Carl Sagan’s work “The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark” outlines instances in which the larger role of science is questioned and society’ responsibility in understanding and preserving such a role. He presents the argument that the role that science possess within society goes beyond its typical role as a way of questioning the physical, chemical, or natural universe. Through his chapters, he presented an overarching theme in which the pursuit and process of understanding is in fact more important than the ultimate understanding itself. In particular, each individual chapter presents insight to the role that science possesses within fields that were thought to be fundamentally different and separate from the sciences. The purpose of science is to challenge our understanding of what we think we know so that people can have either a more accurate understanding of a concept as well as to have an understanding on the purpose and impact that such a concept would possess on individuals. Sagan elects to analyze the influence and necessity that the scientific process has on scientific illiteracy, personal faith, and in politics. While thought to be mutually exclusive, Sagan demonstrates how significant the scientific process is on each aspect and how it is the individual’s (and society’s) responsibility to constantly question and challenge their understanding in order for them to be just and developed. The central theme of Sagan’s work focuses on the necessity that the scientific process has on the progression and understanding of all fields, but each individual chapter focuses on certain aspects that prove to be more prevalent (and impactful) on the progression of society as a whole.
The first chapter, entitled “The Most Precious Thing” perhaps best captures the central them of the book in that the process of understanding is far more critical for the human experience than the understanding/ knowledge that is ultimately gathered. His argument is best captured in the chapter’s final statement, “The method of science, as stodgy and grumpy as it may seem, is far more important than the findings of sciences” (Sagan, 22). A significant point that is brought up during this particular chapter is the suspicion and stubbornness of the general population permits them to become susceptible to the influence of pseudoscience and other trends that ultimately contribute to the growing number of individuals who are scientifically illiterate. Sagan demonstrates how individuals utilize some form of pseudoscience to explain what they could not easily understand to have a sense of completeness or control over their surrounds, but the moment that evidence presents itself that counter-argues their own beliefs, they elect to ignore such findings and continuing within their realm of ignorant bliss. He supports such claims by identifying media-popularized fields of pseudoscience such as the government-sponsorship of psychics, the rapid globalization of the practice of transcendental meditation within the Hindu faith, the monopolization of scientific thought within Soviet Russia, and more practices which became popularized within the scientific illiterate through the help of specific media influence. These examples demonstrate the degree in which pseudoscience is able to influence society at a global scale without the scrutiny and analysis that real science constantly undergoes. By making these comparisons, Sagan demonstrates the necessity that science possesses on human thought and actions to allow true progress to be accomplish. He best demonstrates this in stating that, “If we resolutely refuse to acknowledge where we are liable to fall into error, then we can confidently expect that error-even serious error, profound mistakes-will be our companion” (Sagan, 21). Such insight is especially significant within modern society as individuals are capable to accessing practically unlimited amounts of information on virtually any topic imaginable. This responsibility, however, means that individuals need to be critical about what information they take as truth and how they choose to utilize such truth. Individuals would only be able to accomplish such a feat by being scientifically literate. It would be likely that this would also require the individual to possess a willingness to compromise on what they currently understand as truth in order to develop a better understanding of the idea at hand. Regardless of the specific field, possessing the ability to be critical of information presented and understanding what to do with such information has and will remain pertinent for both out societies and scientific community. If such skills were to be lacking, then there would surely be a stagnation in the progress of both groups.
The next chapter of Sagan’s work, entitled “Science and Hope”, further delves into the needed connectedness that scientific thought possess within organized faith and the significance that such a relation possesses on the human experience. He connects the two by explaining that, “Science is more than a body of knowledge; it is a way of thinking” (Sagan, 25). Providing this analysis helps further support the chapter’s specific theme that the pursuit of knowledge is critical for progress to achieve. This would further expand and support the overarching theme that Sagan conveys through the course of his work. He utilizes examples of organized faith to convey how individuals make every attempt to explain the world around them as opposed to the tedious and constant process that is required for scientific thinking. A point that is brought up during the progression of the chapter is that the necessity and appeal of science (as well as organized faith to some extent) is presented when Sagan states that “Science is an attempt, largely successful, to understand the world, to get a grip on things, to get hold of ourselves, to steer a safe course” (Sagan, 26). Sagan demonstrates that the initial purposes of both organized faith and science were similar in that they were meant to bring order and reasoning behind an uncontrollable world. The key difference, however, arises when evidence challenges what each field considers a fundamental truth. While organized faith’s credibility relies solely on its ability to not sway or compromise to such challenges, scientific thinking is the opposite. Sagan points out that the necessity of scientific thinking within society is that its credibility is based on its foundation of being critical of itself. He is able to support such points by providing historical events in which the actions taken were taken either on the basis of spirituality (early witch hunts) and those based on scientific thought (Einstein’s challenge of Newtonian physics). Other evidence that he provides also include organized faith’s fundamental basis that their understanding is the truth. Scientific thought, however, is based on formulating hypothesis that can be tested, challenged, and critically analyzed until a better understanding is presented. It is my understanding that Sagan would create this chapter of comparing scientific thought to spirituality to demonstrate how they are fundamentally the same. Both aim to provide understanding and comfort to its respective group and attempt to provide some form of evidence to demonstrate how their thought is truth. He does not aim to disregard spiritual faith. He instead presents scientific thought as a form of spirituality, which I think is a significant concept in today’s society. It is my understanding that a significant number of people, especially those within positions of power or influence, elect to not compromise in the struggle between faith and scientific thought. These individuals appear to believe that they must exclusively follow one or the other when in reality Sagan presents the necessity for their cooperation. Sagan’s writing provides me with understanding that the two must be intertwined and critically checked in order to ensure the survival of both. His most impactful statement is shown when he states that “Science is a way to call the bluff of those who only pretend to knowledge” (Sagan, 38). Such analysis provides an understanding that the two fields of thoughts require compromise to ensure that individuals are not being taken advantage of by those who would know otherwise. Faith and science are based on providing a sense of understanding of the world which Sagan presents an argument in which scientific thought is critical for individuals to have some control on such.
The final chapter of Sagan’s work, entitled “Real Patriots Ask Questions”, connects the significance of scientific understanding to the field of political science and its necessity within modern day politics. He utilizes the chapter’s theme of the necessity of experimentation within politics to protect civil liberties to further support the work’s overarching theme of the scientific process being more significant than the actual results collected. He explains that all actions taken by political systems are experiments in which individuals attempt to understand the best mode of actions for the course of human progression and experience. He states that the purpose of such actions is due to the fact that “The methods of science-with all its imperfections-can be used to improve social, political, and economic systems, and this is, I think, true no matter what criterion of improvement is adopted” (Sagan, 423). The purpose of government and politics is to create the best possible environment in which a group of people can live and prosper. Such an endeavor would surely require the practice of scientific though, especially within the modern age that requires the use of science in nearly every aspect of life. The necessity for freedom, in particular, is critical for scientific thought and understanding to exist as it permits critical arguments and challenges to be presented to established thought. Sagan points out a specific instance in which the monopolization of knowledge within Soviet Russia impeded on its ability to be a technological competitor. This evidence was but one example that Sagan provides to indicate that in order for political machines to obtain and maintain their power and spheres of influence, they must possess freedom of thought and actively support the pursuit of scientific thought, regardless of the concepts that could arise that would challenge their power. Not only does this secure the civil liberties of the people, but it allows citizens to develop a sense of understanding and empathy for those who may have different views from theirs. This would not have been possible within a totalitarian regime. It is my understanding that this chapter is incredibly significant within society today due to the fact that little leadership is held by those who understand scientific thought. They would rather argue and have everything stop at a stand-still than allow a compromise to occur that would benefit the people. They do not understand the scientific process of critical analysis, compromise, and further experimentations to determine what is best. I feel that it is more important than ever to have individuals who are scientifically literate within positions of power and influence to ensure that progress can be made for the better of everyone, not just a select few. Sagan best captures this concept in stating that “The great waste would be to ignore the results of social experiments because they seem to be ideologically unpalatable” (Sagan, 423).
Sagan’s work demonstrated the necessity of scientific thought and the process of understanding within all aspects of the human experience through analyzing its role within scientific literacy and pseudoscience, spirituality, and political design. With growing interactions with others and growing access to excess information, understanding this process and being able to applying is becoming more critical than ever. Science is not just about explaining nature, but also challenging such an understanding on a critical level to ensure that progress never stagnates due to our own human error.