Friday, June 16, 2006

Carl Sagan; Priest

The correlations between theology and science are abundant. I used to make this analogy, perhaps a reaching one, finding the comparative points between science and theology, hesitant that maybe it was a faulty comparison. But like most of my rants, as I did more than just casual research through observation of human behavior, I found that the correlations were astounding.

Many of you might have heard of the brilliant (and late) astronomer Carl Sagan; he is also the author of the book “Contact,” which was made into a movie (and was not as good as the book). The “to Carl” at the introduction to the movie refers to him. Carl Sagan might be one of the world’s most avowedly unashamed atheists, concretely firmed in his viewpoint that there is no Divinity or divinities of any sort, and that the truth of human existence and experience can be discerned by science. Only by science.

To a theologian or to a religious person, that theology can be compared to science is at least unmoving, at most, a realization that scientific evidence about this world support the events explained in the Torah; this would imply that religion is not closed-minded to science, at least at one end of the scale. It would also mean that religion or theology itself is a form of science, a guiding system into the reaches of the man-to-Divine relationship and to the essence of humanity. A religious person has no real anguish about this notion and is not apologetic about science, for science can support religion. Further, science has its field of inquiry and religion has its own.

To a scientist, that science can be compared even remotely to religion or theology is a nuisance; it implies that the scientific inquiry is being related to the “magic tricks” of religion. Considering that the scientist sees science as a way to test hypotheses and therefore remove doubt from decision-making, the comparison to religion, which operates largely on faith, is anathema. However, we cannot oversee the obviated religious components of science; like religion, science comes fully equipped with data collection, inquiry, thought, and faith, dogma, and extremism. In religion, there are clear signs of the human intelligence, and in science, there are clear signs of human religion; a wonderful twist of the yin and yang, belonging to the Buddhism of which Sagan was fond of. That religious people have faith and that scientific people have knowledge is a rested case.

But if religious people have knowledge, as many religious systems encourage and are built on knowledge-seeking, then we must be able to say that scientific people have belief, or assumptions that they hold to be true regardless of what they know is true or false, and then try to prove or disprove. True, science cannot and should not be tempered with by human ego and assumptions, but only the monastic willing to retreat to a mountain for eternity is able to fully divorce the self from these things. Scientists, like all human beings, hold assumptions, fears, and insistencies, and the scientific process is colored by this. Because the (atheistic) scientist represses and submerges these human tendencies to believe in the greater, these tendencies emerge in unexpected places and as unexpected things; the Divine emerges covered in the veneer of science. Without drawing away from the validity of science, it too becomes one of those innately human thought systems – a religion, although intricately geared to the truths and needs of the 21st Century. It is a very sophisticated and fact-finding religion, but a religion nonetheless being a product of the human thought process, unless a scientist concedes that the information was either sent to his head or delivered to him from above.

Science, it can be said, measures the physical world, and religion measures the internal. However, this is only partially true, for science seeks to claim the internal world of man too, the psyche and mind, and to define the soul away as a complex process of biological functions. Religion too wants to claim the physical world for itself, to explain all that occurs in the world through the scope of religion. That religion understands the overarching and urgent need to maintain morality on Earth does not injure the insistence of science that we understand the functions of nature; each tries to explain the entirety of existence using only itself, but the wise of each camp have peered over the fence into the next. “Hey, throw me a potato!”

Truth be told, a scientist does not concede that information about the universe reached his mind through a message or was delivered to him physically, but that the human rational process alone is responsible for the knowledge. But the nature of the human being demonstrates again and again, unfortunately to the chagrin of the (atheistic of the) scientist, that spirituality and divine-seeking are embedded into the very thing that makes us human vs. animal, be it our genes, our intelligence, or some combination that gives us a unique human existence; religious people know this as the “soul.” All human beings want to understand our origin; the religious have Genesis, the scientist has spontaneous development of organisms. The religious have commandments, the scientific have laws of physics. And most significantly, the religious have G-d, the scientific look to the sky in a different way to find answers that lie beyond their scope. We all wait for a call from beyond.

This is the plot of the book “Contact.” Ellie Arroway, the main figure, invents a machine and devises a pattern able to discern faint radio signals from space. She desperately seeks some call from the sky, hoping to make contact with a civilized race of beings far more developed and progressed than we are, who can clue us into the secrets of the universe and to explain our origin to us. She relies, and so does the author of the book, that the beings will necessarily be far more intelligent than us to the point of relative omniscience, rendering them omnipotent. The new insights given to the human beings from the advanced beings will shake the world from its proverbial slumber and open up humanity to an enlightened understanding of existence. It is a very intensely interesting, and religious, book.

One problem though, there is no evidence that aliens exist in the real world. While this book does a magnificent job explaining what it would be like were an advanced alien civilization actually to contact Earth, it is a narrative built, of course, on scientific truths, but also on speculation as to what it might be like were such a thing to occur. So far in human history there has been no voice from space, so if there isn’t one, then we should just invent one, hence the book. Religious faith are blunders in the atheist’s world view, but one by one, and perhaps by accident, Sagan, whom is brilliant, makes the same “mistakes” as does every religious faith-driven person in the world. He believes in a higher form of beings, immeasurably older, wiser, and intelligent than we, whom contact us from a place of immeasurable distance in the heavens with a message that will enlighten us as to our purpose and usher in an era of peace and knowing. Sounds like religion to me. The message comes down as an instruction to build a machine, whose function is unknown, and which will somehow put us in contact with them. The components of the narrative are astounding; creation, omnipotent and omniscient beings, in the heavens, communication with us, desire to enlighten, unify, and save us. So far, Sagan speaks about these beings as if they are real, but every concept in the book has come directly from his mind, which means that they are longings deeply set in his psyche. This would make me an atheist to the scientific religion, because how can I know what he says is true if he is just a man who wrote some book, regardless of how significant and magnificent it is? Rather, all he has proven to me is that he wants aliens to exist, but they don’t, so he makes them up.

I had seen and heard several of Sagan's videos on astronomy and physics when I took an astronomy class years ago. He was a sheerly brilliant man, but everybody has their limitations on brilliance - everybody has their field in which to shine. Throughout the book, I can't help but to think to myself that Sagan makes some blatant fallacies about the nature of religiousity, which he prods and pokes arrogantly. The great thing about a book is that there is no room for debate in it; what the author has written is truth. As brilliant as he was, I am shocked that he has his characters (manifestations of himself) provide some of the most shallow lines of argumentation against religion. I have had conversations with a Tucson TV personality, whom has a cable access show bi-weekly. He is an avowed atheist and struts it arrogantly. His only problem is that he doesn't bother with the facts before making his argument, and in the end, his atheism cannot be mistaken for wit or intelligence; he is no smarter than your average gas pumping attendant, and no more in tune with matters of the spirit than a con-artist. I am troubled, but not shocked, that Sagan the brilliant reminds me of this gentleman.

The keen religious reader reading this book will pick up every accidental, perhaps not, allusion to religion made in this book. This leaves the book in a state of “bible,” taking on religious connotation, and if such a scientific bible were to be composed, “Contact” would make it into the canon. This book presents the contact of aliens to humans as truth, but in alignment with criticism of religion, we can make the exact same criticism; this book is a figment of human ingenuity. This is irrelevant since the book intends to be a work of fiction; it only becomes relevant when we realize that science functions for many scientists as religion does for many religious people, with one version of the origin of the universe replacing the other. Since this is so, the content, hopes, dreams, and aspirations of the author seep through the lines of text and into the reader, imbuing them with his vision of the Divine, and the world to come with it; a testament to the calling out of his soul to something greater than he. Carl Sagan, it is true, was a visionary, a religious person, as we all are.