Pale Blue Dot – Carl Sagan (Review)

Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space, (New York: Ballantine Books, 1994).

Pale Blue Dot was published in 1994, four years after Carl Sagan convinced NASA to turn the Voyager’s cameras back at earth and take a picture of its long traveled path.  It’s one of my favorite Sagan books: I like any book that quotes Herman Melville well, and in this one, Sagan leans heavily on the seafaring Melville who, for Sagan, embodies an idealized spirit of science (scire – to know) in his approach to philosophy and the world around him.  For Sagan, Melville represents the sort of human being who could “neither believe, nor be comfortable in his unbelief; and he is too honest and courageous not to try to do one or the other.”  Melville was an explorer — a voyager — in literature, life, philosophy, and heart.  It’s also where we get the famous “Pale Blue Dot” narration; here’s one version of it (the original is at the bottom of this post).

Wanderers by Erik Wernquist

“For all its material advantages, the sedentary life has left us edgy, unfulfilled. Even after 400 generations in villages and cities, we haven’t forgotten. The open road still softly calls, [note this Whitman reference] like a nearly forgotten song of childhood. We invest far-off places with a certain romance. This appeal, I suspect, has been meticulously crafted by natural selection as an essential element in our survival. Long summers, mild winters, rich harvests, plentiful game—none of them lasts forever. It is beyond our powers to predict the future. Catastrophic events have a way of sneaking up on us, of catching us unaware. Your own life, or your band’s, or even your species’ might be owed to a restless few—drawn, by a craving they can hardly articulate or understand, to undiscovered lands and new worlds.

Herman Melville, in Moby-Dick, spoke for wanderers in all epochs and meridians: “I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote. I love to sail forbidden seas…”

Maybe it’s a little early. Maybe the time is not quite yet. But those other worlds–promising untold opportunities–beckon.

In a nutshell, this book is about Carl Sagan putting into perspective the long history of anthropocentricism that has led to our present moment, the long series of disillusionments that have led to humanity realizing it is not the center of the universe.  In contrast to all the awful things that humanity has done in the name of some invisible force (God, power, ideology), Sagan offers space exploration as the pinnacle of human achievement — the thing that we are human beings are best at (exploration) and should be most proud of as a species.  These themes can be summed up in one of Sagan’s most famous speeches, the “Pale Blue Dot,” a narration introducing one of the most important images in the history of photography. While the Earthrise photo (1968) served essentially the same function as the Pale Blue Dot photo (1990), the difference of twenty years of space exploration encouraged an even more humbling perspective on human values and ambitions in the face of the ever-receding, ever-expanding mirror of the cosmos.

Sagan’s primary problem stems back to Protagoras, the father of relativism, who would have us believe that “man is the measure of all things.”  By extension, he takes issues with all anthropocentric religions, in particular western Judeo-Chrisitian traditions, that teach man’s privileged position in the universe.  Sagan’s response to Protagoras is the same as Demosthenes’: “What a man desires, he imagines to be true” — or rather, man is not the measure of all things, man measures all thing how he desires.  God does not make man in his image, each man makes God in his own image:

Dine hunc ardorem mentibus addunt,
Euryale, an sua cuique deus fit dira cupido
Do the gods not give this fire to our hearts, Euryalus,
or does each man’s mad passion become to him a god?
(see: “The Omnipresence of the Gods“)

Religion and Philosophy of this kind becomes popular because it is a form of wish fulfillment.  Sagan wonders: “”What do we really want from philosophy and religion? Palliatives? Therapy? Comfort? .. Reassuring fables? … Dismay that the Universe does not conform to our preferences seems childish.” (BPD, 46).  For Sagan, choosing to “believe” in a religion or philosophy versus choosing to “explore” the universe through science is a choice between the blue pill and the red pill, and many would prefer we had all taken the blue pill.  Conversely, “Modern Science” is the red pill, taking us into a “voyage into the unknown, with a lesson in humility waiting at every stop” (PBD, 19).

In Chapter 3 “The Great Demotions,” (or as I’d call it, The History of Anthropocentric Apologists”) he outlines his rational-humanist position, noting just how difficult it has been to find any evidence of a god. Paraphrased:

  1. The Earth is the center of the universe. Therefore we are special. [Ptolemaic universe]
  2. Even if the Earth isn’t the center, the sun is, so we are very close to the center of the universe. Therefore we are special. [Copernican / Keplerian]
  3. Ok, so the sun isn’t the center, but the Milky Way is, and the Milky Way is. Therefore we are special. [Galilean, sort of]
  4. Sure there may be hundreds of Galaxies, but ours is the center of them all, therefore we are special.
  5. Well if there is no center to the universe, no other stars have planets, therefore we are special.
  6. Even if other stars have planets, none of them have life. [Not yet that we know of!]
  7. Further, Human Beings are different from other animals.  [Darwinian selection]
  8. We might be related to animals, but we are still special somehow.

Sagan’s language, so meticulously accessible, so floridly metaphorical, allows his reader to — almost comfortably — realize the degree to which the pursuit of knowledge of the universe is the pursuit of self-knowledge (gnothe seauton), that this knowledge is not only hard to stomach, it is the realization that “we have not been given the lead in the cosmic drama” — that if “all the world’s a stage” we might not even have a role at all.

it is difficult, even hazardous, to attain — it should come as no surprise that in Sagan’s world explorers (Melville, Cook), scientists are the true heroes.

Given that “the gods were disappointingly hard to find” (xv), Sagan proposes we replace religion with scientific humanism — essentially Spinozan awe and pursuit of knowledge.  It’s time to quit clinging to the reassuring fantasy of a universe that, seen from the individual perspective, intuitively seems to be all about the individual, and embrace the awe-some hugeness of a cosmos in which, if there is a god at all, such a god “must be even greater than we dreamed” (50).  The other path is the blue pill, the choice to live a blinkered existence and never to try to see face-to-face.  In Sagan’s encomium to knowledge, we hear echoes of Marlowe’s Faustus, Milton’s Satan, or conversely of Erskine’s The Moral Obligation to Be Intelligent, yet Sagan provides us an idea of what he thinks it means.

If there is no god to define our meaning and purpose, no “parent to care for us, to forgive us our errors, to save us from our childish mistakes,” then we must become responsible to ourselves and to each other. “We are the custodians of life’s meaning…If we crave some cosmic purpose, then let us find ourselves a worthy goal.” (55)

But what exactly is that meaning? How should we define that meaning?  Sagan has no clear path. But he has some examples.

On the one hand, it seems clear that humankind is running out of time to act — that we are every day more bound to a future of self-destruction:

“If we continue to accumulate only power and not wisdom, we will surely destroy ourselves…If we become even more violent, shortsighted, ignorant, and selfish than we are now, almost certainly we will have no future.” (PBD, 329)

His caveat: scientific discovery in the twentieth century has routinely led to the creation of technologies that can wipe out man entirely — the technophilic deus-ex-machina savior of science is just as likely to create a technophilic dies irae: (“Can we human beings be trusted with civilization-threatening technologies?) (258). It’s remarkable the degree to which Christian eschatological thinking underpins Sagan’s humanism.

Sagan would have us pursue knowledge, science, and the exploration of the universe simply for the sake of better knowing our place in it and who we are.  Violence — in all forms — is anathema to this goal.  He echoes Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels when he gives an example of what technology should do: “A blade of grass is commonplace on Earth; it would be a miracle on Mars” (PBD, 284).  But most of all, we should be building technologies that extend “human sense into far-off worlds.” He sees the Voyager missions as the ultimate example of this humanwide effort to remove the scales from our eyes.

Seeking not to control, threaten, wound, or destroy, these elegant machines represent the exploratory part of our nature set free to roam the Solar System and beyond… In their exploratory intent, in the lofty ambition of their objectives, in their utter lack of intent to do harm, and in the brilliance of their design and performance, these robots speak eloquently for us. (PBD, ≈125).

It is their essential harmlessness that makes the Voyagers the epitome of the human ideal that Sagan would have us strive for.  They are like the telescope in Robert Frost’s poem, the “Star-Splitter.” They are devices whose only purpose is to help us see through time and better perceive our own place.  When Frost tells his friend he has made a huge mistake selling his farm to buy a telescope, his replies with the wisdom of Sagan:

“Don’t call it blamed; there isn’t anything
More blameless in the sense of being less
A weapon in our human fight,” he said.

Sagan is right — the purpose of humankind will ultimately be determined by what role we choose to play in the universe, or what metaphor we imagine our lives as operating under.

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