I was pleasantly surprised when I recently learned that Carl Sagan's Cosmos series is available through Netflix's streaming video service. I don't know if it's a new addition to the service, but it is a welcome one. I've seen most of the series' short thirteen episode run here and there in various different ways over the years, but this gives me the opportunity to watch it all in order and at my own leisure, which, naturally, is the nice thing about the Netflix service. I find that, like all works that resonate deeply with me, I return to it time and again with a different perspective that reflects my own progress as a person. It becomes like a touchstone or a familiar place; it remains constant and serves as something to mark your own change and growth by.
For instance, watching it now, I keep thinking about recent conversations with my friend Vincent, who has a somewhat passing, almost mild, antagonism towards science, depending on what kind of mood you catch him in. Vincent isn't alone, of course, and there are plenty of other people with similar feelings. Yet, I can't help but wonder if their problem isn't as much with science - as a collection of data and a discipline of factual inquiry - as much as it is with the attitudes and mind-sets of certain scientists who rub them the wrong way. One might be tempted to cynically conclude that they just resent more sober minds raining on their fairy tales, and that they lash back with any means at their disposal. But I'd like to think there's a little more to it than that. I suspect that when Vincent thinks of science, he tends to think of Richard Dawkins or someone similarly disposed.
Yet, the problem with Dawkins isn't necessarily that he's a scientist or even that he's an atheist. Rather, the problem is the implicit insistence on an almost militantly prosaic viewpoint whereby he arrives at his conclusions. He comes off as the sort of smug jackass who subjects a religion to ruthlessly "logical" interrogations, not as a way of trying to learn more about it and gain insight into its tenets, but as a way of holding it up to mockery as an irrational farce. It's the sort of game a person is up to when they ask how Noah fit all the animals on the Ark or how reincarnation accounts for population growth. These aren't necessarily invalid points, but the people raising them usually aren't looking to know; they're looking to deflate. Consequently, some people come to feel like they are under fire from science and reason. The irony is that the prejudice and dismissive close-mindedness that underpins such smug games goes against the very spirit of science and reason.
Most likely, Sagan would have agreed with Dawkins on nearly all matters of scientific fact, but it's the man himself that makes all the difference in the world. His Cosmos series was billed as "A Personal Voyage", and it takes a moment's pause to appreciate the significance of this. Clearly he wasn't talking about "personal" in the sense of "biographical", and there's little about the man himself throughout the series. What is personal is Sagan's passion and wonder for his subject matter, his sense of amazement when he tells us that we are all "made of star stuff", his hopefulness of finding intelligent life out there in the universe, his benevolent optimism towards the human race, and his urgent concern about the possibility that we might destroy ourselves which he mentions again and again as a warning and a leitmotif through the series. Sagan sees poetry where Dawkins insists on prose. They may draw many of the same conclusions and believe much of the same things, but for entirely different reasons.
Throughout the Cosmos series, Sagan displays a boundless enthusiasm that fits him well in his role as a teacher. He constantly puts things in a perspective that's deliberately designed to evoke awe and curiosity. I particularly liked the calender model he uses to try to bring the fourteen billion year existence of the universe down to a manageable scale that the mind can grasp. He stands on a stage with a giant illustrated calender laid out on the floor. The calender year represents the entire life-span of the universe, and down in the right hand corner is a tiny little spot, the last few seconds of December 31st, which represent all of recorded human history. "Everyone we've ever known, every story ever told, happened right here.", he tells us, and suddenly the majesty of the universe, and our fragile place in it, is as clear and touching as it has ever been. This is the amazing achievement of Cosmos. "What we do at the beginning of the next cosmic year is up to us.", he continues, touching again on the themes of optimism and concern.
So, I come away from all this wondering if there isn't another dimension to how we draw the lines between us. We get hung up on the differences between our beliefs and ideologies that we tend to lose sight of the fact that it's the people behind those differences that really matter. Whatever side of whichever line someone falls on, it's the spirit of the person, the humanity, the compassion, that bright eyed warmth that really matters. A heart in the right place is worth far more than the details of any particular dogma, as far as I'm concerned. We focus on the difference between things like science and religion, and we forget about the difference between people like Dawkins and Sagan. We're all on the same journey, turning and revolving out here among the stars. Sometimes it's how we feel about that journey that makes all the difference.