Written by Robert Becker
Stay ’til the end – and a rich payoff of Carl Sagan’s gemlike insights. A little clean-up work first, to clear the palate.
I don’t regularly read Wash. Post’s Charles Krauthammer (CK, as in crank), often regret when I do, ending with gnashing teeth. From time to time, perplexity or hilarity moves me to the dark side, hunting out the loopy logic behind he latest fringe skullduggery. I used to read that wily conservative wordsmith, Peggy Noonan – a far better stylist – until I gagged at her unctuous Vatican sycophancy.
So, I brightened suspiciously at Krauthammer’s seemingly apolitical title, “Are we alone in the universe?” Ah-ah, I guessed, are greedy oligarchs, having written off the Middle East quagmire, reigniting manifest destiny into space? Doesn’t commerce that follows expansion, like Columbus or our interminable invasions, pay back venture capital that ventures far and wide? Imagine the military cash blast from space voyaging, as in W.’s fantasy pitch for actual Mars landings. What overstretched empire desperate for a larger purpose wouldn’t drool to conquer the moon, awarding itself an armed catbird seat to spot evildoers “from above,” like gods?
CK opens with confusion, puzzled why we haven’t yet found intelligent life elsewhere despite the huge sample pool – billions of stars, an infinity of solar systems. I was itching to hear him pontificate about not finding intelligent life scattered across his own party’s goofy field of candidates. But no, instead the Crank posited that advanced civilizations are rare because they self-destruct, ironically killed off by their own “intelligence.” And then the shocker: he cited the hallowed authority of Carl Sagan. Sans proof. Right, sounds just like the scientist Sagan I recall, the indefatigable founder of the whole SETI program -the Search for Extraterrestrial Life. Why would this incredible space enthusiast waste decades and large budgets if he believed there was nothing to find? The world’s most famous scientist of his generation wrote a book called “Intelligent Life in the Universe.”
Finally, out of this Krauthammer morass emerges this leap of logic, a defense of rational, life-affirming politics:
if we don’t get politics right, everything else risks extinction . . . in all its grubby, grasping, corrupt, contemptible manifestations –[politics] is sovereign in human affairs. Everything ultimately rests upon it. Fairly or not, politics is the driver of history. It will determine whether we will live long enough to be heard one day. Out there. By them, the few — the only — who got it right.
Is this it, a covert campaign pitch, implying redemption, indeed survival, depends wholly on smarter politicians? How can he blithely ignore a contradiction the size of Jupiter? How can politics be “sovereign” when CK’s own frantic fringe, the creeps who defy compromise on national debt or paying our bills, torpedo the process. Where’s the illusory sovereignty of politics when the right holds only contempt for unhinged, lying liberals? How can CK evoke politics when his demented fellows play demotion derby, denigrating huge threats like global warming or worldwide pollution plus any sort of political solutions? Right, the sovereignty of politics drown it in a bathtub.
That dead end aside, there’s more nonsense afoot, like Krauthammer’s claim any search for space life “betrays a profound melancholy, a lonely species in a merciless universe [that] anxiously awaits an answering voice amid utter silence”? Utter silence, like the key “noise” that revealed the Big Bang? CK whines this void of contact is “maddening” because “it makes no sense.” Wait a minute. Doesn’t scientific curiosity, not melancholy, drive our space investigations, as Sagan’s illustrious career proved? Since when is science about self-pity, not wonder or desire for knowledge? Testing, testing, earth to CK.
Second, considering the brevity of the SETI hunt (a few decades), the vast distances, and the rarity of the life-sustaining Goldilocks habitats, jumping to any big conclusions is absurd. Results: not maddening, nor surprising, certainly not unexpected. Further, our “lonely species” is maddeningly overpopulating our shrinking planet, thus dying from disease, malnutrition, and poverty. The poorest among us aren’t melancholy or anxious because no wizard found any chatty playmates lights years away, but because desperate earthlings are bereft of resources. This supposedly “smart rightwinger” obviously skipped way too many science classes.
Then, from bad logic he shifts to chicanery, as my research failed to establish where “Carl Sagan (among others) thought that the answer is to be found, tragically, in the final variable: the high probability that advanced civilizations destroy themselves.” Would Sagan the evidence-driven scientist make such specific predictions about absent civilizations about which no one knows anything? True, Sagan the strong critic of nuclear arms – and the Vietnam War, plus damage to the earth – imagined dire results for this very planet. But he had evidence galore, even before 1996 when he died. Readers, any help here?
CK’s distortion reflects his hijacking lines from Sagan’s novel, Contact, pgs. 358-360, especially fanciful dialogue between Ellie (human scientist) and the Alien, to whom she asks how his imaginary “advanced civilization” might respond to cosmic threats.
[Ellie] “If the Nazis had taken over the world, our world, and then developed interstellar spaceflight, wouldn’t you have stepped in?”
[Alien] “You’d be surprised how rarely something like that happens. In the long run, the aggressive civilizations destroy themselves, almost always.”
First obvious fallacy: fictional characters speak for themselves, not their creators. That’s why essays exist. Second, the Alien only cites “aggressive” civilizations prone self-destruction, thus they’re the exception: “You’d be surprised how rarely something like that happens.” I resent when cranky mental midgets, for their own needs, misrepresent what mental giants “say” in novels. Wrong and stupid. There’s only one correction to such intellectual crimes: Sagan’s own lucid wisdom, full of important ideas and opinions, even wit, without sounding strident or self-righteous.
Here’s a summary of Sagan quotations, and a few favorite Sagan’s treats, tasty enough to drive away the bitter taste from getting Kraut-hammered:
Gems in Sagan’s World of Wonders:
“We are star stuff harvesting sunlight.”
“We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.”
“What a marvelous cooperative arrangement — plants and animals each inhaling each other’s exhalations, a kind of planet-wide mutual mouth-to-stoma resuscitation, the entire elegant cycle powered by a star 150 million kilometers away.”
“Extinction is the rule. Survival is the exception.”
“The absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence.”
“A celibate clergy is an especially good idea, because it tends to suppress any hereditary propensity toward fanaticism.”
“The universe seems neither benign nor hostile, merely indifferent.”
“I would suggest that science is, at least in my part, informed worship.”
“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. So are our emotions in the presence of great art or music or literature, or acts of exemplary selfless courage such as those of Mohandas Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both.”
“The prediction I can make with the highest confidence is that the most amazing discoveries will be the ones we are not today wise enough to foresee.”
“How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, “This is better than we thought! The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant?” Instead they say, “No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way.” A religion, old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the Universe as revealed by modern science might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths.”
“The idea that God is an oversized white male with a flowing beard, who sits in the sky and tallies the fall of every sparrow is ludicrous. But if by ‘God,’ one means the set of physical laws that govern the universe, then clearly there is such a God. This God is emotionally unsatisfying … it does not make much sense to pray to the law of gravity.”
“Since, in the long run, every planetary civilization will be endangered by impacts from space, every surviving civilization is obliged to become space-faring – not because of exploratory or romantic zeal, but for the most practical reason imaginable: staying alive … If our long-term survival is at stake, we have a basic responsibility to our species to venture to other worlds.”
“Long ago, when an early galaxy began to pour light out into the surrounding darkness, no witness could have known that billions of years later some remote clumps of rock and metal, ice and organic molecules would fall together to make place called Earth; or that life would arise and thinking beings evolve who would one day capture a little of that galactic light, and try to puzzle out what had sent it on its way. And after the earth dies, some 5 billion years from now, after it’s burned to a crisp, or even swallowed by the Sun, there will be other worlds and stars and galaxies coming into being — and they will know nothing of a place once called Earth.”
“We long for a Parent to care for us, to forgive us our errors, to save us from our childish mistakes. But knowledge is preferable to ignorance. Better by far to embrace the hard truth than a reassuring fable. If we crave some cosmic purpose, then let us find ourselves a worthy goal.”
“Finding the occasional straw of truth awash in a great ocean of confusion and bamboozle requires intelligence, vigilance, dedication, and courage. But if we don’t practice these tough habits of thought, we cannot hope to solve the truly serious problems that face us — and we risk becoming a nation of suckers, up for grabs by the next charlatan who comes along.”
Robert S. Becker