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Thoughts on “The Principle”

Is humanity special? If so, how would we know? I am willing to wager that everyone has given some thought to one or both of these questions. One thing the history of science demonstrates is that neither the Sun nor Earth occupies a central or “specially favored” position in the universe (the Copernican principle). A new movie called The Principle challenges this idea and argues that humanity does reside in a special location. A number of Reasons to Believe staff members have seen the film in order to offer insight for those curious about it or engaged in conversations about it.

Dr. Hugh Ross participated in a radio debate with Dr. Robert Sungenis, a Catholic apologist and the producer of The Principle. During the debate, Sungenis articulated his position that the earth resides in a special location (galactocentrism, where our galaxy is somewhere close to the center of the universe) and that this special location reflects humanity’s importance. He integrates a belief in young-earth creationism with galactocentrism. During the debate, Hugh highlighted the scientific difficulties confronting any view that places Earth, our solar system, or the Milky Way Galaxy in any sort of geometrically “special” location. The Principle has drawn fire from people interviewed for or involved in the film, accusing Sungenis of misleading them regarding the film’s intent. Sungenis and his co-producer have responded to these claims.

RTB media team member Andrew Gaines and I recorded a podcast discussing the film’s message and execution and the controversy that has sprung up around it. In particular, Andrew provides fascinating insights into the techniques used to convey the film’s ideas, as well as the producers’ ineffective use of the motion picture format.

In addressing The Principle’s message, both Andrew and I struggled to even find a clear message. The best we could determine, the producers want to communicate that perhaps Earth resides in some special location in the universe and that science and faith are coming back together again. However, in making that point, the producers often present their material in ways that undermine their message. For instance, the film spends much time emphasizing that analysis of the cosmic microwave background radiation—a phenomenon discovered and tested by the scientific community—shows some asymmetries that seem to align with Earth’s location. And then the film claims repeatedly that scientists conspire to prevent publicity for any evidence against the Copernican principle. It seems odd to undermine the integrity of scientists while arguing that science points to a special location for Earth.

The Principle also skews a number of historical accounts to support its own view. For example, the story of Giordano Bruno concludes with the oft-repeated assertion that Bruno was declared a heretic and burned at the stake for holding the “scientific position” of a heliocentric model and an infinite universe containing other life. In reality, the reasons for Bruno’s heresy are unclear and he seemed to be a contentious person who often riled authorities.

Another shortcoming of The Principle is its presentation of some scientific ideas. Instead of helping the audience understand the subtleties and nuances of scientific positions or the science-faith relationship, the film presents the science-faith connection in a blunt either/or manner. One prominent example is the issue of the multiverse, a topic that I have discussed extensively. According to the movie, either you believe in God or you believe in the multiverse. Reality paints a far more interesting and varied picture, as I have described previously.

One final point needs mentioning regarding the controversy surrounding the film. I cannot speak to how the movie was pitched to Lawrence Krauss, Max Tegmark, Michio Kaku, Kate Mulgrew, and others in order to solicit their involvement. It seems to me that The Principle gives a fair presentation of the views of those involved, meaning that nothing in the interview segments seems inconsistent with what I already knew about the participants’ views. With that caveat, I would still say that the film felt “slimy” largely because it rarely provided adequate context for the scientists’ statements. I know I would feel manipulated if an atheist treated me similarly.

If you are already familiar with the scientific, historical, and cinematic elements presented in The Principle, seeing the movie will provide a number of interesting ideas to talk about. However, the film’s biases and deficiencies prevent me from recommending The Principle to anyone who does not possess a sound understanding of the scientific and theological issues at stake.