Posted by: reformedmusings | March 29, 2009

Knowing

I went to see Knowing yesterday, which stars Nicholas Cage. I saw that it had mixed reviews on Yahoo!, but carefully picked between them to see why the great disparity. I was concerned, but went to see the movie anyway and am glad that I did.

knowing-poster

Knowing is classic science fiction, of the Ursula K. Le Guin, Arthur C. Clarke, and Isaac Asimov genre. Great science fiction from the days when people actually thought about things and asked questions about who we are, where we came from, where we’re going, and the nature of reality. Knowing is such a story.

Knowing starts in 1959 with a new elementary school dedication. I will try to be general enough that I don’t spoil anything. The children in one class are chosen to contribute drawings to a time capsule that will be buried, to be opened in 50 years. Everyone in the class draws pictures of stuff like robots, spaceships, etc., except one little girl. She densely covers the front and back of a sheet of paper with an endless stream of seemingly random numbers. The teacher collects everything up, putting everyone’s work in envelopes on which their names are written. The papers are buried in the time capsule.

Fifty years later, the time capsule is opened with much ceremony. Each child in the elementary school receives one of the envelopes from 1959. Nicholas Cage’s son receives the envelope with all the numbers in it and, breaking the rules, brings it home. Cage attention is accidentally drawn to the sheet at one point and he notices something about some of the numbers. It turns out that the numbers are not random or even a puzzle of some kind, but something more sinister. They make, what would have been in 1959, predictions about the future – and not happy ones. From then on it’s an interesting journey into the unknown through the rest of the movie.

One mildly annoying flaw is the misdefining of determinism in the movie. Cage’s character includes purpose into the definition, which is incorrect. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines causal determinism well:

Causal determinism is, roughly speaking, the idea that every event is necessitated by antecedent events and conditions together with the laws of nature. The idea is ancient, but first became subject to clarification and mathematical analysis in the eighteenth century. Determinism is deeply connected with our understanding of the physical sciences and their explanatory ambitions, on the one hand, and with our views about human free action on the other.

So, there’s no sense of purpose in determinism, just the blind workings of the physical laws given the universe’s initial and boundary conditions. Newtonian physics seemed to give mathematical rigor to the philosophy, leading many to conclude that humans had no real free will, but that all was determined by the impersonal math and physics. Fortunately, things muddied up considerably with the rise of quantum mechanics and it has only become muddier since then. In all cases, though, purpose is not a part of determinism in and of itself. In a general sense, if you add purpose to determinism, you get teleology. Teleology is the idea that natural processes are directed or shaped by an ultimate purpose.

Knowing asks similar questions to another good movie on the subject, Paycheck, which was based on a short story by Philip K. Dick. These questions include: Can you know the future? If you knew the future, could you change it? Does knowing the future make any difference at all? What if you were somehow integral to that future unfolding? How could you know? Knowing and Paycheck approach the questions quite differently, with Knowing taking a much broader brush across the questions.

Overall, the movie is well done and, for nominal or non-Christians, thought-provoking. As with all stories of this nature, it touches on Biblical issues. It falls in a category with Asimov’s short story The Last Question and his excellent Foundation Trilogy. If you are a fan of classic science fiction, I believe that you’ll find Knowing both entertaining and thought-provoking. If your idea of great science fiction is more on the level of Alien vs. Predator, then maybe not so much.

As a Christian fan of scifi, though, I found it entertaining. The underlying theology of the movie, if there is one, would be salvation by death, as Dr. R.C. Sproul, Sr., calls it. That is, if you die, you go to heaven – no faith required. That’s known as universalism. The Bible clearly teaches that no one gets to heaven without trusting in Jesus Christ alone for their salvation, resting in his perfect life, substitutionary atonement on the cross, and victorious resurrection. You don’t see this mentioned much in science fiction.

Reformed Theology rests ultimately in the absolute sovereignty of God. As the Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 3, Paragraph 1 says:

God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass; yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.

That’s a brain full that says it a lot about reality. Even after considerable study, no human being can fully get their head around the concept. That’s because, in latin, finitum non capax infinitum. That means that the finite (humans) cannot contain or grasp the infinite (God). (The redneck version is something like “you can’t fit a quadrillion+ tons of potatoes into a five pound bag.”) We would not expect finite creatures to grasp the knowledge or understanding of our infinite God. We just know it’s true because He has condescended to tell us so in His Scriptures.

So, questions like those posed above by stories like Knowing and Paycheck have actual answers in Scripture. Those who trust and rest in an all-powerful, sovereign Creator and Sustainer know the answers to those questions and have nothing to fear about the future. As the Cathedrals sing: “We read the back of the book and we win.”

Even so, I’ve never stopped enjoying good science fiction. I still remember the days before my regeneration and the burning questions that only Reformed Christianity can answer satisfactorily and completely. I do not find separating entertainment from reality difficult.

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