In the Summer of 2007, my wife, Pam, and I created a video called, "Forgotten Corner of the Universe." In September, we posted an expanded version of the script as an essay on this site. Last week, Pam put the old video on YouTube. As she was putting it up, it occurred to her that it might get more views if she put the name "Carl Sagan" in the title.
Sagan fans may have watched it, but they didn't like it. One fellow seemed particularly perturbed. He (or perhaps the society he either heads or envisions) called a "Science-Fatwa on this Gilbreath guy."
A fatwa. I've never had anyone call a fatwa against me before. It specifically calls for "Low ratings, comments and reply videos." As of this writing, there are no reply videos, only eight comments, and eight ratings giving the video 2½ stars out of five. So, as fatwas go, this one hasn't been too bad.
But, along with the other comments, it was enough to provoke my interest. I took a tour of Carl Sagan videos on YouTube. Many of the videos were creative and moving. But there was something bizarre about others. I've seen the atheistic side of atheism, but here was the religious side. Some of the videos treated Sagan's words like sacred text. The people commenting often did so with religious fervor. One person said Sagan's famous passage from Pale Blue Dot (more later) should be "recited in school instead of singing our patriotic songs." Another said, "We're recruiting for the Church Of Sagan. Blessed be the man who wears the turtleneck sweater and corduroy jacket."
Even as they loved Carl, they disdained the followers of God. "Religious folks are cockroaches." "Religion is so outdated and nonsensical." "How can Moses' stupid burning bush compare to these discoveries?"
It reminded me of a debate I watched between a prominent atheist and a Jewish rabbi. At one point, the rabbi pointed out what a cold, sad world it would be without God. The atheist retorted something along the lines of, "It's the truth that matters, not how it makes you feel."
Until that moment, it had been the atheist, not the rabbi, appealing to emotion as opposed to reason. He's the one who had been playing to the crowd, and the crowd had been loving it — yelling, rejoicing, roaring as if they were watching their team win a football game in a blowout. They reminded me of the simple young man in Proverbs 7, following his seducer "as an ox goeth to the slaughter . . . knowing not that it is for his life."
The college crowd seemed full of ecstasy. There is a certain freedom in nothingness, but if you're not really nothing, it turns out to be what Burt Lancaster's character in "Birdman of Alcatraz" called, "the illusion of freedom."
Pale Blue Dot
In 1990, when the Voyager I spacecraft had done those things for which it was primarily created and was on its way out of our solar system, NASA scientists aimed it back in our direction and took a picture of earth from that distant vantage point. By then, so many movies, books, television shows, and sermons had called the earth "a speck of dust," it had become a cliche. With Voyager's photograph, it ceased to be a cliche in our minds and became real.
Here's what Carl Sagan wrote:
Look again at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward . . . every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there. . . . Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. . . . Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.
Sagan possessed many gifts, but he was ultimately a teacher. Here he taught us to have a cosmic perspective. He was much concerned about humanity's ability to survive this "the present age." He hoped that by showing how small we are, he could show us the relative insignificance of the sources of our quarrels, thus discouraging the use of war.
"Step back and get the big picture" is always good advice. Encouraging humans to solve their problems peacefully is a good thing.
The problem is with Sagan's underlying assumption — that physical size is the ultimate measure of worth. For instance, "economic doctrine" has a great deal to do with human suffering, fulfillment, and justice. To diminish its importance because we’re located on what looks from far away like "a pale blue dot" diminishes the importance of human suffering, fulfillment, and justice — in other words, diminishes us.
As he lays out the story, teachers of morals seem quaint and a little silly. Why? Because the earth is small compared to the solar system (which is small compared to the Milky Way, which is small compared to the universe). Humans are physically tiny, he reasons, so how can a religion or ideology be confident? Never mind that, even with these words, he is confidently espousing an ideology.
"Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light."
Isn't it interesting how wording influences our feelings? If we hear "imagined self- importance," we recoil, thinking of stuffy people who take everything, especially themselves, too seriously. But if we hear that love is meaningful or that family is good, most of us say, "Of course." The "self" he's referring to in "self-importance" is our collective importance. He's talking about the importance of people and says it's only imagined.
How does he know our importance is only imagined? Because when your space ship is far enough away, earth looks like a dot.
In the video, I said Sagan chose words designed to make us "feel small." One person commented, "We ARE small, and yes, our planet IS insignificant when you are able to understand the vastness of our universe."
We are small compared to galaxies and large compared to quarks. What does either one have to do with significance or worth? Size words like large and small only have meaning relative to other things. Here is a person convinced "the vastness of our universe" proves "our planet IS insignificant." I wonder what significant means in such thinking. Big?
Significant to Whom?
In the Cosmos quote used in the video, Sagan says, "If we long for our planet to be important, there is something we can do about it." That's an amazing statement — truly a mystical leap. If earth's not already important, what could we possibly do that could change things?
His answer is even more amazing. "We make our world significant by the courage of our questions and by the depth of our answers."
To whom are we making it significant? It's already significant to human beings. We live here! Who out there is going to be impressed with the courage of our questions? God? Sagan was an agnostic.
I believe he emphasized our smallness because he saw that concept as an antidote to theistic faith, especially Christianity, which he saw as dangerous.
He worked to diminish us in our own eyes for an especially noble cause — peace. In many ways, Carl Sagan's Pale Blue Dot is reminiscent of John Lennon's "Imagine."
Imagine there's no Heaven . . . No hell . . . No countries . . . Nothing to kill or die for. And no religion too.
So imagine . . . imagine nothing to die for. Imagine a world where nothing is of enough value for you to lay down your life for it. Imagine children not important enough to fight for, should it come to that. Imagine a cold existence where your ultimate value is set by the society you live in, or by feelings of pretend worth you are able to muster up within yourself, or by the size of your planet relative to the size of the cosmos.
It's easy if you try. But it's not pretty.
Originally Posted: 5-30-2008 / modified on 4-27-2013
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