Thomas Wictor

Outer and inner space

Outer and inner space

A reader sent me the link to “The Single Most Mind-Altering Photograph Humanity Has Ever Taken.” It’s a short video presentation about a photo of Earth that Voyager 1 took. The image is dubbed “Pale Blue Dot” and was the inspiration for Carl Sagan’s 1994 book Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space. Sagan narrated the video at the link the reader sent.

It’s a good piece; my only quibbles are the moral equivalence between western democracies and imperialistic dictatorships, and the notion that all wars are the same. The Dutch defending themselves against Nazi invasion from May 10 to May 17, 1940, is in no way similar to Saddam Hussein invading and annexing Kuwait on August 2, 1990. No two wars are alike. That’s just reality. It’s perfectly legitimate to decry war, but characterizing all war as “an eagerness to kill each other” is a statement beneath a scientist of Carl Sagan’s stature.

Yet I’m not surprised that Carl Sagan would make such a simplistic pronouncement. He made quite a few in his life.

Some people think God is an outsized, light-skinned male with a long white beard, sitting on a throne somewhere up there in the sky, busily tallying the fall of every sparrow.

What Sagan did here is the fallacious debating technique called the Argument of the Beard, which assumes that both ends of the spectrum are the same. The vast, overwhelming majority of religious people most certainly do not believe that God is a giant Caucasian man with a long white beard. Though some people might, lumping all religious people into that category is dishonest. Again, it was beneath Sagan to make such a statement.

He also said this.

Life is but a momentary glimpse of the wonder of this astonishing universe, and it is sad to see so many dreaming it away on spiritual fantasy.

As a scientist, what was his evidence that musings on the spiritual are just fantasy? And how is an interest in spiritual matters dreaming your life away? Who gave Sagan the godlike authority to decree what’s important and what isn’t, what’s real and what isn’t, and how we should live our lives? His widow Ann Druyan spoke with the same certainty.

Carl faced his death with unflagging courage and never sought refuge in illusions. The tragedy was that we knew we would never see each other again.

She knew no such thing; she believed it. In other words it was an act of faith. There’s no scientific evidence whatsoever that she’ll never see her husband again. There’s no scientific evidence whatsoever that spiritual beliefs are a fantasy or illusions. To make the definitive statement that these beliefs are only a fantasy, Sagan had to prove it. He couldn’t, because it’s not provable.

The fact is, nobody knows what happens after we die. Only the dead know. Carl Sagan now knows. I’m confident that he’s doing fine. And couldn’t I make the accusation that he dreamed away his life, fantasizing about interstellar travel, alien galaxies, and remote star systems instead of working on his people skills? After all, he was married three times and was known to be an arrogant, flawed man.

In the video linked above, Sagan says the following.

There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the only home we’ve ever known—the pale blue dot.

I completely agree with him about the folly of most human conceits, but I arrived at that conclusion by going in exactly the opposite direction as Sagan and so many other scientists. What convinced me that most of my priorities were garbage was studying inner space. The comparatively tiny size of our planet never meant much to me. I knew from childhood that Earth is miniscule. In this image, Earth and Venus are the two third-smallest spheres, while the largest is the sun.


So what?

The small size of Earth never compelled me to be a better person. How could it? Whether we’re on a pale blue dot or not, a war is just as lethal. Knowing how infinitesimal we are never stopped a brutal dictator from trying to exterminate a particular group. Regardless of how miniscule our planet is, people still commit evil or at best behave like slobs.

Turning inward—not traveling further and further away from home—changed me. Saved me, in fact.

My conviction that each of us is as important as the universe is illustrated with the Mandelbrot set, a two-dimensional fractal shape that’s infinitely detailed along its edge. No matter how closely you zoom in, you’ll never reach the end.

That’s what individual humans are to me. We’re all infinitely significant, due to our complexity and capacity to improve. By zooming in, not out, I was able to dispense with my most destructive and self-destructive traits. The journey continues; it may continue forever. It could be that improvement isn’t finite. We may not be able to reach perfection, but that could be the point. Maybe only the divine can be perfect.

On the other hand, maybe if we zoom in long enough, we achieve perfection and become divine. I have no idea.

Though Carl Sagan and I disagree on much, we agree that we need to treat each other with more kindness. He and I traveled vastly different routes, but we arrived at the same endpoints. Outer and inner space brought us together.

Unlike Sagan, I can’t say that a firm belief in God is a delusion, an illusion, or a fantasy. Also, the vastness of the universe doesn’t impress me. It’s people who matter. Carl Sagan was as important as the universe, and so is Ann Druyan.

And I believe that they’ll meet again, if they choose to do so.

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