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Interstellar and Immanuel

Interstellar is a visually stunning movie which has been criticized because of perceived scientific errors and the character Dr. Amelia Brand’s claims about the power of love.  With regard to wormholes, black holes and relativity theory, I’m in no position to comment.  However, the criticisms of the latter dismiss potentially profound insights into the realms of ethics and epistemology (theory of morality and knowledge respectively) because it raises the issue of the nature of reality and mankind’s place in it—something not unrelated to science by the way.  Such criticisms also miss the chief error of the movie, which is theological (SPOILER ALERT).

The story focuses on a crew of scientists and astronauts who are on a mission to find a planet either to transport humanity to from a dying earth or to restart mankind on such a planet with fertilized eggs.  Dr. Brand’s comments occur during a discussion among the three crew members concerning which of the two planets they should go to in order to accomplish their mission.  Dr. Brand supports going to the planet where her fiancé is.  All the objective data point to the other planet, and Cooper, the pilot, accuses her of personal bias.  Dr. Brand responds with the following reflection on love. “Love isn’t something that we invented. It’s observable. Powerful. It has to mean something.  Maybe it means something more, something we can’t yet understand. Maybe it’s some evidence, some artifact of a higher dimension that we can’t consciously perceive. Love is the one thing that we’re capable of perceiving that transcends dimensions of time and space. Maybe we should trust that, even if we can’t understand it.”

There are two types of complaints about Dr. Brand’s speech—aesthetic and rationalistic.  Its purported aesthetical sin is that Dr. Brand’s mushy emotional mystical gobbledygook has no place in science fiction, which is supposed to be about science.  Those who react in this way often claim to love science fiction, but in reality what interests them is futuristic technology; that is, they like the mechanics or apparatus of the story but not the story itself.  They fail to appreciate that science fiction is a genre that lends itself to philosophical and theological reflection on a reality beyond the merely technological.

The rationalist complaint is that truth is discovered only by a combination of empirical observation, experimentation and reason, a perspective that is often equated with science. Instead, it is derived from a modernist worldview that limits reality to matter that can be observed by the senses and interpreted by unaided human reason.  This is the worldview of scientism, which should be distinguished from science, and it cannot be established on its own premises.  Limiting knowledge only to the observable and measurable is an affirmation that cannot be demonstrated by observation.

Both the science fiction technological enthusiasts and the advocates of scientism are rightly upset with Interstellar because not only does Dr. Brand’s speech go against their desires and beliefs but so does the actual plot.  It turns out that Cooper is wrong and Dr. Brand was right about which planet that they should go to.  Furthermore, Dr. Brand’s father had been unable to find an equation that would allow for humanity to be transported to another planet.  Because he believed that Cooper would not abandon his family for the mission to save mankind, he lied about the feasibility of the transportation option.  In reality, the strong familial love between Cooper and his daughter Murphy, who becomes Professor Brand’s assistant, helps to forge a link via gravitational waves across time and space that allows her to solve the equation and save humanity.  In both cases love is more ethical and leads to the truth in contrast to a merely rationalistic science.

How is it that the emotion of love could actually be a “physical” force in the universe?  The answer is that love is not a mere physical force.  1 John 4:8 states that God is love.  Medieval thinkers understood this truth to be the chief explanation of motion in the universe.  Dante concludes his Divine Comedy speaking of God as “The love that moves the sun and the other stars” (Paradisio, Canto XXXIII.145).  Aristotle in Metaphysics Book XII, Chapter 7 writes that God, the final cause, “produces motion as being loved.”  Just in case anyone is concerned that I’m advocating returning to a geocentric view of the solar system, Isaac Newton wrote that God “is not duration or space, but he endures and is present.  He endures forever, and is everywhere present; and by existing always and everywhere he constitutes duration and space. …  In him are all things contained and moved.”[1]  The majority of the founders of modern science, like Newton, believed that they were observing how God works in the world.  Modern man and his science need to recover this worldview to overcome the false dichotomy between faith and science.

The theological error of Interstellar is when Cooper triumphantly proclaims that the “they” that created the wormhole is “us.”  It still sees man and his love as the key to the universe and survival.  Dr. Brand’s plea that love is from a “higher dimension that we can’t consciously perceive” needs to be taken more seriously.  From a Christian perspective it makes sense that love puts us into contact with a higher dimension than ours, indeed to the center of reality.  When we pray, when we worship, when we act in love, we connect with the heart of the creation who is the truth and will guide us to the truth and in the truth.  Interstellar is a fascinating and accomplished film, but it needs Immanuel, “God with us.” It needs to realize that the name of Immanuel is Jesus who will save his people from their sins (Matthew 1:23).  Merry Christmas!

[1] Principles, II, 311, ff. quoted in E. A. Burtt, The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science, 2nd rev. ed. (Garden City, NY: Anchor Doubleday, 1954), p. 258.

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