Thursday, June 7, 2007

The Eternally Curious Carl Sagan

This essay is included in my book. Here is a video of my taking a tour of the Carl Sagan Pavilion in Second Life while reading the essay aloud: 


Click a book cover to see its page.

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Sagan describing how the Earth and every living thing is made of "star stuff", a beautiful and poetic tribute to the majesty of natural evolution: 


Sagan speaking about the lost Library of Alexandria, the forgotten halls of collected wisdom that was destroyed:

I also mention Neil deGrasse Tyson in the video, the man who gave Sagan's eulogy and is doing an excellent job as his successor. Click an image for more information.

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Neil deGrasse Tyson humorously debunks "intelligent design": 

Neil deGrasse Tyson described the retreat of "god" from cosmology over the centuries: 

Neil deGrasse Tyson describing how he grew up as a "nerd who could kick your butt", and about how much he learned about science as a kid, but ultimately learned about compassion and humanity through art: 

 Part II of above. This guy is not only brilliant, he is hilarious


Essay Text

The bounds of my curiosity and creativity were stirred time and again by Carl Sagan's Cosmos series on public television. My uncle would sit down with me and watch the program whenever it came on when it first ran. Later, he would rent episodes when I was older. Now, both of us own the DVD collection. This program, more than anything I learned directly in school, expanded the boundaries of my mind and made me aware of the very long history of scientific discovery, the majesty of outer space, and the mystery of organic life on our planet. I can remember laying in bed in the morning, looking out the window at the tree branches swaying in the breeze and perplexing my mind with questions like, "What if nothing ever existed?" To paraphrase Albert Einstein:

It was a thought that my mind could not grasp.

Trying to think it left my mind fixated on attempting to conceptualize "nothing" for a second or two, before thoughts would jump forth and ruin the entire mental experiment, much to my dismay. A few years ago, my mother gave me a copy of Sagan's 1996 book "The Demon Haunted World: Science as Candle in The Dark." Sagan wrote this book on his death bed in an attempt to awaken Americans from their growing credulity and willingness to accept inadequate evidence for extravagant claims about physical reality. This book shook me awake during a turbulent time. Reading his elegant, respectful, and learned prose felt like a good friend watching me doze off and just coming up behind me and shaking my shoulder and saying, "Come on man, wake up, we've got work to do." And so we do.

Respect for People Seeking Truth, Criticism for Beliefs
Sagan has a new book on shelves now, ten years after his death. The book is entitled "The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God". The book is named after William James' famous "The Varieties of Religious Experience" published after he was invited to give the Gifford Lectures. I have just completed reading Sagan's new book and enjoyed it very much.

As an author and a speaker, I can't recall Sagan ever acting as a stubborn dogmatist. Instead, he was a true scientist who kept his ideas and his mind open for revision. Along with that, what I remember most now, more than 25 years after watching his Cosmos series initially and 10 years since his death, are his kindness, elegance, unparalleled intellect, and extremely approachable personality.

Rarely did he speak explicit ill of ancient, outmoded or disproved cultural and traditional beliefs, but instead sought understanding first. Achieving that, he would attempt to extract some kind of lesson or symbolic meaning from them, all while continuing to stand tall and steadfastly on the side of patient scientific inquiry and reverent agnosticism. This respect that he had for people who sought truth did not compel him to place all claims to truth on equal footing. He was respectful to belief-holders even while disagreeing with and dismantling their stated beliefs, sometimes before their very eyes. To be able to do this consistently as he did while never intentionally belittling the belief-holder is no small accomplishment.

Patience with People
Some scientists are criticized for having a narrow focus of knowledge, and this can sometimes make them come across as impatient or incredulous with the lay public that doesn't understand their subject as well. But, Sagan was not like that in his interaction with the public. He recognized that in order for them to be interested in what he had to say then he had to be interested in what they chose to ask. After all, does not every human being, along the way to running a marathon, first have to learn to stand and walk? Sagan was able to look at each individual in this light. He correctly recognized that a question that may be trivially easy for him or another astronomer or scientist to answer was obviously not trivially tp figure out by the person asking, since if it were it would not have been asked.

In "The Demon Haunted World" and "The Varieties of Scientific Experience" he expands his criticism of beliefs formed by credulity and for supernaturalistic explanations for phenomena in the world. All he did was ask for evidence of claims. That is it. And, of course, that is what science itself boils down to. Science must be open to revision and modification when new ideas, hypotheses, experiments, and eventually theories come along that lay waste to previous scientific models. Scientists attempt to reach for truth, but recognize that they may never have an absolute grasp of it.

This reaching uncertainty is embodied in the idea of falsifiability, or the idea that for an hypothesis to be scientific then it must be logically possible to produce evidence to prove that it is false. I cannot disprove the contention that an invisible dragon created the earth. This does not mean it's likely that such an event took place. This way of thinking about the world, since the days of Copernicus, has put many a people like Sagan at odds with the dogmatist religious leaders of the world. It has lead to the forced excommunication, ostracization, and even death of many.

The dogmatist knows all the answers. He or she accepts no criticism and opens no ears. Merely questioning the dogmatist amounts to overt and intolerable criticism ipso facto in his or her mind. The dogmatist listens to no questions and throws all criticism to the scrap heap.

The true scientist has more questions than answers. He or she explicitly seeks criticism and opens ears to others. Strong questions about the scientist's ideas afford opportunities to confirm or deny their validity. The scientist must accept questions and readily understands that he or she may be forced to throw cherished ideas to the scrap heap.

Sagan was a true scientist. He was a man who admitted ignorance. He was a man who outright admitted, time after time, that he did not know everything. He was a man who invited those around him and the audiences who read his books or watched his programs to join him on their own intellectual journeys of discovery. He invited them to join in conversation. Unlike the dogmatist, he had his ears open and was changed by the words of his friends, colleagues, and detractors alike. The fundamentalist dogmatists, whether they be televangelists, new age gurus, political pundits, or even other scientists, keep trotting out their old lines, day after day, week after week, condemning questioners as "ungodly", "ignorant" or "unenlightened". He strongly criticized fundamentalist interpretations of Christianity that revere the Bible as a document that is absolutely true with every syllable dictated by the creator of the universe.

Yet, the scientist, like Jesus Christ of the Gospels, continually questions the establishment.

Sagan was a man who was not afraid to reveal to the world the wonders and the joys of scientific discovery which would force people to question their assumptions and beliefs. He had to stand up to some powerful and vocal detractors and take some heat to do so in some cases, but he had a faith of his own. His faith in this case means "belief held with strong conviction". He believed that by educating the public with the message of science and discovery that he could help change the future for the better. More importantly, he sought to educate people in critical thinking, teaching them to use their minds to employ the "baloney-detection kit" power tools of juxtaposition and analogy to reason and think through extravagant claims made by other people.

The dogmatist instructs people on what to think, but doesn't teach them how to think for themselves. People like Sagan try to show people how to go about thinking about things by using critical thought. They encourage people to think for themselves.

Thank you to my family for giving me the opportunity to think for myself and thank you to scientists and Carl Sagan for your continued efforts at reaching toward truth even as it remains every slightly just out of reach.

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