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Salutes to Dr. Sagan

Ten years ago today, I was muddling through this new thing called online news at MSNBC - while just a few miles away, at a Seattle cancer center, one of science's most eloquent spokesmen was dying. At the time, astronomer Carl Sagan's death was another blip on the news screen. But since then, his influence has, if anything, grown for me and for others - as evidenced by the outpouring of reminiscences on this 10th anniversary.

Cornell Univ.
Carl Sagan, 1934-1996


Many commentators have touched upon Sagan's legacy for scientific skeptics - for example, the idea that in this "demon-haunted world," extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, whether those claims relate to the existence of extraterrestrials or the existence of God. Not so many have addressed his legacy for believers. And that's what I'd like to touch on here.

Throughout Sagan's career, there were frequent parallels between his search for signs of extraterrestrial intelligence and the traditional search for transcendent truth. "Carl thought it was part of the same question," Sagan's widow, Ann Druyan, noted during a recent interview. And indeed, Sagan addressed this in an exchange documented in "The Varieties of Scientific Experience," a recently published collection of lectures:

Questioner: "I'd like to ask you about why you think any omnipotent being would want to leave evidence for us."

Sagan: "I think I entirely agree with what you say. There is no reason I should expect an omnipotent being to leave evidence of His existence, except that the Gifford Lectures are supposed to be about that evidence. And I hope it is clear that the fact that I do not see evidence of such a God's existence does not mean that I then derive from that fact that I know that God does not exist.

"That's quite a different remark. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Neither is it evidence of presence. And this again is a situation where our tolerance for ambiguity is required. The only thrust of these remarks is for those - and it's by far the greatest majority of contemporary theologians - who believe that there are natural pieces of evidence for the existence of God or gods. And so I have no problems with any of that. And, as you say, if a god existed who gave us free will or merely noted that we had free will, and wished to let our free will operate, then he or she or it might very well give us no evidence of his, her, or its existence for just that reason.

"And this is connected with one of the many little tangents in the extraterrestrial-intelligence problem. In fact, there is a perfect parallel between the two cases. ..."

I'll leave that discourse over the philosophical equivalent of the "Star Trek" Prime Directive for readers of the book to explore (it's on page 238). The point I want to make relates to Sagan's tolerance, his humility, his willingness to keep the quest going. Some skeptics nowadays even question whether Sagan might have been too tolerant of ambiguity. But I think that was a big part of his charm, and a big reason why he was able to prevail over the "wedge strategies" that often crop up in the science-and-religion debate (whether from the Darwin-doubting Discovery Institute or from firebrand evolutionist Richard Dawkins).

Sagan's tolerance shines through in the writings of those most deeply touched by his legacy, starting with Druyan. She reflects on her husband's passing today in the inaugural posting of her own Web log, The Observatory, as well as in this month's issue of The Planetary Report:

"We have traveled ten times around the sun since Carl's death, and our little world is much changed. With his dazzling mind and vast knowledge, what would he have thought of the direction we, as a civilization, have taken in the years since? How might he have campaigned against the forces of darkness and brutality? How many minds might he have opened? During the last ten years, I have longed for the personal Carl of our love, family, and work together, but I have also keenly missed the man who was a global voice for science, exploration, reason, and democracy. Carl's ecological niche has remained tragically untenanted for all this time - and in my opinion, the consequences have been profound."

In his wide-ranging ecological niche, Sagan posed a challenge for believers to act more as if they really believed. At the time, the world was facing an apocalyptic nuclear threat that loomed at least as large as the apocalyptic terrorist threats that hang over us now. He noted that Christianity taught that redemption was always possible and that you should love your enemies, while "an anti-Christian would be someone who argues to hate your enemy and that redemption is impossible, that bad people remain forever bad."

"So I ask you, which position is better suited to an age of apocalyptic weapons?" he said. Or, for that matter, an age of terror threats?

Sagan went on to observe that out of the more than 140 nations on Earth, "not one of them takes a Christian point of view," a situation that Sagan found remarkable:

" 'Do unto others as you would have them do unto you' has a corollary. Others will do unto you as you do unto them. And that encapsulates, among other things, the history of the nuclear arms race. If this can't be done, then I think politicians who are practitioners of such religions ought to confess and admit that they are failed Christians or aspirant Christians but not full-fledged, unqualified, unhyphenated Christians."

Sagan was anything but dogmatic - about belief as well as skepticism. It is his openness to new ideas, his sense of wonder, his quest for justice as well as knowledge, that will keep his legacy alive decades and centuries after his passing. At least the tributes marking today's anniversary give us hope that it will be so.

Which brings us at last to our blog-a-thon bonus. In Tuesday's Log item, I offered up a copy of "The Varieties of Scientific Experience" to recognize the most fitting tribute to Sagan's legacy.

When it comes to pithiness, it's hard to beat this comment from John Forde: "If our intellects are candles, Dr. Sagan is the match that lights the wick." However, in my view, Chris Eldridge should take the top prize - not only for his personal reflections on Sagan's impact, but also for his continuing contributions to the Cosmic Log community. Here's an excerpt from his comment:

"... Science is a contagious inspiration. It affects us in ways we don't even realize. Carl's take on it - his intuitive and timeless perspective - has been a guiding light throughout my life.  His fear of nuclear war…  His disappointment with our caretakership of earth…  The backdrop of history, which added still more perspective…  oh, and dare I forget that damn hypnotic opening music [for "Cosmos"] that would calm Godzilla into placidity…  whatever the magic was…  IT WORKED!"

I'll be sending the book to Chris, and an MSNBC.com goodie bag to John Forde for his contribution. Graze through the comments section of Tuesday's item for the full treatment, and feel free to add your follow-ups below.