Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Review: Pale Blue Dot by Carl Sagan

I've previously reviewed a Carl Sagan book, and I've discussed several books related to science. Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space is a short introduction to the mission and perspective of The Planetary Society (Twitter).
Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space

It's important for those pretending to speak for Muslims to realize how many inherited ideas descendants of Enlightenment civilizations have discarded in the last two hundred years. I believe much religious discourse (Friday khutba, pamphlets, halaqat, satellite TV shows) is more concerned with entertaining the audience than exploring, imparting and promoting truth. Participants in this discourse usually don't know much about science or intellectual history in post-Enlightenment societies, and the audiences are of course a mixed group in this regard. Since audiences bore quickly with topics such as sincere worship, good character, and solidarity with the poor and oppressed, the only preachers who can maintain their interest (and support) are the ones who can continuously produce new messages, stories, insights, etc. Of course, these inevitably stray into pseudo-science, pseudo-sociology and pseudo-psychology.

Human intellectual history in the last five centuries, in Sagan's retelling, has been a series of demotions. Earth is not at the center of the universe. Nor is its sun. Nor is its galaxy. Humans are related biologically to other creatures and share more with them than we'd like to admit. No one group of humans, it turns out, is superior to another. These demotions make nearly ridiculous the idea that an Omnipotent Creator, having created a universe far vaster and far older than we could possibly imagine, would make creation's master a species which emerged one million years ago on a planet which represents a speck of a speck of a speck of a massive canvas.

I do believe Islam's texts, particularly the Qur'an, are less anthrocentric than Sagan asserts. But there's no doubt that astrophysics and biology have made many of the assumptions undergirding classical theology untenable. Religious discourse should adapt to this reality. In particular, I believe it needs to be much more cautious and claim much less territory.

What if SETI contacts alien civilization (Twitter)? If humans can establish a self-reproducing colony on one of Jupiter's moons, how would we Muslims feel about the idea of the sacred space centered around Makka in the western Arabian Peninsula? We are instructed to believe in the imminence of the Day of Judgement. How do we even think about geologic or astronomical time scales?

Aside from the philosophical and theological implications of these technological advances, Sagan asserts that space colonization is necessary for the survival of the human species.

Gil-Scott Heron's poem Whitey on the Moon expresses my ambiguity about technological solutions to humanity's problems.

So I'm not so excited about the latest research in cancer treatment when we can't bring ourselves to address the water problems which lead to the deaths of hundreds of thousands worldwide. We know how to decrease deaths from cholera and tuberculosis, but because the people who die aren't important, we don't do it.

But in fairness to NASA and The Exploration Society and Carl Sagan and the National Institutes of Health, expenditures on weapons dwarf expenditures on medical and scientific research. Even though issues of inequality will continue, inequality should not be a reason to oppose medical and scientific exploration.

Sagan confirms that we, as a species, are in an extremely sensitive period. We have developed the means to destroy ourselves, and we have the means both to save ourselves from our own threats and take precautions against interplanetary threats. But we will only take these means if we choose wisely. Our folly and wisdom are currently neck and neck in the race to our destruction or our future.