Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Prometheus - Not What People Think

So, my spoiler-filled thoughts on Prometheus.

So many reviews have focused in on the seemingly illogical actions of the characters in Prometheus and how the plot doesn't make sense. I disagree. People are used to seeing the heroes of movies solve mysteries, overcome obstacles, and unlock puzzles, and Prometheus is an exercise in disregarding those assumed conventions. It is a movie about unsolved mysteries, unanswered questions, and wrongheaded ideas that lead to tragedy.

The movie opens on prehistoric earth. One of the Engineers, for reasons inscrutable, commits suicide by ingesting a substance that rips him apart at the genetic level, presumably so as not to contaminate Earth's infant biosphere. Here we have the first indication that the godlike Engineers, in fact, have feet of clay. They're incompetent. Again, audiences expect godlike technology to be flawless and magical, and it isn't, the genetic phage fails, and the tenacious Engineer DNA reasserts itself. Ultimately, its tenacity is sufficient to express its phenotype millions of years later, in human beings. (The sheer tenacity of Engineer genetic technology is arguably its defining characteristic, as seen throughout the film.)

Cut to our hero scientists, digging into a cave with paintings older than any yet discovered. Audiences are used to competent scientists, but what isn't immediately obvious is that these scientists are quacks. They're complete pseudoscientists, completely disregarding any archaeological preservation protocols and ignoring the fact that ancient cave paintings degrade rapidly when people expose them to fresh air and even their own corrosive breath. These are scientists who think "That's what I choose to believe" is valid reasoning, and disregarding three hundred years of Evolutionary theory has any possible basis in fact. It's pointed out to them, and their response is proof positive they're in total Cloud-Cuckoo-Land. They think the Engineers created us, but we in the audience already know they're wrong: humanity is an accident, a pernicious, self-bootstrapping form of directed evolution resulting from poor sterilization protocols. I suppose the Engineers felt guilty and meddled in some way once their blunder was discovered, leading to the supposed "star maps" across many cultures.

Peter Weyland, the tycoon who sponsors these cargo cult archaeologists, would hardly be the first wealthy benefactor to be taken in by wide-eyed frauds. He funds an expedition to go ask these Engineers who, the characters believe, are our makers, if they would perchance give him eternal life. Quite poetic and mythic, but these myths invariably end with the foolish mortals being destroyed. So it goes.

We arrive on the Engineers' world to find not a civilization, but what we eventually discover is a bioweapons facility, one apparently dedicated to wiping out all life on Earth. Perhaps as the result of some forgotten Titanomachia against the demigods walking among us, who knows? Not the audience, not the characters, though we are treated to much speculation which is probably wrong. The Black Goo created here induces mutations and violent behavior, as we see from the native worms growing huge and aggressive. Its basic effect on humans seems similar, even if its progression is interrupted early on by judicious use of a Weed Dragon. As the Engineers are, as we have already seen, less than perfect, their Black Goo escaped containment. Holographic recordings show a frantic flight to stasis pods, no doubt escaping some mutant monstrosity. The humans' arrival begins warming everything up and the pathogen begins seeping into the environment once again.

In the end, we find that not only were we not the Engineers' creations, not only is their technology tragically less than perfect, we find that they care nothing for us, and once put considerable effort into destroying us. They didn't, for reasons outside the scope of the characters' discovery, but the one Engineer found alive apparently missed the memo that the genocide had been called off. He has a payload of Black Goo that, we find, not only turns its immediate victims into violent weapons, also spawns all manner of other monsters. There are parasites on earth whose life cycles are no less convoluted, so I give this a pass.

In the end, Prometheus is a flawed film, but not for the reasons people think. It's a movie about hubris, about wrongheadedness, about unwarranted assumptions and believing too much in your own self-aggrandizing fantasies. Once you realize that the humans are wrong about literally everything they believe about the Engineers, that for once rank speculation doesn't turn out to be correct, you'll find you're watching a different movie than all the critics have been so unkind to. There are still plot holes, but so many things people think are holes are in fact plot points, and that much is being deliberately left unexplained, since the universe these characters inhabit is under no obligation to present them with any real answers, satisfying or otherwise.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

More Silly Arguments from Tim Schaertel at Apologia

My little friend I mentioned a few months ago ragequit his blog a few months back, pulling down the last entry, deleting all comments, and replacing it with a stunningly hypocritical rant about how his pearls of wisdom are wasted upon infidel swine like myself. It’s always a good sign when they go for the ad hominem, as Hitchens once said.

But I knew he couldn’t stay away, and after a couple of months to pout, he’s back with another childlike attempt at argumentation, this time claiming that “Self Awareness Proves the Existence of God.”

"To know for a certainty that God exists, there are many roads we can explore to show beyond a shadow of a doubt there is an intelligent Designer behind all creation. One road we can travel is the road of Self Awareness."

At this point I was scratching my head. What does self-awareness have to do with the price of tea in China? Not to worry though, he wanders off this topic almost immediately after the profound deepity of “I am not eternal, and therefore I cannot be God.” I’m not sure how this proves the existence of God, but it’s the only thing he talks about related to any awareness of self, so I’m sure it must be there somewhere. Really what this relaunched screed is about is one more stab at some sort of cosmological argument.

“All things created had a beginning, even our universe itself. Science does not dispute this.” (Actually it does. Not only are there many different explanations for the facts being researched, the very definition of the word “beginning” in this context is very far afield from the colloquial notion of it. “What came before the big bang” is semantically equivalent to “what is north of the north pole.”)

“There are those who say the universe is infinite, and it goes through different phases where it expands and then collapses, then expands again, carrying on this cycle for eternity.”

“Physicists to this day cannot explain the "Atomic Glue" that holds the universe together, except that there seems to be an outside force that maintains the order we find in the construct of space and time.”

All of which go to the point not that God necessarily exists, but that Schaertel has never actually read a physics book. Nor does he have any particular knowledge of science that hasn’t already been consumed, digested, and excreted by whatever know-nothing apologists he parrots. To paraphrase Bertrand Russell, “a religious man's report of what a scientist says can never be accurate, because he unconsciously translates what he hears into something he can understand.”

There is a point here, which can easily be seen as Schaertel continues, insisting that “we must recognize there are only three explanations for our existence.” Apparently that either we are infinite, we are self-created, or God did it. I can’t possibly make it any plainer that Schaertel is not approaching this question from an intellectually honest position.

The goal of the apologist, unlike the scientist, is not to seek, investigate, and obtain knowledge about reality. It is to assert a preferred truth, and then argue back around to the presupposed conclusion. The reason a religious person cannot understand science is because any understanding takes the form of a caricature that can be disbelieved. The reason Schaertel stacks “God did it” up against two transparently silly alternatives is because he’s simply asserting a forgone conclusion. It’s almost not necessary to point out that he’s left out other possibilities, namely every cosmological theory currently being researched by legitimate scientists. And there’s another protip that has to be said—when a scientist says “we don’t know,” the religious man doesn’t get to say “Ha! I win!” “We don’t know” means “we’re working on it,” and to skip to “God did it” as an explanation isn’t just dishonest, it is useless. It is the opposite of inquiry, the negation of further knowledge, the abandonment of reason.

In the end, Schaertel insists that this all has something to do with self-awareness, but it’s not particularly clear how. He quotes a few bits of Genesis, as though anyone should care, or believe that some magic man in the sky who maybe, maybe, created the universe has any reason to care about the foibles and peccadilloes of a bunch of shaved apes on an insignificant mote in a mediocre corner of the cosmos.

My point is this: this is not the argument that convinced Schaertel that a god exists. It’s not what pushed him to Christianity. Rather, he was born and raised into both, and doesn’t have intellectually honest reasons for believing. The reason he blogs is not to convince or witness to others, but to provide excuse after excuse to himself and others who already believe. His chief tools in this enterprise are ignorance and unreason, both of which he flaunts without the slightest trace of, in a word, self awareness.