Jo Gulledge and Walker Percy Talk About Carl Sagan

JG: Half-jokingly, you were going to subtitle Lost in the Cosmos: Why Carl Sagan Is So Lonely . .. . a statement obviously directed at scientists in general who try to “dissolve the uniqueness of man” and make him like all other species. This brings up the problem again and again of the doctrines of evolution and creationism. While the evolutionists don’t pretend to see their view as the “eternal truth,” scientists, like Carl Sagan and others, see the status of evolution as a logical theory — even though it is not provable in a traditional scientific method. While he can’t be proved wrong, your book points to some of the holes in his theory which caused Sagan to write and ask about Lost in the Cosmos.

WP: Yes, he wrote me he’d read somewhere that I’d written a book in rebuttal to his writings and questioning the fact that he’s left God out of the Cosmos. He said if I could show him any cited evidence that God was ever there or ever in a being, he would have to consider it. He just said he’d like to read the book. He reminds me of a pathologist who finished an autopsy and said to his students: “Where is the soul?”

JG: So he hadn’t read the book yet?

WP: No, he hadn’t, so I sent him a copy.

JG: Most reviewers come up with the idea that it is a rebuttal of Sagan, but it isn’t against him personally. It only mentions Sagan one time.

WP: I only mention him in one question and one footnote. People like to latch onto something, and the two most obvious names are Donahue and Sagan. They’re featured in different parts of the book. But you know where the loneliness comes from? It comes from a triadic creature, scientist, whether it be Einstein or Darwin or Sagan, who tries to explain the whole world by dyadic theory and mostly succeeds. Darwin was trying to do it — thought he’d succeeded. Darwin’s theory of evolution is purely dyadic. Organisms compete, then small, accidental changes occur, which survive through adaptation and survival of the fittest. But notice that there is a curious moment taking place while you’re explaining the whole world by dyadic theory: you yourself are getting more and more removed from it. There you are sitting making up these theories, but how do you fit in? So you feel a little isolated and so end up with these fanciful notions of ETIs and talking chimps. Sagan wrote books which appear to explain not only the whole Cosmos but the human condition, how humans got to where they are, through his theories about the reptilian brain and cortex brain as computer and so forth. But why is Carl Sagan so anxious to find an ETI (extra-terrestrial intelligence)? Because the triadic scientist gets lonely. If everything gets put in the sphere of immanence, the sphere of dyadic interaction, one gets more and more isolated. Where does one fit in? Then he has a problem of reentry. How does one lead his life? Well, one way to it is to communicate with extraterrestrials. If one is a great scientist like Einstein, one simply does science. If not, then one starts longing for encounters with extraterrestrials. What people like Sagan don’t realize is that humans are far more mysterious than any extraterrestrial they’ve yet imagined. It’s a fanciful idea of Sagan having explained the whole Cosmos and the human position, then trying to find an ETI to tell it to, to communicate with.

Conversations With Walker Percy, p. 296-8 (reprinted from The Southern Review, 20, Winter 1984).


  1. The Ironic Catholic says

    You know, since Carl Sagan the avowed atheist is no longer with us, he is either really ticked or really ticked.

    (You know, that was funnier the first time I heard it.)

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