Puny man

The photograph below was taken by the Voyager 1 spacecraft as it reached the edges of the Solar System, 4 billion miles away. The dot on the picture is Earth.

January_2007_pbd_sm

Of this picture, Carl Sagan said:

“We succeeded in taking that picture [from deep space], and, if you look at it, you see a dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives. The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam.

“The earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and in triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of the dot on scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner of the dot. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.

“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. It is up to us. It’s been said that astronomy is a humbling, and I might add, a character-building experience. To my mind, there is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

Whilst Sagan speaks a certain amount of the truth about human folly here, for those of us who believe in God, this tiny speck of dust in the cosmic ether makes the condescension of God all the more remarkable.

Comments

  1. That’s an awesome shot! Boy how fascinating it would be to be on the Voyager 1 as it leaves the Solar System (at least for a few minutes, then the boredom of the loooooooooooooong trip will finally sink in).

  2. Amazing that we can get such a neat picture from 4 billion miles away and I can’t get a cell phone signal in the subway.

    ;)

  3. Kevin Barney says:

    Cool picture! I was an astronomy buff as a boy, and I really appreciate these sorts of things.

  4. How do they know that THAT speck of dust is Earth and not one of the other specks of dust?

  5. FYI: On my Win XP laptop, the picture show up in IE7 (mostly B&W with a greenish band through the middle and pale yellowish bands on the edges), but not Firefox 2

  6. greenfrog says:

    Thanks, Ronan. I find both Sagan and the picture inspirations.

  7. Sagan’s whole rant is a non sequitur. More specifically, the transition from the rant about the individual human being’s insignificance (based on an obscure photograph showing that there is more out there than the planet earth) to his conclusion that we should therefore be nice to each other simply does not follow. It could just as easy follow that since the individual human being — even the greatest “saint” or “confident” religious person — is completely insignificant against the tapestry of space, that any good deed simply does not matter and the ones who have things right are the blood-soaked dictators. If we are so insignificant on this speck of dust on a ray of sunlight, then the suffering of the abused child doesn’t matter at all; the millions killed in an oligarchy’s lust for power and domination don’t matter either. What argument can be made that the killed matter at all if they are just specks on a speck swimming in an endless void?

  8. greenfrog says:

    Moses seems to have suffered from the same logic in his thinking. (“…now for this cause I know that man is nothing, which thing I had never supposed…”)

    The connection between the ideas that makes it quite [i]sequitur[/i] and not at all [i]non sequitur[/i] is this: almost every human notion of aggrandizement, and hence the violence and moral failings derived from such aggrandizement, come only when one lacks perspective.

    Dr. Seuss got it right, too. It’s the Yertle the Turtle thing.

  9. I hope Carl Sagan finds himself in a good place now that he has passed on from this life. He seemed like a decent man despite his lack of acceptance of the concept of God.

    I have always found it a great paradox in our lives the we must first understand our relative insignificance in this life and universe, as illustarted by the photo, while at the same time considering the words of the Psalmist:

    “What is aman, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him?
    For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honour.
    Thou madest him to have dominion over the works of thy hands; thou hast put all things under his feet”

    I’m not sure which is thought is the more humbling.

  10. Greenfrog: Don’t you think that Moses’ perspective on this was a little different than Sagan’s? If so, then how?

    Sagan’s blurb is a non sequitur because nothing necessarily ties the idea of the insignificance of the individual human being to the idea that we must therefore all be nice to each other. Even the best deeds simply don’t matter if your perspective is that a human life is an insignificant blip on an insignificant speck in an endless void.

    The opposite conclusion, by the way, can be drawn from the picture, even for an atheist. That is, if the earth really is so insignificant against the tapestry of space and time, then each human life is infinitely of value (rather than puny and insignificant) and every element of suffering a true tragedy; every abortion a crime against nature; every murder the gravest moral wrong that can be done because it takes a unique, precious, unrepeatable, and unreplicable human life. Each individual human life must be cherished and valued precisely because it is unique and an amazing chance development of evolution that with almost infinite improbability could ever develop again. Thus, seeing the earth at this distance could and perhaps should evoke emotions of the value of the individual human life and experience, and not the silly, laughable insignificance of the same. In such a case, even in a Godless morality, it is conceivable that people could conclude that we must therefore be nice to each other. But if we are all insignificant, then our suffering doesn’t matter, our experiences don’t matter, our lives don’t matter — no one’s ever has and no one’s ever will.

    Also, this discussion reminds me of a bit of folk wisdom imparted by a bus driver in an East Berlin ward. He said to me, in a discussion of the nature and/or existence of God, that the Russians (and East Berliners know about the Russian mentality on things) went into space and said, “see, there is no God because we came up here by our own efforts and once we got here, we didn’t see any such thing as God, therefore there is none.” By contrast, and naturally much oversimplifying things but still making a point in the folk-wisdom kind of way, he said that the Americans went into space and looked around, looked at the earth, looked at the void, and praised God for the majesty of it all. I am not saying that this good member was necessarily right about whether the “Americans” as a group thought this or not; I am pointing out the difference in perspective that can be had when looking at the same picture. Following Ronan, a Latter-day Saint can look at this picture and find an unprecedented awe for the majesty of God’s creation, a vindication for the belief that Jesus Christ has created worlds without number, and even a reinforcement of notions of Kolob and the throne of God. And yes, a sense of the insignificance of man, but based on his subordination to the greater fabric of God’s creation and the obligations that flow from such subordination, specifically the obligations to God and fellow man enunciated in almost every religion, all of which represent man’s striving for his relationship with God and which demonstrate elements of God’s revelations of his truths to man.

  11. Gotta go with John F., and also G.K. Chesterton:
    “Why should a man surrender his dignity to the solar system any more than to a whale? … It is quite futile to argue that man is small compared to the cosmos; for man was always small compared to the nearest tree.” (Orthdoxy)

  12. Yuck, I hate Carl Sagan. I was at Cornell at the same time he was, the pretentious elitist. You had to go through a special application process to be pre-accepted to his once/2 year lecture. His house was egged. I didnt do it. I sware.

    I do love, love, love Astronomy Picture of the Day though. One of the handful of websites I check daily. Nothing like a heavy dose of reality upside the head, early in the morning.

  13. MikeInWeHo says:

    There is a certain irony when believing Mormons admire Carl Sagan. He most certainly did not admire LDS or other Christian religious beliefs. His book “The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark” is a full-on attack against organized religion in the same spirit as more recent works by Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, et. al.

  14. MikeinWeHo – I think it is possible to admire an individual who might be misguided in one, or more, aspect of his/her life. And frankly, I’m not all that enamored with organized religion myself. At least not all the ones that have been the source of suffering and persecution over the years. I’m only in love with my organized religion – and boy are we organized.

  15. MikeInWeHo says:

    I agree, Lamonte. The human mind’s capacity to compartmentalize is remarkable.

  16. greenfrog says:

    john f wrote:

    Greenfrog: Don’t you think that Moses’ perspective on this was a little different than Sagan’s? If so, then how?

    How were their perspectives different? Well, the context in which their perspectives were formed were quite distinct — one occurred while a professed atheist considered a photograph, the other to a prophet after he had a vision of God. But that’s context — not the perspectives, themselves, which I think were more similar than distinct (at least along the dimension under discussion). I’m happy to have you offer your different perspective on their perspectives.

    Sagan’s blurb is a non sequitur because nothing necessarily ties the idea of the insignificance of the individual human being to the idea that we must therefore all be nice to each other. Even the best deeds simply don’t matter if your perspective is that a human life is an insignificant blip on an insignificant speck in an endless void.

    This is true only if the baseline of our experience of existence is nihilsm. There are philosophies of life that suggest that once ego and its resulting delusions, sin, etc., are set aside, one is illuminated by God. LDS doctrine suggests a similar worldview in D&C 88’s teachings of the light of Christ. If, instead of abject neutrality, existence is suffused by divine influence (hard to find the right way to characterize light of Christ), then it shouldn’t be surprising that others perceive it, too, and express the same sentiment under whatever rhetorical construct their experience and belief structure provide.

    The opposite conclusion, by the way, can be drawn from the picture, even for an atheist. That is, if the earth really is so insignificant against the tapestry of space and time, then each human life is infinitely of value (rather than puny and insignificant) and every element of suffering a true tragedy; every abortion a crime against nature; every murder the gravest moral wrong that can be done because it takes a unique, precious, unrepeatable, and unreplicable human life. Each individual human life must be cherished and valued precisely because it is unique and an amazing chance development of evolution that with almost infinite improbability could ever develop again. Thus, seeing the earth at this distance could and perhaps should evoke emotions of the value of the individual human life and experience, and not the silly, laughable insignificance of the same. In such a case, even in a Godless morality, it is conceivable that people could conclude that we must therefore be nice to each other. But if we are all insignificant, then our suffering doesn’t matter, our experiences don’t matter, our lives don’t matter — no one’s ever has and no one’s ever will.

    Certainly a possible response to the situation, but — as I’ve noted above — dependent upon creation being non-divine, or at least on creation’s divinity not being perceptible and experience-able (I know, not a word).

    Based on my review of his writings, I’m willing to posit that Sagan was capable of spotting non sequiturs as readily as I am, and that if there was such a glaring one, he’d have figured it out. As MikeInWeHo has observed, Sagan was pretty adept at identifying logical flaws in religious thinking. That he didn’t see the defect you identify here suggests to me that there wasn’t one — IOW, that his response to his experience was as he represented it to be. If that’s correct, then there’s more to his experience than an existentialist schema would predict.

  17. MikeInWeHo says:

    Excellent point, greenfrog. As I think back on how Sagan expressed his awe at the scale of Creation (for him: Cosmos), the tone is strikingly similar to that of the Psalmist quoted above.

    This similarity is appealing to those of us with a universalist mindset, although many Christians found him utterly idolatrous. Was he standing in awe at the glory of God and using different words to describe it, or was he worshipping the creation rather than the Creator?

    Sagan’s PBS series “Cosmos” was a major fundamentalist bugaboo back in the 80s, as I recall.

  18. greenfrog says:

    This similarity is appealing to those of us with a universalist mindset, although many Christians found him utterly idolatrous. Was he standing in awe at the glory of God and using different words to describe it, or was he worshipping the creation rather than the Creator?

    I’ll resist the threadjacking urge except to say this: there is an interesting discussion to be had about how a Creator could be equal to or greater than the Creator’s creation without embodying the entirety of the creation, itself.

  19. Might I add a favorite quote of mine by Brigham Young:

    “I want to say to my friends that we believe in all good. If you can find a truth in heaven, earth or HELL, it belongs to our doctrine. We believe it; it is ours; we claim it.” (emphasis added)[Discourses of BY selected by John A Widtsoe, p. 2]

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