Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space - Carl Sagan, Ann Druyan (1997)
Chapter 4. A UNIVERSE NOT MADE FOR US
The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl’d.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.
—MATTHEW ARNOLD, “DOVER BEACH” (1867)
What a beautiful sunset,” we say, or “I’m up before sunrise.” No matter what the scientists allege, in everyday speech we often ignore their findings. We don’t talk about the Earth turning, but about the Sun rising and setting. Try formulating it in Copernican language. Would you say, “Billy, be home by the time the Earth has rotated enough so as to occult the Sun below the local horizon”? Billy would be long gone before you’re finished. We haven’t been able even to find a graceful locution that accurately conveys the heliocentric insight. We at the center and everything else circling us is built into our languages; we teach it to our children. We are unreconstructed geocentrists hiding behind a Copernican veneer.*
In 1633 the Roman Catholic Church condemned Galileo for teaching that the Earth goes around the Sun. Let’s take a closer look at this famous controversy. In the preface to his book comparing the two hypotheses—an Earth-centered and a Sun-centered universe—Galileo had written,
The celestial phenomena will be examined, strengthening the Copernican hypothesis until it might seem that this must triumph absolutely.
And later in the book he confessed,
Nor can I ever sufficiently admire [Copernicus and his followers]; they have through sheer force of intellect done such violence to their own senses as to prefer what reason told them over what sensible experience plainly showed them …
The Church declared, in its indictment of Galileo,
The doctrine that the earth is neither the center of the universe nor immovable, but moves even with a daily rotation, is absurd, and both psychologically and theologically false, and at the least an error of faith.
The doctrine of the movements of the earth and the fixity of the sun is condemned on the ground that the Scriptures speak in many places of the sun moving and the earth standing still … It is piously spoken that the Scriptures cannot lie. But none will deny that they are frequently abstruse and their true meaning difficult to discover, and more than the bare words signify. I think that in the discussion of natural problems we ought to begin not with the Scriptures, but with experiments and demonstrations.
But in his recantation (June 22, 1633) Galileo was made to say,
Having been admonished by the Holy Office entirely to abandon the false opinion that the Sun was the center of the universe and immovable, and that the Earth was not the center of the same and that it moved … I have been … suspected of heresy, that is, of having held and believed that the Sun is the center of the universe and immovable, and that the Earth is not the center of the same, and that it does move … I abjure with a sincere heart and unfeigned faith, I curse and detest the same errors and heresies, and generally all and every error and sect contrary to the Holy Catholic Church.
It took the Church until 1832 to remove Galileo’s work from its list of books which Catholics were forbidden to read at the risk of dire punishment of their immortal souls.
Pontifical disquiet with modern science has ebbed and flowed since the time of Galileo. The high-water mark in recent history is the 1864 Syllabus of Errors of Pius IX, the pope who also convened the Vatican Council at which the doctrine of papal infallibility was, at his insistence, first proclaimed. Here are a few excerpts:
Divine revelation is perfect and, therefore, it is not subject to continual and indefinite progress in order to correspond with the progress of human reason … No man is free to embrace and profess that religion which he believes to be true, guided by the light of reason … The Church has power to define dogmatically the religion of the Catholic Church to be the only true religion … It is necessary even in the present day that the Catholic religion shall be held as the only religion of the state, to the exclusion of all other forms of worship … The civil liberty of every mode of worship, and full power given to all of openly and publicly manifesting their opinions and their ideas conduce more easily to corrupt the morals and minds of the people … The Roman Pontiff cannot and ought not to reconcile himself or agree with, progress, liberalism and modern civilization.
To its credit, although belatedly and reluctantly, the Church in 1992 repudiated its denunciation of Galileo. It still cannot quite bring itself, though, to see the significance of its opposition. In a 1992 speech Pope John Paul II argued,
From the beginning of the Age of Enlightenment down to our own day, the Galileo case has been a sort of “myth” in which the image fabricated out of the events is quite far removed from reality. In this perspective, the Galileo case was a symbol of the Catholic Church’s supposed rejection of scientific progress, or of “dogmatic” obscurantism opposed to the free search for truth.
But surely the Holy Inquisition ushering the elderly and infirm Galileo in to inspect the instruments of torture in the dungeons of the Church not only admits but requires just such an interpretation. This was not mere scientific caution and restraint, a reluctance to shift a paradigm until compelling evidence, such as the annual parallax, was available. This was fear of discussion and debate. Censoring alternative views and threatening to torture their proponents betray a lack of faith in the very doctrine and parishioners that are ostensibly being protected. Why were threats and Galileo’s house arrest needed? Cannot truth defend itself in its confrontation with error?
The Pope does, though, go on to add:
The error of the theologians of the time, when they maintained the centrality of the earth, was to think that our understanding of the physical world’s structure was in some way imposed by the literal sense of Sacred Scriptures.
Here indeed considerable progress has been made—although proponents of fundamentalist faiths will be distressed to hear from the Pontiff that Sacred Scripture is not always literally true.
But if the Bible is not everywhere literally true, which parts are divinely inspired and which are merely fallible and human? As soon as we admit that there are scriptural mistakes (or concessions to the ignorance of the times), then how can the Bible be an inerrant guide to ethics and morals? Might sects and individuals now accept as authentic the parts of the Bible they like, and reject those that are inconvenient or burdensome? Prohibitions against murder, say, are essential for a society to function, but if divine retribution for murder is considered implausible, won’t more people think they can get away with it?
Many felt that Copernicus and Galileo were up to no good and erosive of the social order. Indeed any challenge, from any source, to the literal truth of the Bible might have such consequences. We can readily see how science began to make people nervous. Instead of criticizing those who perpetuated the myths, public rancor was directed at those who discredited them.
OUR ANCESTORS UNDERSTOOD origins by extrapolating from their own experience. How else could they have done it? So the Universe was hatched from a cosmic egg, or conceived in the sexual congress of a mother god and a father god, or was a kind of product of the Creator’s workshop—perhaps the latest of many flawed attempts. And the Universe was not much bigger than we see, and not much older than our written or oral records, and nowhere very different from places that we know.
We’ve tended in our cosmologies to make things familiar. Despite all our best efforts, we’ve not been very inventive. In the West, Heaven is placid and fluffy, and Hell is like the inside of a volcano. In many stories, both realms are governed by dominance hierarchies headed by gods or devils. Monotheists talked about the king of kings. In every culture we imagined something like our own political system running the Universe. Few found the similarity suspicious.
Then science came along and taught us that we are not the measure of all things, that there are wonders unimagined, that the Universe is not obliged to conform to what we consider comfortable or plausible. We have learned something about the idiosyncratic nature of our common sense. Science has carried human self-consciousness to a higher level. This is surely a rite of passage, a step towards maturity. It contrasts starkly with the childishness and narcissism of our pre-Copernican notions.
But why should we want to think that the Universe was made for us? Why is the idea so appealing? Why do we nurture it? Is our self-esteem so precarious that nothing short of a universe custom-made for us will do?
Of course it appeals to our vanity. “What a man desires, he also imagines to be true,” said Demosthenes. “The light of faith makes us see what we believe,” cheerfully admitted St. Thomas Aquinas. But I think there may be something else. There’s a kind of ethnocentrism among primates. To whichever little group we happen to be born, we owe passionate love and loyalty. Members of other groups are beneath contempt, deserving of rejection and hostility. That both groups are of the same species, that to an outside observer they are virtually indistinguishable, makes no difference. This is certainly the pattern among the chimpanzees, our closest relatives in the animal kingdom. Ann Druyan and I have described how this way of viewing the world may have made enormous evolutionary sense a few million years ago, however dangerous it has become today. Even members of hunter-gatherer groups—as far from the technological feats of our present global civilization as it is possible for humans to be—solemnly describe their little band, whichever it is, as “the people.” Everyone else is something different, something less than human.
If this is our natural way of viewing the world, then it should occasion no surprise that every time we make a naive judgment about our place in the Universe—one untempered by careful and skeptical scientific examination—we almost always opt for the centrality of our group and circumstance. We want to believe, moreover, that these are objective facts, and not our prejudices finding a sanctioned vent.
So it’s not much fun to have a gaggle of scientists incessantly haranguing us with “You’re ordinary, you’re unimportant, your privileges are undeserved, there’s nothing special about you.” Even unexcitable people might, after a while, grow annoyed at this incantation and those who insist on chanting it. It almost seems that the scientists are getting some weird satisfaction out of putting humans down. Why can’t they find a way in which we’re superior? Lift our spirits! Exalt us! In such debates science, with its mantra of discouragement, feels cold and remote, dispassionate, detached, unresponsive to human needs.
And, again, if we’re not important, not central, not the apple of God’s eye, what is implied for our theologically based moral codes? The discovery of our true bearings in the Cosmos was resisted for so long and to such a degree that many traces of the debate remain, sometimes with the motives of the geocentrists laid bare. Here, for example, is a revealing unsigned commentary in the British review The Spectator in 1892:
[I]t is certain enough that the discovery of the heliocentric motion of the planets which reduced our earth to its proper “insignificance” in the solar system, did a good deal to reduce to a similar but far from proper “insignificance” the moral principles by which the predominant races of the earth had hitherto been guided and restrained. Part of this effect was no doubt due to the evidence afforded that the physical science of various inspired writers was erroneous instead of being infallible,—a conviction which unduly shook the confidence felt even in their moral and religious teaching. But a good deal of it was due only to the mere sense of “insignificance” with which man has contemplated himself, since he has discovered that he inhabits nothing but a very obscure corner of the universe, instead of the central world round which sun, moon, and stars alike revolved. There can be no doubt that man may feel himself, and has often felt himself, a great deal too insignificant to be the object of any particular divine training or care. If the earth be regarded as a sort of ant-hill, and the life and death of human beings as the life and death of so many ants which run into and out of so many holes in search of food and sunlight, it is quite certain that no adequate importance will be attached to the duties of human life, and that a profound fatalism and hopelessness, instead of new hopefulness, will attach to human effort …
[F]or the present at least, our horizons are quite vast enough …; till we can get used to the infinite horizons we already have, and not lose our balance so much as we usually do in contemplating them, the yearning for still wider horizons is premature.
WHAT DO WE REALLY WANT from philosophy and religion? Palliatives? Therapy? Comfort? Do we want reassuring fables or an understanding of our actual circumstances? Dismay that the Universe does not conform to our preferences seems childish. You might think that grown-ups would be ashamed to put such disappointments into print. The fashionable way of doing this is not to blame the Universe—which seems truly pointless—but rather to blame the means by which we know the Universe, namely science.
George Bernard Shaw, in the preface to his play St. Joan, described a sense of science preying on our credulity, forcing on us an alien worldview, intimidating belief:
In the Middle Ages, people believed that the Earth was flat, for which they had at least the evidence of their senses: we believe it to be round, not because as many as one per cent of us could give the physical reason for so quaint a belief, but because modern science has convinced us that nothing that is obvious is true, and that everything that is magical, improbable, extraordinary, gigantic, microscopic, heartless, or outrageous is scientific.
A more recent and very instructive example is Understanding the Present: Science and the Soul of Modern Man, by Bryan Appleyard, a British journalist. This book makes explicit what many people feel, all over the world, but are too embarrassed to say. Appleyard’s candor is refreshing. He is a true believer and will not let us slough over the contradictions between modern science and traditional religion:
“Science has taken away our religion,” he laments. And what sort of religion is it that he longs for? One in which “the human race was the point, the heart, the final cause of the whole system. It placed our selves definitively upon the universal map.” … “We were the end, the purpose, the rational axle around which the great aetherian shells rotated.” He longs for “the universe of Catholic orthodoxy” in which “the cosmos is shown to be a machine constructed around the drama of salvation”—by which Appleyard means that, despite explicit orders to the contrary, a woman and a man once ate of an apple, and that this act of insubordination transformed the Universe into a contrivance for operant-conditioning their remote descendants.
By contrast, modern science “presents us as accidents. We are caused by the cosmos, but we are not the cause of it. Modern man is not finally anything, he has no role in creation.” Science is “spiritually corrosive, burning away ancient authorities and traditions. It cannot really co-exist with anything.” … “Science, quietly and inexplicitly, is talking us into abandoning our selves, our true selves.” It reveals “the mute, alien spectacle of nature.” … “Human beings cannot live with such a revelation. The only morality left is that of the consoling lie.” Anything is better than grappling with the unbearable burden of being tiny.
In a passage reminiscent of Pius IX, Appleyard even decries the fact that “a modern democracy can be expected to include a number of contradictory religious faiths which are obliged to agree on a certain limited number of general injunctions, but no more. They must not burn each other’s places of worship, but they may deny, even abuse each other’s God. This is the effective, scientific way of proceeding.”
But what is the alternative? Obdurately to pretend to certainty in an uncertain world? To adopt a comforting belief system, no matter how out of kilter with the facts it is? If we don’t know what’s real, how can we deal with reality? For practical reasons, we cannot live too much in fantasyland. Shall we censor one another’s religions and burn down one another’s places of worship? How can we be sure which of the thousands of human belief systems should become unchallenged, ubiquitous, mandatory?
These quotations betray a failure of nerve before the Universe—its grandeur and magnificence, but especially its indifference. Science has taught us that, because we have a talent for deceiving ourselves, subjectivity may not freely reign. This is one reason Appleyard so mistrusts science: It seems too reasoned, measured, and impersonal. Its conclusions derive from the interrogation of Nature, and are not in all cases predesigned to satisfy our wants. Appleyard deplores moderation. He yearns for inerrant doctrine, release from the exercise of judgment, and an obligation to believe but not to question. He has not grasped human fallibility. He recognizes no need to institutionalize error-correcting machinery either in our social institutions or in our view of the Universe.
This is the anguished cry of the infant when the Parent does not come. But most people eventually come to grips with reality, and with the painful absence of parents who will absolutely guarantee that no harm befalls the little ones so long as they do what they are told. Eventually most people find ways to accommodate to the Universe—especially when given the tools to think straight.
“All that we pass on to our children” in the scientific age, Appleyard complains, “is the conviction that nothing is true, final or enduring, including the culture from which they sprang.” How right he is about the inadequacy of our legacy. But would it be enriched by adding baseless certainties? He scorns “the pious hope that science and religion are independent realms which can easily be separated.” Instead, “science, as it is now, is absolutely not compatible with religion.”
But isn’t Appleyard really saying that some religions now find it difficult to make unchallenged pronouncements on the nature of the world that are straight-out false? We recognize that even revered religious leaders, the products of their time as we are of ours, may have made mistakes. Religions contradict one another—on small matters, such as whether we should put on a hat or take one off on entering a house of worship, or whether we should eat beef and eschew pork or the other way around, all the way to the most central issues, such as whether there are no gods, one God, or many gods.
Science has brought many of us to that state in which Nathaniel Hawthorne found Herman Melville: “He can neither believe, nor be comfortable in his unbelief.” Or Jean-Jacques Rousseau: “They had not persuaded me, but they had troubled me. Their arguments had shaken me without ever convincing me … It is hard to prevent oneself from believing what one so keenly desires.” As the belief systems taught by the secular and religious authorities are undermined, respect for authority in general probably does erode. The lesson is clear: Even political leaders must be wary of embracing false doctrine. This is not a failing of science, but one of its graces.
Of course, worldview consensus is comforting, while clashes of opinion may be unsettling, and demand more of us. But unless we insist, against all evidence, that our ancestors were perfect, the advance of knowledge requires us to unravel and then restitch the consensus they established.
In some respects, science has far surpassed religion in delivering awe. How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, “This is better than we thought! The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant. God must be even greater than we dreamed”? Instead they say, “No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way.” A religion, old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the Universe as revealed by modern science might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths. Sooner or later, such a religion will emerge.
IF YOU LIVED two or three millennia ago, there was no shame in holding that the Universe was made for us. It was an appealing thesis consistent with everything we knew; it was what the most learned among us taught without qualification. But we have found out much since then. Defending such a position today amounts to willful disregard of the evidence, and a flight from self-knowledge.
Still, for many of us, these deprovincializations rankle. Even if they do not fully carry the day, they erode confidence—unlike the happy anthropocentric certitudes, rippling with social utility, of an earlier age. We long to be here for a purpose, even though, despite much self-deception, none is evident. “The meaningless absurdity of life,” wrote Leo Tolstoy, “is the only incontestable knowledge accessible to man.” Our time is burdened under the cumulative weight of successive debunkings of our conceits: We’re Johnny-come-latelies. We live in the cosmic boondocks. We emerged from microbes and muck. Apes are our cousins. Our thoughts and feelings are not fully under our own control. There may be much smarter and very different beings elsewhere. And on top of all this, we’re making a mess of our planet and becoming a danger to ourselves.
The trapdoor beneath our feet swings open. We find ourselves in bottomless free fall. We are lost in a great darkness, and there’s no one to send out a search party. Given so harsh a reality, of course we’re tempted to shut our eyes and pretend that we’re safe and snug at home, that the fall is only a bad dream.
We lack consensus about our place in the Universe. There is no generally agreed upon long-term vision of the goal of our species—other than, perhaps, simple survival. Especially when times are hard, we become desperate for encouragement, unreceptive to the litany of great demotions and dashed hopes, and much more willing to hear that we’re special, never mind if the evidence is paper-thin. If it takes a little myth and ritual to get us through a night that seems endless, who among us cannot sympathize and understand?
But if our objective is deep knowledge rather than shallow reassurance, the gains from this new perspective far outweigh the losses. Once we overcome our fear of being tiny, we find ourselves on the threshold of a vast and awesome Universe that utterly dwarfs—in time, in space, and in potential—the tidy anthropocentric proscenium of our ancestors. We gaze across billions of light-years of space to view the Universe shortly after the Big Bang, and plumb the fine structure of matter. We peer down into the core of our planet, and the blazing interior of our star. We read the genetic language in which is written the diverse skills and propensities of every being on Earth. We uncover hidden chapters in the record of our own origins, and with some anguish better understand our nature and prospects. We invent and refine agriculture, without which almost all of us would starve to death. We create medicines and vaccines that save the lives of billions. We communicate at the speed of light, and whip around the Earth in an hour and a half. We have sent dozens of ships to more than seventy worlds, and four spacecraft to the stars. We are right to rejoice in our accomplishments, to be proud that our species has been able to see so far, and to judge our merit in part by the very science that has so deflated our pretensions.
To our ancestors there was much in Nature to be afraid of—lightning, storms, earthquakes, volcanos, plagues, drought, long winters. Religions arose in part as attempts to propitiate and control, if not much to understand, the disorderly aspect of Nature. The scientific revolution permitted us to glimpse an underlying ordered Universe in which there was a literal harmony of the worlds (Johannes Kepler’s phrase). If we understand Nature, there is a prospect of controlling it or at least mitigating the harm it may bring. In this sense, science brought hope.
Most of the great deprovincializing debates were entered into with no thought for their practical implications. Passionate and curious humans wished to understand their actual circumstances, how unique or pedestrian they and their world are, their ultimate origins and destinies, how the Universe works. Surprisingly, some of these debates have yielded the most profound practical benefits. The very method of mathematical reasoning that Isaac Newton introduced to explain the motion of the planets around the Sun has led to most of the technology of our modern world. The Industrial Revolution, for all its shortcomings, is still the global model of how an agricultural nation can emerge from poverty. These debates have bread-and-butter consequences.
It might have been otherwise. It might have been that the balance lay elsewhere, that humans by and large did not want to know about a disquieting Universe, that we were unwilling to permit challenges to the prevailing wisdom. Despite determined resistance in every age, it is very much to our credit that we have allowed ourselves to follow the evidence, to draw conclusions that at first seem daunting: a Universe so much larger and older that our personal and historical experience is dwarfed and humbled, a Universe in which, every day, suns are born and worlds obliterated, a Universe in which humanity, newly arrived, clings to an obscure clod of matter.
How much more satisfying had we been placed in a garden custom-made for us, its other occupants put there for us to use as we saw fit. There is a celebrated story in the Western tradition like this, except that not quite everything was there for us. There was one particular tree of which we were not to partake, a tree of knowledge. Knowledge and understanding and wisdom were forbidden to us in this story. We were to be kept ignorant. But we couldn’t help ourselves. We were starving for knowledge—created hungry, you might say. This was the origin of all our troubles. In particular, it is why we no longer live in a garden: We found out too much. So long as we were incurious and obedient, I imagine, we could console ourselves with our importance and centrality, and tell ourselves that we were the reason the Universe was made. As we began to indulge our curiosity, though, to explore, to learn how the Universe really is, we expelled ourselves from Eden. Angels with a flaming sword were set as sentries at the gates of Paradise to bar our return. The gardeners became exiles and wanderers. Occasionally we mourn that lost world, but that, it seems to me, is maudlin and sentimental. We could not happily have remained ignorant forever.
There is in this Universe much of what seems to be design. Every time we come upon it, we breathe a sigh of relief. We are forever hoping to find, or at least safely deduce, a Designer. But instead, we repeatedly discover that natural processes—collisional selection of worlds, say, or natural selection of gene pools, or even the convection pattern in a pot of boiling water—can extract order out of chaos, and deceive us into deducing purpose where there is none. In everyday life, we often sense—in the bedrooms of teenagers, or in national politics—that chaos is natural, and order imposed from above. While there are deeper regularities in the Universe than the simple circumstances we generally describe as orderly, all that order, simple and complex, seems to derive from laws of Nature established at the Big Bang (or earlier), rather than as a consequence of belated intervention by an imperfect deity. “God is to be found in the details” is the famous dictum of the German scholar Aby Warburg. But, amid much elegance and precision, the details of life and the Universe also exhibit haphazard, jury-rigged arrangements and much poor planning. What shall we make of this: an edifice abandoned early in construction by the architect?
The evidence, so far at least and laws of Nature aside, does not require a Designer. Maybe there is one hiding, maddeningly unwilling to be revealed. Sometimes it seems a very slender hope.
The significance of our lives and our fragile planet is then determined only by our own wisdom and courage. We are the custodians of life’s meaning. We long for a Parent to care for us, to forgive us our errors, to save us from our childish mistakes. But knowledge is preferable to ignorance. Better by far to embrace the hard truth than a reassuring fable.
If we crave some cosmic purpose, then let us find ourselves a worthy goal.
*One of the few quasi-Copernican expressions in English is “The Universe doesn’t revolve around you”—an astronomical truth intended to bring fledgling narcissists down to Earth.