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Remember Carl Sagan

25 January 2011

More than virtually any public figure, Carl Sagan awakened a generation in the late 20th century to the fact that without science, entire cultures could slide back into the Dark Ages.

For an excellent article on Sagan, read Pat Duffy Hutcheon’s "Carl Sagan and Modern Scientific Humanism".

A few choice quotes:

"Our politics, advertising and religions (New Age and Old) are awash in credulity. Those who have something to sell, those who wish to influence public opinion, those in power, a skeptic might suggest, have a vested interest in discouraging skepticism." Without scientific habits of thought, he said, "we risk becoming a … world of suckers, up for grabs by the next charlatan who saunters along. [Precious television time is devoted to teaching our children] murder, rape, cruelty, superstition, credulity and consumerism … What kind of society could we create if, instead, we drummed into them science and a sense of hope?"

More than anything, Sagan feared the consequences of scientific illiteracy in the public at large. "When governments and societies lose the capacity for critical thinking, the results can be catastrophic — however sympathetic we may be for those who have bought the baloney." Elsewhere he quoted an egregious example of what can happen when elite opinion-shapers connive to encourage general gullibility: "A new era of the magical explanation of the world is rising, an explanation based on will rather than knowledge. There is no truth in either the moral or the scientific sense." The speaker of these words was Adolph Hitler, but the sentiments had been encouraged for at least a century by the intellectual ancestors of today’s "postmodernist" philosophers.

He had little respect for anyone who held to dogmatic claims of any kind about the ultimate nature of reality. ‘The idea that scientists or theologians, with our present and still puny understanding of this vast and awesome cosmos, can comprehend the origin of the universe is only a little less silly than the idea that the Mesopotamian astronomers of 3000 years ago — from whom the ancient Hebrews borrowed, during the Babylonian captivity, the cosmological accounts in the first chapter of Genesis — could have understood the origins of the universe.

He did not attack traditional religions, but he did chide them for having made a fatal mistake in continuing to assert truth claims about the nature of the cosmos and about the origins and destiny of humankind: claims that are the business of science. He thought that religion could make a positive contribution to modern society only if it forsook myth and mysticism and concentrated on activities having to do with reverence for life, awe at the wonders of nature, ethics and morality, community, the celebration of life’s passages and striving for social justice.

The article appeared in a magazine called Humanist in Canada in 1997.


From → Admire, Universe

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