Monday, November 13, 2006

On Religious Epistemology

During my day off channel surfing, I ran across the film Happy Accidents (2000) on the Independent Film Channel. (Lest you think I just blew off two hours of my life with my posterior planted on a couch, think again: I did a full workout on my Bowflex Motivator, sorted mail, and prepared and ate my lunch while I took in the movie.) Yeah, it's a chick flick (can something billed as a "romantic comedy" be anything else?), but since it had a science fiction angle to it, and being amply secure in my sexual identity, I stayed with it.

The main characters are Sam (Vincent D'Onofrio, of whom I am a fan from his work on Law & Order: Criminal Intent) and Ruby (Marisa Tomei). They meet, there's an instant attraction, and things develop pretty much the way they always do in romantic comedies. Early on in the relationship, though, Sam announces to Ruby that he's actually a time traveller, visiting from the year 2470. Most of the plot development has to do with her vacillation in whether or not she should believe him. But since I am neither Siskel nor Ebert (a good thing, since one of them is dead, though I can ever remember which), I'm not going to go there. Given my larger interests, I want to take my cue from the incidental but significant role that religion plays in the script.

In one of her moments of exasperation with Sam, Ruby lifts her eyes in a direction that might be taken for "heavenward" and pleads sotto voce, "Help me! Help me!" But that can be accounted for as reflexive piety. The more interesting moment occurs when Ruby's therapist, trying to assist her in negotiating the relationship, casually inquires, "Is he at all religious?" The reply? "No, religion went out of fashion in 2033 when they discovered the gene that causes it." We'll see. There's a plausible chance I might still be alive in 2033. Fortunately, I'll be retired, so if religion goes out of favor, I won't suffer materially!

This may have been a throwaway line by the scriptwriter, but here's why I think it's telling: Ruby's not the only one wondering whether Sam is telling the truth about being a time traveller; the viewer shares that curiosity with her, but is probably a good bit less skeptical. This is the way it is with any science fiction story. It is much easier for us to suspend disbelief when we're watching events unfold in a world we don't actually live in. As viewers, we are conditioned to want what we "know" cannot be true to actually turn out to be true. We root for the weirdo as he does battle with the skeptics, even though we would be one of those skeptics if we encountered the same sort of weirdo. So, is Sam diagnosable? A charlatan? Or is he, in fact, a time traveller?

Now, speaking from within the universe of the story, if he's nuts, or an itentional liar, his comment about religion disappearing after 2033 is of no relevance. But if it turns out that Sam is telling the truth about time travel, then what he says about religion is automatically equally true. A "religion gene," huh? Maybe Richard Dawkins is on to something in his latest diatribe against belief in God. What if, in 2033, some research scientist indeed does isolate and identify a gene that predisposes one to believe in God? Would that drive a stake into the heart of the notion of revealed religion, and the whole concept of faith? (Actually, it sounds like a Calvinist dream-come-true, but that's a ball for somebody else to run with.)

This raises the theological/philosphical issue knowns as "the god of the gaps." A study of human history could easily lead one to theorize that we and our ancestors have employed God as a sort of algebraic 'x' factor. When there's a "gap" between what we observe (the volcano on our island erupts from time to time) and what we can explain (we have no idea why the volcano actually erupts), we plug a god or gods into that gap (time to sacrifice a virgin so the gods will make the volcano stop erupting). This technique worked splendidly as long as human experience was full of "gaps." But since the practical empiricism of Copernicus, Newton et al and the later philosophical empiricism of Locke, Hume et al, the number of "gaps" is shrinking, and such ones as remain are getting smaller by the day. I can remember being scandalized in the early 1970s when psychologist B.F. Skinner lectured on my college campus after having just published Beyond Freedom and Dignity, in which he contented that all human behavior can be accounted for as the effect of a huge sum of electro-chemical reactions in our brains and other tissues.

So, what if the last "gap" is finally closed...say, in 2033? Will the jig be up? Will all religion be exposed as an archaic hypothesis?

I have what I believe are plausible answers to these questions, but I'm in an interactive mood as I write. So I'm going to make that portion of the blogsphere that happens upon this corner of cyberspace weigh in first. I'll share my thoughts, but it will take a little prompting. Not much, but some. And I'm especially curious how others might respond to this problem.

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