A couple months ago I watched the first episode of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, in which Sagan introduced the series.
Some of Sagan’s statements stand out to me. He says “because the cosmos is also within us we’re made of star stuff.” He also says the “same laws of physics apply everywhere throughout the cosmos.” [My quotations from the show are paraphrases, but I’ve tried to relate them as accurately as possible]. Toward the end of the episode, he warns us:
We can enhance life and come to know the universe that made us or we can squander our 15 billion year heritage in meaningless self-destruction.
Those statements represent to me a faith-like or religious-like approach to the universe. He employs a metaphor that is probably meant to inspire awe. We are made of matter–atoms and other things–but he renders “matter” as “star stuff.” The same laws apply everywhere. The corollary is that if they do not appear to apply everywhere, then we just haven’t discovered the right laws, or we haven’t discovered all the laws, or we have formulated the laws incorrectly. Life is assumed to be a good thing. It is a “heritage,” 15 billion years in the making, much richer than if it had been merely 10,000 years in the making. It’s possible for us to “squander” those good things and if we do, then the resulting self-destruction is “meaningless,” much worse, I guess, than a self-destruction that is meaningful.
Those statements represent certain values and starting assumptions that are not easily answered by Sagan’s approach to the Cosmos. He has to make certain leaps–not “leaps of faith” exactly but leaps nonetheless–to assume that “the same laws of physics” apply everywhere. He entertains certain values about what causes wonder and awe and expresses those values through the “star stuff” metaphors. And he also has certain values about good (“life” and “our” 15-billion year “heritage”) and about what is meaningful and meaningless, presuming that meaninglessness itself is a bad, or at least discomfiting (and therefore bad) thing.
I risk committing an error here. It’s one thing to point out that awe exists, that people speak in metaphors, that people have values, even values not easily reducible to a materialistic view of the universe or values not testable by a process we can call “scientific.” It’s another thing to take it too far, to say that because those statements are “faith-like” or “religious-like” in some ways, they are therefore expressions of something that can be answered only by or derived from faith or religion. The error is to say “gotcha” when all Sagan is guilty of is holding complicated views.
And yet there is a disjuncture in Cosmos among the scientific values, the materialist values, and the set of values that are not testable by science or not easily reducible to Sagan’s materialist assumptions. It’s worth pointing out that disjuncture if only to understand why some people are uneasy about Sagan’s project and to understand that this discomfort is not merely an expression of anti-scientific or anti-intellectual angst.
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