I watched the film Prometheus last night. Overall, I was disappointed. It was heralded as Ridley Scott’s epic prequel to Alien and I was expecting a similarly entertaining movie. Instead, the film, at least for me, never really got rolling. There was a good movie buried in there somewhere — there were promissory notes for a better film — but the film never delivered on those promises. Perhaps some would say that the movie was at least ambitious and didn’t follow the script of a typical Hollywood sci-fi film. Granted, it tried to be high concept and deal with deep questions of faith and human origins. Unfortunately, it came up short.
The point of this post, however, is not to review the film. Rather, I’d like to take the opportunity to explore some of the more interesting philosophical questions it raises. Let’s take the idea of human origins. Since I’m going to reveal plot details, I’ll give the obligatory ‘Spoiler Alert.’ The premise of Prometheus is similar to that of many a History or Discovery Channel special: extraterrestrials visited ancient civilizations. Two archeologists (?) discover glyphs that reveal the location of the extraterrestrials’ home. So, explorers are sent out to find them. But the aliens didn’t just visit humanity; they engineered humanity. I’m not sure how the characters know this so early in the film; it’s never explained. But the plot later reveals that the aliens — who are called ‘the engineers’ — are responsible for humanity’s creation. In other words, the film broaches, in an unconventional way, the issue of Intelligent Design (ID). There’s even an exchange between the two principal characters and a biologist, in which the latter says that they’re throwing out three centuries of Darwinism on the basis of some cave paintings.
It’s interesting to frame the ID issue in this way, however, because it strips away a lot of the political and religious agendas behind the ID debate. Now, I’m not a proponent of ID. But I don’t reject it on a priori grounds like some of its critics. In other words, I reject it because I don’t see the evidence, not because I believe that it’s unscientific in principle. After all, if the scenario in Prometheus were true — and I’m not suggesting for a second that it is — that would appear to be an uncontroversial case of intelligent design. It wouldn’t necessarily disprove Darwinian evolution or show that a naturalistic origin of life is impossible (where did the aliens come from, after all?) but it would be a case of intelligent beings having engineered life on this planet — perhaps with humanity in mind. This differs from the theological picture, of course, but hypothetically it fits the strict definition of ID. I’m aware that those who promote ID are theists — even though they emphasize that their position isn’t theological and doesn’t specify the creator(s) — and I’m not trying to provide grist for their mill, but I don’t see any way of denying that the scenario presented in Prometheus is a case of intelligent design strictly speaking. As such, isn’t it at least possible? Wouldn’t we need to reject it on a posteriori rather than a priori grounds? Shouldn’t this also be our approach with respect to the ID debate?
There’s also a parallel in the film between the engineers’ relationship to humans and humans’ relationship to sentient robots. David, an artificial intelligence, asks one of the characters why they created him. The response: “Because we can.” David replies, “Can you imagine how disappointed you would be if your creators’ gave you the same answer.” (I’m paraphrasing.) Again, there’s some interesting material here that could be explored, but the film doesn’t do much with it. It’s too bad that the viral marketing for Prometheus was more intriguing than the movie itself.