Sunday, April 30, 2017

Carl Sagan and the Tree of Knowledge

In his book Pale Blue Dot, Carl Sagan talks about mankind's fraught relationship with the unknown, and our curiosity with the unknown. At one point in the book he says:
"To our ancestors there was much in Nature to be afraid of—lightning, storms, earthquakes, volcanoes, plagues, drought, long winters. Religions arose in part as attempts to propitiate and control, if not much to understand, the disorderly aspect of Nature."
"How much more satisfying had we been placed in a garden custom-made for us, its other occupants put there for us to use as we saw fit. There is a celebrated story in the Western tradition like this, except that not quite everything was there for us. There was one particular tree of which we were not to partake, a tree of knowledge. Knowledge and understanding and wisdom were forbidden to us in this story. We were to be kept ignorant. But we couldn’t help ourselves. We were starving for knowledge—created hungry, you might say. This was the origin of all our troubles. In particular, it is why we no longer live in a garden: We found out too much. So long as we were incurious and obedient, I imagine, we could console ourselves with our importance and centrality, and tell ourselves that we were the reason the Universe was made. As we began to indulge our curiosity, though, to explore, to learn how the Universe really is, we expelled ourselves from Eden. Angels with a flaming sword were set as sentries at the gates of Paradise to bar our return. The gardeners became exiles and wanderers. Occasionally we mourn that lost world, but that, it seems to me, is maudlin and sentimental. We could not happily have remained ignorant forever."
By using the story of the garden of Eden, Sagan sets up an interesting image of mankind moving from a state of ignorance where we are blissfully ignorant of the true complexity of the universe, to a point where we become cognizant of our place in the cosmos and find out just how insignificant we really are.

But as I read Sagan's description of our abandonment of the Eden of our ignorance, my attention was drawn to a seemingly minor but important detail.
Expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. Stained glass in the Salt Lake Temple.
I have read a few responses to Sagan's comments but one thing that no one has pointed out is that in the Garden of Eden there was no tree of knowledge, there was only a tree of knowledge of good and evil. While this may seem like a superficial difference, just think how "superficial" the difference is between the phrases "the President", and "the president of the Rotary Club". That extra qualifier can make all the difference.

Unfortunately most of us who read Sagan's words would not even stop and think that the Bible only mentions the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and never just the tree of knowledge. With that knowledge, Sagan's imagery is slightly undermined because the expulsion from the garden is no longer about giving up a state of ignorance about the universe. Adam and Eve were not expelled for being too curious. Even if you only view the story of the garden as symbolic and not historical, we, as a human race, were not cast out because, "we found out too much". We were cast out because we became moral creatures, like the Gods, and thus we were given a space to be free that we might learn by our own experience to distinguish the good from the evil.

When Sagan addresses the story of the Garden of Eden he very subtly equates the religious world view with the ignorance of Eden, and gaining the modern scientific world view as the hard, but good and necessary expulsion from Eden. For those who desire to return to the religious and spiritual world view, Sagan cautions, "Occasionally we mourn that lost world, but that, it seems to me, is maudlin and sentimental."

But is the new worldview offered by Carl Sagan really all that new? Sagan implies that if we stand at the edge of the cosmos and look and see the wonder, extent and grandeur of the universe we will know discover our own insignificance. But according to Sagan we can only do that by abandoning the paradise of ignorance brought on by a religious worldview. But is this the case? Does a religious worldview preclude feeling a sense of wonder about the cosmos and realizing our own insignificance?

There is a passage from Isaiah in the Bible that is perhaps applicable here.
"I have even from the beginning declared it to thee; before it came to pass I shewed it thee.... Thou hast heard, see all this; and will not ye declare it? I have shewed thee new things from this time, even hidden things, and thou didst not know them. They are created now, and not from the beginning; even before the day when thou heardest them not; lest thou shouldest say, Behold, I knew them."
This new thought from Carl Sagan is perhaps not really all that new. As we read about Moses,
"And it came to pass that Moses looked, and beheld the world upon which he was created; and Moses beheld the world and the ends thereof, and all the children of men which are, and which were created; of the same he greatly marveled and wondered.... And he said unto himself: Now, for this cause I know that man is nothing, which thing I never had supposed."
Carl Sagan is not the first to stand at the edge of the cosmos and view the insignificance of man.

This is the message that has been taught since the beginning of time, that man is nothing, and the work of God is greater than just this earth and those who dwell on it. As God said,
"For behold, there are many worlds that have passed away by the word of my power. And there are many that now stand, and innumerable are they unto man; but all things are numbered unto me, for they are mine and I know them."
For Carl Sagan the religious world was created to give people comfort in their ignorance of the powerful forces of nature. The religious worldview was not meant to give understanding. When confronted by the uncontrollable nature of the cosmos the religious worldview was to provide a paradise where we could safely stay in ignorance. But when Moses was confronted with the whole of creation he had a distinctly different response.
"Moses cast his eyes and beheld the earth, yea, even all of it; and there was not a particle of it which he did not behold, discerning it by the Spirit of God. And he beheld also the inhabitants thereof, and there was not a soul which he beheld not; and he discerned them by the Spirit of God; and their numbers were great, even numberless as the sand upon the sea shore. And he beheld many lands; and each land was called earth, and there were inhabitants on the face thereof. And it came to pass that Moses called upon God, saying: Tell me, I pray thee, why these things are so, and by what thou madest them?"

This intense desire to know and to understand the whole of creation does not seem like an incurious retreat into the ignorance of a religious worldview.

But this is not all. There is another half to this story that we all too often do not tell. Mankind was not expelled from paradise to forever live out our lonely existence on some forgotten lump of rock. We were given a way back. The central message of Christianity is that the expulsion from Eden is not permanent. The gates to Paradise are not eternally barred. We are not condemned to be "exiles and wanderers" for all eternity. The message of Christianity is that there is a Savior who can save us from our fallen state, and bring us back into the presence of God, where we now have the benefit of knowing good from evil. What started in Eden, with the fall and acquiring knowledge of good and evil and becoming as the Gods, shall continue into the eternities. And that is more hopeful than any view Carl Sagan might offer.

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