Walker Percy on the College Dorm Arguments of Sagan and deGrasse Tyson

You'll fall over after reading Walker Percy's footnote on Carl Sagan's book.

You’ll fall over after reading Walker Percy’s footnote in Lost in in the Cosmos on Carl Sagan’s Cosmos.

There is an extended footnote in Walker Percy’s Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book on the print-edition of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos (Now available with a preface by deGrasse Tyson and new tie-dye art. MOICHANDISING!).

It seems to me that the footnote also hits the spot for deGrasse’s Cosmos: A Space-Time Odyssey whose earnest but appalling rewriting of history was featured on CosmosTheInLost here (cold cosmos), here (Bruno), and here (Hypatia and other myths).

DeGrasse Tyson’s playing fast with historical facts makes me wonder whether we’ve done right by our kids by cutting back humanities funding while steadily increasing science funding.

But before I get all wound up again, I’ll let Walker Percy take the floor instead.

As you read this extended passage (from the bottom of pages 201 and 202 in the Picador edition of Lost in the Cosmos), you should keep in mind that “scientism” is the metaphysical doctrine that would have you believe that all value and judgment can only be derived from scientific type experimentation and judgments. It is a self-refuting belief, because “scientism” cannot be affirmed through the above-mentioned purely “scientistic” criteria.

Self-aware science is much more sagacious about its limitations. Keep this in mind, so that you don’t get the idea that my many posts on science and religion are about putting down the immense contributions of science to society (even theology). If you’re looking for fundamentalists to bully, then look elsewhere.

To borrow and twist a favorite Cosmos: A Space-Time Odyssey turn of phrase… this is a story about you and me [sic!] and scientism:

Amos: Bringing the scientific Funk back into the Middle Ages.

Amos: Sketching the scientific Funk back into the Middle Ages.

“This chapter, as well as other parts of the book, owes a good deal to Carl Sagan’s splendid picture book, Cosmos. I hope he will not take offense at some fanciful extrapolations therefrom. Sagan’s book gave me much pleasure, a pleasure which was not diminished by Sagan’s unmalicious, even innocent, scientism, the likes of which I have not encountered since the standard bull sessions of high school and college—up to but not past the sophomore year. The argument could be resumed with Sagan, I suppose, but the issue would be as inconclusive as it was between sophomores. For me it was more diverting than otherwise to see someone sketch the history of Western scientific thought and leave out Judaism and Christianity. Everything is downhill after the Ionians and until the rise of modern science. There is a huge gap between the destruction of the library at Alexandria and the appearance of Copernicus and Galileo. So much for six thousand years of Judaism and fifteen hundred years of Christianity. So much for the likes of Aristotle, Hippocrates, Galen, Aquinas, Roger Bacon [not to be confused with Francis the Bacon], Grosseteste. So much for the science historian A.C. Crombie, who wrote: ‘The natural philosophers of Latin Christendom in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries created the experimental science characteristic of modern times.’

So much, indeed, for the relationship between Christianity and science and the fact that, as Whitehead pointed out, it is no coincidence that science sprang, not from Ionian metaphysics, not from the Brahmin-Buddhist-Taoist East, not from the Egyptian-Mayan astrological South, but from the heart of the Christian West, that although Galileo fell out with the Church, he would hardly have taken so much trouble studying Jupiter and dropping objects from towers if the reality and value and order of things had not first been conferred by belief in the Incarnation.

Yet one is not offended by Sagan. There is too little malice and too much ignorance. It is enough to take pleasure in the pleasant style, the knack for popularizing science, and the beautiful pictures of Saturn and the Ring Nebula.

Indeed, more often than not, I found myself on Sagan’s side, especially in his admiration for science and the scientific method, which is what he says it is — a noble, elegant, and self-correcting method of attaining a kind of truth — and when he attacks the current superstitions, astrology, UFO’s, parapsychology, and such, which seem to engage the Western mind now more than ever — more perhaps than either science or Christianity.

What is this scientism you speak of Walker, Louisiana Ranger?

What is this scientism you speak of Walker, Louisiana Ranger?

What is to be deplored is not Sagan’s sophomoric scientism — which I think better than its counterpart, a sophomoric theism which attributes the wonders of the Cosmos to a God who created it like a child with a cookie cutter — no, what is deplorable is that these serious issues involving God and the nature of man should be co-opted by the present disputants, a popularizer like Sagan and fundamentalists who believe God created the world six-thousand years ago. It’s enough to give both science and Christianity a bad name.

Really, it is a case of an ancient and still honorable argument going to pot. Even arguments in a college dormitory are, or were, conducted at a higher level.

It is for this very reason that we can enjoy Cosmos so much, for the frivolity of Sagan’s vulgar scientism and for the reason that science is, as Sagan says, self-correcting. One wonders, in fact, whether Sagan himself has not been correted, e.g., by Hubble’s discovery of the red shift and the present growing consensus of the Big Bang theory [proposed by a Catholic priest, Georges Lemaître] of the creation of the Cosmos, which surely comes closer than Sagan would like to the Genesis account of creatio ex hihilo.”

The vulgar dorm-room scientism was on display in the second episode of Cosmos when the host made it his job to preach to the choir about human beings being interconnected with the rest of nature as if the Great Chain of Being wasn’t a part of our mental furniture since time immemorial.

Yet despite the connections, and there’s no doubt they’re there, the new Cosmos series hasn’t answered the following questions from Percy’s Lost in the Cosmos. These are questions about those handful percent of DNA that make us so weird (not that he’s arguing for special creation here), that allow us to make TV shows about evolution, that allow us to step back from the cosmos and describe it:

Scientific fact: Percy's philosophical essays are as much fun to read as his novels.

Scientific fact: Walker Percy’s philosophical essays are as much fun to read as his novels.

“How you can survive in the Cosmos about which you know more and more while knowing less and less about yourself, this despite 10,000 self-help books, 100,000 psychotherapists, and 100 million fundamentalist Christians?


Why is it that of all the billions and billions of strange objects in the Cosmos – novas, quasars, pulsars, black holes – you are beyond doubt the strangest?


Why is it possible to learn more in ten minutes about the Crab Nebula in Taurus, which is 6,000 light-years away, than you presently know about yourself, even though you’ve been stuck with yourself all your life?”

Watch the Jefferson Lecture “The San Andreas Fault in the Modern Mind” for a quick rundown of Walker Percy’s thinking about these issues. It is also available in print in the collection Signposts in a Strange Land.

Finally, if you still doubt it, here’s something to prove that I have a sense of humor about these things:

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27 comments on “Walker Percy on the College Dorm Arguments of Sagan and deGrasse Tyson
  1. Where does the Walker Percy quote end exactly? Is it from “This chapter…” to “the Genesis account of creatio ex hihilo.”?

  2. Hey Artur, I just wanted to say it’s always a pleasure reading your posts. This one (and the related recent posts you mention in the intro) in particular captured similar frustrations I have been having too – it is nice to know I’m not the only one. This post also reinforced that I have putting off picking up a copy of Lost in the Cosmos for far, far too long. Thanks for writing so well, keep up the great work!

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  6. I would contradict the statement that Tyson was “preaching to the choir” by devoting a significant amount of air time to Darwinian evolution and the tree of life. In point of fact, there are roughly 100 million literalist creationists in the United States http://www.pewforum.org/2013/12/30/publics-views-on-human-evolution/.

    Further, Percy’s ham-handed attempt to suggest we know so little about ourselves is simply a matter of subjective opinion. Compared to what we knew about human biology, biochemistry, physiology and psychology 500 years ago, we’ve made more than a little progress.

    I also shouldn’t have to point out that the fact Earth is – so far – the only planet which we know possesses life means very little when one considers the synergistic implications both of our neophyte status as interstellar explorers as well as the vastness of the universe.

      • Feel free to nitpick, as you are. The source clearly states 33% are literal creationists. I extrapolated this out based on a rough population of 300 million. The point stands – and I’d hope you’d agree – that there are far too many science-deniers in this country. “Cosmos” was resurrected, at least in part, with this in mind.

        • I do agree. And we need shows like these to get to people who would otherwise not listen.

          But the source doesn’t clearly state since extrapolation is needed and the word creationist does not appear in the source at all. And by literal creationist do you mean young earth creationists only? Than number seems very big.

          • It only states the question to which 33% of respondents answered in the affirmative, which is “Humans existed in present form since beginning.” This means roughly a third of the population are anti-science. Religion clearly plays a role as the majority of those who say they believe this are Protestant and Catholic.

          • Perhaps I’m being dense. If someone believes that humans never evolved but were created in present form in the beginning, is that not a form of creationism? Put another way, If one believes humans didn’t evolve, how else did we get here but with a creator?

          • CES: Now you’re trucking in a lot of metaphysical prejudices into the discussion. Belief in evolution does not preclude belief in a Creator, nor does it necessarily imply an interventionist God.

          • Yes, but what of a lack of belief in evolution? Evolutionary theory is an attempt to explain how we arrived in our current form. If one believes we’ve existed in our current form since the beginning of time, on what does he base this conclusion? Isn’t it nearly always on theistic grounds, i.e. the belief in an interventionist God?

          • And we need shows like these to get to people who would otherwise not listen.

            I agree we need to get people to listen, but sadly, this kind of show (Cosmos) is not going to do that. Fundamentalist Christians feel attacked by shows like this, and when people feel attacked, they do not trust any statements – factual or not – by the other side.

            Almost nobody takes the positions they do because they know anything about the debate. Nearly everyone takes the positions they do because they think those are the positions required by their “side”. (And this goes for secularists as well as fundamentalists.)

          • Fundamentalists are going to feel attacked anyways, that is going to happen no matter our method, and it means we are winning! The producer of the new movie “God’s Not Dead” said:

            “What the movie does is it silences [and] quiets people down in a dark room — and it takes them to a place that they won’t even let their best friend take them,” Wolfe said.

            The fact that tv shows and movies like these are out there are making Christians educate themselves more and more about the actual arguments. They may be kicking and screaming as they are forced to confront the real issues but I think that overall it will be beneficial.

            How many people in criticism of this show are becoming more familiar with the arguments which beforehand would never had a reason to know? And they may get it wrong, more time with the principles and hopefully they will see the problems with theology. I for one am glad they are showing up for the debates even if they have a “side”.

          • I have almost no intellectual overlap with the fundamentalists. People who think the fundamentalist arguments are relevant seem to have more faith in the powers of the fundamentalists than the fundamentalists do themselves.

          • Should we simply continue to ignore them then while their straw man arguments continue to propagate in hope that they will simply die off? Is that time frame a generational one?

        • “Indeed, roughly a quarter of adults (24%) say that “a supreme being guided the evolution of living things for the purpose of creating humans and other life in the form it exists today.” – Creationism

          “A third (33%) reject the idea of evolution, saying that “humans and other living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time.” – Not Creationism

          You mixed up the two, but 72 million people is still too many!

    • If you read the book… you’d see that Percy is well aware of all we know about humans 500 years later – and yet he says, we still don’t have the foggiest. The book is not a difficult read and is quite funny. I’d recommend checking it out!

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