In addition to being a scientist, Carl Sagan found himself a celebrity as well. His television mini-series Cosmos, and its accompanying book, sparked the interest of people around the world in science, its practical applications, and most importantly its ethics. Carl Sagan’s confrontation with the ethics of scientific progress and his compassion and humanism made him easier to relate to for the layperson than many other scientists. But his compassion, humanism, and ardent ethical stance served a greater purpose than making science people-friendly. They were a key part of his worldview and teaching and the reason why he is remembered as a great man and not just a great scientist.
Cosmos stands, even today, as a unique body of work, in both its range and substance. Sagan used Cosmos as an introductory teaching tool, an exploration of the possibilities of science, and a platform to advocate moral correctness on such issues as nuclear arms proliferation and environmental protection. His activism stands equal to his scientific accomplishments as part of his legacy. He spoke many times about the effects of nuclear weapons, and more importantly the precedent they set for an intelligent species surviving itself and advancing beyond its own adolescence.
There’s no doubt that Sagan loved science, but more importantly he recognized that science must operate within the framework of human reality; that it must take into account the fragile, violent world in which we struggle. Unwilling to disjoin raw, amoral scientific study from the moral reality of our day to day lives, Sagan both brought science beyond its experts and brought ethics into scientific discussion. The issue of scientific ethics is one that Sagan, as many scientists, battled with his entire life. His desire for peace and for a world in which mankind could use science as a means to better itself as a whole made Sagan an idealist. He thought it was not enough to strive for scientific progress. We must strive for moral progress as well.
Ethics and morality have typically been the domain of other spheres of study such as philosophy, psychology, and religion. But ethics and morality cannot be specialized fields. They must be taken into account in every endeavor and in every vocation. Many people cite Sagan as an anti-religionist. But Sagan struggled with religion his entire life and lived his life as an agnostic. It obviously played a large role in his life, for better or worse, as several of his books can attest. But where Sagan critiqued religion was when, just as in his critique of science, religion did not live up to an ethical or moral standard. For instance, in Cosmos, Sagan condemned the iniquities of the church against scientific pioneers like Galileo.
In The Demon-Haunted World Sagan explored how natural phenomena used to be explained through mythical or religious allegory and how the advent of modern science has superseded the need for these explanations. Sagan did posit a world without God or without any divine or supernatural properties, but he does not claim it is necessarily the case. Sagan taught that the study of the natural world belongs to science and that there are demonstrable ways of understanding nature that do not rely on faith. His taking back of natural explanations, such as evolution, for which he was a staunch advocate, does not preclude religion’s place in explaining or theorizing upon the transcendent. Where Sagan most chastised religion was when it was the justification for bigotry, war, and ignorance.
In Contact, Carl Sagan laid out his fundamental feelings about science and religion, their intersection in humanity, and the greatness and terribleness of both. The story of Contact focuses more on the ethical implications of science and religion than on the “battle” between the two. Sagan detested the militarization of technology just as much as he did the violence of religious fundamentalists. In both cases, true ethics and progress were subverted for a paranoid, selfish fear. Sagan wanted his readers to understand that humanity and compassion were crucial, regardless if one is a scientist or a man of the cloth. Rather than promoting schisms between science and religion, Sagan's body of work attests to his constant effort to promote humanitarianism, peace, and collaborative progress for the greater good of society.
Many famous scientists are known because of their association to terrible things. From the notorious Edward Teller to the greatly loved and admired Richard Feynman, those scientists who developed the the atomic bomb and its unnecessary successor, the hydrogen bomb, had been the face of modern science. Sagan presented the world with a different face, a human face, a presence that cared more for humanity than for the science it had created. Sagan courageously called his colleagues on their amorality and sought to find a balance between technological progress and the ethical understanding of that progress. For Sagan the “should” always tempered the “could.”
One can watch or read Cosmos today and still appreciate the variety of messages it carries. Sagan’s enthusiasm for scientific exploration and his determination to moralize science still inspires people today. It’s almost 2011 and so far we’ve managed to avoid nuclear holocaust, but science is still used in many ways that violate Sagan’s ethical standards. If Sagan were alive today what would he say about the current state of NASA? How would he feel about the percentage of federal money spent on “defense” versus that spent on progress? Sagan made Cosmos during the cold war, so he was no stranger to imbalanced spending. But with the cold war over and America entrenched for now as the world superpower, how can we continue to justify spending billions and billions of dollars every year on weapons while NASA’s budget and programs are constantly being cut?
If anything should be left from the teaching of Carl Sagan, it is that as we rush headlong into exponential technological and scientific progress, we must all of us stop and think about how this progress affects our lives and whether it conforms to a code of ethics that allows humanity to survive in peace and freedom.