Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Carl Sagan Was Naive

In chapter one of The God Delusion Richard Dawkins quotes Carl Sagan in an effort to demonstrate how science and scientific knowledge provide a better platform for awe and wonder than does religious faith. Before getting to the quotation, I wish to reflect a bit on the deceased Mr. Sagan.

Surely you remember him, do you not? He co-wrote and hosted the television series Cosmos which first aired on PBS in 1980. Sagan did much to popularize science, including several books, essays, the television show noted above, and frequent television appearances. He was known for his belief that extra-terrestrial life existed in the universe and for his efforts to bring about its discovery. In addition he was a political activist, being one of the first to advocate the theory of a nuclear winter taking place in the aftermath of a nuclear war and also an early advocate of the idea of man-made global warming. His leftist activism led to his arrest on more than one occasion.

But Sagan was also a noted and accomplished astronomer. He was one of the first to postulate that the surface of Venus was mostly hot and arid. He conjectured that Jupiter's moon Europa might have sub-surface oceans, a theory that was later indirectly confirmed by the spacecraft Galileo. By most measures Sagan led a full, active, and productive life.

But enough of that.

Sagan was a pantheist. I remember about two years ago they were airing those old episodes of Cosmos on the Discovery Science channel. I vaguely remembered having seen some of those shows as an adolescent. Intrigued, I watched several of them in a row. Sagan, I noted, had a gift for teaching, for making complex ideas understandable. I laughed at his hairstyle and clothing which were reminiscent of the time-period. I was enjoying myself and, yes, learning. Then came the episode where Sagan was discussing the Big Bang theory. Though Sagan did not mention this in the show, I happened to know that some scientists are a bit uncomfortable with one aspect of the Big Bang theory (and this is why it was slow in ascending to supremacy among the physicists at the time of its first being postulated), specifically that the Big Bang points back to a beginning of time and matter. This idea supports theism--not pantheism. Pantheists view matter and the universe as eternal--having no beginning or ending. Most scientists are pantheists.

So anyway, in this certain episode which I am recalling Sagan takes us to India to show us a religious world-view which he could support--pantheism. He did not name it as such, but I wasn't born yesterday and I knew where he was going with it. Then, he goes on to postulate that the universe is eternal, that it is an endless cycle of expansions and retractions. Right now, the universe is expanding; one day it will begin retracting. Then, when it is back to square one, bang, it starts all over again. His evidence for this? The Brahman religion.

I'm not kidding. That was all the evidence he cited. This was compatible with what the ancient Brahmans believed.

And the facts involved, the experimentation, the logic used to prompt me to accept Brahman pantheism over, say, Christian theism? All he gave was a simple, "Why not?"

That's it. And, yes, that passed for logic and science and sound reasoning in Carl Sagan's world.


But enough of my television memories. Let's get to that Sagan quotation in Dawkins' book. Here it is:

"How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, 'This is better than we thought! The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant'? Instead they say, 'No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way.' A religion, old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the Universe as revealed by modern science might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths."--Carl Sagan as quoted by Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, paperback, p.32,33.

You know, my knee-jerk reaction to that quotation is to ask, "What has this guy been smoking?" Turns out my knee-jerk reaction may hit closer to home than you might imagine. Sagan was, indeed, a child of his times and once wrote an essay (under a pseudonym) defending the use of cannabis in a book entitled Marihuana Reconsidered. In the essay he credits the mari-hoochie for helping to inspire some of his works and for enhancing sensual and intellectual experiences. Suddenly I know where the inspiration for this particular quotation came from. The only thing left to learn is whether it was rolled in paper or inhaled through a bong.

But that's too easy, isn't it?

In a near-future post look for me to rip Sagan's naive statement and Dawkins' gullible embracing of it in his book. It is amazing to me how these guys can make such ignorant assertions and still try to pass themselves off as the epitome of logic and reason.

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