a telescope in Times Square, 1933
(Sorry for all the autobiography lately, but today is the 10th anniversary of Carl Sagan's death. Bloggers worldwide are marking the date with remembrances.)
When I was 15, I thought a bit about becoming a priest.
My family was Catholic, and I loved the Catholic Church. I also had already been obsessed with astronomy for about six years, and now my thoughts were just mature enough to start worrying over some of the hard questions this background presented.
Astronomy made it obvious that the world was much older than the Bible claimed — the Bible was wrong. In fact, I saw there was no way to confirm virtually anything in the Bible. The Creator himself suddenly seemed mythical compared to the easily confirmed natural laws I was starting to understand.
But a universe without God, so far as I could tell, was a horrible place — meaningless, without beauty, amoral, loveless. The evidence seemed to be forcing me into a sad and frightening universe in which I certainly did not want to live.
Knowing no other alternative, I thought about entering the priesthood — that is, of handing myself over completely to faith. Evidence and reason were leading me where I didn't want to go, so I toyed with the idea of turning a blind eye to them. If a "good" universe was the only tolerable kind, maybe I would have to simply assume one, regardless. I was deeply conflicted, and didn't know what to do. I remember a lot of pain about this.
By an astounding coincidence — divine intervention? — Carl Sagan's Cosmos debuted on public television exactly one week after my 16th birthday. The series turned out to be a 13-hour, carefully reasoned, gorgeously dramatized argument. And this argument was an elaborate answer to precisely the very question I was struggling with.
Cosmos argues that the universe is profoundly beautiful and meaningful, and it demands an ethical response from us — even, or especially, when we view it without the supernatural. Sagan argued that the only ethical response to the universe we know in the 20th century, given the challenges of that century, is to get the whole evidence thing, and the whole reason thing, right.
We've got see the world as it is and not how we wish it was.
The guy in the turtle-neck sweater spent 13 leisurely hours SHOWING why the character of the physical universe, and of our origins it it, oblige us to embrace a humane, ethical, rational, evidence-based world view. The evidence shows us a universe that is not only beautiful, but beautiful in precisely such a way that it requires from us an ethical, loving response.
For the next couple years, my synapses flowed with the greatest antidepressants on Earth. It was a mind-blowing and delicious religious experience.
I won't go into every twist and turn of my intellectual and spiritual development since 1980 — there'd be a lot to dredge up. It will suffice to say that Carl Sagan's Cosmos was among the most important events of my life. The Celestial Monochord would certainly not have existed without it — surely among Carl's greatest contributions to mankind!
I will add that Sagan's importance has unexpectedly deepened since 2001's dual attacks on Western Civilization — September 11 and Inauguration Day. Lately, I terribly miss Carl Sagan and what I think of as his ethics of epistemology, as I call it — his sense that we have a moral obligation to resist baloney.
I mourn his inability to be here to remind us of who we used to aspire to be — a humane civilization based on reason, evidence, and the universal rule of just laws. No one has taken his place.