Interstellar: Black holes and borrowed capitalWritten by Subby Szterszky
What's inside this article
It’s amazing how many Hollywood films, despite their secular ethos, find themselves expressing key concepts from the Judeo-Christian world view. They don’t often do it overtly, of course, or even on purpose. It’s more a matter of subtext, and it illustrates a principle that theologian Cornelius Van Til called “borrowed capital.”
Van Til argued that secular materialists are unable to live consistently with their own basic assumptions about the world. If everything is the product of meaningless random chance, if matter is all that exists and mind and truth are mere illusions, then nothing is knowable and nothing matters at all.
And that way lies madness. So instead, secularists borrow intellectual capital from the biblical world view that they otherwise reject. They import biblical assumptions, perhaps unconsciously, to make sense of the world around them – assumptions about truth and order, mind and purpose, right and wrong, hope and love.
This principle is borne out in every area of cultural endeavour: science, philosophy, the arts. And so it is with Interstellar, Christopher Nolan’s ambitious film about physics and metaphysics and humanity’s future among the stars.
[Warning: the rest of this article contains major spoilers for Interstellar. You may wish to see the movie first before reading further.]
A story of hope
Interstellar is set in a not-too-distant future in which the world has been ravaged by a global ecological disaster. The earth is now a dying dust bowl no longer able to support life. A reduced population has abandoned cultural and technological progress and returned to the land in a last-ditch effort to grow food and survive. But there’s a ray of hope. Scientists at a secret NASA base have discovered some gravitational anomalies in our solar system. They’re using them to send out a few astronauts across vast distances in hopes of finding a new world where humanity could start over.
Physics versus metaphysics
Science fiction films, at least the serious ones like Interstellar, are never only about the science, whether real or imagined. They’re never just heroic tales of action and adventure. Nearly without exception, they explore some facet of the human condition and the big questions of existence. In other words, they’re as much about philosophy and metaphysics as they are about space exploration or time travel.
This is already a bit of borrowed capital because from a strictly materialist point of view, questions of metaphysics and philosophy are in fact meaningless. They deal with subjects beyond the physical universe such as spirituality, ethics and purpose. And according to hardline materialism, none of those things actually exist.
Of course, no one can live in a world like that, nor would anyone want to. That’s why modern physics routinely blurs the line between observation and speculation about origins. It’s also why nobody makes movies about the meaningless march of mindless matter, but lots of them about the human heart with its hopes, fears and dreams.
Some critics were unhappy that Interstellar mixed its science with so much existential rumination about choice and destiny and love. But in this, the film merely followed suit with most other successful works of drama. Its cutting-edge physics was simply a canvas on which to paint a much larger human story.
A sense of wonder
That’s not to say the science was irrelevant to the movie’s impact. Far from it. While making the film, Nolan consulted with Kip Thorne, one of the world’s leading theoretical physicists. The two men took pains to ensure the depiction of black holes and wormholes and extra-dimensional space was accurate, or at least plausible within the speculative framework of current scientific knowledge.
The results were visually stunning. Clearly one of the goals of Interstellar was to create a sense of wonder at the marvels of the universe, and in this, at the very least, it was a spectacular success.
Watching the film as a Christian, one can’t help but think how such a sense of wonder flows naturally from a biblical perspective. After all, “The heavens declare the glory of God,” as David wrote in Psalm 19. But on solely materialist grounds, “wonder” is just another illusion of the brain rather than a real response to the glories of creation. Strange that a movie founded on naturalistic ideas would seek to engender it.
A basis for ethics
One of the key themes of Interstellar revolves around making difficult choices based on trust, and the shattering consequences when that trust proves to be misplaced. At one point the two main astronauts, Cooper and Amelia, are faced with an agonizing decision between two potentially habitable worlds. If they pick wrong, there’s no going back. Based on a favourable report from an earlier expedition led by another astronaut, Dr. Mann, they choose his planet. But when they arrive, they find the planet desolate and uninhabitable. Mann, it turns out, had falsified his report in a selfish bid to get rescued.
Earlier in the film, Amelia’s father, Professor Brand, had laid out his plan for humanity’s survival. While the astronauts sought out suitable worlds, he would work on a gravitational equation that would permit earth’s populace to be moved to their new home. As a Plan B, he sent several thousand frozen fertilized human eggs with the astronauts so they could restart the human race if Plan A failed.
However, as it turns out, there never was a Plan A. On his deathbed, Brand confesses that he couldn’t solve the equation and decided to sacrifice the population of earth in favour of Plan B. He deceived Cooper and Amelia and the other astronauts into leaving earth on a one-way trip, with the false hope that they’d be able to return and save their loved ones. Only Mann was in on it; he justifies the deception with the claim that humans have an “evolutionary urge” to preserve themselves and their family but will not sacrifice for the greater good unless manoeuvred into it.
Right and wrong
But if that’s true, then why the guilt? Why the justification? From a materialist Darwinian perspective, Mann and Brand should be considered heroes. They acted with cold, amoral dispassion to ensure their own survival and that of humanity. Selfishness, cowardice and deceit are the real virtues that will help us pass on our genes and propagate the species. Courage and sacrifice are merely tickets to extinction.
Of course nobody sees it that way, nor are we meant to. Everyone can tell the heroes from the villains, the right from the wrong. The problem is that such an understanding is at odds with secular assumptions about reality, but in keeping with a Judeo-Christian world view.
The power of love
Overall, the movie’s biggest chunk of borrowed capital occurs in a scene where Amelia offers a heartfelt discourse on the nature of love. Although a scientist, she believes that love is a real and palpable force, the strongest in the universe, transcending space, time, gravitation, everything. Cooper counters with the standard Darwinian explanation that love is an evolutionary by-product offering social or reproductive advantages. Amelia points out that our love for deceased relatives, as an example, provides no such advantage.
In the end, Amelia’s belief is borne out by Interstellar’s central theme: the bond of love between Cooper and his earthbound daughter, Murphy, that literally transcends time, space and dimensional barriers. It allows the two of them to communicate intuitively across a vast distance to solve Brand’s equation and save humanity. A rather esoteric take on love, to be sure, and a bit over the top. But more to the point, it runs against the grain of the film’s overt expressions of naturalistic science.
A plan of salvation
At its core, Interstellar is a tale of redemption, tracing a narrative arc from bleak despair through hope to the ultimate salvation of the human race. But it’s a secular salvation on offer here, not a biblical one, as humanity learns to harness the wonders of creation and become our own saviours. The actual Creator, who alone can save, is nowhere in sight.
As with most of Nolan’s films, Interstellar is ambitious in scope and ambiguous in theme. It asks more questions than it answers and leaves itself open to a range of interpretation. It’s a great catalyst for discussion, with Christians and non-Christians alike, about the dynamic relationship between science and metaphysics, and how materialism imports biblical concepts to make sense of the world.
That, and it’s a beautifully produced movie, well worth seeing on a big screen.
[Note: this article does not constitute an endorsement of the movie, Interstellar, by Focus on the Family Canada. Consult the full review at Plugged In to help you determine whether Interstellar is appropriate for you or your family.]
Sources and further reading
Kaitlyn Elisabet Bonsell, “More things in heaven: ‘Interstellar,’ science, and human limitation,” Break Point, November 11, 2014.
Megan Garber, “Interstellar isn’t about religion (and also it is totally about religion),” The Atlantic, November 12, 2014.
Krish Kandiah, “Five big questions raised by Interstellar,” Christian Today, November 17, 2014.
Brett McCracken, “Interstellar: A cinematic search for new homes in the heavens, with a secular, yet curiously devout vision of the cosmos,” Christianity Today, November 6, 2014.
Scott Redd, “The scientific romanticism of ‘Interstellar’,” The Gospel Coalition, November 14, 2014.
Alissa Wilkinson, “Absolutely, ‘Interstellar’ is a (r)eligious movie: And that’s across all its dimensions,” Christianity Today, November 12, 2014.
Subby Szterszky is the managing editor of Focus on Faith and Culture, an e-newsletter produced by Focus on the Family Canada.
© 2014 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.
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