Archive for December, 2009
[This post originally appeared at my old blog on June 28, 2007. The original is here.]
The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors, so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. 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.
- Carl Sagan [HT to Space.com]
The above image is a photo of Earth seen from a distance of 4 billion miles. It was taken by the Voyager 1 space probe in 1991. I haven’t read Pale Blue Dot, the book by Sagan from which the corresponding quote is taken, but if the passage above is a good representation of the ideas that Sagan presents in the book, then I think we can identify two philosophical assumptions on his part that are of dubious merit.
First, it seems that Sagan sees a proportional correspondence between significance and size. That is, Sagan somehow thinks we humans are insignificant because we are so small and fleeting when compared to the spatial and temporal vastness of the universe. As with everything Sagan wrote, his prose here is gracefully poetic and rhetorically powerful, but when we reduce the message to its foundational assumption it seems strange. Why should size or duration be good indicators of significance, especially when it comes to valuating human significance? If I am less significant because, when compared to the cosmos, I take up much less space and exist for an infinitesimally briefer duration of time, why not also say that a 20 pound toddler has 5% of the significance of a 400 pound man? Even from a naturalist perspective it should seem obvious that human traits like consciousness, self-awareness, creativity, love, free will, appreciation of beauty, etc. are much more significant than 20 trillion square miles of mindless mass and energy. A galaxy may be a thing of superlative beauty, but it lacks the ability to either consider or appreciate that fact, while even a small child can behold the heavens and delight in them, not knowing what she sees but knowing what she sees is good. As Emerson said, the sky is the daily bread of the eyes.
Second, it seems odd that Sagan would use human insignificance as a springboard for moral condemnation of tyrants and military despots. If, as Sagan contends, we are ultimately insignificant in the grand scheme of things, why couldn’t the tyrant come to the opposite conclusion from the same data? Why couldn’t he say that humans are simply clouds of atoms that have evolved with the unhappy ability to reflect on their own existence, mere material entities whose existence is worth nought when compared to the unimaginable scope and power of the rest of the material entities in the universe? On this basis he might just as easily conclude that he ought to make the most of his short time on Earth by conquering and pillaging as much of this small rock as he can manage. His conclusion would be as equally valid as Sagan’s, if not moreso. No, Sagan is wrong here. It does no good to chart a brighter course for mankind on the hopeless foundation of human insignificance.