Carl Sagan was certainly a great leader in the effort to promote science education, and for that I applaud him and revere his memory. Besides his life's work, he seemed from interviews and his writing to have been a genuinely nice and fun guy as well. His Cosmos series had an immense influence. He began it with the words
The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be.
Now whatever we may think about that statement, this much I think can safely be said: it isn't a scientific statement, it is a philosophical one. It may be true, of course. But I don't think it is obviously true. I don't think it is demonstrably true.
When Sagan addressed a CSICOP conference in 1987 he made this statement that again had me shaking my head:
In science it often happens that scientists say, "You know that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken," and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn't happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion.
If one were to take this statement literally rather than as the piece of rhetoric it truly is, one would have to assume Sagan was uniformed. And Carl Sagan was not an uniformed human being.
Actually, in politics there is a phenomenon known as "flip-flopping" - sometimes exaggerated, but nevertheless quite real - where a politicians was "for [this or that] before he was against it." They come out quite often announcing that they have switched positions and then explain why. They leave one party in favor of another. It literally happens all the time.
In religious matters one who is familiar with the development of dogma see lots of evidence that religion evolves. In fact, I cannot for a moment think that Sagan was ignorant of the stir the publishing of Darwin's groundbreaking work on evolution made upon the religious minded of his day. And I'm sure he knew there were many religious leaders who painlessly embraced "Darwinism" and incorporated it into their theology.
When the Big Bang became established as the leading scientific model for the birth of the cosmos theologians rushed to embrace it as "proof" of God's creative fiat over the primitive mythology of yesteryear. (Interestingly this model was first proposed by the Catholic priest and astronomer Georges Lemaître).
Fundamentalism doesn't define religion. It is but a small and very negative aspect of it.
Now I could belabor this point that political and religious thinking are in a more or less constant flux, but I don't feel it is necessary. If you have studied history - heck, if you are paying attention to the trends of the day - you know this.
So I believe the case is exactly the opposite of the way Sagan stated it above. In fact, the very evidence driven nature of science seems to preclude any such scenario as Sagan painted: "You know that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken."
Okay, that may be the case in philosophy, but not, I believe, likely among scientists.
As a pantheist (or maybe panentheist) I embrace both science and theology (politics is peripheral for me). As I'm getting older and having had so many opportunities to explore, I feel a personal need to clarify my life philosophy. This blog has been a running attempt to do that.
Some of my friends think I should do more living and less thinking. I understand their point. But for me, living is thinking. I think they don't fully understand me. The world and its creatures fascinate me.
Is the cosmos really "all that is or ever was or ever will be"? I cannot help myself from wondering. At the same time I can't help doubting that any of us have the truth all nailed down. Speaking for myself, embracing both science and religion makes more sense and gives me what I think is a fuller picture.
All of us have some beliefs that are not beyond reasonable dispute. Shouldn't be more sympathetic to those with whom we disagree? Shouldn't we try to erect the biggest tent possible?