By Calvin J.
Like many during the Christmas break, I embraced my inner hermit; spending most of my time under the hypnotizing control of a free, 1 month, Netflix subscription. But what caught my attention was not the mesmerizing lists upon lists of newly released tv-shows and movies, but rather a single show in particular, The OA. For those who aren’t familiar, the series centres on the life of Prairie Johnson (or the OA as she likes to be called) who was once blind but now can miraculously see. With each chapter of her life being marked by a number of near-death experiences (NEDs), we follow her story as it weaves between her re-telling of a time when she was held prisoner by a self-proclaimed scientist, and her current search for freedom even after her escape.
The series was received with largely mixed-reviews with critics and youtubers alike either head-over-heels in love with it. Or rolling their eyes with disdain, at yet another over-rated and pretentious attempt at “artistic” story-telling (to be frank, I remain unsure as to how I ultimately feel about the series). But beyond the fan-theories, complaints about the unsatisfying and ambiguous ending, and the mesmerizing near-death CGI scenes, I found myself being pulled into the series for the same reason I was pulled into a career as a scientist. And as odd as it may seem, The OA, has allowed me to view science in a new light.
The OA deals heavily with the concept of an afterlife, as the series itself is chock-full of semi-religious imagery, from Prairie calling herself the Original Angel (aka the OA) to the reoccurring motif of re-birth (ex. Scott’s literal ressurection). The series attempts to dissect the void that bridges life and death. And without bringing in too many spoilers (I really do highly recommend you give this series a try) the show ends with 2 possible explanations, or as scientists call them, hypotheses. Either that Prairie’s story can be explained by:
- A scientific paradigm, in which she is likely suffering from PTSD after being held prisoner by a psychotic individual for 7 years. This leads her to re-imagine the universe and create a world in which she is able to provide herself a sense of reason as to why she was kidnapped, and exert some level of control over her experience as a prisoner.
- Or we choose to embrace her story completely. Her near-death experiences both prior to- and during her time being kidnapped revealed to her the existence of an afterlife and of many other dimensions beyond scientific explanation.
As the story progressed, and despite my scientific background, I grew inclined to believe in the latter, or more accurately, I wanted to believe in the latter. And as that belief grew, I was forced to re-evaluate my own perception of science. Can a scientist believe in an afterlife?
I had always been a scientist at heart, and I say that not just because I have a genuine interest in understanding how the world works, but rather, a primal, insatiable need to any and all things. How electricity works, how life evolved, how microwaves heat up my lunch. But while science can answer many things, it also comes with many limitations. It can explain how energy is consumed in our brain, how neurons signal each other through neurotransmitters, how different sensory signals such as sight and touch are integrated together in our minds to create emotions and contribute to consciousness. But it cannot explain what happens when they stop. Do we simply cease to exist, or perhaps – like in the OA – our consciousness transcends beyond this plane of existence into another?
The truth is, science is limited. Like any high school science teacher would tell you, science is a systematic approach to studying and understanding the world, it is a method of generating knowledge through hypotheses and experiments. But while we often associate science with atheism, in reality, science isn’t about atheism or religion, it only cares for evidence. So when something cannot be proven nor disproven, then it isn’t science at all, it is only a belief.
And in the world of The OA, regardless of which theory you prefer – perhaps she did make up the story due to a psychological condition or that there is truly something much greater and profound than the world we see before us – in the end, they are only beliefs. And in the context of the story itself, there is no clear evidence suggesting the legitimacy of one theory over the other. (Many argue that the books under her bed are a clear evidence for Prairie’s story being fabricated, although it is also conceivable that the books were placed there by Elias to frame her).
So like many beliefs we all hold onto in our daily lives, the truth often remains elusive. As scientists and as humans we aim to seek out truths, to find answers, to be able to explain the world not only to others but to ourselves. We seek to understand. But while some things can be approached using science, some things cannot. And in my own experience, that doesn’t make it any less “real“. Scientists are just as human as anyone else, and like any human, we all carry different beliefs and world views. Not believing in an afterlife isn’t any more “scientific” than choosing to believe in one.
I don’t consider myself to be religious, but neither do I consider myself to be an atheist. And to me, the “disappointing” season finale only works to reinforce the ambiguity of it all. Even in a fictional tv-series, the answers are never clear, leaving us to wander in a sea of possibilities. While it can frustrating trying to reconcile these seemingly incompatible ideas, I have grown to view it in a new light. As the series has shaped my view of science, so too, has my understanding of science shaped my appreciation for its conclusion-less conclusion. Sometimes, like any good scientist, we must continue searching for evidence until we are able to uncover the truth. But until then, we are all free to believe what we wish to believe, and all while we move on to explore another Netflix series.
*Images obtained from the Netflix series – The OA – Created by Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij