Monday, December 31, 2012

Prometheus – getting practical about meeting your maker

Ridley Scott’s film Prometheus [warning: spoilers] ends with the words, “It is New Year’s Day, the year of our Lord 2094…and I’m still searching.”

Audience reception to this flick has been – unsurprisingly – sharply divided. But by box office standards, the film that cost $130 million (a relatively modest amount for a science fiction film these days) has been an unequivocal success. By October 2012, Prometheus had earned over $400 million.

One of the interesting aspects of the film is how it addresses the practicality of a creation ‘manning up’ (if that is the word) in order to meet the creator.

If you think this is a silly idea, or taboo, or nonsensical, then you are probably not a true believer. Which is strange, because believers need to realise that if their beliefs are true after all, then one day, they are destined by fate to meet God himself. Prometheus offers an example of what that meeting might be like.

One of the most obvious (real-life) previews to this introduction, of course, is when parents see their own children grow up and then – subtly sometimes (sometimes very obviously) they attain parity with their parents. It might be sons or daughters growing taller than their mothers, or becoming manifestly more powerful than their fathers. It might be progeny who know more (in real terms) than their parents, or possibly become financially more powerful.

Whatever happens, this ‘parity’, in the earthly realm, is not without enormous levels of stress and discomfort. How are the roles to be maintained, for example, when the progeny find that they are in some ways more advanced than their parents?

How should parents react to their progeny bumping against them? Of course many might say that the parents and children schema has nothing to do with God (but who is often referred to as ‘Our Father…in Heaven’) and that Prometheus is a crude fiction. Nevertheless the idea of reaching parity is real – employee vis a vis employer, apprentice and master, a would be champion – acceding to the podium ahead of the previous world champion (think Le Clos vs Phelps).

In every case, parity is not reached without a tremendous exchange of energy, stress, identity crisis, angst, role flux, and of course a change in power structures. Thus, when a human being encounters God, you can expect the same extraordinary amounts of stress. Does one imagine that in the infinity of time, all will be perfect, and above reproach?

When human beings are elevated to a heavenly realm, will they find themselves perfectly aligned, ensconced in a perfect environment, one costomised to each preference (or are preferences neutered), and will that constant exposure to God (and He to us) be as wonderful as everyone would like to believe? Will that constancy of the close encounter with that infinity superior and immediate authority grow on us over time?

One blasphemous way to very practical about this process, is to intuit it. Imagine if you were God, and your creation approached you (unbidden), asking...well, whatever it is creation needs (and their needs tend to be plentiful).  As God, aren't you dutibound to provide, and aren't these maintenance checks mandatory for a maker? 

Prometheus covers this issue in many ways. One is to look at the role of an android, whose talents surpass those of its human makers. How does the Android feel about the shortcomings of its makers? How does the maker of an android feel about its own creation showing an unsettling amount of free will?

In Prometheus, the android David makes a few telling observations:
Doesn't everyone want their parents dead?

As the ship Prometheus hovers over the lifeless LV 223*, David says, quoting Lawrence of Arabia: There is nothing in the desert, and no man needs nothing.

When his maker, Weyland, lies critically injured, moments away from death, and splutters: There’s nothing. David responds: I know.

Elsewhere he says to Elizabeth Shaw: It must feel like your God abandoned you. And yet we feel that there is more to Prometheus than the cold logic of the machine.

*The planet is LV223...and a reference to Leviticus 22:3in the Bible:
"Say to them: 'For the generations to come, if any of your descendants is ceremonially unclean and yet comes near the sacred offerings that the Israelites consecrate to the LORD, that person must be cut off from my presence. I am the LORD. "
 [This in in contrast to LV426 in Alien and the reference to Leviticus 42:6:He shall burn all the fat on the altar as he burned the fat of the fellowship offering. In this way the priest will make atonement for the leader’s sin, and he will be forgiven.]

Elizabeth Shaw demonstrates that having beliefs (even if they are misguided) possibly aid survival. Nevertheless Shaw says: We were wrong, we were so wrong…

And: you must care about something, captain. If you didn't, why are you here?

Indeed, our beliefs, or lack of, clearly shape who we are. Very misguided beliefs, or beliefs that cause us too much anxiety, probably do not aid our survival. On the other hands, affirming beliefs that are nevertheless connected to reality (not too little and not too much) help us respond and react appropriate to a range of situations.

While many who hated this film believe even the science in it is bad, I reckon the reason is that they fail to see the deeply stitched symbolism. Some have blithely called the film stupid; in fact it has been painfully and very carefully considered.  In fact, in almost every line of diaologue there is either a double meaning, a symbolic meaning or something prophetic.

Such as:

Charlie Holloway: We made you because we could. David: Can you imagine how disappointing it would be for you to hear the same thing from your creator?


Elizabeth Shaw: If we don't stop it, there won't be any home to go back to!


Meredith Vickers: If you're really going down there, you're going to die.
Peter Weyland: Very negative way of looking at things. Exactly why you should have stayed at home.


Millburn: On the behalf of scientists everywhere, I am ashamed to count you amongst us, Fifield. Really.

And finally:

Peter Weyland: And what would Charlie do now that we're so close to answering the most meaningful questions ever asked by mankind? Hm? How can you leave without knowing what they are? Or have you lost your faith, Shaw?

What we notice on this forum is that some people wish not to debate the most meaningful questions. Many people say, “Why can’t you let us believe what we want to believe, they don’t do us any harm?” Others say, “No matter how much you try, people will continue to believe (or disbelieve…” Of course, both of these statements are false.

 We are seeing a tremendous rise around the world in The New Atheism, with eloquent, charming, sensible and highly qualified debaters such as Sam Harris, the late Christopher Hitchens, Lawrence Krauss and Dawkins taking the baton from the likes of Bertrand Russell. Atheism is gaining traction thanks to the incredible strides in technology - our ability to peer into and analyze the universe and form each additional thesis at increasingly high processing speeds.

 One of the reasons, I believe, some people hated Prometheus, is because it asks us to be practical about our beliefs, and most believers like to keep the tenets of their faith as wishy washy as possible.

Upon closer inspection, faith tends to dissolve. Prometheus brings together the robotic atheist and the feminine, gentle, intuitive survivor (who is also a believer) and concludes: I am still searching. Yes, we are.

We ought to take that hint seriously. Believers have much to learn from logical, rational scientists. But the story doesn’t end there. There is much that remains that we don’t know about the universe, or even ourselves. We are at heart, after all,  symbolic creatures, rather than wrapped up in our 'creatureliness'. 

Our language is based on symbols.  Ours words.  And thus we are also at a very deep psychological level, also symbolic beings.  It may be that we must believe in something in order not to be overcome by not only the terrors of dying, but also those of living.  It is how we have come to not merely understand the world, but how we must see it in order to survive and thrive in it.

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