At the Movies

There is a kind of low-level scientism operating in the medical profession which, given the humanitarian nature of the pursuit, may seem surprising. But the reason is simple – from the time they start university, medical students are intensively engaged in scientific education and long working hours, and other interests tend to go by the board.

That’s how a number of years ago I came to attend a course organised by a group of doctors keen to “rehabilitate” doctors in literature, art and the other humanities, with the very valuable aim of making them more rounded individuals and, therefore, better physicians. In the event it was the only event of theirs I supported, because I found that Christians were doing a similar job rather better, and with a wider remit.

But one thing I remember as particularly illustrative of their worthwhile aim was a session on film criticism, which involved looking at the artistic (and particularly cinematographic) decisions made to render a particular film effective. The flick in question was a black and white Hollywood oldie involving a doctor as the hero (what else!). I was particularly interested in how the film was selling a stereotypic myth – the scientist as the lone voice of honesty and reason in a world of ignorance and prejudice. Cue Galileo, Darwin and the Scopes Trial.

The facilitator pointed out how the subtle use of cuts, fades and so on all furthered the impact of this key message. Being a victim of medicine’s scientistic education, and even now not a filmgoer, it was all new to me. I may possibly have spotted the ideological slant of the film, but how that editorial intent was woven through every aspect of the film was a revelation. I guess it would also be so to many members of the public at large, since we are very easy to seduce through such a medium, as the fictionally-altered self-image of many Scots sinceĀ Braveheart indicates.

All this is somewhat of a metaphor for the issue of God’s activity in evolution, as seen by theistic evolutionists, a thought prompted by another discussion on BioLogos. Here the old chestnut of methodological naturalism and its tendency to foment metaphysical (ot theological) naturalism has been raised again. If (perhaps a big “if”) science can give a full explanation of life in terms of physics and chemistry, then should Christians not be agreeing with the skeptics that God is hands-off in creation, letting it go its own way in semi-deistic freedom?

The film analogy has not infrequently been used to counter this thinking, and rightly so. One can fully account for a reel of film in terms of physics and chemistry. One can even account thus for the actions portrayed and the processes involved. But it’s self-evident that none of that gives an account of theĀ information in the film, which was the whole point of its coming into being. The subtelety of that information is demonstrated by my brief course in film criticism: one looks not only for the semantic information of the dialogue for authorial intent, but at the lighting, camera angles, scene transitions and all the other items of the filmmaker’s craft that may be totally invisible to many viewers – and especially to those whose concerns are only physics and chemistry.

Yet those things about the film are not especially esoteric or mysterious. They’re a real part of the phenomenon of “film”, and though all expressed through the same physics and chemistry previously shown to account fully for the reel, can never be understood in chemical or physical terms. In that sense they’re not “scientific”, until one admits human sciences like film criticism to be sciences. Even then they’re not exact – the director’s friend will know much more about what was intended than an outsider. Some subtle “messages” may have been completely accidental – or even subconscious. But they are perceived by the same physical instruments that were used to draw the physical and chemical insights: only the mental interpretation was different.

So, back at evolution, can biology tell us about the existence of the Creator, or his purposes? Well, as biology I suppose not. Yet all biologists are human, just like all observers of films. The distinction between the mental processes used to answer the question “What’s this film about?” by “Physics and chemistry” or “The triumph of virtue over vice” is, in the end, rather artificial. It’ds all the human mind looking for different aspects of meaning. That’s particularly so, thinking of evolution, for the theistic evolutionist, who will only be able to see living processes purely physically if something serious has got in the way of his development as a believer in the Creator.

I suppose even the most scientised medics would still remain human enough to recognise that a movie means more than physics or chemistry. The practical issue is that some have reached the stage where the additional layers don’t matter any more. One can persuade oneself in a profession like medicine that only Real Life in the consulting room or lab matters – made up stuff like films is just a distraction. Scientism is more an attitude than a belief.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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