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.