Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Carl Sagan Day

 
Happy Carl Sagan Day.
In every such society there is a cherished world of myth and metaphor which co-exists with the workaday world. Efforts to reconcile the two are made, and any rough edges at the joints are tend to be off-limits and ignored. We compartmentalize. Some scientists do this too, effortlessly stepping between the skeptical world of science and the credulous world of belief without skipping a beat. Of course, the greater the mismatch between these two worlds, the more difficult it is to be comfortable, with untroubled conscience, with both.

In a life short and uncertain, it seems heartless to do anything that might deprive people of the consolation of faith when science cannot remedy their anguish. Those who cannot bear the burden of science are free to ignore its precepts. But we cannot have science in bits and pieces, applying it where we feel safe and ignoring it where we feel threatened—again, because we are not wise enough to do so. Except by sealing the brain off into separate compartments, how is it possible to fly in airplanes, listen to the radio or take antibiotics while holding that the Earth is around 10,000 years old or that all Sagittarians are gregarious and affable?

Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World (1995) P. 297.

Visit Bad Astronomy: On the birthday of Carl Sagan to hear Carl Sagan read his famous essay "The Pale Blue Dot."




6 comments :

  1. Except by sealing the brain off into separate compartments, how is it possible to fly in airplanes, listen to the radio or take antibiotics while holding that the Earth is around 10,000 years old or that all Sagittarians are gregarious and affable?

    I don't usually play this philosophical game, but to turn it around, how is it possible to go to work every day, try to make the world a better place and be nice to people if you understand that your existence, and that of the entire Earth has no relevance or meaning and is an infinitesimally small part of an uncaring universe?

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  2. I don't usually play this philosophical game, but to turn it around, how is it possible to go to work every day, try to make the world a better place and be nice to people if you understand that your existence, and that of the entire Earth has no relevance or meaning and is an infinitesimally small part of an uncaring universe?

    It's called growing up. If you really mature, you come to grips with things like this, and you learn to deal with things on relative terms. In the eyes of the universe, yeah, you're pretty small potatoes. But in the eyes of your daughter? Your spouse? The friends who look forward to seeing you again? Your dog?

    You won't live forever, and you'll be forgotten fairly quickly. True. By then, you won't be around to care. But right now you live, something myriad other possible beings have never had the chance to do. You can know, and learn, and enjoy, and love... and be loved, if you work to deserve it. What you do and how you do it matters, to yourself and those around you. We live for these things, and they matter while we do exist.

    If you're mature, you should value that. That's enough.

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  3. I don't usually play this philosophical game

    If you did, you'd probably be familiar with the standard reply: Yes, our lives do have meaning and relevance, here and now - to ourselves and (hopefully) to other people. We get it from going to work, caring for loved ones, making a better world, etc. I care, whether the universe does or not.

    I've always been mystified by those who claim that, since life has no eternal, cosmic meaning, it can't have meaning at all. That strikes me as depressingly unimaginative. And a little greedy, in a way.

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  4. Meh,

    What's the value and meaning of being here only to worship some tyrant cosmic figure for all eternity?

    You got your answer otherwise. Now go keep kissing your imaginary cosmic eternal dictator's ass.

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  5. Actually, the thought exercise was to demonstrate that humans seal their brains off into separate compartments all the time, even the rational humans. We can be intellectually aware of the cosmic meaninglessness of human thought and action, but we can also put that into a don't-worry-about-it box and get on with our lives. It's a valuable coping/survival strategy.

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  6. It's a wonder that the only reason some people can find for doing one's best on this world is to get a good table in the next one.

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