Sagan on Science and Democracy

One final thought today, moving from pure science to some of the lessons Carl Sagan had for us as citizens.  Though Sagan’s reputation seems to crystallize as a science educator, especially as we gain some distance from his life and activities, today I want to remember him in his chosen role as a fierce and eloquent defender of our country’s Enlightenment heritage. 

Woven deeply into the fabric of his exploration of modern science is a tale of political and moral philosophy.  Sagan begins and ends the Cosmos series with reflections on the relationship between knowledge, freedom of conscience (and inquiry), and its relationship to power — in the story of the Library of Alexandria and the martyrdom of Hypatia, a female scientist who worked at the Library, at the hands of fanatical religious mobs in the 5th century A.D.  The destruction of the Library and the vigilante violence which resulted in Hypatia’s death was likely sanctioned by the local Patriarch, and thus represents an early example of conflict between religion and science, augmented by religious control over state power.

Throughout the series, we encounter scientists, especially early European scientists such as Kepler, Brahe, Da Vinci, Herschel, and Newton, as heroes of freedom and progress, fighting against the forces of reaction and entrenched power.  Those of a culturally conservative persuasion might tell a different story, but I have always found Sagan’s tale of the linkage between science and freedom compelling.  In his words:

The values of science and the values of democracy are concordant, in many cases indistinguishable.  Science and democracy began — in their civilized incarnations — in the same time and place, Greece in the seventh and sixth centuries B.C.  Science confers power on anyone who takes the trouble to learn it (although too many have been systematically prevented from doing so).  Science thrives on, indeed requires, the free exchange of ideas; its values are antithetical to secrecy.  Science holds to no special vantage points or privileged positions.  Both science and democracy encourage unconventional opinions and vigorous debate.  Both demand adequate reason, coherent argument, rigorous standards of evidence and honesty.  Science is a way to call the bluff of those who only pretend to knowledge.  It is a bulwark against mysticism, against superstition, against religion misapplied to where it has no business being.  If we’re true to its values, it can tell us when we’re being lied to.  It provides a mid-course correction to our mistakes.

— Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World:  Science as a Candle in the Dark, p. 38.

Sagan’s words speak for themselves.  I would only add that we ought to recognize the 17th and 18th centuries as critical periods, perhaps even more so than the ancient Greeks, as crucibles for the dual development of science and democracy.  Both ideas, as the Greeks knew each of these concepts, remained dormant for approximately a millennium, despite flirtation with both during the Renaissance.   Intriguingly, both science and democracy (more properly, the notion of popular sovereignty and limited government) took root again at approximately the same time:  following the Reformation, and in England, following the Civil War.  Acceptance of religious diversity, in the form of the Reformation, soon led to acceptance of ideological diversity concerning government and society.  This led to the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century, the Royal Society, and eventually to the "Democratic Revolutions" of the 18th and 19th centuries. 

The synchronicity of both revolutions is not surprising given that both science and democracy thrive on the free exchange of ideas.  One imagines that this factor also accounts for their coupled appearance in ancient Greek times as well — a point Sagan stresses in several episodes of the series.  In Europe, conditions were simply not ripe for the consequence-free exchange of ideas until the late 1600’s in much of northern and western Europe, and even later on much of the Continent.  Recognition of religious freedom seems to have created "space" in English, Dutch, and certain German kingdoms for other ideas to flourish, and with them we see the early flowering of modernity. 

Cosmos thus stands not just as a tribute to a great science educator and popularizer.  Carl Sagan was also a strong thinker and advocate concerning the relationship between science, openness, and the ability of societies to maintain the virtues of liberal democracy.  For those reading who may not be that interested in physics, astronomy, or biology, but are interested in society, law, philosophy, and their relation to culture, I still recommend Sagan as one of our generation’s most ardent defenders of the two great "revolutions" that make up the European Enlightenment — the Scientific and Democratic Revolutions.  Stripped of the details of physics, astronomy, and biology, Cosmos tells the story of our own awakening to the power of unfettered inquiry and discussion to give us freedom from those traditions and beliefs which limited our potential as individuals and citizens.


One Comment so far. Comments are closed.
  1. David Airth,

    Thanks for that connection between science and democracy. Both disciplines require unhindered knowledge.