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Druyan on Sagan and Agnosticism

In the current issue of Skeptic magazine (unavailable online), which is partly devoted to the legacy of Carl Sagan on the 10th anniversary of his death, Michael Shermer interviews Sagan's widow and collaborator, Ann Druyan. Reading the interview reminded me of how much Sagan's presence in the world is missed, and of how I probably owe at least some portion of my philosophy on religion to his influence:

SKEPTIC: I want to get down to where the rubber meets the road in the ontological question of god's existence. What did Carl call himself -- atheist, agnostic, non-theist...?

DRUYAN: Carl really was an agnostic, truly. He felt that people who say that they know how the universe came to be, who made it or didn't make it, are kind of foolish in a way, whether they are believers or atheists. Carl believed that in a universe that is so vast, and for a species as young and ignorant as we are, the only reasonable position to take on these ultimate questions is agnosticism.

SKEPTIC: What most people mean by "atheist" is "belief that there is no God," whereas agnostic means that we just don't know?

DRUYAN: Literally yes, we do not know. Not that we can't know, but at the moment in the present state we know so little about the universe. We've only been at this exploration of the universe in any sort of systematic way for what, four centuries? That's such a tiny fraction of history. Carl would say "we just don't know," and the more we acknowledge how much we don't know, the less chance we have of assuming things that turn out not to be true.


SKEPTIC: It seemed like Carl -- and you as his collaborator -- make a point of being extra polite and thoughtful with those who are religious. Is this conciliatory approach just a political strategy, just making nice so that we can all get along?

DRUYAN: No, it is respect. It is remembering how many times all of us have been wrong. I think that attitude is at the heart of the methodology of science. There is nothing patronizing at all in this approach; it is simply respect. And this approach comes from life experience. I am 57, and I have been wrong plenty of times. Every time I think that I know everything, somebody demonstrates how completely deluded I am. And this is what is so great about the scientific method: it has that built-in error correcting mechanism that is always reminding you, "You could be wrong."

A few weeks ago, I wrote of Douglas Adams:

He... had an ongoing interest in the intersection of science and religion, and was speaking on that subject as well. It's particularly sad to me that we lost his voice in that particular discussion, because it's so difficult for me to imagine anyone being truly angry with Douglas. How can you hate someone who's making you laugh? It would be a great balance to the thoughtful but serious Richard Dawkinses, Sam Harrises, and their like to have Douglas around, disarmingly poking holes in religion without truly offending anyone.
And it's sad to me that we lost Sagan, too, for similar reasons: he could poke holes in religion (and did so about as well as anyone) while nevertheless respecting its practitioners. And how could you hate someone who sincerely respects you and your beliefs?


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