CARL SAGAN'S COSMOS

DECEMBER 7, 1997
R.M. FEWKES

This morning's sermon is the second of two which were bid on and "purchased" by Paul Coolidge at two previous First Parish Goods & Services Auction in 1995 and 1996. Three weeks ago the sermon was a reflection on the life and thought of the great New England Transcendentalist, Ralph Waldo Emerson. This morning's sermon will focus on the recent late astronomer, Carl Sagan, his vision of the cosmos, and the relationship between science and religion as embodied in his thought.

I want to begin by reiterating one of the themes from the Emerson sermon. Emerson was deeply affected by the new cosmology that the science of his day was bringing to the fore. He could no longer believe in the anthropocentric scheme of salvation portrayed in the Bible. The universe was much more vast than the Biblical writers had ever imagined and the forces and powers of nature were no longer earth bound. Emerson's response was to say, "I will lift up my hands and say Kosmos." What would Emerson have thought of our even greater expanded cosmos? His cosmos was still confined to one milky-way galaxy and millions of stars. Our cosmos is now comprised of billions of galaxies and gazillions of stars, and the theory that they all derive from one source and one moment of conception, the Big Bang.

"I will lift up my hands and say Kosmos." Emerson's universe has now become for better or worse Carl Sagan's cosmos. And that cosmos has yet another notion that neither Emerson nor any previous generation ever thought of: namely, if the universe as we know it issued forth from an absolute singularity wherein time, space and matter were all compressed into an infinitesimal point which suddenly burgeoned forth in an initial explosion known as the Big Bang, then it may be that there are billions of universes in other space-time dimensions that came forth from yet other singularities, a veritable Big Bang Bang Bang Bang Bang, ad infinitum. Next time you watch another 4th of July Fireworks display put on by the Boston Pops at the esplanade think of that possibility. Of course, that is something we can never know, but the mere thought of it is absolutely mind-blowing. Years ago J.B.
Phillips wrote a book called, IS YOUR GOD TOO SMALL? It may be that our God is too small for even a universe of a hundred billion galaxies.

The poet, Mark Van Doren, captured something of this staggering notion in his poem "The God of Galaxies":

The god of galaxies--how shall we praise him?
For so we must, or wither. Yet what word
Of words? And where to send it...?
Let us consider it...And say it without voice.
Praise universes/Numberless. Praise all of them.

Carl Sagan refers to an apocryphal story about a Western traveler who asks an Oriental philosopher to describe the nature of the world. He tells him that the world is a great ball resting on the flat back of an enormous turtle. "Ah," his questioner inquires, "but what does the world turtle stand on?" "On the back of a still larger turtle", the philosopher tells him. "Yes, but what does he stand on?" And the philosopher says, "It's no use to continue with your questions, it's turtles all the way down." Well, in Carl Sagan's cosmos we can say it's galaxies, quasars and quarks all the way up and down.

Carl Sagan credits his parents, (who were not scientists themselves, and only one step out of poverty), for encouraging him in his desire to become an astronomer, even though "they had only the most rudimentary idea of what an astronomer does." They helped plant the seeds of his future career by taking him to the 1939 New York World's Fair which "offered a vision of a perfect future made possible by science and high technology." Though that vision has yet to be realized it marked the beginning of Sagan's lifelong love affair with science. Sagan had a gift for being able to relate the concepts and
ideas of science and astronomy to the average person in ways that were both understandable and exciting. His enthusiasm for the world revealed to us by science was infectious. His PBS series on COSMOS was watched by millions. He often wrote pieces for PARADE magazine that were easy to grasp. And he was working on the film adaptation of his novel, CONTACT, starring Jodie Foster, when he died.

Those of you who saw the movie will recall that the main character, a female astronomer, Ellie Arroway, takes a journey in a mysterious machine (the plans for building it having been transmitted to earth from an intelligent civilization in the region of the star Vega). The machine takes her through worm holes and space warps faster than the speed of light, to Vega and beyond. Her encounter with the wonder of the universe is a truly numinous spiritual experience. Not only does she see galaxies and star clusters of incredible color and beauty, but she encounters the physical likeness of her deceased father who relates to her the wisdom of the higher intelligence and beings that brought her to this point.

In the novel Sagan alludes to "an intelligence that antedates the universe", something he never came to affirm in his real life as an astronomer. He remained an agnostic all of his life. Nonetheless, he believed strongly that there was no inherent conflict between science and spirituality and that only in the wedding of skepticism (the impulse behind the quest for truth) with wonder (the sense of awe for the mystery of life and being) could a scientific and religious orientation grounded in truth be won. Speaking of the relationship between science and spirituality Sagan wrote: In its encounter with Nature, science invariably elicits a sense of reverence and awe. They very act of understanding is a celebration of joining, merging, even if on a very modest scale, with the magnificence of the Cosmos....Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light-years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty, and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual. The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both.

Sagan was always careful to distinguish his viewpoint as an agnostic from that of atheism. "An atheist, " he said, "is someone who is certain that God does not exist, someone who has compelling evidence against the existence of God. I know of no such compelling evidence....To be certain of the existence [or nonexistence] of God seem(s) to me to be the confident extremes in a subject so riddled with doubt and uncertainty as to inspire very little confidence indeed." Thus he remained a "doubting Thomas" agnostic to his dying day. Sagan loved the story about the British mathematician and philosopher, Bertrand Russell, who, after participating in an illegal peace protest, was asked by his jailer what his religion was. Russell replied, "Agnostic", and spelled it for him. The jailer shook his head and said, "There's many different religions, but I suppose we all worship the same God." Russell commented that the remark cheered him for weeks.

Sagan never lived to see his novel made into a film, but, along with his scientist wife, Ann Druyan, he had met with Jodie Foster and the film crew and offered his advice and contagious enthusiasm for the project. All of them were caught up in his vision. I appreciated the dialogue between science and religion that the movie and the novel and Sagan's other writings have opened up. Sagan has often said that there is no necessary conflict between science and religion so long as both are intent upon the pursuit of truth. Sagan once asked the Dali Lama what he would do if science was able to disprove a central tenet of their Buddhist faith, and he replied, "Tibetan Buddhism would have to change." Sagan pressed him further. "Even if it were a really central tenet, like reincarnation?", he asked. "Even then," said the Dali Lama. However, he added with a twinkle, "it's going to be hard to disprove reincarnation." Which Sagan readily acceded.

Reincarnation and God, concluded Sagan, are "difficult alike to demonstrate or to dismiss."  Sagan's metaphysical position might better be characterized as that of a reverent agnostic. What Sagan argued for on the part of both scientists and religious adherents was a sense of humility in the face of such profound mysteries as the origin and end of life and the universe. He quotes from the Hindu Rig Veda which asks: Who knows for certain? Who shall here declare it? Whence was it born, whence came creation? No one knows whence creation arose; and whether god has or has not made it. He who surveys it from the lofty skies, only he knows--or perhaps he knows not.


I think it could be argued that science, at least biological science, should at least have the humility to admit that evolution might not just be the result of pure accident and blind chance, but could be the expression of a hidden divine purpose. Increasing complexity of life forms leads to increasing levels of consciousness which reaches its apex in the human. Is this all due to mere chance or is there an underlying implicate order that aims towards cosmic consciousness? Science rules the idea of cosmic purpose and meaning out of court from the very beginning. Since the data can be read both ways should
not science at least admit it could be mistaken in its view. How does science know that evolution has no underlying spiritual purpose or plan? That is something that science as science cannot know, it can only assume. Carl Sagan at least had the humility to admit that the cosmic process could be interpreted and understood with or without the assumption of a divine purpose. Sagan put it this way:  I see the emergence in our consciousness of a Universe of a magnificence, and an intricate, elegant order far beyond anything our ancestors imagined. And if much of the Universe can be understood in terms of a few simple laws of Nature, those wishing to believe in God can certainly ascribe those beautiful laws to a Reason underpinning all of Nature.

Sagan likes to compare science with democracy. Both are imperfect ways of seeking truth and organizing governance, but they are the best we have for doing those very things. Science has a built-in error correcting mechanism at the heart of its empirical method. If you find out that a formerly held treasured hypothesis fails to hold up in the face of new data, then science must revise its hypothesis and seek new empirical evidence to corroborate its theory. Religion, he argues, has no such self-corrective mechanism for revising its doctrines to fit new evidence. That's not entirely true, at least not at the moral level. The prophetic tradition, which is common to all three western faiths--Judaism, Christianity and Islam--has a self-critical tradition for calling both religion and society to moral accountability in terms of how we treat the poor, the oppressed and downtroden. When it comes to love and justice the prophets want nothing to do with mere rites and rituals and ceremony. They want to see compassion and justice put into practice and action. "Let justice flow down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream."

It could be argued that science as such has no moral perspective in terms of what its knowledge and technology are used for. Science, after all, made the H-bomb, the most horrific weapon ever made. It should never have been made. But now that it is made, it should never be used. Science as science cannot decide that question. It is a moral question and any moral sense which scientists have in this regard they got from their culture, and the culture got it from religion. Science needs the ethical critique of religion just as religion needs the truth telling critique of science. Even Pope John Paul II has said, "Science can purify religion from error and superstition; religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes. Each can draw the other into a wider world, a world in which both can flourish."

In his last book Sagan referred to an alliance between science and religion--the preserving and cherishing of the earth--which both can embrace with knowledge and commitment. "Science and religion," noted
Sagan, "may differ about how the Earth was made, but we can agree that protecting it merits our profound attention and loving care." He was heartened to see an emerging interfaith response between different faith traditions, known as The National Religious Partnership for the Environment", and the scientific community, to the cause of environmental justice and integrity. It was a cause dear to his heart.

Like Emerson, Carl Sagan came face to face with death, not the death of his wife or children, but the reality of his own impending death. He was diagnosed with "myelodyplasia", a preleukemic condition. He struggled for two years of treatment for his illness including bone marrow transplants from his sister, but eventually his immune system weakened and he came down with a resistant strain of pneumonia that took him to his grave. He had been in and out of Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle numerous times in those two years. Many people of all faiths prayed for his recovery which he took note of in his last book published after his death:Five thousand people prayed for me at an Easter service at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City, the largest church in Christendom. A Hindu priest described a large prayer vigil for me held on the banks of the Ganges. The Immam of N. America told me about his prayers for my recovery. Many Christians and Jews wrote me to tell about theirs. While I do not think that, if there is a god, his plan for me will be altered by prayer, I'm more grateful then I can say to those--including so many whom I've never met--who have pulled for me during my illness.

Though he rallied briefly during his last stay at the Center Sagan knew that the end was near. He said to his beloved wife and science partner of 20 years, Ann Druyan, "This is a deathwatch. I'm going to die." When she tried to encourage him by declaring that he was going to beat it just as he had many times before, he said to her in a voice of knowing good humor and skepticism, and not a trace of self-pity, "Well, we'll see who's right about this one." What mattered to Sagan in facing his death, as he had tried to face life, was not what would make him feel better, but what was true. And the truth was his wondrous and fulfilling life as a husband, father and brilliant scientist was drawing to a close at age 62. His wife, and now his widow, Ann Druyan, takes comfort in the fact that so many people, who have written to her, credit Carl Sagan for their awakenings and that his example has inspired them to work for science and reason against the forces of superstition and fundamentalism. "These thoughts", she says, "comfort me and lift me up out of my heartache. They allow me to feel, without resorting to the supernatural, that Carl lives."

"I will lift up my hands and say Kosmos." Unitarian Universalists have always believed that the truths of science and religion must be ultimately consonant with one another. God cannot be less than truth, truth cannot be less than love, and love cannot be less than life. Source of all being, you who extend to galaxies and universes without end, and who resideth no less in the human breast, help us to feel and to know that all our beginnings and endings begin and end in thee, and that we are no farther from you than our latest breath and the beating of our hearts. Amen.