Carl Sagan's "Demon-Haunted World": Comments

A reader has asked me to offer some commentary on a premier Skeptic of the past, whom we associate in gentle mockery as the ones who made "billions" a twenty-syllable word: I'm talking of course about Carl Sagan. We don't think of Sagan as a consummate Bible critic or enemy of Christianity, and that would be correct. (More on this later.) On the list of those who profess to despise religion, he's not even in the top thousand. But it was quite interesting to absorb some of his lines of thought, as exemplified in his book The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark.

The title is perhaps a bit inappropriate. I would prefer "Truth," not "Science," as the candle, since as Sagan readily admits, science is only as good as the scientists who handle it; and truth encompasses science practiced properly. The overall theme of DHW, however, is quite agreeable. Sagan was quite disturbed by the lack of critical thinking and education, the preponderance of believers in astrology and extraterrestrial encounters (and, though he does not say so as much and as vehemently, religion), and by the indications that there was far too much in the way of gullibility in our world.

We can certainly sympathize with Sagan here. But Sagan apparently thought that science was the solution, and engaged often in what sounded like religious rhapsody when extolling its virtues: science offer "a profound sense of spirituality" [27], he tells us, as he tells of his wonder in asking questions of the tiniest natural matter.

There is a certain truth indeed here: Science, because it involves the pursuit of knowledge, is in essence a pursuit of the infinite. It therefore in a very significant way parallels the quest for the divine. It should not surprise us that Sagan and others rhapsodize of science in religious terms. I agree that science is part of the solution -- truth is the encompassing one.

Much of DHW was enjoyable to read. As a Trekkie, I was particularly amused by Sagan's critique of Star Trek and its vision of aliens who are mostly, more or less human, and of the idea that Mr. Spock could have been the result of human-Vulcan breeding. Sagan considered such a cross "genetically far less probable than a successful cross of a man and an artichoke." [375] He recognized that costume budgets and other technical constraints had a lot to do with this, yet was a bit unhappy about the influence he supposes this would have on the public view of science.

One wonders what he would make of the development in the ST series, made longer after his death, explaining the correspondence by supposing that humanlike galactic life was the result of panspermia. I suspect he would not have liked the implication that evolution by itself would not have been able to populate the galaxy.

I was also interested by Sagan's discomfiture at depictions of scientists in children's shows as evil or nerdy. As a librarian who violates every stereotype of that profession, I think he took it too seriosly, even as I also sympathize. He acknowledges, though, satisfaction with the likes of the Professor on Gilligan's Island.

Finally, I found interesting Sagan's proposed solutions to public ignorance. He would like to see more television programs focusing on the wonders of science. He has a good point, though it would take quite a talent to make such things as exciting as the public today would desire -- the sort of talent we apparently lack elsewhere as well.

Catch-22? Sagan fails to see the root of the problem: Men are too sinful to care about such things.

Yet when it comes down to tacks, we have to wonder whether Sagan hasn't missed something. The beginning reader, left breathless by Sagan's constant assertions of certain science matters as fact, may not think to question the authority of the man on TV who put PBS on the map. Sagan himself would probably have discouraged following his words blindly; let's do more to confirm that.

Philosophically we might point to this example. Sagan roundaboutly addresses the existence of God with the analogy of a dragon living in a garage. You don't sense the dragon in any way and when this is pointed out, Sagan has his theoretical foil make all kinds of rationalizations: you say put flour on the floor to see the dragon's footprints; the foil says the dragon floats, and so on. Sagan then asks what the difference is "...between an invisible, incorporeal floating dragon who spits heatless fire and no dragon at all?" [171]

But Sagan isn't on target here. The theistic arguments would take the contents of the garage as evidence for dragons; i.e., dragons leave paint cans around. We would have people who had personal encounters with the dragon, people who are otherwise known to be sane, not merely people who came with a singed finger they attributed to the dragon.

One wonders whether Sagan would have had to say anything about the intelligent design movement in this respect. I expect he would have repeated the standard lines from the evolutionary biologists; yet for other reasons I question whether Sagan should be taken at his word. Sagan seems to my mind to have been honest, but underinformed. My evidence is in that the one area where I know my expertise exceeds his, Sagan does not pass muster.

Sagan says little about the Bible, but what little he does offer isn't very promising. He compares oral tradition to the game of "Telephone" and comments about how books and printing set us free from the disastrous destruction of information [357]; to this I say, false. Sagan tells us: "The fact that so little of the findings of modern science is prefigured in Scripture to my mind casts further doubt on its inspiration." [35] I say, turn Sagan out in the Ancient Near East, and see if he would have cared about the Periodic Table of the Elements for more than a minute, or had religious rhapsodies about the properties of granite. (See here for relevant commentary.)

Sagan accepts the usual view about Deuteronomy being created at the time of Josiah (see here). He thinks that the Bible teaches that the earth is flat. [325] (See here.) Like Bultmann, he wonders (illogically) how those who ride airplanes can believe in demons. As I once remarked concerning another Skeptic, logic is great, and science is great, but until you mix the two properly, all you'll end up with is an inert and useless combination. Sagan clearly didn't check the facts where these matters were concerned, and I'm left to wonder how much data outside his chosen field (astronomy), or even inside for that matter, he has simply accepted from the mouths of "experts". Sagan could have used a little more of that sense of wonder and investigation where Scripture was concerned.

In sum -- Sagan showed a great deal more humility, on the surface, than the great preponderance of Skeptics we have encountered. But when it came down to consideration of the data, he was just as willing and able to accept what he preferred to hear as anyone -- and I think he might have admitted that.