In Memory of Carl Sagan
In an open letter to Ann Druyan, The Planetary Society and the innumerable fans of Dr. Carl Sagan, Dan Lewandowski has most eloquently reflected our feelings on the passing of Dr Sagan.
Dear Ms. Druyan,
It has been one of my goals for the past two years to contact the people who had a major impact on my life and thank them. I've been able to do that with a few of them, some of them in person, and each instance has been an enriching, joyful experience. I regret that I did not contact you and Dr. Sagan before I awoke one morning to the news of his death.
I knew of Dr. Sagan's illness from reading his account of his medical trials in Parade magazine, but he was so optimistic in that article and during his live interview on Nightline earlier in December, that I was not sensitive to how fierce a battle he was waging. My wife awakened me on the morning of December 20th to make sure I heard the news in the gentlest manner possible, because she knew it would devastate me. My holiday season was a somber one, including not a few futile attempts to force a smile and hold back tears.
A few mournful days later, approaching midnight, I went outside to get a breath of the crisp winter air and to see the last full moon on a Christmas Eve I will probably ever see in my lifetime (the next such event is not scheduled for about another century) and atmospheric conditions had created a big brilliant and beautiful rainbow halo around the moon. A window had opened in the clouds, as if to provide a clear glide path for Santa, that allowed me to see the effect with a few stars in the clear dark background. I admired the beauty of the picture for a while and began to think about the physics behind what was happening and admired the subtle splendor of it all. I then realized that I had Dr. Sagan to thank for the understanding of much of what I was perceiving and for the ability to preserve a sense of awe integrated with that knowledge. I pondered, as I'm sure Dr. Sagan must often have, the eternal mystery of how some of the star stuff of the universe had exploded into being, and evolved to the point where it could contemplate its own beauty. This fundamental mystery calls like a siren's song to the curiosity of its created creatures.
A human being is, one might say, a star's way of thinking about a star. Not that I think stars are literally alive, but my sense of connectedness is a very different outlook from the false duality of material and spiritual that my conservative religious upbringing had ingrained in me. One of the quotes included in Cosmos that stuck with me is "No one has lived longer than a dead child, and P'eng Tsu [the Chinese equivalent of Methuselah] died young. Heaven and Earth are as old as I, and the 10,000 things are one." - Chuang Tzu, China about 300 B.C.E. Reading the works of Dr. Sagan slowly created cracks in the foundation of my thought paradigm, sometimes collapsing whole pillars, but always replacing them with different but even stronger cornerstones on which I could build. And so it went for decades as I continued, reading from right to left.
During this long period, I was constantly trying to smash the square pegs of what I was learning from science, sociology, psychology, history and comparative religion into the round hole of my conservative Christian paradigm. Often I had to chalk up contradictions and paradox to the idea that God could understand how it worked even if we didn't. That's not terribly difficult to do if there are no clear answers to be found or if one's understanding of either science or church history and theology is modest. I didn't have anything close to a healthy tolerance for ambiguity, and when one is faced with the choice between a compelling rational explanation and a deference to supernatural intervention, it was almost impossible for me to ignore the rational option, which created even more tension and synthesis with my theological viewpoint. Choosing scientific and rational explanations would be called "nature eating up grace" by Francis Schaeffer and "deferring to Occam's razor by scientists; choosing God would be called "a spirit filled stand of faith" by my fellow Christians and "promoting the God Of The Gaps" by scientists. My research was forcing more and more deeply rooted foundational choices, but I kept looking for a way God could be vindicated and harmonized with my scientific understanding. I wanted a solid, absolute, once and for all answer.
This all caused a great deal of mental anguish, depression and confusion. The tension only increased over the years, and it affected my life in almost every way. I reached the point where I was bordering on biochemical treatment for depression because my mind was always wrestling with philosophical problems and not getting acceptable solutions. Julian Huxley had a similar experience, which he described as developing a "thought tumor." A more contemporary metaphor might be a thought virus, not unlike a computer virus that stacks up an ever expanding spiral of self referential nested processes. Even when I wasn't consciously working on these problems I think my subconscious was working on them and slowing down my entire thought process. The solutions I did come up with tended to produce more, and further reaching, questions rather than resolutions. The unsolvable mysteries kept coming. As I approached a critical transition point in my thinking, I began to write out the questions I was confounded by. The list went on for pages of compressed computer type. No wonder I felt bogged down.
I had read, listened to and watched hundreds of religious books, audio tapes and videos, and sat through many more classes on the questions I was struggling with, trying to find answers. Most of the church friends and teachers I asked responded by saying, "I never thought about it" or "It's too frustrating to think about" or "That's the first thing I'm going to ask God when I get to heaven." Or they would recite meaningless aphorisms like Mark 10:26-27, "With God all things are possible." Many didn't even know what I was talking about.
Making matters worse was the dismissive and often hostile and denigrating attitude toward secular writers like Dr. Sagan and others which discouraged me from looking for answers from them. These so called "critics" were cast as shallow, bitter individuals who were out to destroy Christianity and/or find a way to excuse themselves for their moral guilt. When I actually took the time to explore the issues from their point of view I realized they were mostly just reasonable people that would like to believe in miracles as much as anybody but there were these serious problems with the Christian paradigm that had to be addressed and often there were other more reasonable explanations for the mysteries and miracles upheld by the church.
Thanks to Dr. Sagan's relentless efforts to bring science to the public, I had many chances to read and watch Cosmos and some of his other works. Often when I had been channel surfing or seeking other books in the library, his name would keep popping up and every time I watched or read something with his name on it, I was struck by the intense feeling that paying attention to what he had to say was a very enlightening, rewarding and worthwhile endeavor, and that I needed to do more of it. Every time I did, I found that my mind seemed to gain clarity and insight. Even a few of my questions were being answered or rendered moot. The answers were not always what I wanted to hear, but they were so powerful in the way they made sense and fit the evidence, I had to accept them.
One of the engaging aspects of Dr. Sagan's work was the comprehensive inclusion of the human experience described as he tried to explain and apply science. Nothing in his description could be called dry or boring. He was willing to include himself in acknowledging the emotional aspects of the human experience of science, and in explaining why what he was talking about affected us all in much the same way, be it fear of the unknown, loss of a loved one, the desire to blame our shortcomings on outside forces, awe at the order and complexity of creation, the frustration of not finding the answer one expected to find, the desire to be special and be connected to a higher intelligence, the natural human tendency to jump to the wrong conclusion because it seems natural or because it's what everybody else thinks is true. I found in Dr. Sagan a man who spoke to me as a fellow traveler in life. He was not at all the dangerous threatening force he was portrayed to be by the religious leaders I had been listening to.
He made science apply, not just to sterile laboratories, but to the development of all human culture since Democritus first smashed a pebble on a rock in ancient Greece and wondered how many times a pebble could be smashed before the fragments could no longer be divided. I learned about a noble enterprise that had something to say about life and consciousness throughout time and space, and opened my mind to ideas that were more thrilling than many of the concepts I had learned in religion, some of which had begun to seem banal in comparison.
Ideas, such as the vast explanatory power of evolution and genetics which you and he elaborated on in Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, that shattered the teleology of Pierre Teilhard DeChardin that seemed so comforting to me as a compromise between science and my religious beliefs just a few years earlier. The counterintuitive developments in physics especially since the 1920s, the vast increase in historical knowledge of biblical time periods in this century from archeological discoveries, the increased understanding of psychological and sociological behavior of oppressed people across time and across cultural boundaries and the understanding of how various kinds of mythologies rise and fall to explain many of the same themes throughout history has shed a tremendous amount of light on how the universe functions and how its inhabitants have tried to plumb the depths of the mystery of existence. I eventually reached the point where I became convinced that man's present knowledge was sufficient for me to dismiss the church's traditional rendering of God. I began to open my mind to other science writers and revisit my notes from my high school and college science courses.
Dr. Sagan's work was not the final thrust that broke me free of the gravitational bond of my religious superstitions (John Dominic Crossan supplied that), but it provided both the launching power for the ascent of my journey of intellectual restructuring, and a joyful place to land when my soaring cerebral flight found its new perspective. What a joy it was to vindicate that little nagging voice that kept me searching, probing, asking questions, courageously admitting to the flaws in my previous reasoning. I consider Dr. Sagan to have been a foster parent to the orphaned child of my curiosity.
There are so many gifts Dr. Sagan gave to me and the whole of the human race. Some are as concrete as the hardcover versions of his books. Some are as abstract as the power of reason and his positive vision. He supplanted the belief, borne out of fear, that the world was about to end, with the hope for man's journey to the stars. He imparted the desire to make the most of this life for the good of all mankind in the here and now of our existence instead of waiting for some "pie in the sky when you die by and by" superstition. I'll carry with me always his challenge to use my human volition to create meaning out of a neutral universe by doing something meaningful.
If I had the chance to go back in time, I would have said these things to him directly:
Thank you, Dr. Sagan, for your healthy, positive approach to life and the enthralling dreams you dared to dream in Pale Blue Dot; For the grand sweeping perspective you enlightened the world about through Cosmos; For the critical thinking toolbox you put on permanent loan to us in The Demon Haunted World; For each of the candles you lit in the darkness when you brought your thoughts and those of the great men of science to the public. Thanks for enhancing my vocabulary with all the new words I got to look up in the dictionary which I found to be a necessary companion to your books. I learned to always keep one at arm's length when reading your latest release. Thanks for everything we have yet to experience of those projects that were in progress when you died. I look forward to learning from them as well. I look forward to sharing your legacy with all those young people who soon will come of age and learn of your work for the first time, along with the great names in the history of science. I look forward to watching the upcoming Cosmos For Kids with them. Thanks for telling us about the postcard from the passenger about to board the Titanic, which you kept on your bathroom mirror. I made my own version of it to remind myself how precious every day is. Thank you, for changing my life.
Before I finally submitted this letter, I scanned through every one of Dr. Sagan's books that I could find, and everything I have written about my experiences and intellectual journey during the last few years, and I wanted to include it all. I looked through books he recommended in his books for relevant and poignant passages to reinforce his eloquent statements, and I wanted to include them all. I listened to my favorite music and found many passages of melodic poetry that harmonized with his philosophy, and I wanted to include them all. In the war on fear, superstition and ignorance which he waged so valiantly, he overwhelmingly won the battle for my mind. So much of his work is now a part of me that I often have trouble telling where my thoughts start and his end. And I wish I could include them all here.
Instead, I urge all who read this, to make it a priority to pick up any of Dr. Sagan's works, be it video, audio, book, film or CD ROM, and experience the brilliant candle of science in your own life. Then share it with as many people as you can.
Dr. Sagan died having accomplished more than most men could in ten lifetimes, and with some dreams unrealized. Some day I will die, no doubt with a few unrealized dreams of my own. Hopefully, I will have made a small difference toward advancing the human race toward the maturity of his vision in my own small way.
We must come to grips with the fact that we have no absolute or privileged frame of reference in this universe and that is one of the common threads that ties all of the human race together. The more this realization enlightens the population, the better the chances that we will start treating all our brothers and sisters peacefully, and as equals to be valued and appreciated for their diversity. None of us knows all the unimaginable symbiotic, serendipitous, synchronistic energies and ingredients which were necessary to evoke this miraculous blossoming of dust into the unique beauty of being. Nor whether, if ever, in some unknown eon to come, it will awaken again to the same unanswerable questions.
Still, we must not be shy about giving ourselves a little credit for developing as far as we have. We have discovered, and with a mix of fear, courage, hope and wisdom, embraced our independence and loneliness. We have made many mistakes. We are fragile and possess the capacity for self destruction. But there is also much that is virtuous about us. We can look as far as our faults, or we can look beyond them so that our vision is almost as encompassing as the universe itself. We can decide that there is a future for ourselves and move toward it with whatever strength we have, perhaps as far as the distant stars.
In this beginning is the future. May the day soon dawn when all the people of Earth come to know it is morning in the universe.
Wichita Falls, Texas