Jodi Foster’s Empiricism in Contact

[This is a “reprint’ of part 2 of a series I posted on my home blog,]

One of my favorite movies is Contact, based on a novel written by Carl Sagan. One reason I like it is that it makes such important statements about how we come to know things. (Spoiler alert: Those who haven’t seen the movie and would not like the plot spoiled for them should not read this post.)

Ellie Arroway and her friend Palmer Joss discuss the meaning of religious experience.

One of my favorite movies is Contact, based on a novel written by Carl Sagan. One reason I like it is that it makes such important statements about how we come to know things. (Spoiler alert: Those who haven’t seen the movie and would not like the plot spoiled for them should not read this post.)

The movie is about a woman named Eleanor Arroway (Ellie, played by Jodi Foster), who is an astronomer working for the SETI program (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence). She scans the stars using radio telescopes, looking for radio signals from other planets that may be communications from intelligent life outside the solar system.

Traditional Empiricism

Ellie is an atheist (or at best, an agnostic); she does not find any compelling evidence to believe in God. She refuses to believe in anything unless it can be demonstrated to her scientifically. She does not feel that there is enough evidence to warrant belief in a Supreme Being.

Ellie befriends a man named Palmer Joss, who is a theologian and a humanitarian specialist who writes books about the lack of meaning in our lives. He finds it remarkable that despite an increased standard of living and incredible technology, we feel so much more distant from each other and still search for the meaning that is absent in our lives. At one point, he shares his conversion experience with her. He describes his troubled childhood and his first experience with God:

Joss: I had … an experience. Of belonging. Of unconditional love. And for the first time in my life I wasn’t terrified, and I wasn’t alone.

Ellie: And there’s no chance you had this experience simply because some part of you needed to have it?

Joss: Look, I’m a reasonable person, and reasonably intelligent. But this experience went beyond both. For the first time I had to consider the possibility that intellect, as wonderful as it is, is not the only way of comprehending the universe. That it was too small and inadequate a tool to deal with what it was faced with.

Ellie confesses that she cannot believe in his experience without some physical evidence to support it. Without that, she has no grounds for belief.

The Experience

Soon Ellie discovers a signal from a neighboring star called Vega. The signal transmits a series of prime numbers (a phenomenon that cannot be naturally explained), with frequencies containing instructions for building a massive machine. Ellie and a group of scientists discover that the machine is designed to transport one person by unknown means to an unknown location.

Eventually she has an opportunity to use the machine, as a representative of the human race in its first contact with extraterrestrial intelligence. The machine works; Ellie is transported through a wormhole to another world, where she meets an alien being who appears to her in the form of her long-deceased father, on a beach setting recollected from her childhood. The aliens had downloaded her memory and created a setting that would be not only familiar but familial to her. They tell her that only she would be able to visit, and that in time her race would find its way to the stars. This was just one small step, and the next step would have to wait. This, they said, was the way it has been done for billions of years.

Ellie is transported back to earth, where she is stunned to learn that, by earth time, she was gone for only a fraction of a second. In fact, nobody thinks that she even left; they are busily trying to figure out why the machine malfunctioned. Ellie insists that the machine worked fine, that she had contacted alien life, and had been gone many hours. However, every scientific instrument in the room indicates that nothing significant had happened. Even her personal recording device showed only static.

The Conversion

The following video clip shows the subsequent inquiry, during which Ellie is interviewed/interrogated about her experience.

For those who can’t get the video to work, Ellie is asked if she can prove that her experience was real, to which she replies that she cannot. She is asked,

Dr. Arroway, you come before us with no evidence. No records, no artifacts–only a story that–to put it mildly–strains credibility. Over half a trillion dollars was spent, dozens of lives were lost. … Are you really going to sit there and tell us that we should simply take this all on faith?

The chairman of the committee presents a compelling alternative account of Ellie’s experience and discovery. He attributes the whole discovery to an elaborate hoax prepared by S. R. Hadden, an eccentric and incredibly wealthy man who not only funded Ellie’s SETI research, but also owns, as subsidiaries, the Japanese subcontractors who were paid to develop and build the machine. It seems that Hadden was made incredibly wealthy and famous by Ellie’s discovery, and thus had a strong motive to fake the extraterrestrial communication.

Ellie admits that there are other explanations for her discovery and her experience, that perhaps she had a delusional episode, and that possibly the whole machine was a hoax. She said, “As a scientist, I must concede that, I must volunteer that.” The chairman of the committee then asks, “Then why don’t you just withdraw your testimony and concede that this journey to the center of the galaxy in fact never took place?” To this, Ellie emotionally responds,

Because I can’t. I had … an experience. I can’t prove it. I can’t even explain it. All I can tell you is that everything I know as a human being, everything I am–tells me that it was real.

I was given something wonderful. Something that changed me. A vision of the universe that made it overwhelmingly clear just how tiny and insignificant–and at the same time how rare and precious we all are. A vision … that tells us we belong to something greater than ourselves … that we’re not–that none of us–is alone.

I wish I could share it. I wish everyone, if only for a moment–could feel that sense of awe, and humility … and hope. That continues to be my wish.

Empiricism Means Experience

Ellie had discovered exactly what Joss was trying to convey earlier in the film. In fact, she borrowed Joss’s own words as she tried to describe her experience. Some experiences cannot be proven, only reported. Some experiences can completely change us, and we can’t communicate that change in words; we can only invite others to seek their own life-changing experiences.

I do not believe that it is our job only to rationally justify or logically prove the doctrines we believe in. Bruce R. McConkie said, “The scriptures have many references to revelation. The prophets have said much about it. What it means to us is that we need religious experience. We need to become personally involved with God.”1 We need, he said, to seek experiences with God, of which we can then testify and report to others.

As a Christian and a Latter-day Saint, I do not base my convictions on logic or reason. I had … an experience. I felt the witness of the Holy Spirit testify to my heart that God is real, and that Jesus Christ is His son. I base my convictions on experiences that I have had.

One of the claims that I would like to make is that Ellie’s conviction was, in a very real sense, based upon empirical experience. In this context, I do not use the word “empirical” to mean scientific; I simply use it to mean experience as the basis of knowledge. The experience was not necessarily replicable, public, or measurable, but it was nonetheless an experience. Traditional empiricism limits the scope of knowledge to those experiences that are measurable and replicable. The empiricism that I adhere to certainly includes these experiences, but also the full range of human experience, including religious experiences. Thus, I contrast my epistemological worldview against ancient Greek rationalism, which holds that knowledge can be obtained through rational processes alone.

In my next post, I explore further how this movie relates with Michael Oakeshott’s view on reason, and also to the Latter-day Saint claim to revealed truth.


1. Bruce R. McConkie, “How to Get Personal Revelation,” Tambuli, Apr. 1981, p. 4.

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5 Responses

  1. Well said.

  2. Wow, this was great. I’m going to show this clip to my History and Philosopohy of Biology class to day. Thanks for the find.

  3. I enjoyed reading this post.

    I have a difficult time seeing how a non-believer like Sagan could write a novel that entertains other legitimate non-empirical ways of knowing. Do you know if the movie stays true to the story line in Sagan’s novel?

    The movie’s depiction of other life forms in the universe is conistent with Sagan’s belief in ET. He claimed that because the universe is so vast, there are other life forms just like us.

    When he got to the spirit world I like to think that one of the first things he said was, “There are billions and billions of spirits here.”

  4. Dave,

    I don’t think he intended the story to entertain non-empirical ways of knowing. I’ve never read the book, but I have read earlier versions of the movie script, and the story had a completely different flavor then. I remember distinctly getting the impression that he was offering an alternative to the numinous. We can, as Ellie Arroway did, experience awe in the presence of something other than the divine. It seemed that he was saying that while religious people center meaning and purpose in the divine, meaning and purpose can be found in the mysterious of the natural universe, in the interactions we lonely creatures have with one another, and we don’t need anything supernatural to bestow this meaning.

    The flavor of the story shifted significantly from the original movie script. I have no idea about the book, though.

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