Friday, November 28, 2008

Thoughts on Carl Sagan

"I believe it is very difficult to know who we are until we understand where and when we are."

This is the first thing that caught my attention in Carl Sagan's The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God, and it is a question that I am still not equipped to answer. When and Where are we? If Carl Sagan does not know, how in the world am I going to figure this out? Thankfully, Sagan spends the rest of the lectures trying to put this in context. His conclusion is to exclaim: How short-sighted we are! That is the most shocking and wonderful conclusion that I could have expected from this random impulse buy - and it is something I cannot stop thinking about, though I am no closer to drawing my own conclusion.

Sagan asks us to think about three things: 1) our smallness, 2) our lack of imagination, and 3) coming to terms with our limits. It is the second and third conclusion that interested me the most. After all, the first, our smallness, is something everyone has pondered while looking at the stars. "Many religions," writes Sagan, "have attempted to make statues of their gods very large... We need only look up if we wish to feel small." (28) It is the natural human tendency to bite and claw our way to a grander importance - a type of vainglory for our species. Sagan sees this in the conservative Christian assertion that shortens the history of Earth eons to concord with the time line of the Bible: "The shorter the age of the Earth, the greater the relative role of humans in the history of the Earth." (39)

This is a solid conclusion, but it is not the reason I am returning to this idea. He focuses more on our lack of imagination, in both secular and religious understandings of our surroundings. We have locked ourselves and, more importantly, God in a terrestrial plane of existence. This is true "...whether [or not] we have any idea of the possible range of life, of what could be elsewhere." (67) After all, "[t]he universe is not responsive to our ambitious expectations." (37)

My! That is a concept! If we remove ourselves from the center of the universe, then we become incidental - much like any character in any novel by Camus. Nothing matters beyond this search for more. This existential break was not something I was expecting from Sagan; however, it was a short lived interlude.

What does this mean for human history? I believe that Carl Sagan offers some ideas, but was unable or unwilling to stand behind any of them. He writes, "Extinction is forever. Extinction undermines the human enterprise. Extinction makes pointless the activities of all of our ancestors..." (204). This calls to mind something that C.S. Lewis addresses in From the Silent Planet, in which the notion that humans want to explore other planets because they seek to preserve their species, is ridiculed for being short-sighted. The beings of Malacandra see the extinction of their species as an inevitable part of life, and that no being or species was meant to last forever. This is exactly the point Sagan is making!

So, what is his conclusion and why have I wasted your time talking about this book?

"Tradition is a precious thing, a kind of distillation of tens or hundreds of thousands of generations of humans." (191) What an interesting notion for someone who constantly pushes us to look to the future! The implications of this are not immediately apparent - at least they weren't for me. The search for answers is an exercise that naturally forces us to look upwards, says Sagan. As someone whose main efforts are political or philosophical in nature (at least that is what like to tell myself), this is a hard pill to swallow. I focus inwards, brainwards, but Sagan is telling us that the quest cannot happen without upward motion.

What if, in the above quote, the word "tradition" is replaced with "history"? History, human history, becomes something valuable and is what roots us in time, our when. Remembering that "Extinction is the rule. Survival is the exception" (66), he does offer hope and validation to people like me - studying ourselves proves to be as valuable as studying the stars. As long as this is tempered with remembering our smallness and lack of comprehension (something that seems to be cured by a quick look at the stars), the study of tradition, or, as I would have it, history, places our humanity in terms of where and when. And that is the ultimate goal.

Curses! All Sagan did was pose a new question, that I never thought about before, and offer no real answers. New question - no answers - blah!

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