Saturday, January 13, 2007

Thoughts on Carl Sagan

Andrew Dalton has a post on the man-is-small orientation of Astronomer Carl Sagan. He takes issue with Mr. Sagan's view that man is an insignificant and petty speck compared to the vastness of the universe. I too don't see any reason to compare the size of man's immediate habitat to the totality. If one wants to be in awe of the universe and praise its size and many wonders, that's one thing, but I don't see any need to keep emphasizing man's relative smallness.

But I wondered, when he said "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.", was he attacking man's religious view of himself and earth, the view that humans are eternal and the rest of the universe is temporary?
If so why didn't he say so? Or was he attacking the view that man has the reasoning ability to know and learn the nature of the universe and is thereby committing a sin of pride in supposing he has some kind of greatness in competition with the greatness of the cosmos? He's not very clear on this.

I remember watching Sagan's series 'Cosmos' on PBS and the fact that I liked most of it. Over the years however, I got the impression that Mr. Sagan was more oriented toward the emotional than the factual. In the above quote Carl Sagan says: "To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known." Well, to me, 'kindly' and 'compassionately' are words of emotion. You'd think a man dedicated to reason would have appealed to same by saying something like "...deal more rationally with one another..." Kindness and compassion are consequences of a value system, not its cause.

He claims his religious identity is agnostic. According to this site, Mr. Sagan once said: "My view is that if there is no evidence for it, then forget about it. An agnostic is somebody who doesn't believe in something until there is evidence for it, so I'm agnostic." [Source:http://www.gr8st8.com/main_pages/atheists.htm]

Unfortunately his devotion to reason did not stop him from political advocacy. He was the lead advocate of a doomsday scenario he called Nuclear Winter which turned out to be wrong. Now there is nothing wrong with a scientist being wrong. The act of making mistakes is a process that tends to move one away from the false and closer to the truth--if one is devoted to truth. But when a scientist is confronted with evidence that he is wrong, and still clings to his theory, it means he is no longer dedicated to the facts.

About a month ago Russell Seitz at ADAMANT posted a lengthy but well worth it article on the history of Sagan's Nuclear Winter hypothesis. I recommend reading the whole thing.

(I like his characterization of the computer model that says lots of soot in the atmosphere will cause the planet to cool, as 'Garbage In, Gospel Out.' That seems to fit a lot of models.)

Well, for awhile anyway, I liked Mr. Sagan.

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