This second installment picks up where Part 1 left off.

A Re-enchantment of Modernity

In his essay “Science as a Vocation,” Max Weber famously wrote,

The fate of our times is characterized by rationalization and intellectualization and, above all, by the ‘disenchantment of the world.’ Precisely the ultimate and most sublime values have retreated from public life either into the transcendental realm of mystic life or into the brotherliness of direct and personal human relations.

The trajectory of “disenchantment”—expressed socially as secularization—began with the Enlightenment, with the insistence that human reason was sufficient to plumb Reality and that science alone provides knowledge and certainty. Western civilization witnessed the separation of Church and State, culture and religion, science and the supernatural. But despite the best efforts of Feuerbach and later Freud, the memory of God could not be separated or erased from the human psyche. Beginning right alongside the Enlightenment with Romanticism there has been a cultural project within modernity itself, of seeking an alternate experience of some sort of transcendent reality outside the track of Christianity or any traditional monotheism. For two centuries, disenchanted artists, writers, poets, philosophers, psychologists, and German theologians have rummaged through the attic trunk of human mythology and psychology, seeking the re-enchantment of mundane experience. In the 20th century, relativity theory and quantum mechanics led to the realization that physical reality was much more mysterious and scientific knowledge more uncertain than classical mechanics and materialistic determinism had let on, and some now take science itself as an alchemical enterprise, which can transmute leaden materiality into the gold of transcendence.

In 2001: A Space Odyssey, Kubrick and Clarke’s mix of mythology, evolution, technology, and astrophysics sought a similar re-enchantment of modernity. Not by any return to traditional religious belief; Clarke was an avowed atheist and Kubrick disavowed any monotheistic, personalist interpretation of God. Although Kubrick insisted that “the God concept is at the heart of 2001” (here), he equally insisted that the film offers a “scientific definition of God” (here). A true believer in both evolution and the likelihood of intelligent extra-terrestrial life (as was Clarke), Kubrick imagined a highly evolved race of aliens, who

…may have progressed from biological species, which are fragile shells for the mind at best, into immortal machine entities—and then, over innumerable eons, they could emerge from the chrysalis of matter transformed into beings of pure energy and spirit. Their potentialities would be limitless and their intelligence ungraspable by humans.

And so, as he explained to Joseph Gelmis, “All the essential attributes of such extraterrestrial intelligences are the attributes we give to God.” In the mythology of 2001, these aliens are our benevolent teachers, guiding human evolution, and transforming the representative “hero”—astronaut David Bowman—into the “star child,” the next enhanced stage of human existence. In spinning his re-enchanting myth, Kubrick aimed to stimulate our “mythological and religious yearnings and impulses,” to make us consider the possibility of a spiritual depth in a de-divinized cosmos.

Notwithstanding his clarity concerning the plot of the movie, Kubrick overstates the scope of the possible audience-response hermeneutic that can be applied to interpreting his techno-myth and the “elements of philosophy and metaphysics” in 2001. Given what Kubrick calls the “highly subjective” nature of the film, it “becomes anything the viewer sees in it.” Of course, as with any work of art or literature, we may read into it all sorts of meanings, from associations we imagine between images or words in the work and the “subconscious” of the artist. But this can quickly move beyond interpreting the work to fantasizing about it, and maybe psychoanalyzing the artist. It seems to me that 2001 transforms the concept of God from an immortal, invisible, sovereign and personal Supreme Being and Almighty Creator into that of superhuman creatures, highly evolved aliens whose technology is sufficiently advanced that we perceive it as supernatural.

Clearly, Kubrick took at least some of his own metaphysical lessons from Clarke, who famously wrote in 1961 in Profiles of the Future: An Inquiry into the Limits of the Possible, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Other lessons he gathered from Joseph Campbell, Charles Darwin, and the techno-optimism of the early 1960s. Having absorbed these lessons, he believed that his recital in 2001 expressed a worldview that rose above standard doctrinaire materialism. He decried a small cadre of negative New York critics as “so dogmatically atheist and materialist and Earth-bound that it finds the grandeur of space and the myriad mysteries of cosmic intelligence anathema.” Yet his own conceptualization of God, humanity, and reality remained locked into a naturalistic framework. The result in 2001 was one more Western cultural attempt to re-enchant the material world; to try to grasp mystery and reach transcendence within a closed, one-story universe.

The Future’s Not Ours to See

Kubrick and Clarke’s adventure aspired to present both a possible future and “true” myth. But humanity’s future in space never materialized, at least not in accordance with the optimistic vision shared by Clarke and many of his contemporaries in the space-exploration-industrial complex. At the beginning of the 2001 project in 1964, Clarke had written a preliminary précis called “The View from 2000,” an imagined recollection of four decades of man in space: After a wildly successful Apollo program, “[b]efore the 70s had ended, the first permanent colony had been established on the Moon” with a thousand inhabitants, nuclear-powered spacecraft had replaced “the age of rocket dinosaurs,” life had been found on Mars, and sights had been set on exploring the outer planets.

Not five years after the film’s release, Clarke wistfully wrote in his behind-the-scenes book, The Lost Worlds of 2001, that the Apollo program had “shrunk pitifully” from being the “dominating” launch of man’s conquest of space to a historical footnote. In 1972, he yet believed that humanity would inhabit other worlds, and that “[a]n age may come when Project Apollo is the only thing by which most men remember the United States—or even the world of their ancestors, the distant planet Earth.” That eventuality also seems unlikely. Contemporary space programs focus on commercial exploitation of earth-orbiting satellites and occasional unmanned exploration of the solar system. The International Space Station is a few large tin cans with solar panels, not the majestic Hilton-Hotel-in-space of 2001. No man has set foot on the moon since Apollo 17 forty-six years ago. And not even Bill Nye the Science Guy thinks we’ll ever live on Mars.

The film got some things right about the shape of things to come. Although much of the look and feel of 2001 possesses a dated 1960s aesthetic (the clothing, the space station furnishings, flight attendants with beehive helmets, Pan Am still around), the ubiquity of screens is prescient. The astronauts on board the Discovery even use devices that look like iPads. And then there’s HAL, the onboard computer that controls all of Discovery’s functions, interacts as a crew member with the human astronauts, and experiences a psychotic break. Voice communications between humans and computers was still mostly an R&D dream in the 1960s, and the field of Artificial Intelligence was barely underway. We still don’t have computers with actual consciousness, emotions, or psychoses (nor will we ever), but belief in the possibility still has currency in the AI community and popular culture. And HAL provides a cautionary tale about our willingness to confer control of our lives on autonomous machines, which resonates today even more than in the 1960s. Yet HAL is not essential to the theme or main plot of the story, even as Kubrick himself summarized it. HAL’s main purpose seems to be to reduce, through murder, the crew complement to one, so that the Hero’s Journey concludes as a singular experience and not a team effort.

Clarke’s vision of the future rests on a foundation of three largely unexamined presuppositions: a tenacious faith in technology as a beneficent savior, a high anthropology that takes no account of the Fall and assumes the perfectibility of human nature, and a teleological view of history with attendant beliefs in progress and a built-in human “destiny.” The last presupposition, Clarke seems to be unaware, is appropriated from Judeo-Christian tradition and is specifically at odds with the denial of teleology that is of the essence of Darwinian evolution, beginning with Charles Darwin himself. If all these presuppositions were true, 2001 would have been a not implausible depiction of a not implausible future. But the first two are false, and Clarke’s interpretation of historical teleology is de-Christianized into a sort of quasi-Hegelian futurism.

Back to the Future Myth

Clarke’s foundational views can be taken as “myths” in the sense of falsehoods taken as verities in the service of worldview projection. But what Kubrick sought, in order to stimulate our “mythological and religious yearnings and impulses,” was the creation of a new “true” myth—a compelling story, even a fictional one, expressing some significant truth about the meaning of human existence. There is certainly a question of whether “myth” construed in any way can convey truth. C. S. Lewis certainly thought so, when he wrote of Christ’s resurrection, “The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact.” And writing to his friend Arthur Greeves: “The story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened.” He believed the ancient pagan myths were God expressing himself within the minds of poets “using such images as He found there.” Perhaps Lewis would accept the validity of an artistic attempt to create a new myth that expressed—through a hodge-podge of modernity’s hopes and assumptions—a pre-conceptualized worldview. I think he would allow that 2001: A Space Odyssey is a fantasy. Under the guise of hard science-fiction, it slips metaphysics and theology into our awareness through a well-constructed fictional universe that looks like our own but that possesses “magic” in the form of a fantastically advanced extra-terrestrial technology. Kubrick admitted as much when he told Rolling Stone magazine, “On the deepest psychological level the film’s plot symbolizes the search for God… The film revolves around this metaphysical conception, and the realistic hardware and the documentary feeling about everything were necessary in order to undermine your built-in resistance to the poetical concept.”

Kubrick’s criterion for the success of 2001 was whether it reached the “subconscious of the viewer” and tapped into its latent “mythological and religious yearnings.” The film certainly expressed the Zeitgeist of its era—in the same strange mixed way the culture existed—combining techno-optimism, a futurist faith in both historical progress and evolution, and the quest for a higher-consciousness. But much of what 2001: A Space Odyssey does to the viewer is right up there in the conscious mind, anyway. The knowledge that human beings continually seek to give meaning to our lives by believing in and connecting with something greater than ourselves is not new or hidden. 2001 then leaves us with an open invitation to consider the possibility of a “higher” dimension to our existence.

What Kubrick did was provide an idée fixe, a conceptual object for the viewer’s mind to latch onto as worthy of our contemplation and pursuit in the quest for transcendence. For Kubrick, this idea of super-smart, technologically advanced, and highly evolved aliens being taken as “God” was hardly even a metaphor; he believed that the vastness of the cosmos, the enormity of time, and evolution taken as a fact would inevitably yield those beings who had progressed from the need of crude biological bodies for encasing minds and emerged “into beings of pure energy and spirit.” Philosophically, there’s nothing new here either. Kubrick’s concept is Gnostic in its elevation of the mind and denigration of the body and is also a twist on Ludwig Feuerbach’s theory that God is only a projection of human need and desire. The difference is that Feuerbach insisted “God” was only in our understanding, while Kubrick (among others) thought the aliens could really exist.

Several science fiction films have followed Kubrick’s example of imagining aliens as god-like saviors, including Cocoon (1985), Contact (1997), Interstellar (2014), and Arrival (2016). Like 2001, these movies avoid monotheism and ignore the gospel in their artistic expressions of the quest for transcendence, as did the pagan poets before them. They too are expressions of the desire to re-enchant the world through modern myths. But along with Kubrick’s masterpiece they are also reminders that we live in a God-haunted world and, however post-Christian it may be, our culture cannot rid itself of the innate human desire to seek the transcendent meaning of our existence. Despite the inadequacies of Kubrick’s projected worldview, it still encouraged a sensibility of wonder. Perhaps, then, what really may have been going on for at least some viewers of 2001 is that God, as C. S. Lewis suggested, was using the film to poke us in the subconscious. I first saw Kubrick’s film when I was fifteen and going through my brief period of affected atheism. It was then that God was at work in my mind, “using such images as He found there” to prod me toward him.