in the 1997 movie Contact (warning: spoilers are afoot and aplenty), adapted from Carl Sagan’s classic novel of the same name, the astronomer character played by Jodie Foster, by quite an accident stumbles upon weak and scrambled radio waves from outer space, which turn out to be a sequence of prime numbers (canonically presumed as the aliens’ way of communicating with us, because there’s no known natural phenomenon that can generate a long enough sequence of prime numbers and mathematics being the universal language of nature and all that. and you were wondering what good would ever come from high school algebra?) and which, in turn, turns out to be coded instructions from an intelligent species about a machine that makes it possible to travel in space and time really qucikly, without having to oblige all those tedious technicalities regarding our current understanding of the nature of them. after building a second one of these monstrous machines, following the destruction of the first one by a religious wingnut, she is finally, after years of agony caused by the ponderings and uninformed speculations of the existence of potential extraterrestrial races that every thinking person, let alone every astronomer, up until this discovery had to deal with, about to embark on a hypergalactic journey to meet the buggers. prior to her departure, a journalist (i think) asks her a provocative question, which is, what would her one question to the aliens be. Her rather confident response was along the lines of ‘I would ask them how they managed not to destroy themselves in the wake of their civilization’.
hmmm.. when i first heard this, i thought to myself ‘well, that can’t be right’. Of all the possible things you can inquire, this is what you come up with? I mean think about it. when you finally get to meet these aliens, who are by definition millions of years ahead of us in their evolutionary paths, you will be within arm’s reach of being privy to the single most important discovery any human has ever achieved or dreamed to achieve. they will provide an answer to virtually anything. you could ask them about cold fusion, what happened right after or before the big bang, maybe the Theory of Everything, the molecular make up of their hereditary material, whether the guiding force of their evolution is the differential survival of replicators of sorts too, even the meaning of life as they know it, is there a god or gods, and what of consciousness, the subjective nature of experiences, or a complete list of spacefaring races in the galaxy, the proof, or lack thereof, of riemann hypothesis, or whatever hitherto unsolved mathematical riddle tickles your fancy, how Lost will end, you name it.. and you ask them about sociology?? how lame is that? remember, she is allowed to ask only one question (i’m not exactly sure why, perhaps being a jerk is an intrinsic aspect of intelligence) so you have got to be picky about it, right? apparently not.
not to mention the unpleasant fact that their response to this parochial question would be of little, if any, practical interest to our current international state of affairs (whose governers, by the way, presumably collectively come up with a politically correct question that shall be deemed as ‘the offical question’ of us earthlings that would not ‘offend’ or ‘demean’ our potential overlords. the ultimate ‘Who Speaks for Earth?’ scenario, see Sagan video below. oh how i truely hate politics!). i don’t think anything short of an explicitly aggresive form of life would be sufficient for us to get our act together and start behaving like an intelligent and unified race (and talk about a lousy and ironic motive!), so why waste our one question on this? Also, it’s not like what they have to stay about this matter is going to be something that would forever shift our world view, something that would be perceived as a deep philosophical insight, something we were yet to think about. it’s not that, as of now, we lack the moral wisdom about how to live in harmony, we are just very bad at executing them. no, their answer would probably be something more down to earth (or whatever passes for earth over there) like “nine tenths of our civilization and vast majority of our habitable lands were obliterated in a single nuclear war, so the rest of us decided to get along well from then on”. now, what to do with this knowledge? nothing. doesn’t quite have that zing to it, you see..
ok, so i am worried about our one question as human beings going to waste. understandable.
but then i enter Carl Sagan. turns out, he’s the champion of the humanist action and known world wide for his rational and scientific skepticism, which is rather odd, if you think about it, for someone to actually fight for preserving and promoting these, as far as i’m concerned, pretty straightforward and indisputable notions, that should be the normative mindset of any human. then again, i think polygamy is a good idea, so what do i know about social values, right? right. And also, i find out, he wrote his book at a rather morbid time for human race, a time when, due to the intrinsic passive aggresive nature of cold war, nuclear proliferation was peaking to dangerous heights and all humanity and therefore the subsequent fate of the planet earth was held hostage in a self-perpetuating arms race between a few super powers. That gives me pause, about our ‘one’ question and the author’s motives behind it. I then watch his 13-part series, Cosmos, which has remained and probably will remain the pinnacle of all tv science productions, and i see that his apology for the absurdity of this whole nuclear endeavour is one of the predominant messages in it too. that makes it crystal clear as to why Sagan was so perplexed about the future welfare of our juvenile species and directly pertinent to it, the welfare of our planet.
no scientist was ever (nor should ever be) oblivious to his cultural context and sagan was no exception. he (and his ilk) realized, quite rightly, the mind-numbingly obvious fact that nuclear arsenals of nations were a ticking bomb for the earth at large and that this should be addressed immediately. likewise today, dawkins (and his ilk) realize, quite rightly, the mind-numbingly obvious (that is, after you think about it long enough that your mind numbs) fact that, not only there is no reason to think that there is any sort of god, one with an interest in human actions or otherwise, but also that a lot of evil follows from religions and their adherers, and that this should be addressed immediately. it’s only natural for an intellect of a certain age should find an aspect of his cultural background to be more worthy of pointing out than other aspects.
that’s why, say, Giordano Bruno couldn’t care less about anything less than reclaiming the objective truths, insofar as he could discern them, traditionally monopolized and distorted by the church, and hence was burned at the stake, for committing heresy, by the inquisition. today we take for granted the pioneering achievements of these brave individuals and seldom realize that these were hard won triumphs against people who had deeply vested interests in whatever it is that granted them the power of authority. they have managed to shift the emphasis on Truth, with a capital t, profoundly. thanks to them we face a less steep hill and public figures of our time get to choose their more specific line of defence, which should by no means necessarily be religious, like Sagan. they all wage their battles in accordance with their zeitgeist. and some of us, like yours truly, get to enjoy a fightless existence, moulded with self-inflicted complacency.
Sagan knew where his responsibilities lied as a scientist, as a conveyer of rational ideas, and as a public figure whose presence resonated well in political realm. he knew what we needed to hear and how he could make us listen to what he had to say. i still, even having never been personally affected by a pressingly real possibility of a nuclear exchange, shiver at the sheer force of his words, rhetorical devices he so aptly deployed (“a world war two, every second, for the length of a lazy afternoon” and the camera shifts to the products of millions of lazy afternoons, reminding us the unattainable duration of the geological time, during most of which we humans, we bipedal east african apes of mammalian persuasion, did not even get so much as a passing role). And who has remained unaffected by his immortal image of the pale blue dot, or the opening and the concluding remarks of Cosmos, “ancient and vast from which we spring”?
anyhow, i guess this is just a lengthy preamble to saying, in retrospect, i’m now much more sympathetic to sagan and his priorities. i still do not think jodie (a fellow atheist, btw) should ask what she says she would ask, but now i see where she and sagan are coming from. and i also kinda feel vindicated when wikipedia tells me that the book contained far more allusions to nuclear expansion than the movie does, and that these were cut off significantly because of the fall of the soviet union and the nullifying of an immediate threat of nucler catastrophe.
so sagan eventually made his point, posthumously or otherwise. and by making his novel’s protagonist ask the advanced aliens what i take to be a parochial question, a question that would be of little interest to people of some other era, he taught me a valuable, some would say the ultimate lesson. in an ontology where all reality is reducible to fermions and their interactions with bosons, as opposed to inducible to meandering caprice of angels and gods, where the highest demonstrable intentional agent at work regarding our affairs is the definitionally fallible human mind, where all the meaning in the cosmos has to be derived and interpreted from within and bottom up, rather than imposed and fixed from without and top down, it’s ok to be parochial and somewhat self-conscious, to pay considerable attention to your and your fellow beings’ immediate problems, to carpe the bloody diem, c’est la vie the random acts of misfortune, so on and so forth.. because this life is all there is to it, you might as well make the most of it. sounds trivial enough, to the point of being banal, but just think how many lives were deluded and ruined, how many conflicts painfully settled, how much net happiness lost, because of the simple act of missing this banal point.
and these worldly realizations feel all the more ironic and spooky once you remember that this is the guy that presumably had the widest perspective of all, who said things like:
The cosmos is all that is, or ever was, or ever will be …
but there is no irony. his case wasn’t of a nihilistic nature, but of a conciliatory and celebratory one. his whole public and scientific pursuit was simply the logical conclusion of his humanism and love of nature, which in turn were the logical conclusions of our materialistic, indifferent and purposeless cosmos which we happen to find ourselves in. his very next words were:
… Our contemplations of the cosmos stir us. There’s a tingling in the spine, a catch in the voice, a faint sensation, as if a distant memory, of falling from a great height. We know we are approaching the grandest of mysteries.
there is a tingling in the spine, and there is a catch in the voice when contemplating the grandeur and intricacy of it all and anything less than a proper appreciation of this grandest of mysteries is a betrayal, a blasphemy to what is real and to what matters. ultimate cosmic impiety, if you will..
so if it is the case that, what’s going to happen to you after you die will not, in any interesting sense of the word, be anything different than what’s going to happen to your refrigerator when it dies, the Saganian message to this unsettling fact is not to let it all go, it is to let it all be. cold comfort as it may be to certain sorts of minds, but as H. G. Wells put it in a totally different context: “Well, the world is a world, and not a charitable institution, and I take it they will have to go.” modern evolutionary selection pressures, as put forward by our sciences, requires one to deal with this, whether one likes it or not. one may as well revel in the comprehension that, there may not have been anything or anyone to comprehend to begin with..