A Universe Not Made For Us: Carl Sagan on religion, geocentrism

I’d like to share this with you, even though some may choose to take the words of a celebrated, successful, and dead  person as a threat to their perspective. If you are open to what he had to say, you may notice the open nature of the use of may. His words on subjectivity, may not be viewed as a shut down, but as a warning.

via haveabit.com

A Universe Not Made for Us

Video by Callum Sutherland

Our ancestors understood origins by extrapolating from their own experience. How else could they have done it? So the Universe was hatched from a cosmic egg, or conceived in the sexual congress of a mother god and a father god, or was a kind of product of the Creator’s workshop—perhaps the latest of many flawed attempts. And the Universe was not much bigger than we see, and not much older than our written or oral records, and nowhere very different from places that we know.

We’ve tended in our cosmologies to make things familiar. Despite all our best efforts, we’ve not been very inventive. In the West, Heaven is placid and fluffy, and Hell is like the inside of a volcano. In many stories, both realms are governed by dominance hierarchies headed by gods or devils. Monotheists talked about the king of kings. In every culture we imagined something like our own political system running the Universe. Few found the similarity suspicious.

Then science came along and taught us that we are not the measure of all things, that there are wonders unimagined, that the Universe is not obliged to conform to what we consider comfortable or plausible. We have learned something about the idiosyncratic nature of our common sense. Science has carried human self-consciousness to a higher level. This is surely a rite of passage, a step towards maturity. It contrasts starkly with the childishness and narcissism of our pre-Copernican notions.

And, again, if we’re not important, not central, not the apple of God’s eye, what is implied for our theologically based moral codes? The discovery of our true bearings in the Cosmos was resisted for so long and to such a degree that many traces of the debate remain, sometimes with the motives of the geocentrists laid bare.

What do we really want from philosophy and religion? Palliatives? Therapy? Comfort? Do we want reassuring fables or an understanding of our actual circumstances? Dismay that the Universe does not conform to our preferences seems childish. You might think that grown-ups would be ashamed to put such disappointments into print. The fashionable way of doing this is not to blame the Universe—which seems truly pointless—but rather to blame the means by which we know the Universe, namely science.

Science has taught us that, because we have a talent for deceiving ourselves, subjectivity may not freely reign.

Its conclusions derive from the interrogation of Nature, and are not in all cases predesigned to satisfy our wants.

We recognize that even revered religious leaders, the products of their time as we are of ours, may have made mistakes. Religions contradict one another on small matters, such as whether we should put on a hat or take one off on entering a house of worship, or whether we should eat beef and eschew pork or the other way around, all the way to the most central issues, such as whether there are no gods, one God, or many gods.

If you lived two or three millennia ago, there was no shame in holding that the Universe was made for us. It was an appealing thesis consistent with everything we knew; it was what the most learned among us taught without qualification. But we have found out much since then. Defending such a position today amounts to willful disregard of the evidence, and a flight from self-knowledge.

We long to be here for a purpose, even though, despite much self-deception, none is evident.

Our time is burdened under the cumulative weight of successive debunkings of our conceits: We’re Johnny-come-latelies. We live in the cosmic boondocks. We emerged from microbes and muck. Apes are our cousins. Our thoughts and feelings are not fully under our own control. There may be much smarter and very different beings elsewhere. And on top of all this, we’re making a mess of our planet and becoming a danger to ourselves.

The trapdoor beneath our feet swings open. We find ourselves in bottomless free fall. We are lost in a great darkness, and there’s no one to send out a search party. Given so harsh a reality, of course we’re tempted to shut our eyes and pretend that we’re safe and snug at home, that the fall is only a bad dream.

Once we overcome our fear of being tiny, we find ourselves on the threshold of a vast and awesome Universe that utterly dwarfs—in time, in space, and in potential—the tidy anthropocentric proscenium of our ancestors. We gaze across billions of light-years of space to view the Universe shortly after the Big Bang, and plumb the fine structure of matter. We peer down into the core of our planet, and the blazing interior of our star. We read the genetic language in which is written the diverse skills and propensities of every being on Earth. We uncover hidden chapters in the record of our own origins, and with some anguish better understand our nature and prospects. We invent and refine agriculture, without which almost all of us would starve to death. We create medicines and vaccines that save the lives of billions. We communicate at the speed of light, and whip around the Earth in an hour and a half. We have sent dozens of ships to more than seventy worlds, and four spacecraft to the stars.

To our ancestors there was much in Nature to be afraid of—lightning, storms, earthquakes, volcanos, plagues, drought, long winters. Religions arose in part as attempts to propitiate and control, if not much to understand, the disorderly aspect of Nature.

How much more satisfying had we been placed in a garden custom-made for us, its other occupants put there for us to use as we saw fit. There is a celebrated story in the Western tradition like this, except that not quite everything was there for us. There was one particular tree of which we were not to partake, a tree of knowledge. Knowledge and understanding and wisdom were forbidden to us in this story. We were to be kept ignorant. But we couldn’t help ourselves. We were starving for knowledge—created hungry, you might say. This was the origin of all our troubles. In particular, it is why we no longer live in a garden: We found out too much. So long as we were incurious and obedient, I imagine, we could console ourselves with our importance and centrality, and tell ourselves that we were the reason the Universe was made. As we began to indulge our curiosity, though, to explore, to learn how the Universe really is, we expelled ourselves from Eden. Angels with a flaming sword were set as sentries at the gates of Paradise to bar our return. The gardeners became exiles and wanderers. Occasionally we mourn that lost world, but that, it seems to me, is maudlin and sentimental. We could not happily have remained ignorant forever.

There is in this Universe much of what seems to be design.

But instead, we repeatedly discover that natural processes—collisional selection of worlds, say, or natural selection of gene pools, or even the convection pattern in a pot of boiling water—can extract order out of chaos, and deceive us into deducing purpose where there is none.

The significance of our lives and our fragile planet is then determined only by our own wisdom and courage. We are the custodians of life’s meaning. We long for a Parent to care for us, to forgive us our errors, to save us from our childish mistakes. But knowledge is preferable to ignorance. Better by far to embrace the hard truth than a reassuring fable.

If we crave some cosmic purpose, then let us find ourselves a worthy goal.

  • http://2012diaries.blogspot.com/ tristan eldritch

    A few points. Number 1: the scientific worldview which Sagan proposes that we all accept as the hard but noble truth develops its view of the cosmos in precisely the same way which he describes our ancestors forming their view of the cosmos: by extrapolating from our social experience. Our ancestors lived in a world which was focused on the animate, organic, biological, or living world; hence their understanding of the universe was as a living thing, born in a crucible of biological and sexual metaphors. The modern world, beginning in the industrial age, lives increasingly in a world of inanimate mechanical technology; hence it too begins to extrapolate from its social experience, and understand the world as an inanimate, blind, rule-driven entity, and in the longer scale understand living entities as gene-replicating machines, brains as computers, and so forth. Sagan comments: “Monotheists talked about the king of kings. In every culture we imagined
    something like our own political system running the Universe. Few found
    the similarity suspicious.” Yes, just as few today find it suspicious that when we scrapped the old social structure of static hierarchies and inherited privilege which informed the classical and Medieval Great Chain of Being, we very quickly discovered a new picture of the natural world which also perfectly models our new social structure: Darwinian evolution. That is, instead of inherited privilege, social mobility becomes possible (the species become mutable and subject to change over time); the position of individuals is no longer defined by birth but by commercial competition in a free market (the form the species take is defined by competition for natural resources or the struggle for survival), with the whole system being overseen and kept in equilibrium by a blind, self-regulating entity, in Darwin’s scheme Natural Selection, and in Adam Smith’s metaphor for the market “the invisible hand.” The point being that we are always extrapolating from our direct social experience and projecting our culture’s dominant metaphors onto the universe, and as such, we may not be wiser than our ancestors to the extent that Sagan supposes, his pose of humility notwithstanding.
    Eh, that first point took a little longer than expected, might come back to this later.

  • HCE

    Nobody really has a clue what in the hell is going on. It’s all poorly informed guesses.

    Am I threatened by Science? No, just irritated by the New Fundamentalism.

  • http://2012diaries.blogspot.com/ tristan eldritch

    Number 2: “Science has carried human self-consciousness to a higher
    level. This is surely a rite of passage, a step towards maturity. It contrasts starkly
    with the childishness and narcissism of our pre-Copernican notions.”
    The idea that the pre-Copernican worldview was some kind of narcissistic
    ego-trip for our dumb-ass ancestors is a very common misconception that
    just doesn’t bare historical scrutiny. The geocentric view of the
    world was not devised to make people feel important and good about
    themselves – it was simply arrived at by making the best in a
    proto-scientific manner of very limited obsevations and misguided common
    sense. If we actually go back and read classical and medieval authors,
    we find that their view of earth’s insignificance in the greater scheme
    of things was essentially similar to our own. In Cicero’s Dream of
    Scipio, having been carried up to the apex of the geocentric cosmos by
    Africanus, Scipio comments: “but the spheres of the stars easily
    surpassed the earth in magnitude—already the earth itself appeared to me so small, that it grieved me to think of our empire, with which we cover but a point, as
    it were, of its surface.” In a similar sequence in Chaucer’s Troilus
    and Criseyde, Troilus’ calls the earth “a spec of dirt”. Dante, when
    viewing the earth from the Sphere of the Fixed Stars laughs at its
    diminutive size. The point is that Sagan’s narrative of us great
    moderns discovering cosmic humility after the narcissistic folly of our
    ancestors is self-congratulatory and historically simplistic to the
    point of being basically false.

    • Gjallarbru

      Sagan wishes everything to be reduced to the material, so it is to be expected that he should have shuch a world view.

      And you did an excellent job at making your two points. It was a pleasure to read your text.

  • Gjallarbru

    In mistery schools, it is thought that one way of achieving gnosis is to unite the opposites.

    What religion and materialists are doing are separating the opposites. Both argue which is better, belitteling each other at every turn. Often turning to insults when arguements won’t work. Even threaths aren’t too much, in particular for threats of being damned in hell.

    What if the truth is the middle. A truth were science tempers spirituality’s pretentions ot grandure, and spirituality humbles science’s claims of certainty. What if truth only appears when unite both a materialist science with the understanding of spirituality.

    If that were so, we would have to way still for a serious study of the mind and what exactly is consciousness. We wouldn’t have fruitless debates where neither parties are truly interested in anything but “converting” each other.

    I love science for what it does and the answers it brings. I also know that I’m more than the sum of my parts, and that science will explain my conscousness since it is and alway will be a subjective experience. Science having it’s limits, I resort to other means.

    So I say that Sagan is not offending my world view, he represent one of the opposites which I must reconcile. As a representant of one of the opposites, I also say his view is inherently incomplete.

    • echar

      Thank you. I can’t tell you enough how happy I am to read this comment.

      • Gjallarbru

        Well, thank you for your gratitude!

        Yeah, I just wish I had cought many typing/grammar mistakes. English being a second language, it demands a greater effort of me to avoid mistakes and remain coherent.

        • echar

          You are welcome. We all make mistakes. Thankfully there is an edit option.

    • Cortacespedes

      “That is precisely what common sense is for, to be jarred into uncommon sense.”

  • Len

    Neil Degrasse Tyson has some large, evolved consciousness, shoes to fill. I wish him well.

  • PrimateZero

    Thanks for the post, Brother Elias. It’s shame too many people feel threatened by skeptical inquiry and scientific explanations. I know some skeptics and scientists can be just as dogmatic as any “true believer” but we shouldn’t throw it all out because we find it inconvenient to our favorite beliefs, superstitions, and theories. An open mind is fine but it’s always good to keep ourselves a little grounded.

  • http://2012diaries.blogspot.com/ tristan eldritch

    Number 3. Now analyze Sagan’s central argument in the piece: that because of the weight of scientific evidence, mankind can no longer believe that the universe was made for intelligent life. Ignore for a moment the fact that theistic belief, as I understand it, holds that intelligent life is an integral part of God’s creation, which is not exactly the same as saying that the universe was created solely for intelligent life; it seems to me that Sagan is mixing metaphysics and empirical science in a very muddled fashion. Unless he has a very cogent argument that the universe was not created for intelligent life, he would be better to ignore the question as being metaphysical and irrelevant to empirical science. But does he have a cogent argument? Actually not at all. Sagan’s first point is that we are located on a very tiny planet in a very vast cosmos. So what? Sagan himself would be the first to acknowledge that we have the capacity IN THE FUTURE to explore and colonize the whole cosmos. Hence this first argument amounts to a guy saying to a father: “You mean to tell me that you built this big big house, on this big big plot of land, all for your little son there? That’s ridiculous – the little tyke never gets out of his cot!” Sagan follows up this bad argument with a series of worse non-sequiturs: “We’re Johnny-come-latelies. (This is irrelevant. If the universe were created by a trans-temporal being there is no reason to assume that intelligent life should be present from the beginning – and anyway intelligent life could have evolved elsewhere long before us.) We live in the cosmic boondocks. (This is covered in the first argument, and anyway “boondocks” is an unscientific value judgement.) We emerged
    from microbes and muck. (Again this is irrelevant and involves a strong value judgement. If we had emerged from gold, rubies, and a sea of champagne, would Sagan think it more plausible that the universe were created for intelligent life? This is just dopely shit.) Apes are our cousins. (And that’s relevant how, exactly?) Our thoughts and feelings
    are not fully under our own control. (So if human beings were a little bit more like Vulcans, Sagan would concede that perhaps the universe was created for intelligent life?) And on it goes – surely Sagan would be better to avoid metaphysics and concentrate on science, with piss poor arguments like those?

    • Gjallarbru

      On this I would say that he couldn’t avoid metaphysics, otherwise, he wouldn’t have addressed the subject at all.

      That’s the thing about being a reductionnist. As soon as you try to discuss a larger view, like one encompassing spirituality, you are bound to show your limits, and go with value judgments. That is the only thing open to you at any point in your argument.

      If you do anything else, you probably will have to admit you have no idea what you’re talking about. Hence Sagan’s choice for presenting his arguments. Science, as it stands today, cannot give Sagan arguments on spirituality as it know absolutly nothing about it, it simply ignores it.

      Outside of value judgments, there is nothing for the materialists to say.

    • mannyfurious

      It’s like you jumped into my mind and took all my thoughts and articulated them in a way that I’ve been failing to do for years.

      I am not a skeptic of the scientific method. Science has proven itself to be quite reliable in many ways.

      What I am skeptical of is how the science is interpreted. Data is often (but not always) objective, how it is interpreted is NEVER objective. You’ve revealed many of Sagan’s probably mostly unconscious biases and predispositions, which affect how he views the world.

      I look at what science tells us about the world, and I feel there are aspects that science is missing, either because those aspects are beyond the reach of science or because scientists refuse to acknowledge them. Someone like Sagan looks at what science tells us about the world and feels comfortable proclaiming that that’s all there is to it.

      I’ve always respected Sagan. I’ve learned a lot from his writing and TV appearances, but I’ve also always felt he failed miserably at applying his own skeptical guidelines (a set of guidelines I actually hold dear, myself) against his own biases.

    • gustave courbet

      Good points.

  • heinrich6666

    Tristan Eldritch has some good comments below. Despite what Brother Elias says, being a ‘threat’ to one’s perspective is not the only basis for criticizing Sagan here.

    I offer two quick take-aways from the Sagan excerpt.

    1. The assumption that the worldview of scientists is only the product of empirical facts is highly problematic. The same empirical facts do admit different interpretations, as Eldritch’s #3 shows below. More than that, however, the scientific worldview is not ahistorical. Sagan’s Us vs. Them/Science vs. Religion dichotomy belongs to a certain time and place. It’s Science’s own internal mythology now that Religion is the Great Enemy, thanks to early persecutions of Galileo, etc. Nevertheless, this internal mythology didn’t come into its own until the ’50s-’70s with the great successes of science (sic) like the Atom Bomb. You could easily argue that religion is a threat to the political power of scientists, and thus the basic motivation behind this kind of writing. (The world has only the meaning we give it, therefore religions are de facto false, etc.)

    2. This could be titled “A Universe Not Made for You”, since at bottom what one discerns is not some communitarian impulse, a frantic seeking of love in the dark, but more or less a statement on the supremacy of scientists. One could, after all, interpret the universe’s preceding us in a totally different way: e.g. the whole of Creation is there in order to produce Man’s improbable existence. Given that there’s rather an absence of doubt as to the meaning of our supposed insignificance, you have to ask how this functions in Sagan’s presentation. What one is left with is: ‘You fools, theists, etc., are farther from the empirical facts than us scientists. Only we know the truth (of our insignificance) and only we are brave enough to face our nothingness.’ It’s almost a Scientists-as-Nietzscheans concept, which would make Nietzsche laugh surely, since there’s very little joy or laughter in the absurdity of existence in Sagan’s faux-poetic, quasi-pedagogical worldview. Rather, underneath there’s seems to be a cold authoritarianism. This is why in his other writings (and now popular on the Internet scene) you have the attitude (to paraphrase Foucault) that Science Must Be Defended. –Why not after all a certain Buddhist acceptance of the motley of existence? Instead, we have the Candle in the Dark attitude, i.e. that Mankind is only two breaths away from bestialism at any one time, and that if it weren’t for the brave efforts of scientists….

    • Adam’s Shadow

      “The assumption that the worldview of scientists is only the product of empirical facts is highly problematic”

      Exactly – see Thomas Kuhn’s “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.” No human enterprise is immune to the vagaries, emotions, and subjectivity of those same living, breathing, shitting, thinking hairless primates called people that undertook the enterprise in the first place. That includes science, although the scientific method appears to be the most objective, effective enterprise taken up by human beings thus far; at least, in relative terms. Who knows what the future holds? And who knows what exists “out there” at the edge of our galaxy, not to mention in the depths of the human mind itself?

      One large problem I personally have with reductionism and scientific materialism is that these philosophies often don’t take into account how everything is colored by our limited, human perspective, even if it’s in incredibly subtle, seemingly insignificant ways, like looking at an electron and having its position altered just a teeny-tiny little bit by the photon. Everything we do is filtered by the lens of human experience and identity,and thus to argue that one particular worldview is inherently and totally objective is going a little far, especially because that inherently “objective” method of science seems to hint that this objectivity is a practical impossibility.

      • heinrich6666

        There ought to be a perennial separation of the scientific method from the culture of scientists (which you might call Science with the capital ‘s’). I agree with you that the scientific method is one the greatest achievements of Mankind. The perpetual rediscovery of the external world is a ‘must’ for creatures endowed with consciousness and, therefore, with a tendency to disappear into their own minds. But this is precisely the need for the separation of the scientific method from the culture of scientists. The latter has built-in expectations about what is possible in the world and what is not; these expectations sometimes emanate less from empirical reality and more from the social mores and even fantasies of scientists. Today, for example, research done by people like Dean Radin is still derided by scientists simply because of the cultural expectation that the world cannot in any way, and on any level, behave in ways that seem friendly to religious description. Ghosts may well not be ‘dead people’ at all, but purely energetic (and therefore materialistic) manifestations that can be modeled and even predicted. But Science will not dare to even study them because they ‘belong to religion’. This is the old, old story, and you can see it in Kuhn, as you point out.

        Before too long, I think, Sagan’s own brand of scientific existentialism will seem as quaint and even bizarre as many of the speculative positions taken by scientists in the Victorian era. This is not necessarily because we will be any closer to the ‘truth’, but because the social configuration that gave birth to a Sagan and made his outlook intelligible will have changed.

  • Martha High

    Bet Carl Segan can tell you all some things now.