M. Night Shyamalan: Science is “Just a Theory”

Our Guy Friday, Science TeacherToday, the summer of pseudoscience cinema continues in a surprising form: as M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Happening” premieres today, we ought to look closely at the message it purports to send about the nature of science, and its relationship with faith. I’m convinced that its message is not… entirely wholesome.

In his latest supernatural thriller, Shyamalan takes us to the end of life as we know it, which takes the form of an unknowable natural/supernatural disaster. That’s all well and good, but take a look at this trailer, and listen at 1:43 for this line:

Science will come up with some reason to put in the books, but in the end it’ll be just a theory. It will fail to acknowledge that there are forces at work beyond our understanding.

Uh oh. Syamalan through Wahlberg is parroting the creationist party line – which, listening to his interview on NPR’s “Science Friday,” he truly believes – that science, even with all its elitist “books,” is powerless to explain much of the world, since it “fail[s] to acknowledge that there are forces at work beyond our understanding.” From the interview, it seems that Shyamalan truly believes this message, puts it forth as a central tenet of his film, and hopes his viewers will walk away with it.

What Shyamalan is trying to teach his viewers is a “God of the Gaps” theory that sees gaps everywhere. Coupling this message with the familiar “it’s just a theory” canard, Shyamalan’s take-away points for his audience amount to nothing less than a complete abandonment of the scientific method. And as if that’s not bad enough, he’s putting the message in the mouth of a science teacher!

Now, I’m fine with suspending disbelief in the movies: after all, one need not believe that the Ark of the Covenant carries any secret powers to enjoy watching it sautée Nazis in “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” But where the film purports to have a message relevant beyond the four corners of the screen, I begin to worry. If you doubt Shyamalan’s message, and his intent to have the audience walk away with this addled understanding of religion and science, please listen to the interview linked above. You’ll also get to hear Shyamalan misquoting Einstein to the benefit of theism. Shyamalan comes off as a true believer, with a message to communicate, and a willing audience.

And that’s a hell of a trick ending.



  1. eggnostriva · ·

    I am an atheist. This man, a writer of one good story and many poor copies. He has to “keep the mystery”. If he said it was a nonsense and there were no ghosts or spirits, there would be no more tedious scripts, and therefore no more movies. Take him for what he is. A man with a self interest in the supernatural.

  2. I think the statement that it’s just a theory is fine. The problem is that he didn’t stop to explain the context of the statement itself, and therefore everyone believes that he’s dismissing science.
    Science IS just a theory- it’s a series of models used to simplify complex systems in a way that allows us to observe and manipulate nature. Sometimes the models are wrong and get replaced with something else. Sometimes there are holes in them. Hive collapse disorder is something no one can find a cause for- because current scientific theory has never really considered it before. It’s not a gap thing, it’s a ‘we’re not exactly there yet thing’. Increasing complexity has made it difficult to predict relationships that lead to that kind of an event. I mean, look at climate change. Even though people are pretty sure now, the complexity of it is such that there was plenty of room for doubt fo a long time.

    Also, the scientists leading the institutions are a bit set in their ways. It took years for people to accept a meteor hit at the end of the Cretaceous because the people who figured it out can from outside their field of study.

    Sorry if this reads like a rant.

    What was the Einstein quote? I’m kind of curious.

  3. Ames…I just wanted to say…your blog is fantastic :) I had no idea you were a blogosphere celebrity…;)

  4. Building on what Emi said,

    That there are forces at work beyond our understanding can be inferred from the very fact that scientists continue to work to understand things that we don’t understand. That process is going to go on forever because I can’t foresee a point where absolutely everything in human experience can be explained through science.

    What Marky Mark’s character says about the science that will eventually explain the Happening does nothing more than reflect this pretty plain reality.

  5. Let me just add, my belief that human science will never attain a perfect and universal understanding of everything is not a jab at its value or validity. It’s the nature of the eternal sort of quest for truth and understanding, to sound really lame.

  6. Alan Gray · ·

    I find it humorous that science claims to be looking for truth, yet, if there is no creation, and indeed there is nothing beyond the now, then it is an utterly futile pursuit. As for me, I believe that (some) scientists are intent on disproving creation, while others simply see science as an attempt to explain in simple terms, to themselves at least, things they can’t comprehend. Look no further than the “invention,” if you will, of dark matter and dark energy to explain the perceived accelerated expansion of the universe. The same scientist would scoff at the creationist that cited divine intervention as an explanation for an unexplained event, yet neither can be proven beyond theory. A true scientist would welcome any theory and give each equal weight. A thousand years ago, most of what we take for granted today would have been unimaginable to even the most learned, to dismiss anything, including creationism, simply because it can’t be proven in a lab, (and I can easily reconcile creation with the proven concepts of evolution, so don’t even go there) is not science, but activism.

  7. Alan, I think that’s interesting.

    Science as I just described it does become a sort of overarching goal that gives an individual life meaning by making it part of a greater and enduring transcendent concept. Which is to say it can function to some extent as a religion for people so inclined.

    This reminds me of Camus’ greatest (yes) work, The Myth of Sisyphus.

    His reasoning, poorly rendered by me:
    “To live is to suffer. God gives religious people a reason a reason to endure suffering. Specifically, by giving it meaning and value and offering some otherworldly reward.”

    He continued “I cannot believe in God. Suffering has no meaning to me (the absurd.) Knowing that to live is to suffer, it’s in my best interest to commit suicide, rather than endure meaningless pain (Sisyphus.) Unless I can find something else that will transcend the suffering and give it meaning.”

    For him, it was to live out of spite and defiance at the absurdity of life. But I can just as easily see saying “my suffering here will not be in vain. It will live on as part of the neverending quest for scientific truth.”

  8. I think it’s incredibly likely that I overreacted to Shyamalan, but I urge everyone to listen to the interview. It sounded a few warning bells.

    Now, Alan, there’s a difference between tossing crationism because it can’t be proven in a lab, and tossing creationism because it lies outside of the methodology of science… meaning, it can never be proven, in any sort of way. All theories deserve equal weight until either disproven or found to lie outside of the bounds of the question being asked. I’d say creationism *at least* falls in with the latter.

    Also, if you’re speaking of six-day creationism… then there are all kinds of reasons for tossing that one out!

  9. Finally. FINALLY! Somebody who can see Shyamalan’s mushy brain for the trees!

    I have long thought that his movies are lacking in plot, functional narrative and genuine character development because Shyamalan himself is obviously lacking in these three areas.

    Seriously – have you ever watched him be interviewed? It’s truly painful – as if he’s doing his best to irritate the entertainment reporter by imitating a wicker chair.

    And yet, he believes himself to be a master storyteller.

    But let’s be real. Shyamalan is too comfortable operating from inside his adolescent scardy-cat Christian incoherence to tell a good story.

    Taking all of Shyamalan’s movies into account, I can only assume that his real goal in movie-making is NOT to tell a story. Rather, he makes movies in order to spread this underdeveloped “God of the Gaps” personal world view.

    He makes movies with precicely the same intent that some of us have when we cross ourselves before walking past a grave yard.

    It’s just too bad that Shyamalan, for lack of self-awareness cannot acknowledge this truth himself.

  10. Alan Gray · ·

    No, I find the six day people to be absurd. They seem to forget, (or ignore) that the bible was written for uneducated people, and like Jesus with his parables, uses easily understandable concepts to get across a very complicated concept. The one curious thing I do find is, if you look at Genesis and the order of creation, it’s correct. A book, written supposedly by Moses, a man educated by the Egyptians who were said to believe a giant frog regurgitated the world, gets the order of the formation of the universe and the ensuing order of life’s evolution essentially correct. Again written in easily digested form for simple people.

  11. The scientifically correct order is also the poetically correct, and logically correct order. Logically land must predate man and animal, and poetically man is the master of the beasts, ergo the only point not otherwise ordered is the “heavens” – why them first? Poetically, I suppose, because God comes first. I wouldn’t look too deeply into an order easily explainable by other means.

    But you’re right on target on the rest; I’m glad to see more people on the same page with the parable/simplified explanations reading.

  12. Gotchaye · ·

    How do you mean that, Alan? It’s always seemed to me that any mapping of biblical creation on to what we now believe to have happened has to stretch Genesis so much as to be meaningless. You can make it fit just as you can show that Nostradamus was on to something, and you can certainly believe that there’s a metaphorical validity to it, but it’s not at all predictive.

    From http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?book_id=1

    Light seems to come after the earth. It’s unclear what’s going on with the water in 1:6-10. Stars appear after plants, when they ought to predate the earth, and certainly ought to appear before life. Likewise for the sun and the moon. Birds appear at the same time as sea creatures and before land animals.

    It seems that what it gets right is what you’d expect any piecemeal creation account to get right – as Ames said, you have to have the earth before anything can exist on the earth, you have to have oceans before anything can live in them, and you have to have the sky before anything can fly in it, and man is going to be either at the very beginning or at the very end. If you were to take the claims presented in Genesis and jumble them up within those constraints, it seems to me that you’d have just as much reason to say that it gets things essentially correct.

  13. excellent post!

  14. parallelsidewalk · ·

    (Spoiler to a movie Shyamalan did 7 years ago)

    After the horrifically ham fisted Christian message at the end of Signs (the cherry on that particular shit sundae) it doesn’t really shock me. As I’ve stated here before, arguing with creationists, I’m not an atheist and I actually think science is limited in the sense that it can take us no closer to understanding the “why” of existence. That being said, organized religion certainly can’t solve our practical problems and 9 times in 10 it actually stops humans from gaining that same knowledge of “why” through dogma and intellectual proscription. Are there things in existence better understood intuitively and wordlessly than through scientific method? I would say yes, but these are things like the truths of love, suffering, attachment, and compassion. If a mystery plague or whatever decimates the earth, I’m pretty damn sure science will be able to give us better conclusions than Marky Mark pontificating.

  15. James F · ·


    Building on what Ames said, remember that science deals only with the natural world and what we can observe, measure, and conclude within that framework. It operates under a neutral philosophy of methodological naturalism, which does not aim to prove or disprove the supernatural, God, or any higher power. The philosophical view of theistic evolution (evolutionary creationism in Evangelical traditions) accepts science as a way for understanding the natural world, with God, in essence, working through the natural processes we see in the universe (and I agree with Collin that we will never know everything in the universe). Philosophical naturalism, by contrast, holds that there is nothing beyond the natural world – this is the view of Richard Dawkins and the so-called “New Atheists.” I believe this philosophy – held by some but certainly not all scientists – is what you’re opposing. Science can’t disprove the philosophy of theistic evolution, although it can disprove patently anti-scientific beliefs like young earth creationism, and it sounds like we’re on the same page on the latter point.

  16. Gerald Ford · ·

    Everyone loves watching Nazis get sauteed (or pureed), whatever. :)

    Anyways, yeah I think Mr. Syamalan is pushing an agenda. If he believes it fine, but pushing it in movies is a little contrived. Oh well, I won’t watch it anyways.

  17. Lunch Admin said “Finally. FINALLY! Somebody who can see Shyamalan’s mushy brain for the trees! ”

    Well, we are talking about a guy who wrote a movie where the aliens are trying to take over a planet that is mostly covered in water… yet water is deadly to them!

    When I first saw the previews, I thought it was intriguing. Then I saw who it was written by, and I’m going to give it a pass.

  18. Alan Gray · ·

    My only problem with your post is that you and the people you cited have the advantage of centuries of accumulated knowledge when contending the order of creation would be obvious. On the other hand, I contend that to people of the biblical Genesis, people with very little if any education, would have no earthly idea (no pun intended) of the correct order of creating anything short of unleavened bread, much less a universe. (The heavens could mean God’s home of course, or it could simply be a way of saying everything outside the Earth’s realm, which if you take to the big bang theory, was indeed created first).

    And, depending on what translation you read, the order of the animals, birds, fish…etc. changes. Remember, these rewrites were made by human hands with human fallibilities and the occasional political agenda. I’m not contending that it gets the order of evolution correct (another phenomenon I believe actually proves intelligent design), only the correct order or major events. And again, you would need to know what the writer was trying to say when he says, for instance, God separated the light from the darkness. Is he talking about literal light and dark, or is there another subtle meaning there…good and evil…matter and antimatter…as two examples.

    Take the primitive tribe that was recently found in the Amazon and has reportedly had no contact with the outside world, and I’m confident they would not come up with a creation story that would fit with anything biblical.

    I suppose my point is, the biblical story of creation was a simple way to explain a very incomprehensible subject, one we still don’t really comprehend today, to very simple people. Only the most fevrent, and I must say somewhat nonchrist-like Christians, stick with a six, 24-hour day, creation. Of course I think – with apologies to Einstein – time is relative to God anyway.

  19. It’s times like these I’m thankful for my strange ability to watch a movie and not pick up any of the undertones. Sometimes not even the overtones.

  20. Gotchaye · ·

    Alan, I’m still somewhat confused as to what you mean when you say that the Bible gets “the correct order of major events”. It’s very unambiguous in the NIV translation that the sun and the stars appear after plants, liquid water, the atmosphere (‘water in the sky’), and the earth as a large, solid body. Which events are major, and why are the out-of-order events not major? Or perhaps, as you say, it’s a problem of translation. Which version do you believe is closest to the original Hebrew?

    If your list of major events is sufficiently small (which, if you’re discounting the order in which various forms of life appear and the appearance of the stars, it ought to be), then a random ordering would be at least reasonably likely to come up with something scientifically accurate. The more of the text that you discount, the more plausible it becomes that the rest is just a lucky accident. The strong claim that all of the roughly ten or so claims in Genesis about the beginning of the world are well-ordered is obviously much more suggestive than the weaker claim that it correctly orders three or four events while including about six misleading claims.

    Further, it’s a problem that ‘light and dark’ can be taken to mean ‘light and dark’, ‘good and evil’, or ‘matter and antimatter’. First, concerning the interpretation itself, I don’t see how a primitive people gets anything of value out of the ‘light and dark’ line if it’s taken to mean ‘matter and antimatter’ – even if one can interpret it to be saying something true, it’s clear that the original readers wouldn’t have made anything like the same connection, and would have taken it as either ‘light and dark’ or ‘good and evil’, so such an interpretation seems to contradict the claim that Genesis was meant to explain something to a scientifically illiterate people.

    Finally, the ambiguity of some of the language makes it very, very hard to say anything decisive about the text. The question is not “can the text be taken as scientifically accurate” but “should the text be taken as scientifically accurate”. As I mentioned, the same sort of interpretive method that you’re applying to the Bible can be applied to Nostradamus’ writings, and you find that he accurately predicted a whole bunch of stuff.

    It should be noted that none of the above requires that the Bible not be divinely inspired. However, that, after a great deal of interpretation, it can be read as saying something scientifically accurate also does not mean that it -is- divinely inspired.

  21. It’s been a long journey, but we are getting there…

  22. Science will come up with some reason to put in the books, but in the end it’ll be just a theory. It will fail to acknowledge that there are forces at work beyond our understanding.

    This is great. It’ll be “just a theory.” And I suppose Shyamalan is going to look down on us all for accepting the Theory Of Gravity. I mean, after all, it is “just a theory.”

    It’s a complete lack of understanding as to what the word “theory” even means. Theory is not a guess, it’s not an hypothesis, it’s been tested and withstood the rigors of scientific scrutiny. It’s no different than when Creationists and Intelligent Design proponents say Evolution is “just a theory.”

    Well, they’re right. It IS a theory. It’s not a guess. It’s been proven.

  23. I’m a little surprised at the response this has raised from people. After all, science itself has shifted in the last few decades to include a realm beyond immediate empiricism, what scientist Michael Polanyi calls “the tacit deminsion” or what Shayamalan would call “forces at work beyond our understanding.” Scientists Larry Laudan and Thomas Kuhn have said similar things.

    So actually those who would ridicule Shayamalan either are not fully aware of this recent shift in science or have succumbed to a popular form of “positivism” or scientolatry. The owners of this blog seemed to have strong backgrounds in humanities and law, so they may not be aware of these changes either.

    So, actually, though it hasn’t made it into the popular mind quite yet, science does not hold the same view as those who think Shayamalan’s remarks are ridiculous. Another great reason to study something out for yourself rather than believe what you read on someone’s blog. You can start with the well-respected scientists I mentioned…

  24. Your mom · ·

    Get a fucking life d bags

  25. ‘It IS a theory. It’s not a guess. It’s been proven.’

    Not exactly. Even things that are popularily seen to be concrete, like gravity and relativity, have limits and exceptions. Most natural phenomenon have so many crackpot ‘theories’ surrounding them that it would make creationism look well rounded and rational.
    I listened to the interview, and I got three messages from it:
    ‘We don’t know everything’
    ‘Things are complicated’
    “I like Hitchcock’

    Sam put it much more elequently than I could.

    I’m not saying anything about the movie itself, mostly because I caught a look at the Red Band trailer and now know that nothing short of tying me to the chair and taping my eyes open could make me watch that thing.

  26. parallelsidewalk · ·

    As I understand Larry Laudan, the guy is not saying “huge mystical events happen that logic will never be able to make any sense of”, nor is he down with creationism or anti-intellectualism. Polanyi’s opinions on positivism are not scientific facts, simply his opinions. I don’t know anything about Thomas Kuhn, so I can’t comment on him. Anyway, you’re appealing to authority to make it sound as if “Science” that big monolithic entity, has declared itself to not really aid understanding in the face of a dark universe. This is not the case and I’m pretty sure you know this.

  27. No, Laudan and the others are not promoting mysticism or religion, though Polyani has said that religion has a role to play in determining the value of tacit dimensions. But what they have embraced is an open view of science, one that humbly states, “we don’t know everything.” If science is meant to be inquisitive rather than closed and dogmatic, then those guys are more scientific than many others who go by the same name.

    Science certainly aides in understanding the universe. But to say that science alone can define the universe would be presumptuous – as if science has everything wrapped up neatly to accommodate our propensity toward rationalism. Though that would make everyone feel a little safer, it doesn’t change the very real fact (theory?) that there are things science cannot categorize. It’s really an issue humility.

  28. parallelsidewalk · ·

    Sure, science can’t explain everything, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t explain anything, which is the basic tone I get from Shyamalan here. If people all over the world start malfunctioning and dying, bet your last dollar that science will figure it out well before armchair philosophy and religion have anything worthwhile to say. As regards, say, creationism, science may not show whether there’s a “god” or not (really so vague a question as saying whether “quantity X” exists) but it can show us pretty clearly that the earth was not created in 6 days 5,000 years ago, and no amount of appeal to “forces we don’t understand” affects that in any meaningful way. Maybe I misunderstand where you (and/or Shyamalan) are coming from; but I’ve seen an alarming trend of people using a vague gnostic philosophy to push supersition and scorn reason lately, and that’s where the general mindset seems to lie.

  29. “If people all over the world start malfunctioning and dying, bet your last dollar that science will figure it out well before armchair philosophy and religion have anything worthwhile to say.”

    Oh. Okay… so there is a hierarchy of information – science comes first and other disciplines follow. Thanks for clearing that up. :) Your comments seem to reflect the very positivism you decry.

  30. parallelsidewalk · ·

    Okay, you convinced me. Kids who die because their parents hold telephone prayer meetings instead of giving them the Heimlich when they’re choking just must not have been praying hard enough. Obviously science just isn’t objectively correct ever, and it certainly never trumps mysticism. In the hypothetical plague case, I’m sure Sioux medicine men and the Catholic church will figure out just as accurately as scientists why it happened, as they have always done historically, because they’re humbled before a mysterious universe and science is just a bunch of theories. That’s why Hindu mystics figured out how to fly before engineers did too, incidentally.

  31. You know, I’ve been praying high and low about this, but I must be doing it wrong because M. Night Shyamalan’s movies won’t stop sucking.

  32. LOL! Some of the comments this past 24 hours have been absolutely golden. That was one. RA and Gerald Ford too :-)

  33. Science is a body of knowledge collected and vetted based on a specific methodology. That methodology has not changed in a very long time.

    Kuhn talked about some social aspects of science that made certain discoveries more or less difficult to reach consensus stage but the core of what makes science science was the same before and after Kuhn.

    The scientific methodology can not answer every question, but it is by far the best thing we have going for us. And I will take a scientifically pursued answer over philosophy any day.

  34. thanks for your work with human rights. children and women in human slavery are exploited by the multi billion dollar sex trade and online pornography. liberals and conservatives alike are ignoring sudan for some god awful reason. i have friends overseas who are afraid of being killed by their president as he’s seizing the food of 4 million starving people and anyone who whispers that he’s wrong. i know you guys are into other pursuits….but what about people who spend all of their time attacking guys like shyamalan the screen writer and stein the cameo comic for ‘pushing a theist agenda’? honestly? for the betterment of humanity..isn’t there someone else posing far more dangerous threats we could expose and go after?

  35. Every man must do what he’s best at, and what he has the most passion for: I know this stuff, so I write about it mostly :-). Also, I try to focus mostly on American politics and culture, although I don’t deny the huuuuuge problems abroad. If I turned my sights there, though, I fear I’d never come back… and, since a good deal of this blog is about getting Obama elected, I think I am doing my part for the global human rights struggle, ableit indirectly

  36. I shall be mature and refrain from makinga joke about Big John’s name.

  37. […] of physics didn’t seem to apply, but used this universe to argue that, in the real world, science is similarly insufficient to explain natural phenomena. He turned a nice story (I suppose) into a vehicle for pitching the same mysticism joyfully used by […]

  38. angelo avtzipanagiotis · ·

    i have a theory about how the earth got its oceans,its not because ice meteors kept hitting the earth, i belive earth was a dry planet like mars and an ice moon like pupitoes europa collided with earth possably thriwn into earth by a super nava thru the ice moon out of its orbit making it collied with earth

  39. […] of physics didn’t seem to apply, but used this universe to argue that, in the real world, science is similarly insufficient to explain natural phenomena. He turned a nice story (I suppose) into a vehicle for pitching the same mysticism joyfully used by […]

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