Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Close Encounters of the Third Kind
seen @ "Front Row Cinema" @ South Street Seaport, New York, NY

No matter how you slice it, the question of whether or not there's intelligent life in outer space comes down to a leap of faith. As of this writing, there's still no concrete, definitive proof that aliens exist, and yet, so many of us want to believe so badly in it. I know I do. Why else would the concept occupy such a dominant part of our culture? Yet believing in something you can't see, but are convinced must be real... doesn't that sound a lot like religion?

Here is where I find myself coming up against a personal conflict of interest. How can I disdain the concept of God, yet still hold out hope that extraterrestrials exist? There's no evidence of either!

Well, let's take a closer look at both of them. I won't deny that religion can and does provide comfort and peace to many people around the world, no matter what faith you may subscribe to. At the same time, however, religion has been used to justify the worst atrocities in human history. It keeps people separate according to arbitrary divisions. It blinds people to broader truths about the natural world that are necessary for survival. And its basic tenets tend to be rigid and unchanging, even when found to be contradictory or outdated.

Belief in aliens, by contrast, whether in real life or in fiction, is a relatively recent concept that's an outgrowth of scientific knowledge about the universe. At its best, it promotes tolerance and acceptance of those unlike us. It encourages opportunities for advanced knowledge about the universe in general and Earth in particular. Even when those aliens are intent on wiping us out, this usually provides an impetus for individuals and/or nations to put aside their differences and unite.

The science-versus-religion debate has been going on for a long, long time. Some say the two can co-exist peacefully, some say they can't. Personally, I see the huge gap between what religion purports to be and what it actually is, and I wonder why it isn't obvious to more people. Some people can live with that dichotomy, and again, faith is the rationale used to justify it, even in - especially in - the absence of empirical evidence... which is not unlike my belief in the possibility of alien life, a belief that I realize is completely unfounded. It probably is wishful thinking, but if so, well, that would make me sad. 

In my post on the Jodie Foster film Contact, one important aspect of the film which I didn't go into was how in the end, Foster's character was unable to provide evidence of her experience with extraterrestrial life when asked, and indeed, was presented with reasonable doubt that the whole thing even happened. The implication was that she was forced to rely on faith that her experience was real. Is that kind of faith the same as faith in a supreme being?

I say no, and I think the difference may come down to the notion of free will. Alien life, if it exists, is something outside of us, separate from us, hence the use of the word "alien." How we react to it, if we discover proof of its existence, will shape our fate. We, as a species, will have to question everything we thought we knew about life and reevaluate our outlook on it. It won't be easy. It may be painful. But it could lead to new and/or expanded knowledge. The point is, it'll be in our hands. 

The concept of God is not external; it's inherently part of us as a species. It's affected our laws, our language, the way we measure time, so many things, but at its heart is the idea that if we entrust our fate to an all-powerful father figure, he'll take care of everything for us. We don't have to worry, we don't have to doubt, we don't have to think - just trust, and he'll provide all the answers we need. Foster's character wasn't willing to passively sit back and let the answers come to her. She sought them out, and her worldview was changed as a result.

So too, was Richard Dreyfuss' character in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. True, his mind was subtly altered as a result of his initial encounter with the aliens in that movie, but he was still the one who made the effort to seek out the truth about them, at great risk to himself. Eventually, he found others who believed as he did, and the end result was unequivocal proof and an enlightened outlook on life, the universe and everything. This is the kind of faith I can get behind.

I saw CE3K down at South Street Seaport. There was an inflatable screen set up in the middle of the cobblestone pedestrian street and a carpeted area where the audience sat, on both benches and lawn chairs, or on the floor itself. A DJ played space-themed songs prior to the movie's start. As blatantly tourist-y as the Seaport is, it's still a kinda cool place to visit. I love looking at the ancient ships docked in the harbor, I like the architecture of the surrounding buildings, and I like the whole nautical atmosphere, as manufactured as it may be. All the gift shops and "trendy" restaurants get old quick, though.

My high school prom was set on a cruise ship that left out of the Seaport and circled Manhattan. I remember arriving there with my date in a taxi and happily getting on board the ship, waving to my friends. I'd been on ships before, but not like this, and I was plenty excited about the whole thing.

Look for pictures of the Seaport on the WSW Facebook page within the next few days.

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