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Cosmos, planting seeds

November 9, 2010

In another episode of It Came from Pharyngula, PZ reminds us that today would be Carl Sagan’s birthday.To celebrate, he links this video.

It’s a worthy reminder of how Sagan brought up ideas in Cosmos that are being reiterated today, and yet today they are seen as somehow strident. If some god created the universe, where did the god come from? And if it somehow created itself, or has always existed, or it’s an unanswerable question, why not save a step and apply that to the universe?

There’s a reason why theologians like William Lane Craig rely on a variant of the cosmological argument about things that ‘begin to exist’ in order to grant their god-concept a special exemption — or special pleading, in other words. It’s why they fixate on the Big Bang and try to make the case for a universe that hasn’t always existed, the better to shoehorn in their god-concept as the cause. Of course, causality seems to break down at this level…and they’re certainly willing to exempt their gods from it. Why not the universe? Save a step.

This kind of simple parsimony, economy of concepts, explanations…it characterizes Sagan’s thinking on the matter. And mine as well. Somehow he got away with it, planting seeds of reasonable skepticism into his TV series. I’d like to give Carl some credit for my own change of ways, but it’s hard to be sure.

If nothing else, he provided us with some tools — curiosity, skepticism, reason — and with those tools, we can learn to save a step. Of course, Cosmos was also suffused with a sense of wonder, probably the main reason I still look back on it fondly. I defy any believer to defend their supposed meaningless, shiftless life of the skeptic. The universe is wondrous enough.

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