How to Treat the Important Things in Life


Jerry Coyne over at his blog whyevolutionistrue has posted a quote by Carl Sagan that is worth considering. It’s from Sagan’s book published in 2006.

“When you buy a used car, it is insufficient to remember that you badly need a car.  After all, it has to work.  It is insufficient to say that the used-car salesman is a friendly fellow. What you generally do is kick the tires, you look at the odometer, you open up the hood. If you do not feel yourself expert in automobile engines, you bring along a friend who is. And you do this for something as unimportant as an automobile.  But on issues of the transcendent, of ethics and morals, on the origin of the world, on the nature of human beings, on those issues should we not insist upon at least equally skeptical scrutiny?”

-Carl Sagan, The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God, p.145

Considering Sagan’s advice, it occurs to me that I went about the business of choosing a wife all wrong. After all, that decision was much more important than buying a car. I should have kicked her in the shins to see how strong her bones were; took account for how worn the years has made her; and looked under her skirt to make sure everything was in working order. In fact, I should have brought along a physician because he would know her better than I ever could.

To my wife, I shall be as Pygmalion the sculpter-king, who in his hatred of women carved in his block of white marble an image of the perfect, most beautiful woman and fell in love with a stone.

On a more transcendent subject, I don’t know how this would have worked with God. He has no form for me to recognize, neither is he made of matter for me to kick (assuming he had shins). I suppose I would just have to get on with my life, ignorant of his existence, for there’s no way for me to examine him and make a good decision.

To God, I shall be as a housewife, who in confusion at the fire engulfing her house and not being able to determine what needed to be saved, rescued the fire tongs instead. What shall mankind save from the great fire of life?

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11 thoughts on “How to Treat the Important Things in Life

  1. Considering Sagan’s advice, it occurs to me that I went about the business of choosing a wife all wrong. After all, that decision was much more important than buying a car. I should have kicked her in the shins to see how strong her bones were; took account for how worn the years has made her; and looked under her skirt to make sure everything was in working order. In fact, I should have brought along a physician because he would know her better than I ever could.

    You did all of these things, whether you realize it or not. You took note of her health in many ways, you kissed her, you talked to her. You assessed her fitness to be your wife.

    Honestly Dan, I’m not sure whether you’re actually objecting to Sagan’s quote or not. If you are, could you please explain it a bit better?

    1. Sagan’s advice does not include communication from one consciousness to another. Conscious communication means a change in the role you play in relation to knowing. You would become the receiver, and not the discoverer or tester. This is simply the nature of interacting with a subject. If you ask, you must be in a position to receive. You would have to submit yourself to the subject in order to receive the answer, and leave your scientific method behind because it would become useless in such a personal exchange of communication.

      Essentially, Sagan is telling a man who lives in his house that the most important thing about a window is the window pane itself, not the view through the window where the grass is blowing in the wind and the sun illuminates the world.

      Mankind has depth and warrants more consideration than a mere check on our biology. We must be considered for who we are, not just what we are. It’s the same with God.

  2. Sagan’s advice does not include communication from one consciousness to another
    Why should it? His advice is only about the level of skepticism prudent for assessing the fitness of a thing. That thing could be an idea, worldview, car, lover or whatever. Right?

    Essentially, Sagan is telling a man who lives in his house that the most important thing about a window is the window pane itself, not the view through the window where the grass is blowing in the wind and the sun illuminates the world.
    Sincerely, I don’t understand where you’re getting this from. Sagan’s quote is only about being cautious before accepting something as true or worthy, et al.

  3. Sagan identifies the kinds of ‘domians’ that religion claims for itself, namely, issues of the transcendent, of ethics and morals, on the origin of the world, on the nature of human beings. He points out that allowing this without the same kind of scepticism we bring to something so mundane as the quality of a car we might purchase is obviously foolish.

    Why should I pay any attention to what a priest has to say about morality unless he – and it’s always a ‘he’ – brings some special expertise to the table (Oooo, divine revelation from a special book!), anymore than I should listen carefully to, and with equal consideration of, an interior designer who reads tea leaves and medical doctor about my liver function.

  4. Whateverman,

    Are you saying that Sagan thinks it’s OK to leave the methods of science when dealing with transcendental issues and that the important thing is an equal level of skepticism no matter what the method for determining its validity?

    1. Are you saying that Sagan thinks it’s OK to leave the methods of science when dealing with transcendental issues
      I think you’ve mischaracterized the issue, or our conversation – or something; I’m honestly not sure where the disconnect is here. Obviously, he’s questioning the diligence shown by a person buying a used car, and why that person should be any less diligent when assessing the validity of a transcendental claim.

      {edit: Sagan thinks} the important thing is an equal level of skepticism no matter what the method for determining its validity?
      Who said any thing about an “equal level”? I’m confused as to why you need me to explain the same thing over and over:

      From the quote alone, Sagan implies some people have differing standards when assessing a car purchase vs claims of ultimate truth. Why should those people be LESS DISCERNING with truth than with a used car?

      1. How do you know if the person is less diligent or less discerning than they should be? In order to say that, you must have an agreed upon way of knowing those things so you can show exactly where they’ve been lazy or ignorant. If a believer thinks he is being diligent and discerning but Sagan thinks they aren’t, then on what basis does he make that claim? As far as I can tell, Sagan’s method is to treat God and other transcendental issues as objects: to observe, test, hypothesize, examine the structure, take samples, and other similar activities. But, as I’ve shown, you can’t do that to people. Interpersonal communication is the way (method) to understand the woman who is to be your wife. Interpersonal communication is the method to knowing God, especially because he is non-corporeal, that is to say, with out a body: without matter or form. He is to be considered for who he is. An objectifying method would totally miss the mark.

      2. Daniel tells us that Sagan’s method is to treat God and other transcendental issues as objects: to observe, test, hypothesize, examine the structure, take samples, and other similar activities. But, as I’ve shown, you can’t do that to people.

        When someone makes a claim about god affecting the world, it is that person – NOT Sagan – who is treating god as an object. ON THIS BASIS, ESTABLISHED BY THE BELIEVER, the causal claim about effect in reality is treated as any other causal claim made about effect in reality. But you aren’t willing to concede that this burden – brought into being by making a claim about the object called god causing effect in the world – rests with the claimant. And that’s why I think you try to do a subject switch away from god as the object and try to change the topic to people.

        Well, guess what, Daniel? We DO do that to the claims of people all the time! If, for example, I claim that you’re actually an alien creature sent to spy on humanity, don’t you think it’s reasonable that I show cause for making this claim rather than allow this burden fall to you so that you waste your time and your effort having to somehow accumulate enough evidence to show that the claim is not true?

        You’re quick to tell us about god’s nature, god’s intentions, god’s plans, god’s will, god’s directives… as if you actually know something about any of these. A host of folk have attempted to point out that there is no compelling case to be made that this god – from which all these other claims derive – is anything more than a belief you’ve accepted to be true. It is on the basis of this belief alone (and nothing from reality) that you then make causal claims attributed to this object you call god that seems to exist only as a belief.

        To help you understand that it is only your belief from which all you think you know about god comes, we ask for evidence from reality independent of your belief to back up your causal claims. As what, to all appearances, seems to be a purely defensive tactic, you attempt all manner of diversion from this simple request. There is no faster way to shut down this criticism of your claim that god is real, that god is an object, that god is something we can know something about, than to show compelling evidence from reality that your god exists independent of your beliefs. Because you cannot do this (so far) there remains fully justified skepticism from reasonable people that your claims of knowledge about this object known as god causing effect in reality are without any independent merit.

        Yet Sagan quite correctly points out that this lack of skepticism in believers that you yourself exhibit – lavishly bestowed on something as mundane as purchasing a car for some relatively short span of time yet withheld when investigating causal claims about where and how we shall spend eternity – seems extraordinarily foolish and incredibly gullible.

        I agree with Sagan: how about at least an equal amount of skepticism?

  5. How do you know if the person is less diligent or less discerning than they should be?
    I implied my method in my last comment. The importance of the thing being assessed should correlate with the amount of care taken in accepting it.

    Clearly, people are much less careful with worldviews that might save them from or damn them to eternal torture than they are with used cars. If it were otherwise, the word “faith” would be much less common in religious circles.

    Why should a person be LESS suspicious of a worldview than of something they buy from a stranger?

  6. “Interpersonal communication is the way (method) to understand the woman who is to be your wife.”
    It seems that we agree that a wife is a “real object” with whom one can communicate.
    “Interpersonal communication is the method to knowing God”
    This assumes that there is an object called “God” with whom one can communicate. That seems to be an extraordinary claim and the skeptic says you have no evidence that such a thing is possible.
    “it occurs to me that I went about the business of choosing a wife all wrong”
    What a silly thing to write. The correct thought is:
    “I went about the business of choosing a god all wrong”. I choose the same god as my parents for no good reason at all at a time when I was too young to reason properly. At least that thought is accurate for a very large percentage of all believers.

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