by Scott Detwiler
"The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be." (7, p. 4) This provocative statement of the nature of reality opens Cosmos, the magnum opus of Carl Sagan, America's most visible scientist. In the highest-rated public television series and a best-selling book, Sagan sought to turn the public on to science by "the communication of science in an engaging and accessible way." (7, p. xiv) The result of his efforts is that when Americans think of science, they think of Sagan.
However, Sagan concerns himself with more than pure science: "I want [science] to be seen as a human endeavor." (1, p. 37) With this intention, Sagan uses his position and ability to communicate to expound on many subjects not quite so scientific:
Because science is inseparable from the rest of human endeavor, it cannot be discussed without making contact, sometimes head on, with a number of social, political, religious and philosophical issues. (7, p. xiv)
While this is quite true of science, this approach to relating science has led to Sagan's formulation of a unique synthesis of science and philosophy. The difficulty is that the public tends to consider Sagan's words scientifically valid whether they be fact or opinion.
Sagan has arrived at a particularly interesting view of science's traditional companion, religion. He reinterprets the meaning and role of religion from the viewpoint of science. One would think that Sagan would prefer to tear down religion as an obsolete social construct; on the contrary, Sagan respects religion for its roles both past and present in our society. He explicitly states that his discussions are intended as "constructive" criticism for the refinement of the institution to twentieth-century standards. (3, p. xiv)
Sagan considers religion to be sociological in origin; it is a construct created to bridge the gaps in our understanding of our world and ourselves. (3, p. 287) Religion has three dimensions in which it bridges gaps. First, it is a cultural mortar manifesting itself in a spectrum of benevolent and malevolent social influences. Second, religion contains a resonating mystic core, a touch reaching to the depths of every human's inmost self. Third, religion provides a means to explain the great mysteries, from the mechanisms of nature to the purpose of humanity.
However, the development of science has shed new light on if not entirely changed the nature of each of these dimensions. Because of its origin, science is capable of reaching far as well. According to Sagan, science is the next step in the evolution of our species--it is our latest and best adaption for survival. (10, p. 23) It can empirically answer the questions which religion, as a social construct, served only temporarily to bridge. As a result, today's science is replacing much, though not all, of religion's role in society.
Sagan begins by acknowledging that religion irrevoccably permeates all cultures. Like science, it is linked with all human endeavor. In fact, it seems to be a functional social need. (8, p. 272) Its most beneficial function is its emotional power: "There is no question that religion provides a solace and support, a bulwark in times of emotional need, and can serve extremely useful social roles." (3, p. 289)
These "extremely useful social roles" are presumably providing ethics, leading social action, and so on. Science has little influence on this aspect of religion, except possibly to reduce the amount of human need and suffering.
Religion's largest social influence is not nearly so benevolent, however. Religion's biggest flaw is that its function of bridging knowledge gaps stifles the pursuit of the real answers in several ways. First, concepts of a supernatural being saving the world at the last possible moment inhibits our desire to solve our problems ourselves. (8, p. 272) Second, religion causes us to accept an unchanging body of tradition without challenge. (10, p. 24) To avoid disapproval when traditions are challenged, it deceptively redesigns doctrine; Sagan alludes to one cult that redefined the "end of the world" when 1914 passed without the world physically ending. (3, p. 284)
A classic example of the latter negative aspect of religion is its conflict with science.
[There has been a] long and painful history of erroneous claims which religions have made about the nature of the world There is hardly an organized religion with a firm body of doctrine which has not at one time or another persecuted people for the crime of open inquiry. (3, p. 284)
Sagan illustrates this point with Galileo's experience with the Catholic church. A more recent example has been religion's disagreement with evolution since the late nineteenth century, which has been "unproductive" and not from the basis of science but led by "those with doctrinal axes to grind." (2, n. pp. 4, 5)
As a result of religion's deceptive actions and especially its confrontation with science, the modern acceptance of religion is contingent upon current scientific compatibility. We must therefore evaluate religion on the same basis as science because all belief, including religion and science, must be based on fact to be legitimately believed. (10, p. 24)
The difficulty with religion is that it doesn't critically review its evidence--"every idea is as good as another." (10, p. 24) The basic tool for the evaluation of science is skepticism, and likewise should it be for religion: "skeptical scrutiny is the means, in both religion and science, by which deep insights can be winnowed from deep nonsense." (3, p. xiv)
There is, however, a certain level at which religion is not subject to this skeptical analysis--the core of religion is very "resistant to rational inquiry." (3, p. 284) Here Sagan makes a distinction between organized religion and the "mystic core" all religions share. Sagan maintains that religion has something which resonates deep within us. Organized religion, with its bureaucratic and authoritarian trappings, has been the main perpetrator of deception; however, the deception is tolerated because of the intrinsic appeal of religion's mystic core. (3, p. 284)
This resonance of the mystic core has two possible origins. First, Sagan speaks at length of how religion may be an "attempt to make contact with the earliest and most profound experience of our lives", the birth experience. (10, p. 22) Many of the conceptual ornamentations of organized religion (the expulsion from Eden, baptism, and being "born again" for example) as well as the reports of those who have claimed to have had a "near-death experience" consist of images similar to the experience of birth. (4, p. 44)
But religion has a second theme: an awe at the universe's "intricacy, depth, and exquisite beauty" which is better than any "bureaucratic religion." (10, p. 24) This is the essence of the mystic core which gives religion its deepest holding power; the religious instinct is rooted in nature. However, this purest core is ultimately subject to rational inquiry, for religion shares it with science. There is something religious, in a broad sense, about scientific investigation because we are drawn to it by what appears to be its awesome beauty and intricacy. (10, pp. 19, 20)
In a way, science can give us a reason for this resonance with nature and sense of its beauty: we feel a deep-seated union with the universe because we are indeed made of the same stuff. (10, p. 20) Science is able to provide the answers to many such fundamental mysteries. One of the largest roles of religion was to explain fundamental mysteries, also. However, religion merely offered fillers to keep the intellect satiated until the real answers could be found. Science, on the other hand, is what gives us the definitive, real answers. Many of the great "mysteries" of the past have been solved since science came into its own in the Rennaissance; for example, the sacred Kaaba stone of Islam is really a meteorite, and the heavens are propelled by gravity, not angels. (3, pp. 198-203)
One might argue that explaining all the religious mysteries ruins their spiritual usefulness as well. Sagan, on the other hand, feels that a worthwhile myth is better when it is based on an external knowable reality. The purpose of myths is to give ourselves meaning; understanding a myth by finding the evidence always will reveal a deeper mystery, and hence a deeper meaning, that we can work to understand. (10, p. 23) Furthermore, if nature is the root of religious experience, then it is certainly right to search for natural causes for "supernatural" and "religious" happenings. (10, p. 20)
With this perspective, Sagan proceeds to comment on the largest, two-fold
mystery: the origin and nature of the universe. Religion's "God hypothesis"
is intended to explain these two things. But we can't be sure that God
is or isn't?it's an extremely confused subject. We need to know much more
about the universe to prove or disprove God. (10, p. 20) Believers and
nonbelievers alike err when they insist on a position either way for neither
side has a sufficient factual basis. (10, p. 22)
What we do know sheds doubt upon the traditional theological stance; the universe is beautiful, but also violent--that dichotomy doesn't become the Western God. Furthermore, humanity is a mere speck. In sum, the universe "does not exclude a traditional Western or Eastern god, but [it] does not require one, either." (3, p. 290)
The God hypothesis doesn't satisfactorily answer the questions, anyway. Science tells us that we don't need a God to do what we thought only God could do?even to be the First Cause. The only reason we reject an infinite regression is because that's the way Western philosophy developed under the influence of Judeo-Christian cosmology. The possibility of an infinitely old universe is just as feasible as a first-caused universe. To assume that God is the First Cause does not answer the origins question; it just postpones it until we can know where God came from. We cannot assume that the universe is not infinitely old unless we can know where God came from. Until then, the God hypothesis is no better than the infinitely old universe hypothesis. (3, pp. 286, 7)
The God hypothesis doesn't advance cosmology because it doesn't make testable predictions. Today's cosmology is becoming more and more of an experimental science. We are quickly learning just what the universe is made of; presumably we will eventually know where it came from:
It is not too much to expect that we will soon have firm observational answers to questions once considered the exclusive preserve of philosophical and theological speculation. . . it may be that in the next few decades we will, for the first time, rigorously determine the nature and fate of the universe. (6, pp. 9, 15)
And just what is Sagan's answer to the God hypothesis? His famous quote says it all: "The cosmos is all that is or was or ever will be." (7, p. 4) Like the Hebrews' I AM, so is science's COSMOS IS. The only remotely traditional view of God Sagan nods to is Einstein's concept that God is the sum total of the natural laws. Yet Sagan's cosmology is far from a sterile compilation of laws. The answer to the ultimate question of the cosmos (Sagan doesn't define this question any further) is yet to be found, but Sagan is certain that the answer will "resonate with the religious sensibilties of human beings." (3, p. 287)
Thus, to arrive at an answer to the question of the origin and nature of the universe that is both intellectually and religiously satisfying, all we need to do is to keep looking for the facts. Knowledge is at once the ultimate means and the ultimate end.
This view has interesting implications for the remaining big mystery, the purpose of humanity. Traditional religion states that man's purpose is to glorify his Creator. Does Sagan's answer to the God hypothesis imply that our purpose is simply to study the universe until we figure it out? Sagan says yes. Religion's old role of telling us our meaning is fading with discovery, and the human desire for purpose must be replaced with "examining the universe and examining ourselves" without the anthropocentric preconceptions assumed by organized religion. This will threaten the usual doctrinal religions, but only because those who hold them didn't arrive at their views by analyzing the facts. (3, pp. 289,90) Even if there is a "traditional God", then our curiosity and intelligence are gifts we should use by exploring the universe. If there is no traditional God, then those gifts are our only way of surviving. "The enterprise of knowledge is consistent with both science and religion, and is essential for the welfare of the human species." (3, p. 291)
We are highly motivated to find natural laws because our destiny is to know the universe. "Our fate is indissolubly bound up with science. It is essential as a matter of simple survival for us to understand science." Evolution has primed us for this by arranging "that we may take pleasure in understanding." (7, p. xii)
Sagan's concept of human destiny has far-reaching ramifications: "The universe belongs to those who, at least to some degree, have figured it out." (5, p. 11) Sagan goes further to state that through seeking knowledge humans have the potential for a kind of immortality, if we don't abuse that knowledge:
But if we avoid self-destruction, we will enhance our respect for the environment and our ability to solve global problems. Then in a benign and compassionate way, we will establish a permanent human presence on other worlds. (9, p. 63)
So what is left for religion? Is science the ultimate evolutionary mutation that will inevitably squeeze religion out of humanity? On the contrary, Sagan's point is not that religion has been outmoded by science; he does recognize that religion still retains much power. However, religion needs to adapt if it is to continue to have significance. (3, p. 288) It must yield the final say on knowledge about the physical universe to science, abandoning its deceptive, stubborn history.
The remaining legitimate function for religion in our culture is to continue to provide social benevolences such as emotional support and ethical lobby. Science for its part must regard religion as a social leavener to keep the pursuit of knowledge ethically focused. (10, p. 23)
Religion has served and will continue to serve a crucial role in the development of civilization. Nevertheless, it must recognize that its role is changing. Religion once provided satisfactory but temporary answers to the age-old questions to which science can now provide the real answers. Religion need not worry about such questions anymore; it can now concentrate its efforts on its most beneficial role, supporting and representing our civilization's social dimension.
1. Meredith, Dennis. "Carl Sagan's 'Cosmic Correction' and Extra-Terrestrial
Life Wish." Science Digest, June 1979.
2. Sagan, Carl. The Dragons of Eden. New York: Random House, 1977.
3. -----------. Broca's Brain, Reflections on the Romance of Science. New York: Random House, 1979.
4. -----------. "The Amniotic Universe." Atlantic, June 1979.
5. -----------. "Reflections on a Grain of Salt: Can We Know the Universe?" Science Digest, July 1979.
6. -----------. "The Case of the Missing Mass." Science Digest, September 1979.
7. -----------. Cosmos. New York: Random House, 1980.
8. -----------, and Thornton Page, eds. UFO's--A Scientific Debate. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1972.
9. Sanger, Alvin P. "A Conversation with Carl Sagan." U.S. News & World Report, 1 December 1980.
10. Wakin, Edward. "God and Carl Sagan: Is the Cosmos Big Enough for the Both of Them?" U.S. Catholic, May 1981.
In case you didn't notice, this was written some time ago, 1987 to be exact. Mr. Sagan was still very much alive and at the forefront of popular science. Comments are welcome. Direct your comments to "sagan **at** detwiler.us." Remember to replace the **at** appropriately.
This entire page is copyrighted 2001 by the author, Scott Detwiler. Links to this page are welcome, but I'd appreciate you letting me know you have done so. Thanks!