Sagan’s pale blue dot: tribal confession or transcendent truth?


In a new year’s post, Adam Frank of 13.7 invites us to contemplate our place in the cosmos.  The professional stargazer asks, “What, really, is the point of it all?” He directs us foremost not to religion, or to philosophy, but to Carl Sagan.  Cue a four minute animation set to Sagan’s famous reflection on “the pale blue dot.”  Frank insists that “it will fill you with a sense of pure wonder.”  This invitation is too good to pass up.

This Voyager 1 photo of Earth as a pale blue dot, suspended in a sunbeam, captured the world’s imagination in the 1990s.   |   Wikimedia

But after watching it, I fail to feel wonder at the late Dr. Sagan’s deprecation of the human race.  Sagan insists of humanity, “Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light.”  In virtue of what principle does the pale blue dot challenge human importance and privilege?

Further, by what authority does Dr. Sagan diminish his fellow man as deluded?  John writes in his first epistle, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.”  Is Sagan’s brand of collective anthropic humility more palatable to some because it issues from a 20th century modernist tribe rather than a first century religious one?  A defender of Sagan’s myth would have to ironically claim some sort of epistemic privilege as well as self-importance.

The four minute animation–at one point summing the human condition via battling tanks with “H8” painted on their sides–concludes with these words:

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. 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 pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.

Now I wholeheartedly agree that we have an imperative to be kinder and preserve our home, the Earth.  If one wants to hold a sense of wonder from passing judgment on fellow human beings and thinking that reality consists chiefly in void, empty space, and is merely the curious fractional remnant of a clash between matter and antimatter, he or she is entitled.  But moral responsibilities and good feelings do not automatically follow from such a vision; it may as well be just another unreasoned affectation, a tribal confession.

In light of entropy, mortality, and the heat death of the Universe, Bertrand Russell provides a logically consistent outlook: “only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.”

Possibly, Sagan’s pale blue dot really is the vaunted God’s eye view.  But if there were anyone who could speak to humanity depravity and conceit with logical consistency, we should not be surprised when he self-importantly declares, “Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am.”

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About Lewis W
I earned an M.A. in Christian apologetics at Biola University, and occasionally write on ethics, truth, science and politics.

15 Responses to Sagan’s pale blue dot: tribal confession or transcendent truth?

  1. cosmoscon says:

    I am very familiar with not only the Pale Blue Dot video but also of Sagan.

    As a child I was literally turned on to science by Sagan’s Cosmos series (I have all episodes downloaded on my iPad) and ever since then I’ve not only studied science but became an amateur astronomer.

    It was only when I read more of Sagan’s writings as an adult did I learn of his atheistic bent in his writings as well as his very Liberal political views but I was able to filter that out and get some value from his writings.

    I agree that astronomy is indeed humbling and character building and you can’t help but get that sensation when I look at the sky in my telescope and see, with my own eyes, galaxies that are millions of light years away. It is a rush that never gets old and I love sharing that with my friends and family and watching their expression when they see things that they’ve only seen in pictures.

    That being said, as a Christian, astronomy has only strengthened my Faith and caused me to further believe that this perfectly designed cosmos was divinely ordained and had the Father’s hand from the very beginning. I have no trouble believing the Bible is God’s Word and the fact that the Universe is over 13 billion years old. The more I study cosmology and especially Quantum Physics, the more it is revealed that there is a Creator.

    • Thanks for your testimony as a civilian scientist, astronomer, and Christian. I too delight in whatever comes out of cosmogeny, particle physics, and allied fields. I especially enjoyed a recent trip to the Mauna Loa observatory this summer!

      It’s amusing to see how secular-minded people can interpret the data. Unfortunately, you will often see science populizers like Neil Degrasse Tyson, Michio Kaku, and Lawrence Krauss speak beyond their ken when it comes to meaning and the ultimate issues of life.

      • cosmoscon says:

        Science does a good job of explaining the ‘how’ but fails miserably when they attempt to explain the ‘why’ aspects.

        Keep the great blog posts coming!

  2. Debilis says:

    It does seem that one could probe for a long time without finding an end to the philosophical missteps in this approach.

    But I loved your thoughts, particularly the conclusion. Very well said.

    • A great quote I heard from Ravi Zacharias is that, “When the mouth opens, the fool speaks.” A close reading of most speeches and rhetoric will find a bounty of errors. Thanks for your review!

  3. James Cross says:

    I think the modern atheistic, scientific world-view has been a valuable corrective to ideas that Earth was the center of the universe and humans the highest, most noble of God’s creations. Gradually over the last few hundred years that has been torn down and where we find ourselves today in a more humble position – somewhat intelligent beings in one very small corner of the universe.

    That being said, the view can and probably has gone too far. I see no need for the aggressive atheism of Dawkins nor any need to argue that everything – universe and humans – are essentially random products of a meaningless universe. I am not certain Adam was arguing that but some do.

    • Hi James, I have enjoyed some of the past speculations on your blog.

      Your point is well taken. I agree that Adam was not putting forth an argument; but I am interested in understanding the emotional and spiritual resonance as seen in the 13.7 comments. I like how you’ve identified a corrective at work, which could explain the response in socio-historical terms.

  4. Arkenaten says:

    It’s amusing to see how secular-minded people can interpret the data. Unfortunately, you will often see science populizers like Neil Degrasse Tyson, Michio Kaku, and Lawrence Krauss speak beyond their ken when it comes to meaning and the ultimate issues of life.

    It is even more amusing when sanctimonious Christians become so holier-than-thou and because of their astounding ignorance ultimately insert a deity to cover their exposed asses. And not just any deity, mind. Oh, no sir. Their (exclusive) deity is the narrative construct, Jesus of Nazareth.

    Such arrogance is worthy of every ounce of scorn one can muster. And to put this in perspective there are over 40,000 christian denominations.

    • I misspoke there. I can’t think what’s amusing about Krauss, Degrasse Tyson, and Kaku when they make propositions about meaning. Rather, it is frustrating. But koombaya type responses to Pale Blue Dot can be amusing.

      What is the subject of ignorance you have in mind when referring to those sanctimonious Christians?

      • Arkenaten says:

        Where would you like to start?
        Abraham, Moses, Jesus?

      • You’re free to supply the instance of ignorance of your choosing, but try to stay on topic, as here I have written about astronomy and it’s relation to meaning as received culturally.

        But if you are going to continue to pepper your comments with unqualified ad hominems like “ignorant,” “silly,” and “lawd,” you can bet on an end to the thread.

      • Arkenaten says:

        I would suggest that astronomy is incidental or at least secondary to the thrust of the post as it was more about your considered opinion of taking to task the late Carl Sagan, rather than matters specifically astronomical.

        As for the term ”ignorance” in my comment it was directed at those of a religious bent that would cock a snook at certain respected scientists who would cast aspersions on the proclamation that a deity ( and in the Christian’s case, Yeshua) is the Creator of ‘it’ all.

        A somewhat arrogant supposition especially in light of absolutely no evidence whatsoever and also that we we may well be dealing with a narrative construct.

        That is one hell of leap of faith.
        But then, faith is all there is when it comes to deities, not so?

  5. Arkenaten says:

    @Cosmoscon

    Science does a good job of explaining the ‘how’ but fails miserably when they attempt to explain the ‘why’ aspects.

    Fail to explain they might, but they are in the main, honest enough to say, “We don’t know….yet”.
    Which strikes me as having a lot more integrity than saying , “God did it. Oh…and by God I mean Jesus, of course. Hallelujah praise the Lawd. Amen”

    Only rather silly people will do this. And, sadly, the world is full of such silly people.

  6. Pingback: Smuggling meaning into a Godless universe | Cogitating Duck

  7. Pingback: Smuggling meaning into a Godless universe | A disciple's study

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