Ridley Scott’s The Martian is a splendidly told tale of survival and pluck, reminiscent of the novel Robinson Crusoe and the films Life of Pi and Castaway. In this case, the hero is Mark Watney, an astronaut on a mission to Mars who is left behind by his crewmates when he is presumed dead after being lost during a devastating storm. Through sheer determination and an extraordinary application of his scientific know-how, Watney manages to survive. For example, realizing that his food supplies would run out long before a rescue mission could ever reach him, he endeavors to produce water and, through some creative fertilizing, grow an impressive crop of potatoes. At another critical juncture in the narrative, as his life hangs in the balance, Watney says, “I’ll just have to science the s*** out of this!”
In time, NASA officials, through a careful observation of surveillance photos, realize that Watney is still alive and they attempt to contact him. Some of the most thrilling and emotionally moving scenes in the film have to do with these initial communications across tens of millions of miles. Eventually, the crew who left him behind discover that he is alive and they contrive, with all of their strength and intelligence, to get him back. The film ends (spoiler alert!), with the now somewhat grizzled Watney back on earth, lecturing a class of prospective astronauts on the indispensability of practical scientific intelligence: “You solve one problem and then another and then another; and if you solve enough of them, you get to come home.” This summary speech communicates what appears to be the central theme of the movie: the beauty and power of the technical knowledge the sciences provide.
But I would like to explore another theme that is implicit throughout the film, namely, the inviolable dignity of the individual human being. The circumstances are certainly unique and Watney himself is undoubtedly an impressive person, but it remains nevertheless strange that people would move heaven and earth, spend millions of dollars, and in the case of the original crew, risk their lives in order to rescue this one man. If a clever, friendly, and exquisitely trained dog had been left behind on Mars, everyone would have felt bad, but no one, I think it’s fair to say, would have endeavored to go back for it. Now why is this the case? Much hinges upon how one answers that question.
The classical Christian tradition, with its roots in the Bible, would argue that there is a qualitative and not merely quantitative difference between human beings and other animals, that a human being is decidedly not simply an extremely clever ape. Unlike anything else in the material creation, we have been made, the Scriptures hold, according to God’s image and likeness, and this imaging has been construed by most of the masters of the theological tradition as a function of our properly spiritual capacities of mind and will.
With The Martian in mind, let me focus on the first of these. Like other animals, humans can take in the material world through sense experience, and they can hold those images in memory. But unlike any other animal, even the most intelligent, humans can engage in properly abstract thinking. In other words, they can think, not only about this or that particular state of affairs, but about fundamental patterns—what the medieval called “forms”—that make things what they are. The sciences—both theoretical and practical—depend upon and flow from precisely this kind of cogitation. But truly abstract thinking, which goes beyond any particularity grounded in matter, demonstrates that the principle of such reflection is not reducible to matter, that it has an immaterial or spiritual quality. And this implies that the mind or the soul survives the dissolution of the body, that it links us to the dimension of God. Plato showed this in a simple but compelling manner. When the mind entertains an abstract truth, say that 2 + 3 = 5, it has in a very real way left behind the world of shifting impressions and evanescent memories; it has, to use his still haunting metaphor, slipped free of the cave and entered a realm of light. And this explains why the very science so celebrated by The Martian is also the solution to the moral puzzle at the heart of the film. We will go to the ends of the universe to save an endangered person, precisely because we realize, inchoately or otherwise, that there is something uniquely precious about him or her. We know in our bones that in regard to a human being something eternal is at stake.
In the context of what Pope Francis has called our “throwaway culture,” where the individual human being is often treated as a means to an end, or worse, as an embarrassment or an annoyance to be disposed of, this is a lesson worth relearning.