The Rational Speculator

Hell Really Exists

Hell Really Exists

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Carl Sagan spent his life attacking frauds and debunking fabulous flying saucer stories. In one of his last books, The Demon-Haunted World (1996), he exposed the many hoaxes, myths, and superstitions that plague the world today. He made an eloquent plea for a return to rationality in an age when New Age prophets, religious fundamentalists, and promoters of various pseudosciences threaten the growth of science.

Sagan saw science as our best hope, a candle of rationality shining in darkness and chaos. However, he was willing to excite the public with tales of ancient Martian civilizations and million-ton satellites if such stories encouraged exploration for extraterrestrial life. Sagan's comments about ancient Martian civilizations are as suspect as many of the fraudulent claims he exposed in The Demon-Haunted World. His friend Bruce Murray claimed that although Sagan understood that Mars was probably lifeless, he had relapses when he would discuss Martian life. "If anything," continued Murray, "that was his UFOs."16

Sagan's ambiguous response to the notorious "Face on Mars" reveals the contending forces at work in his mind. In 1976 Viking 1 orbiter, traveling over the Cydonia region of Mars, captured a low-resolution image of what appeared to be a monumental human face. Initially, NASA scientists dismissed the image as an optical illusion, a chance conjunction of light and shadow on the planet's surface. Nevertheless, NASA issued a photographic image with the caption "Face on Mars?" By 1984 the photograph was featured in the tabloid newspaper Weekly World News, and in 1987 Richard Hoagland, a former NASA consultant, published a book, The Monuments of Mars. According to Hoagland's book, the Face was surrounded by remains ofa city, fortress, and pyramids. Sagan responded with an article in Parade, a magazine issued as a supplement to Sunday newspapers. He dismissed the Face and its associated structures as fantasy, not science.

In early 1998, NASA prepared targets on Mars for imaging by the Mars Global Surveyor (MGS). Supporters of Hoagland's grand theory of the Face appealed to NASA. They asked the agency to make the Cydonia region and its Face one of the imaging sites. Michael Malin, the NASA scientist in charge of space cameras on MGS, resisted the suggestion. He said it was a waste of money, and maneuvering the spacecraft to get another image ofthe supposed Face might endanger the entire mission.

Malin was overruled by NASA officials who bowed to public pressure for a picture that was worthless from a scientific standpoint. As Malin battled with NASA officials, he was surprised to learn that Sagan had changed his mind about the affair. In The Demon-Haunted World, Sagan wrote that the Face on Mars was probably natural, not artificial, but it deserved further study because the hypothesis posed by its supporters belonged in the scientific arena. Once more Sagan allied himself with popular opinion and opposed the consensus of scientists in the matter. As for the Face, it did not appear on the high-resolution images recorded by the Mars Global Surveyor.

Sagan alone cannot be blamed for his continuing interest in the possibility of extraterrestrial intelligence despite the skepticism and opposition ofmany scientists. Sagan's colleagues welcomed his earlier work, Intelligent Life in the Universe, as a valuable contribution to an emerging scientific field. The volume received endorsements from biologist H. J. Muller and astronomers Frank Drake and Fred Whipple. Several other scientists called attention to this work on the occasion of Sagan's sixtieth birthday celebration in 1994. They praised it as a landmark book that prepared a new generation of seekers of extraterrestrial intelligence. Historian Steven J. Dick rightly called the volume "the bible of scientific thought on extraterrestrial life."17

Sagan studied the long history of scientific speculation about extraterrestrial life and civilization. His reading in the early scientific literature on the subject led him to Huygens's Kosmotheoros of 1698. Sagan admired the Dutch astronomer's description of a universe teeming with life: "So many Suns, so many Earths, and every one of them stock'd with so many Herbs, Trees and Animals."18 Despite his admiration for Huygens, Sagan criticized him for naively transplanting the physical environment and inhabitants of Earth in the seventeenth century to the planets. He tempered his criticism with the observation that "Huygens was, of course, a citizen of his time." Then he added, "Who of us is not?"19

Sagan recognized that Huygens was caught in the web of his times. He did not see that he was the victim of similar circumstances when he theorized about advanced life on Mars. His guide to Intelligent Life in the Universe reflects the ideas and enthusiasms of the 1960s. These were the early years of the space program when journalists, politicians, and NASA publicists freely used the maritime discovery analogy. They believed that just as Christopher Columbus's ships carried him to the New World, so would spacecraft reveal new worlds in space. The Soviet-American race to the Moon, driven by Cold War competition for supremacy in space, recalled European rivalry over the New World in the sixteenth century. Voyages to the Moon were the first steps in exploratory programs intended to carry humans to Mars and beyond. Sagan, in keeping with the spirit of the times, wrote about an ancient Martian civilization awaiting discovery by intrepid space navigators.

Sagan knew that the principle of mediocrity had its limits. He understood that its claim that the rest of the universe was similar to the portion we study was more useful to astronomers and physicists than to biologists and seekers of intelligent extraterrestrial life. Therefore, Sagan highlighted the fallacies generated by biological chauvinism, the erroneous belief that life elsewhere in the universe must be essentially the same as life on Earth.

Sagan attacked carbon- and oxygen-chauvinism, the belief that life cannot exist without these elements, and noted the random and contingent nature of evolution. Genetic mutations and the recombination of genes introduce randomness into the evolutionary process. The process is contingent because chance plays an important role in it. Chance in the form ofrare and catastrophic disasters has led to the extinction of some forms of life and the expansion of others.

Sagan maintained that the forces of evolution operating in distant parts of the universe would not generate creatures exactly like us. As a technical consultant for Stanley Kubrick's film 2001: A Space Odyssey, Sagan advised against the portrayal of extraterrestrials in any form. He argued "that nothing like us is ever likely to evolve again anywhere else in the universe."20

Decades before Sagan coined the term "biological chauvinism," Percival Lowell exposed the fallacy of thinking that advanced extraterrestrial life must assume a human form. Lowell made his point by drawing upon the biological sciences. He argued that lungs are not absolutely necessary to life and that nothing prevented a gill-breathing creature "from being a most superior person."21 A fish, he continued, might imagine that it is impossible to live without water. Likewise, many believe that advanced life forms cannot exist on Mars because the Martian atmosphere is thinner than the Earth's. Lowell concluded that anyone who accepts this type of argument is not thinking like a philosopher but like a fish. Lowell's Martians may have been engineers, inventors, administrators, and workers, but they did not necessarily share the same physical features as humans beings.

Sagan exposed the parochialism of biological chauvinism at the same time that he adhered to other forms of chauvinistic thought. He was willing to consider radically different chemical bases for life, but assumed that crucial features of human culture are duplicated in the universe. Sagan's extraterrestrial beings may be free of the need for carbon or oxygen, but, like Lowell's Martians, they establish civilizations and cultivate technologies copied closely after those found on Earth. Lowell and Sagan represent different eras and different views ofscience, yet they shared visions of a great Martian civilization.

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