Tag Archives: Carl Sagan

JKHOA 1.5 Mystery

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One of my many nerd-denominations is Sherlockian. I owe an existential debt to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. When I got to third grade, I had run out of Nancy Drew stories, so I started reading Sherlock Holmes. I sat there with the dictionary my Dad gave me and looked up the words I didn’t understand. I didn’t get it all, but I did so well on my language testing that my teacher announced it to the whole class. Then everyone laughed at me, and I comforted myself that some day I’d be just like Sherlock Holmes, and they would all still be stupid. (Hey, I was in 3rd grade! Leave me alone.) Anyhow, Sherlock Holmes is a great nerd mentor. He confirmed my belief in the beauty and power of a curious human mind. He taught me that magic is something awesome you just don’t understand…yet.

Sherlock Holmes adventures unfold like a magic trick. Usually they begin with Holmes whiny and pissy because he’s got nothing to do and the world is stupid and he hates how dull everything ever is. And then there’s Watson getting irritated because he’s trying to read the paper. So he jumps in and starts challenging Holmes. Into this bickering, the plot appears in the form of a messenger or a lady or some strange person. While Watson listens patiently to the inciting incident, Holmes just sits there until he hears some bit that is just slightly odd, “outre” was his phrase. Then we follow Watson follow Holmes on the adventure. In the end, Holmes gives Watson the “need to know” for a cunning plan. Excitement ensues, and then everyone asks Holmes “How did you ever…?” And Holmes’ intellectual vanity overwhelms him so he explains how he figured out who-dunnit. Then everyone, except our lovely Watson, is like “Oh! That was easy.” Poor Holmes goes home and plays some lonely violin, while Watson takes the girl to dinner.

So, for most of the story, you are Watson. You don’t see what Holmes is seeing, you simply see him, through Watson, doing his thing. So when the reveal happens, you feel Watson’s wonder at the “magic” of his friend. And it’s not cheap magic. The magic of Holmes is the magic of watching the beauty and splendor of the workings of a human mind. And a great and creative mind too. I’ll take that sort of magic as much and as often as I can. It’s the most wondrous thing that I know of in the Universe, and that’s a pretty big and wondrous place.

So what? Well, I get asked a lot about my thoughts on spirituality especially in relation to my creativity, and a lot of folks are shocked that I can find all the magic and meaning and inspiration I could ever want in just life, the Universe and everything. In the mysteries big and small. Holmes took cases because they tickled his curiosity, and he read a world of import and significance into scratches on watches, in a person’s shoes, in types of soil. He was infinitely fascinated by his world. And so am I. What more could anyone want than to be alive and have a brain capable of observing, learning and reflecting on this amazing world full of infinite expressions of Universal laws?

To me the magic of Holmes also reflects the magic of a Mozart or Newton or Michelangelo or Shakespeare, of great generals and leaders, of people who use their investigation of the world and its workings to discover, imagine and create. This world is so full, as Holmes observed “No ghosts need apply.” There’s just so much out there that really exists. And it’s all awesome. This Watson thanks Holmes for turning her on to that magic. And to everyone out there making awesome from the world, thanks. “My blushes, Watson!”

“The Cosmos is also within us. We are made of star stuff. And we are a way for the Cosmos to know itself.” – Carl Sagan

 

 

 

 


Cosmos and Prophets of Doom

Carl Sagan Cosmos

Carl Sagan in Cosmos: A Personal Journey

I cried during the finale of Cosmos: A Space Time Odyssey last night. The use of Carl Sagan’s older, sicker, yet still passionately intoned ode to “The Pale Blue Dot” along with Neil de Grasse Tyson’s energetic and encouraging description of “The Five Rules” of skeptical thought made the perfect bookend to the series’ awesome case for science that “belongs to everyone.”

Then, when I chose a podcast to listen to this morning as I went about some errands, I guess a my inner Monty Python opted for something completely different. I chose one of Dan Carlin’s older Hardcore History episodes entitled Prophets of Doom.

Mr. Carlin told the story of the Munster Anabaptists, when for a year in the 1520’s the city was overtaken by characters we’d recognize as charismatic cult leaders preaching armed rebellion by God’s Chosen People against an evil world and the End of Days. And while it was a gripping tale, told with Carlin’s usual intensity, in the epilogue of the show, he admitting to feeling disappointed with the result because he could seem to draw no real lesson from the chaos.

He mentioned Waco and the Branch Davidians, which was an apt modern parallel. But he seemed torn over the idea of whether 16th century Europeans “could handle the Truth” of vernacular Bibles and the free-thought they inspired and likened it to a Galactic Bible brought to us by enlightened extra-terrestrials, but doled out to us as the Roman Catholic Church had done previous to the Protestant Reformation because we couldn’t handle its “Truth.” It occurred to me that I had watched the answer to his dilemma the night before.

I am NOT going to make the usual claim that the source of the madness of the Anabaptists of Munster, the Counter-Reformation, the Branch Davidians or “Militant Islam” are all symptoms of the inherit madness of religion. As Dan Carlin pointed out, secular regimes based on nationalism or other political, economic or whatever name-that-dogma can produce the same level of collective insanity.

The issue, as Dr. Tyson pointed out last night, is, as he described it, “Rule number one: Question everything, even me.” Above all, he warned, don’t trust anyone who says they have all the answers. The problem with the people of Munster or Waco or who welcomed Hitler is NOT that they were stupid or crazy, but that they were lazy. Intellectually lazy. Uncomfortable with the change and troubles of the world around them, they sought comfort in men who promised all the answers.

I cannot completely condemn the anyone for desiring the comfort of such unquestionable truths. The very notion of “Freedom of Thought” carries with it the burden of accepting the uncomfortable realities along with the exhilaration of discovery, of analyzing whether you think something is true because you want it to be or because it fits our ever-changing understanding of the facts. Facing this on-going challenge requires courage and vigilance. Carl Sagan’s famous “Baloney Detection Kit” might help as well.

So, in answer to Mr. Carlin’s hypothetical dilemma, enlightened space-faring race or not, if the Vulcans knock on my door bringing the “good news” of their Galactic Bible that  promises to solve all of my and the world’s problems, the first thing I’d have to say to them is “prove it to me.” And, if they were Vulcans, that would be only logical.

 

 


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