Our Daily Philosophical Quotation service recently forwarded this one from The Fine Art of Baloney Detection by astronomer Carl Sagan:
If anyone is qualified to speak on bamboozling an audience it is the author of the astonishingly hubristic claim that "the universe is all there is, all there ever was, and all there ever will be." Why Sagan ever thought that a scientist, speaking as a scientist, should make such a blatantly unscientific assertion he never to our knowledge said. His insistence that reality consists, and has always consisted, solely of matter and energy has the ring of a religious affirmation to it, and it is fair to suppose that Sagan believed it, not on the basis of evidence, but because he wanted it to be true. He was a metaphysical naturalist, an outspoken atheist, who promoted his worldview with unrestrained gusto and who reveled in his vision of a world purged of the supernatural.
He's right, though, that people reach a point in their lives when they're captured by the bamboozle. We each acquire so much psychological inertia in our believings, we invest so heavily of ourselves in our convictions, that we ultimately reach a point of no return after which it is nearly impossible for us to change our minds. We become so enamored of an idea, so comfortable with it, that we don't want it not to be true. Indeed, we sometimes cannot conceive of it not being true. At this stage we have probably already passed the point where it became too painful to acknowledge that we've been taken in.
In the passage quoted above, Sagan probably has in mind, inter alia, religious believers, but one wonders if he could not as easily be talking about himself. Was Carl Sagan himself beguiled, captured, by a naturalistic account of reality that is inherently fraudulent? As an astronomer, he of all people should have been aware of the burgeoning body of evidence being compiled by his colleagues which indicated that the universe is almost unbelievably fine-tuned. He must have known that many scientists in his field were remarking with awe upon the numerous signs of intentionality and foresight that filled the cosmos. There are, it turns out, literally hundreds of facts about the universe discovered in the last several decades which, had they been otherwise than they are by nearly infinitesimally small amounts, the universe either would not have existed at all or it would have been utterly unsuited for living things.
Of course, astonishing precision and enormously high improbabilities are not conclusive proofs that naturalism is a mistake, but it certainly must count as evidence that should provoke doubt in the mind of an honest skeptic. Those who doubt, however, don't make the sort of claim quoted above, a claim which requires a level of dogmatic certainty found only in the staunchest of true believers. Sagan didn't seem to have any doubts whatsoever that man is a purely material being in a purely material universe which is ontologically solitary and unique. If he did have doubts, they were evidently too painful for him to acknowledge. It probably would have dismayed him beyond endurance to think that he might have been so incredibly credulous.
Carl Sagan died in 1996 at the age of 62. The irony is that if he was wrong, perhaps he's now realized it. If he was right, though, he'll never have had the satisfaction of knowing it.