I’m well aware the story of my life is much more interesting to me than to others. So believe it or not, I’m reluctant to explain the parts of my personal background that inform my approach to Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. Still and even so, I am going to give a little bit of that background, mostly because I promised Michael Drew I would (so blame him), but also because it’s probably a good idea to lay my biases on the table. I intend this OP only as an autobiographical observation and not as an extension of my arguments. I don’t expect anyone reading this to change their minds about what I’ve written or might write in the future. In fact, I’m not even confident it will fully explain why I’m so ambivalent about Sagan. Some of you may have had very similar experiences to mine and come to very different conclusions.

This post has all the faults of any autobiographical account. I’m relying almost entirely on memory to make a representation that’s at least a little self-serving. I do promise, however, that I have no stories of Saganite hoodlums shaking me down for my lunch money in middle school so they can buy “star dust.”

Another fault of my post is that it’s long. One thing worse than reading a solipsistic post about someone else’s life is reading a very, very long solipsistic post about someone else’s life that runs more than 3,200 words. So I beg your indulgence.

*******

For starters–and I’ve mentioned this before–my religious upbringing was both Catholic and evangelical protestant. My mother is Catholic and raised my siblings and me Catholic, with (in my case) Sunday school and (in the case of most of my siblings) parochial school. We were all baptized and we all took the sacraments of first communion and first penance. Most, maybe all, of my siblings were also confirmed in the Church, and three of them were married in the Church.

Around 5th or 6th grade, however, I started to experiment with what today we’d probably call evangelicalism, although I don’t think I knew of that term then. My 3d oldest brother had quit the Church as an adult and joined a Pentecostal congregation, and I occasionally went with him to those services. My best friend from around 4th grade through high school was the son of a baptist minister, and I went with him to that church, usually on Wednesday nights and sometimes on Sunday nights. But I just as often went to Sunday youth group at my Catholic church.

I “accepted Jesus into my heart” three times in those evangelical venues: once in 5th or 6th grade at my brother’s church, once in 8th grade at my friend’s church, and once in the summer between my sophomore and junior years in high school on a youth retreat with my friend’s church. (I may not know the theology that well, but I think you’re supposed to do it only once.) All the while, I didn’t formally leave the Catholic Church, but I declined to be confirmed. I still took communion when I went to mass. But I remember being deliberately silent during that part of the weekly profession of faith that went “we believe in one holy Catholic and apostolic church.”

The “theological” grounds for my quasi-conversion to Protestantism were based on my interpretation of the sacrament of penance, i.e., “going to confession.” I believed that the Catholic Church believed that only priests could forgive sins. I thought, why the intermediary? Why not go to the Big Man and Big Son and Holy Ghost Himselves?

In retrospect, my understanding of theology was pretty weak and simplistic. I still don’t know much about the Catholic view of penance, but it’s probably a bit more complicated than “only priests can forgive sins.” And despite having passed the oral interview before my first communion in 2d grade, I didn’t understand much, if anything, about transubstantiation, and I certainly didn’t grasp the “transubstantiation vs. consubstantiation” distinction that had animated religious debates during the first decades of the Protestant Reformation. (Even when I learned about it in European History class in 11th grade, I didn’t understand what the big deal was.) My own “silent” revolt about the offending portion in the profession of faith further revealed my own ignorance about the word “catholic.” It’s quite possible to believe in “one holy catholic and apostolic church” without believing that the Roman Catholic Church encompasses everything that is that one church.

*******

It wasn’t just my understanding of the theological issues, however simplistic that was, which influenced me toward evangelicalism. There were emotional, obsessive, and social components to it.

Emotionally, well, the preteen and teen years were hard. That’s probably true of everyone and my circumstances weren’t exceptional or unique. Others coped with or adjusted to the transitions of those years in their own way. Religion was one way I coped with them. My belief gave me a certain emotional comfort. I even had a share of mystical or quasi-mystical experiences. You could probably easily chalk those off as an extension of fears about adulthood, adolescent sexual angst, or finding what I was looking for because I was looking for it. But however you assess my “mystical” experiences, I remember feeling them as “mystical.”

That emotional component strayed easily into what might be called obsessive. I had nightmares about the end of the world, often involving somebody tricking me into writing the number “6” on my wrist three times and thereby condemning me to hell. At the same time, I was obsessed with the “good” numbers (3, 7, and, for some reason, 11). As a precocious boy, I watched the news and listened Reagan’s Cold War rhetoric and was afraid of nuclear war, believing the stars that St. John saw fall from the sky in Revelations were actually nuclear missiles. (Here, by the way, is one place where my memory is a little suspect. My forays into evangelicalism were during the last half of the Reagan years and while those years are known for ramped up Cold War rhetoric, they were also the beginning of Reagan and Gorbachev’s peace negotiations. I insist I have what memories I have, but I’m no longer sure I can trace it as closely as I used to to Reagan’s “evil empire” way of talking.)

The social component was also important and became more so as I entered my early and middle teens.I enjoyed something like a parallel family life with my friend whose father was a Baptist minister. I grew very close to them, hanging out with them on holidays and their birthdays, or just random days. I felt free to be myself in a way that wasn’t always easy at home.

My closeness to that family had something, but in my opinion very little, to do with my own family life. It wasn’t that my parents were abusive. They weren’t. They were good parents. I think it was more that as an adolescent I wanted to be more independent of them. There was also a sense in which my religiosity was a way of “rebelling” against my parents. My parents weren’t Bible thumpers, and they were wary of the moralistic attitudes of hyper-religious people, but they couldn’t really forbid my religious experimentation, done mostly under the supervision of supposedly responsible adults, in the way they could, for example, forbid me from drinking or partying.

And being close to that family, I adopted many of their social conservative opinions. Or perhaps I  had already shared a good number of those opinions and being around that family simply confirmed them. Abortion wasn’t just morally questionable. It was murder. Sex was a good thing, and so was birth control, but only if people indulged in the context of (heterosexual) marriage. (In that, they were probably much more liberal than the puritanical stereotype some people have of evangelicals.) Homosexuality itself was at best something like an illness that could be cured, but in practice the “gay lifestyle” was a revolt against god. God had a special vision for the United States, and we should love our country and its established leaders, especially if they were Republicans. That family and their church subsidized missionaries in other parts of the world. Women and men were supposed to marry and not divorce, although my parallel family recognized exceptions for abusive relationships. Women were supposed to “obey” their husbands and their husbands were supposed to cherish their wives. (While it’s easy to point out the sexism in that position, another way to describe it, and the way I think my parallel family would have described it, is to say it was a recognition that marriage is a reciprocal relationship, with responsibilities resting with each party.)

*******

Knowing all that, it’s probably not surprising that family had a view about science and intellectualism that on the surface would seem reactionary, hostile, or ignorant. And yes, in some ways it was. They believed that public schools and the “secular humanist” education they offered were affronts to their values. “Evolution” was a dirty word. If a nature show was on TV and the narrator explained how such and such a species “adapted” a certain trait to survive I remember the preacher-father roll his eyes and “hmmph!”

But as the cliché goes, “it was more complicated than that.” That family probably didn’t support young earth creationism, or if they did, their support for it was tempered by a (maybe grudging, maybe more than just grudging) acceptance of most of the historical claims of science, even the ones that on first glance might contradict their beliefs. I did get the lecture about “roomful of monkeys can’t write Shakespeare” lecture to prove creationism, but I don’t recall ever hearing that dinosaur fossils were placed by god to test our faith. The family had encyclopedias in their house that while outdated presented pretty much standard views of science and other subjects. I’m not sure they read them, but I did. As far as the “evils” of secular education went, my parallel family truly felt themselves embattled, but sent most of their children to secular schools. (My friend they sent to a Lutheran school for a while, but that probably had as much to do with his behavioral issues as it did with the secular intrusions public schooling imposed onto their belief systems.)

And to be clear, my parallel family wasn’t all anti-science all the time. There were days and weeks at a time when science never entered in any discussion. They lived their life, raised their kids, celebrated birthdays, and helped their neighbors and people in distress, probably more than most of us do and certainly more than I do. In “helping” people, that family sometimes was more nosy and preachy than helpful, and their “help” probably sometimes hurt the people they were trying to help, but in that respect, they’re not too different from most of us. And while they did prove to be hypocrites from time to time, they generally lived as they preached.

I’m not trying to defend that family’s views on science. What I insist is “more complicated” than mere rejection of science can in another light be viewed as a willful disregard of the truth, an unwillingness to face the contradictions of their own assumptions. And it was that. But I am arguing against a caricature of such people as thoughtless ignoramuses full stop. That caricature misrepresents and elides their humanity.

*******

My own family influenced me, too. They evinced what is probably a not unusual working-class aversion to “experts.”  “Experts” was a large group, but it tended to include those with sort of college or professional degree. These people could include the young middle manager with an MBA who thought he knew my father’s job better than my father did, the lawyers who (as most of my family probably saw it) made money off other people’s troubles, and, probably, scientists. My family also generally were suspicious of “religious experts,” too. Although most of my family believed in a Christian god of some sort, they weren’t very fond of preachers who told other people what to believe and how. Accordingly, my parents were ambivalent about my baptist friend’s church.

*******

My science teachers in middle school and high school were (mostly) competent. They probably focused more on those aspects of a science education that needed to be memorized (e.g., the citric acid cycle, formulas in chemistry and physics that I’ve long since forgotten, the breakdown of “kingdom, phylum, etc.”).

But they also addressed, at least in the first couple weeks of each class, the basis of science, about its need to be verifiable and the need to experiment. In doing so, they usually fell back on a simplistic notion of the “scientific method,” where someone makes a hypothesis, tests it, and finds out if the hypothesis is sustained or not. Later on, someone else tests the hypothesis, disproves it, and comes up with something closer to the truth.

One thing that disturbed me and that at the time I thought called science into question was the way Einstein’s theories of relativity qualified Newton’s claims about gravity. My knowledge on that was (and is) sketchy, but if I understand correctly, Einstein showed that Newton’s laws work most of the time, except for when it comes to very, very fast speeds. When I was in high school, I saw this development–Einstein “disproving” Newton–as proof that science was unstable and we couldn’t trust its truth claims. After all, people thought Newton was right, and Einstein showed that he was wrong. Pretty soon, we’ll find out Einstein is wrong, too.

Well, I realize now I was the one who was wrong. Einstein didn’t “disprove” Newton, he just qualified Newton. More to the point, Einstein’s qualifications are what science is supposed to do. Newton had certain hypotheses and they were verified most of the time. Einstein and others identified anomalies, and created new hypotheses that better explained things. Even if Einstein had totally disproved Newton, that would only mean that science rejects bad ideas when better, more verifiable ones come along.

Still, one reason I had the attitude I did was the Whiggish history that my science teachers and their textbooks seemed to tell. Here’s how I remember it. The ancient Greeks and people like Ptolemy, made guesses about the universe that plunged the western world into the dark ages. Thankfully, Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, and Newton came along and all was light. After Newton, everything was just one advance after another, and ignorance receded into the background, with a few stubborn and backward holdouts like the family I’ve just talked about.

That of course is a caricature of what they taught. None of my teachers or the textbooks they assigned put it exactly that way. And besides, those were science classes, not history or philosophy classes. I also can’t guarantee that my memory of what they taught really is how I interpreted it at the time. It’s possible, even likely, that I’m reimposing my current analysis back onto my younger, less sophisticated self.

And to be clear, I’m not criticizing my science teachers. They had a limited amount of time to teach us the basic facts of biology, chemistry, and physics and to introduce us to the scientific method or the process of thinking scientifically. Science instruction must involve memorizing facts and learning lab techniques in addition to learning about the scientific method and learning how to think scientifically. Doing all that requires accepting the epistemological and interpretive assumptions on which science is based, sometimes suspending any questions about those assumptions’ validity.

I imagine it’s a lot like teaching history in this respect. You want students to learn how to think “historically” and how to think critically about the past, but you also want them to know the basic facts of what happened and to have a narrative around which to frame those facts, and to some degree that means relying on many, many appeals to authority. Well, maybe not all historians think that, but I do.

*******

This Walt Whitman poem that most of you probably know and that I encountered (I think) for the first time in 10th grade approximates my view of the matter:

When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

The experiences I’ve related in this post, along with my temperament, have given me a lot of sympathy for the view that science and a purely materialist worldview doesn’t tell us everything, and properly construed they don’t even claim to tell us everything. It seems to me that science popularizers, like Sagan, sometimes err on the side of over-claiming and over-assuming, just like my use of “purely materialist,” “everything,” and “properly construed” does too much work.

I don’t really expect others to read this post and say, “Gee, I guess Gabriel is right.” None of what I’ve written necessarily means my critique of science is right or that others ought to adopt it or even that others ought to sympathize. It’s not even clear (to me) that I’m offering a “critique” of science at all as much as I’m pointing out attitudes among those who claim to be friendly to science that I find disturbing/

Moreover, neither the Catholic nor evangelical aspects of my upbringing necessarily prescribed a hyper-critical approach to science. By the time I was born, the Catholic Church, whatever its past transgressions, had embraced scientific inquiry and the current scientific consensus on evolution and other (to some non-scientists) “controversial” aspects of science.

As for evangelicalism, it doesn’t necessarily imply a hyper-critical to science view. C. S. Lewis–whom American evangelicals sometimes own, sometimes disown–was okay with evolution. He also smoked tobacco and enjoyed a beer every now and then, so maybe he doesn’t count. But Francis Collins, one of the pioneers behind mapping the human genome, is an outspoken evangelical and sees no inherent contradiction between his beliefs and science, while also calling to task those evangelicals who stake their beliefs on questionable epistemological claims about the material world.

And for all I know, Whitman wasn’t criticizing science so much that he was criticizing boring science or the pretensions of the applauders in the lecture hall for not fully tasting what scientific experience has to offer. Or, perhaps the speaker in the poem isn’t Whitman, and Whitman is presenting the attitude of someone who becomes “tired and sick” at learning as something to be condemned. I’ve read only bits and pieces of his works and can’t claim to be an expert.

I realize I haven’t really talked much at all about Sagan’s Cosmos itself. For what it’s worth, I enjoy watching it. There’s much good in it, even if you accept my hyper-critical assumptions. If I choose to re-watch the other episodes and review them here, it’s because I think his project is worthy of careful viewing.

I may not review them further. If my very long post and the last thread on the topic have shown anything, it’s that I take a lot of this stuff personally and am tempted to get overly defensive when people raise perfectly reasonable objections. One of my goals in this post is to explain why.


Category: Church, School

About the Author

Gabriel Conroy (conroy, fka Pierre Corneille and corneille1640) is an ex-graduate student. Now he writes blogs! He has a solo blog--Ye Olde Republicke. The views expressed by Gabriel (or Pierre, or corneille1640) are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of his spouse, employer, or his co-bloggers at Hitcoffee.

4 Responses to The learn’d astronomer & me

  1. oscar.gordon says:

    As a person trained as a scientist, and a person who spends a great deal around persons trained as, or working as, scientists, I gotta say that the stereotype of the scientist who is only interested in dry data and calculations is one that is horribly misinformed.

    I won’t say wrong, because I can see why people think there is truth to it, but the fact is that truth, if it exists at all, exists in such a small population of scientists as to be negligible. The reality isn’t that the numbers are dry, but that scientists can see in that data beauty and truth that those not versed in the techniques can not.

    It’s like how musicians can just look at sheet music and hear the melody in their head, without having to actually play it.

    • That’s a good point. Somewhere in that post I should have added (but didn’t) that I know a lot of people trained in the sciences that don’t meet the stereotype my views probably help to perpetuate.

      I do think when we (by which I mean me and other people) engage in the “great science vs. religion debate,” we tend to caricature the other side’s position, as I did in my post when I talked about my science teachers’ “Whiggish” history. (For what it’s worth, I don’t think they were the thoughtless types my recollection might seem to say they were. They just weren’t great historians.)

      At any rate, thanks for reading this post. It was hard to write and harder to get the nerve to publish.

  2. Maribou says:

    I really enjoyed reading this post, Gabriel. Thanks for linking to it in the YEC threads.

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