In Defence of Spirituality

Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar has come under attack for its conflated vision of science and spirituality, and an ending which suggests that love is a certifiable force that transcends space and time. A recent article by Annalee Newitz, in particular, condemns the film’s mixing of physics and metaphysics, and it seems representative of a larger backlash against themes of spirituality in what would otherwise be recognized as “hard” science fiction texts.

The main point of Newitz’s article is that confusing metaphysics with science sets a bad example for impressionable youths who often get their first taste of science through pop culture. So it’s important for movies such as Interstellar, which claim scientific validity, to be clear on precisely which elements are science and which elements are “new age platitudes.”

But here’s the thing: science fiction has no such responsibility.

Interstellar poster

As an atheist, I certainly rolled my eyes a little when Anne Hathaway made her clunky “love is a physical force” speech halfway through the film. But only because it was such terrible exposition, as if Nolan was saying, “Hey guys, here’s the theme of my movie in one neat little sentence!” Yet I adamantly believe that science fiction is the perfect vehicle to examine such ideas. No one is arguing that the genre should stick to established science – after all, time travel and faster-than-light travel, both impossible according to contemporary science, are core tropes of science fiction. It is the genre’s responsibility to interrogate all aspects of humanity’s belief, not just those that are framed within a scientific, materialist discourse. Science fiction is a distorted mirror of our own reality – a crucible, as Darko Suvin once wrote – and, for better or worse, spirituality is indeed a part of our reality. I would prefer science fiction to engage with this aspect of our reality, to enter into a constructive critical dialogue that recognizes the historical importance of metaphysical beliefs, than to bury its head in the sand and pretend that it doesn’t exist.

Spirituality could be defined as having a deep understand of one’s connection and role in the universe. For many people, including the characters in Interstellar, love is an integral part of their spiritual connection to reality. But does that mean the film is seriously promoting the idea that love is a certifiable physical force? No, it doesn’t. Christopher Nolan does, however, attempt to present his ideas in a scientific framework, even though his execution is a little clumsy. The trick is being smart enough to see where the science ends and the fiction begins.

As I acknowledged in my previous article2001: A Space Odyssey and Contact are indeed major influences on Interstellar. But to blame this conflation of science and spirituality on these two alone – as if they were some sort of pernicious aberration – is ignoring the incredibly rich history of spirituality in the genre of SF. In fact, I would argue that the entire genre has evolved in response to an ongoing dialectic between science and metaphysics – whether that is spirituality, or full-blown religion. So many authors have made spirituality a key part of their work that to ignore this would be to exclude key authors from the genre.

Just off the top of my head, spirituality forms a major component in the works of Olaf Stapledon, Mary Shelley, James Blish, Walter M. Miller, Lydia Millet, Ray Bradbury, Brian Aldiss, Robert A. Heinlein, Frank Herbert, Michael Moorcock, Sheri Tepper, Roger Zelazny, and C.S. Lewis. In fact, the sheer number of messianic narratives in the New Wave movement only serves to highlight this ongoing dialectic. And then we come to Arthur C. Clarke, whose works we can explicitly link to the transcendental evolutionary vistas offered in Interstellar. Clarke’s entire oeuvre represents a precarious balance between science and mysticism. But that’s why his books are so popular. And that’s why he’s recognized as one of the Big Three SF writers of the twentieth century.

None of the authors mentioned above felt the need to clarify the exact boundary between science and spirituality. In fact, most of their stories revel in the lack of distinction. They draw their very meaning from the blurred lines. And if this means that they sometimes blur into other genres, then so be it. Concrete genre divisions are a thing of the past.

Is this focus on metaphysics damaging to a genre that is purportedly based on science?

Annalee Newitz seems concerned that an undiscerning public will be somehow misled into thinking that spirituality and science are the same thing. But if people come away from Interstellar with a renewed appreciation for the majesty of space, as well an increased awareness of climate change, then it will have achieved its goal. Government funding for science may be decreasing (and not just in the United States), but it’s films like Interstellar which are inspiring the next generation to pursue careers in science and demand more funding. How many practicing scientists were inspired to their professions by reading Arthur C. Clarke or Carl Sagan?

An artist's depiction of the fifth-dimensional beings from Interstellar.
An artist’s depiction of the fifth-dimensional beings from Interstellar.

Let’s not forget that Interstellar is a work of science fiction. The purpose of fiction, like all art, is to examine and challenge the human condition. Spirituality is a vital part of our humanity. Interstellar recognizes – explicitly – that love is what makes us human. We are capable of thinking in evolutionary terms, but love is the thing that ties us to each other. Yes, it may feel like a “new age platitude,” but the genre has been using such platitudes since its very beginning. To abandon them would be to abandon the genre’s engagement with the very thing that defines – to many people – what it means to be human.

Finally, I come to the educational aspect of the film. I’ve argued that Interstellar, as both a piece of art and a work of science fiction, has a valid reason to engage with spirituality. Science fiction should never aim to have a pedagogical function. To inspire interest in science is one thing, but to educate on science is something entirely different. I agree that the boundary between science and spirituality should not be blurred in the classroom. But fiction is precisely the place where we can experiment with blurring that boundary without fear of censure or judgment.

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