Contact: are we better off because of science?

I watched one of my favorite movies again yesterday (I was one of the 5 people not watching the Superbowl), Contact, based on Carl Sagan’s book of the same name. If you get that sense of deja vu, it’s okay… I’ve talked about the movie before. My wife hadn’t seen the movie before, and finally consented to watch it with me. She wasn’t too impressed (she’s not into science fiction), but I thoroughly enjoyed it.

I like the storyline, I like the characters, and I like the actors who play the characters (it’s much better than the book, by the way, although Sagan himself worked on the screenplay, so it’s still his story). I especially enjoy the movie’s treatment of the issues of faith and knowledge.

Early on in the film, the pop-theologian character of Palmer Joss (played by Matthew McConaughey) explains his rather subjective reasons for why he must believe that there is a God. Dr. Ellie Arroway (Jodi Foster), the scientist searching for extra-terrestrial life) responds with a simplified version of Occam’s Razer. Tell me, in what other movie could you learn about Occam’s Razer? Later on, Ellie has Occam’s Razer used against her, as she has to choose to believe what she herself cannot prove scientifically. It is an incredible portrayal of faith as something reasonable, yet unprovable (by science), especially as it was written by an atheist.

Another thing that caught my attention yesterday was when Palmer Joss is explaining a book he is writing that asks the question, “are we better off because of science?” It struck me, because it’s a question that I’ve been thinking about. Are we indeed better off now? Are we happier, more secure, more content?

I think many people would answer “yes” without giving it much thought. However, I suspect that science itself – that is, applying the scientific method of gathering and studying data – would provide otherwise. Just in the last few years, as science has made it possible for technological advances such as cell phones, e-mail, instant banking and other conveniences, we should be able to accomplish the same work in less time, and therefore have more time to recreate. However, on the average we work more. Deadlines come faster, response times are shorter, and stress is on the upswing.

Are we healthier? We’ve done away with many diseases, but I suspect that all of our insecticides, pesticides and food additives have created more disease than we have solved. We live longer, but are we happier as a result?

For whatever reason, it occurred to me some time ago that the wealthy and powerful of just a couple of centuries ago didn’t have indoor plumbing or electric lights. I can say that I’ve used real outhouses, and indoor plumbing does make me sort of happy. I know that I’m not happy when the power goes out and my computer and appliances are non-functional. But, in general, are we better off than Solomon or any other historical figure?

It’s an interesting question, isn’t it?

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