people who haven't lived through some of the things I have. Their experience of the world is so very different than mine, and my experience so different from those older than me, and so on. This view of history as lived human experience that can't really be passed on puts a different perspective on our lives. I'm thinking about the individual spark of each person that can be extinguished just like that and all that person's experience and thoughts just vanish instantly.

As final and futile as this is, it makes a lot more sense to me than thinking our existence is somehow part of a plan composed by a superior intelligence. The "everything happens for a reason" thesis really grates on me, not only because of its teleological reasoning, but because of its smug assumption that all will be revealed in the great beyond. Maybe some people find that comforting, but I'd rather believe that life happened because it could and there's no pink cloud and harp waiting for me. It makes this life a lot more precious and tenuous.

On the other hand, I'm glad you enjoyed the movie and it sparked some of those philosophical/theosophical thoughts.

6/15/2012 03:06:00 AM  
Blogger Ernest Disney-Britton said...

I am gad you pulled out the quote about creating "because we could" because for me it summed up the movie, and made the creation far more sympathetic than the creators. That was of course the point of the entire movie, and far different from my Christian belief sytem which places me up on a pedestal among the many parts of this world, and the universe. What was most wonderful about the movie though was that it affirmed for me (we always find what we are seeking, dont we?) that the creation story is bigger than we can imagine but that we need to be better stewards of our own creations if we ever can hope for our own creator to bit. Thanks Edward. By the way, I follow you on Twitter and bought your art gallery book, so obviously I am a fan. Thanks for this blog.

6/15/2012 03:21:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is ridiculous that people actually think about the concept with any seriousness. It is absurd. Just because someone made a movie in which it was convenient to dismiss Darwin and evolution doesn't mean that could be done in the real world. We did not get planted here by some aliens. Perhaps aliens could have planted the origin of life, but to plant humans. No way. It is still an ok/good scifi-action movie, but don't try to search for some deep shit from it, 'cos it just ain't there.

Also let me make a correction to your interpretation of the ends "helping David situation". She is obviously reluctant to aid the robot not because she'd consider him as a lesser being, but because he was the one who woke up the alien and withheld information causing a lot of casualties and putting the very planet Earth at risk. Obviously she was pissed.

9/23/2012 01:42:00 PM  

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