Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Why the candle flame gutters

History is full of people who out of fear or ignorance or the lust for power have destroyed treasures of immeasurable value which truly belong to all of us. We must not let it happen again.

Our loyalties are to the species and the planet, we speak for Earth.

Our obligation to survive and flourish is owed not just to ourselves but also to that Cosmos ancient and vast from which we spring.

(Cosmos Episode 13: Who Speaks for Earth?)

Skepticism has become the only thought that seems to thrive in this millennium often at the peril of scientific growth and sometimes even reality. Yesterday would have been Carl Sagan’s 75th birthday. It is only fitting to reach back to the advocate of skeptical inquiry and scientific method to look for why the world appears so unreasonable. Or shall we say scared?

I worry that, especially as the Millennium edges nearer, pseudo-science and superstition will seem year by year more tempting, the siren song of unreason more sonorous and attractive. Where have we heard it before? Whenever our ethnic or national prejudices are aroused, in times of scarcity, during challenges to national self-esteem or nerve, when we agonize about our diminished cosmic place and purpose, or when fanaticism is bubbling up around us- then, habits of thought familiar from ages past reach for the controls. The candle flame gutters. Its little pool of light trembles. Darkness gathers. The demons begin to stir.

(The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark)

Why the demons stir and threaten to extinguish all reasonable thoughts and arguments is a result of the way science and technology as a subject are divorced from science and technology as a symbol of development, in our understanding.

We’ve arranged a global civilization in which most crucial elements- transportation, communication, and all other industries; agriculture, medicine, education, entertainment, protecting the environment; and even the key democratic institution of voting- profoundly depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things, so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for awhile, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces.

(The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark)

So, while the world around us may quite possibly blow up in our faces in the not so distant future, despite what we may or may not believe in, the fight to save it from an early end is far from over. As Carl Sagan said, “Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.”

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. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

(Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space)

To read an excerpt from Broca's Brain: Can we know the Universe ? Click here.

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