“Top Down” or “Bottom Up” Knowledge?

The other night I watched the animated movie Smallfoot with my kids. It didn’t pique our interest enough to see it in theater, but looked decent enough to spend a few dollars to rent. While I often write about kids’ movies and their underlying worldviews, this one took a more explicit shot at religion.

The movie has an impressive lineup with late night personality James Corden, Danny DeVito, and others. There are some moral lessons along the way about things like integrity, honesty, and friendship. But the stand out feature of the film was a sustained attack on what I will describe as “top down” knowledge.

A species of bigfoots live on the peak of a mountain where their leaders have created legends and laws to keep them from seeking the truth, specifically going below the clouds that separate them from humanity. They’ve carved these laws into stone, and every generation has a stone master who can interpret the stones and even write new ones.

A small group of bigfoots, however, have banned together to explore clues about a species known as smallfoots, what turn out to be humans, living below. The group calls themself the S.E.S., the Smallfoot Evidentiary Society. They eventually go below the clouds to find the truth. You can call this “bottom up” knowledge.

I don’t want to pick apart the details too much, but it seems to me like this contrast between knowledge from above and below is central to the creation of the film. For example, the stones contain a creation myth about how their island came from a Yak’s butt and is supported by mammoths below. At one point a character asks what holds the mammoths up, to which another responds, “It’s just mammoths all the way down!”

It’s easy enough to see how silly the stone writings are in the story, given the way they are presented. But this creates a bit of a straw man argument for the view of religious revelation, or top down knowledge. The important thing in the movie, is to ask questions and look for evidence, not to depend upon the stone writings.

So, here’s two quick problems with this approach. First, where might it end? If each claim has to have some sort of physical evidence to back it up, we can always ask for more evidence for every new answer, couldn’t we? To be consistent, we could always require more evidence for every bit of evidence that was used as evidence. If you are to be evidentiary, and be consistent, where might the chain of evidence end? At some point the person would have to refer to some deeper explanation for which they couldn’t necessarily give evidences, something like “It’s just mammals all the way down” or “the Cosmos is all that is.”

Second, the fact that the bigfoots went down the mountain doesn’t really answer their ultimate questions. This evidence approach is juxtaposed with the stone writings, and the silly ideas of the world coming into existence from a Yak’s butt. While we might miss this with the elementary humor, it is set up to say, “Here’s a crazy way of seeing the world” and “Here’s a better more evidentiary way to the see the world.”

Even though the bigfoots find humans, they still haven’t found an explanation for how their world came into being, what is the meaning of life, why shouldn’t they just eat the little pink people at the base of their mountain, and so on. While this movie might slap at religious explanations, it smuggles in a religious view of its own, namely a view of knowledge that requires physical verification, a view that cannot ultimately support itself. It’s just mammals all the way down.

This bottom up approach can describe the physical world, but it will always be devoid of any ultimate explanations, of where we came from, why all this seems to matter, and how we might have hope. For that, we need information to also come “top down.” We need revelation. We need God to come to us.

Come to think of it, that’s kind of what this time of year is all about it, isn’t it? That’s why we need not devalue “bottom up” information, or science, or evidence. We just recognize that our meaning and our purpose comes from somewhere else.