Why not save a step?

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Today would have been Carl Sagan's 76th birthday, though he died at 62, in 1996, of pneumonia brought on by a bone marrow disorder. He was a big influence on me, in his many publications, and particularly in his PBS TV series Cosmos and its accompanying book.

Although I watched the whole series, and brought the book to school with me often enough that the librarian gave me one of those industrial-strength plastic covers to protect the dust jacket, the first minute of this segment, from Episode 10, "The Edge of Forever," still stands out in my mind.

It was originally broadcast almost exactly 30 years ago, in November 1980, when I was 11. Sagan knew he was treading on dangerous ground, especially in his native America, so he must have chosen his words very carefully:


"If we wish to pursue this question courageously," he says about a godly origin to the Universe, "we must of course ask the next question: where did God come from? If we decide that this is an unanswerable question, why not save a step, and conclude that the origin of the Universe is an unanswerable question? Or if we say God always existed, why not save a step, and conclude that the Universe always existed?"

I had been thinking along these lines myself already. However, perhaps it was the budding writer in me, but I appreciated Sagan's thrift in that statement. It's Occam's Razor at its most efficient: "Why not save a step?" (And in the process, supersede all religions and theologies, incidentally.)

If we can explain the workings of the Universe without the supernatural, he was saying, we should do so. That is both to avoid unnecessary complexity in our explanations, and because it's the basis of science, which has taught us more about our world in the past few hundred years (especially in the last century) than we learned in all the millennia before.

But perhaps more importantly, Sagan suggested, if we cannot explain the workings of the Universe, or the Universe's very existence—at least not yet—then supernatural answers don't magically fill the void. Postulating an incomprehensible deity doesn't make the answers clearer, but murkier. It pushes them another unneeded step away.

That's how we treat things in the rest of life. Take one of my other favourite quotes, from William Strunk, about writing:

A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.

By the same reasoning, a cosmology should contain no unnecessary gods. That made sense to me at 11, and it still does. Thanks Carl.

3 Comments

Atheists cursed with cancer?

You (sorry)
Carl Sagan
Stephen Jay Gould
Christopher Hitchens

Religion doesn't have to have all the answers; it's intended to help guide people and give them hope. To distance oneself from what is outside of ones' control. I don't know why I got fired, but Jesus know's what's best for me so it's going to be OK.

I can well appreciate your perspective here, Derek.

The universe is full of far more mysteries than we have answers for. Many need to fill that gap between known and unknown with the supernatural. Some do it because of a lifetime of conditioning or upbringing and cannot ever entertain even the notion that maybe they are mistaken. Some feel the need to express that belief system and it's depressing how often that is done in manner consistent with mytrade's comment and in what (s)he seems to imply.

Belief in things is personal. In my case, I'm rather certain that there is no god, but I've never been able to make the full leap to atheism because for me (and *just* me), doing so opens up that void of questions with unobtainable answers and then I don't sleep well. Intellectually, it's a flaw in my reasoning, but it comes from a realization that I still cling to a few notions of what I *feel* might be true, versus the majority of the conclusions I make based on what I *know* to be true. There's no reconciling that for me, hence my self-appointed title as "optimistic agnostic."

I admire that you've been able to formulate a belief system that is right for you and that you've been able to stick with it through thick and thin. Just as important, I think it says something that you consistently choose to present this humbly as your point of view, as opposed to a pulpit from which to tell others how wrong they are.

We need more like you, my friend.

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