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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