Contact by Carl Sagan

  “Y’see, you scientists are too skeptical.” From the sidewise motion of his head, Ellie deduced that der Heer was also included in this assessment. “You question everything, or try to. You never heard about ‘Leave well enough alone,’ or ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’ You always want to check out if a thing is what you call ‘true.’ And ‘true’ means only empirical, sense data, things you can see and touch. There’s no room for inspiration or revelation in your world. Right from the beginning you rule out of court almost everything religion is about. I mistrust the scientists because the scientists mistrust everything.”

  Despite herself, she thought Rankin had put his case well. And he was supposed to be the dumb one among the modern video evangelists. No, not dumb, she corrected herself; he was the one who considered his parishioners dumb. He could, for all she knew, be very smart indeed. Should she respond at all? Both der Heer and the local museum people were recording the discussion, and although both groups had agreed that the recordings were not for public use, she worried about embarrassing the project or the President if she spoke her mind. but Rankin’s remarks had become increasingly outrageous, and no interventions were being made either by der Heer or by Joss.

  “I suppose you want a reply,” she found herself saying. “There isn’t an ‘official’ scientific position on any of these questions, and I can’t pretend to talk for all scientists or even for the Argus Project. But I can make some comments, if you’d like.”

  Rankin nodded his head vigorously, smiling encouragement. Languidly, Joss merely waited.

  “I want you to understand that I’m not attacking anybody’s belief system. As far as I’m concerned, you’re entitled to any doctrine you like, even if it’s demonstrably wrong. And many of the things you’re saying, and that the Reverend Joss has said—I saw you talk on television a few weeks ago—can’t be dismissed instantly. It takes a little work. But let me try to explain why I think they’re improbable.”

  So far, she though, I’ve been the soul of restraint.

  “You’re uncomfortable with scientific skepticism. But the reason it developed is that the world is complicated. It’s subtle. Everybody’s first idea isn’t necessarily right. Also, people are capable of self-deception. Scientists, too. All sorts of socially abhorrent doctrines have at one time or another been supported by scientists, well-known scientists, famous brand-name scientists. And, of course, politicians. And respected religious leaders. Slavery, for instance, or the Nazi brand of racism. Scientists make mistakes, theologians make mistakes, everybody makes mistakes. It’s part of being human. You say it yourselves: ‘To err is.’

  “So the way you avoid the mistakes, or at least reduce the chance that you’ll make one, is to be skeptical. You test the ideas. You check them out by rigorous standards of evidence. I don’t think there is such a thing as a received truth. But when you let the different opinions debate, when any skeptic can perform his or her own experiment to check some contention out, then the truth tends to emerge. That’s the experience of the whole history of science. It isn’t a perfect approach, but it’s the only one that seems to work.

  “Now, when I look at religion, I see lots of contending opinions. For example, the Christians think the universe is a finite number of years old. From the exhibits out there, it’s clear that some Christians (and Jews, and Muslims) think that the universe is only six thousand years old. The Hindus, on the other hand—and there are lots of Hindus in the world—think that the universe is infinitely old, with an infinite number of subsidiary creations and destructions along the way. Now they can’t both be right. Either the universe is a certain number of years old or it’s infinitely old. Your friends out there”—she gestured out the glass door toward several museum workers ambling past “Darwin’s Default”—“ought to debate Hindus. God seems to have told them something different from what he told you. But you tend to talk only to yourselves.”

  Maybe a little too strong? she asked herself.

  “The major religions on the Earth contradict each other left and right. You can’t all be correct. And what if all of you are wrong? It’s a possibility, you know. You must care about the truth, right? Well, the way to winnow through all the differing contentions is to be skeptical. I’m not any more skeptical about your religious beliefs than I am about every new scientific idea I hear about. But in my line of work, they’re called hypotheses, not inspiration and not revelation.”

  Joss now stirred a little, but it was Ranking who replied.

  “The revelations, the confirmed predictions by God in the Old Testament and the New are legion. The coming of the Saviour is foretold in Isaiah fifty-three, in Zechariah fourteen, in First Chronicles seventeen. That He would be born in Bethlehem was prophesied in Micah five. That He would come from the line of David was foretold in Matthew one and—”

  “In Luke. But that ought to be an embarrassment for you, not a fulfilled prophecy. Matthew and Luke give Jesus totally different genealogies. Worse than that, they trace the lineage from David to Joseph, not from David to Mary. Or don’t you believe in God the Father?”

  Rankin continued smoothly on. Perhaps he hadn’t understood her. “…the Ministry and Suffering of Jesus are foretold in Isaiah fifty-two and fifty-three, and the Twenty-second Psalm. That He would be betrayed for thirty pieces of silver is explicit in Zechariah eleven. If you’re honest, you can’t ignore the evidence of fulfilled prophecy.

  “And the Bible speaks to our own time. Israel and the Arabs, Gog and Magog, American and Russia, nuclear war—it’s all there in the Bible. Anybody with an ounce of sense can see it. You don’t have to be some fancy college professor.”

  “Your trouble,” she replied, “is a failure of the imagination. These prophecies are—almost ever one of them—vague, ambiguous, imprecise, open to fraud. They admit lots of possible interpretations. Even the straightforward prophecies direct from the top you try to weasel out of—like Jesus’ promise that the Kingdom of God would come in the lifetime of some people in his audience. And don’t tell me the Kingdom of God is within me. His audience understood him quite literally. You only quote the passages that seem to you fulfilled, and ignore the rest. And don’t forget there was a hunger to see prophecy fulfilled.”

  “But imagine that your kind of god—omnipotent, omniscient, compassionate—really wanted to leave a record for future generations, to make his existence unmistakable to, say, the remote descendants of Moses. It’s easy, trivial. Just a few enigmatic phrases, and some fierce commandment that they be passed on unchanged…”

  Joss leaned forward almost imperceptibly. “Such as…?”

  “Such as ‘The Sun is a star.’ Or ‘Mars is a rusty place with deserts and volcanos, like Sinai.’ Or ‘A body in motion tends to remain in motion.’ Or—let’s see now”—she quickly scribbled some numbers on a pad—“‘The Earth weighs a million million million million times as much as a child.’ Or—I recognize that both of you seem to have some trouble with special relativity, but it’s confirmed every day routinely in particle accelerators and cosmic rays—how about ‘There are no privileged frames of reference’? Or even ‘Thou shalt not travel faster than light.’ anything they couldn’t possible have known three thousand years ago.”

  “Any others?” Joss asked.

  “Well, there’s an indefinite number of them—or at least one for every principal of physics. Let’s see…‘Heat and light hid in the smallest pebble.’ Or even ‘The way of the Earth is as two, but the way of the lodestone is as three.’ I’m trying to suggest that the gravitational force follows an inverse square law, while the magnetic dipole force follows an inverse cube law. Or in biology”—she nodded toward der Heer, who seemed to have taken a vow of silence—“how about ‘Two strands entwined is the secret of life’?”

  “Now that’s an interesting one,” said Joss. “You’re talking, of course, about DNA. But you know the physician’s staff, the symbol of medicine? Army doctors wear it on their lapels. It’s called th
e caduceus. Shows two serpents intertwined. It’s a perfect double helix. From ancient times that’s been the symbol of preserving life. Isn’t this exactly the kind of connection you’re suggesting?”

  “Well, I thought it’s a spiral, not a helix. But if there are enough symbols and enough prophecies and enough myth and folklore, eventually a few of them are going to fit some current scientific understanding purely by accident. But I can’t be sure. Maybe you’re right. Maybe the caduceus is a message from God. Of course, it’s not a Christian symbol, or a symbol of any of the major religions today. I don’t suppose you’d want to argue that the gods talked only to the ancient Greeks. What I’m saying is, if God wanted to send us a message, and ancient writings were the only way he could think of doing it, he could have done a better job. And he hardly had to confine himself to writings. Why isn’t there a monster crucifix orbiting the Earth? Why isn’t the surface of the Moon covered with the Ten Commandments? Why should God be so clear in the Bible and so obscure in the world?”

  Joss had apparently been ready to reply a few sentences back, a look of genuine pleasure unexpectedly on his face, but Ellie’s rush of words was gathering momentum, and perhaps he felt it impolite to interrupt.

  “Also, why would you think that God has abandoned us? He used to chat with patriarchs and prophets every second Tuesday, you believe. He’s omnipotent, you say, and omniscient. So it’s no particular effort for him to remind us directly, unambiguously, of his wishes at least a few times in every generation. So how come, fellas? Why don’t we see him with crystal clarity?”

  “We do.” Rankin put enormous feeling in this phrase. “He is all around us. Our prayers are answered. Tens of millions of people in this country have been born again and have witnessed God’s glorious grace. The Bible speaks to us as clearly in this day as it did in the time of Moses and Jesus.”

  “Oh, come off it. You know what I mean. Where are the burning bushes, the pillars of fire, the great voice that says ‘I am that I am’ booming down at us out of the sky? Why should God manifest himself in such subtle and debatable ways when he can make his presence completely unambiguous?”

  “But a voice from the sky is just what you found.” Joss made this comment casually while Ellie paused for breath. He held her eyes with his own.

  Rankin quickly picked up the thought. “Absolutely. Just what I was going to say. Abraham and Moses, they didn’t have radios or telescopes. They couldn’t have heard the Almighty talking on FM. Maybe today God talks to us in new ways and permits us to have a new understanding. Or maybe it’s not God—”

  “Yes, Satan. I’ve heard some talk about that. It sounds crazy. Let’s leave that one alone for a moment, if it’s okay with you. You think the Message is the Voice of God, your God. Where in your religion does God answer a prayer by repeating the prayer back?”

  “I wouldn’t call a Nazi newsreel a prayer, myself,” Joss said. “You say it’s to attract our attention.”

  “Then why do you think God has chosen to talk to scientists? Why not preachers like yourself?”

  “God talks to me all the time.” Rankin’s index finger audibly thumped his sternum. “and the Reverend Joss here. God has told me that a revelation is at hand. When the end of the world is nigh, the Rapture will be upon us, the judgment of sinners, the ascension to heaven of the elect—”

  “Did he tell you he was going to make that announcement in the radio spectrum? Is your conversation with God recorded somewhere, so we can verify that it really happened? Or do we have only your say-so? Why would God choose to announce it to radio astronomers and not to men and women of the cloth? Don’t you think it’s a little strange that the first message from God in two thousand years or more is prime numbers…and Adolf Hitler at the 1936 Olympics? Your God must have quite a sense of humor.”

  “My God can have any sense He wants to have.”

  Der Heer was clearly alarmed at the first appearance of real rancor. “Uh, maybe I could remind us all about what we hope to accomplish at this meeting,” he began.

  Here’s Ken in his mollifying mode, Ellie thought. On some issues he’s courageous, but chiefly when he has not responsibility for action. He’s a brave talker…in private. But on scientific politics, and especially when representing the President, he becomes very accommodating, ready to compromise with the Devil himself. She caught herself. The theological language was getting to her.

  “That’s another thing.” She interrupted her own train of though as well as der Heer’s. “If that signal is from God, why does it come from just one place in the sky—in the vicinity of a particularly bright nearby star? Why doesn’t it come from all over the sky at once, like the cosmic black-body background radiation? Coming from one star, it looks like a signal from another civilization. Coming from everywhere, it would look much more like a signal from your God.”

  “God can make a signal come from the bunghole of the Little Bear if He wants.” Rankin’s face was becoming bright red. “Excuse me, but you’ve gotten me riled up. God can do anything.”

  “Anything you don’t understand, Mr. Rankin, you attribute to God. God for you is where you sweep away all the mysteries of the world, all the challenges t our intelligence. You simply turn you mind off and say God did it.”

  “Ma’am I didn’t come here to be insulted…”

  “‘Come here’? I thought this was where you lived.”

  “Ma’am—” Rankin was about to say something, but then thought better of it. He took a deep breath and continued. “This is a Christian country and Christians have true knowledge on this issue, a sacred responsibility to make sure that God’s sacred word is understood…”

  “I’m a Christian and you don’t speak for me. You’ve tapped yourself in some sort of fifth-century religious mania. Since then the Renaissance has happened, the Enlightenment has happened. Where’ve you been?”

  Both Joss and der Heer were half out of their chairs. “Please,” Ken implored, looking directly at Ellie. “If we don’t keep more to the agenda, I don’t see how we can accomplish what the President asked us to do.”

  “Well, you wanted ‘a frank exchange of views.’”

  “It’s nearly noon,” Joss observed. “Why don’t we take a little break for lunch?”

  Outside the library conference room, leaning on the railing surrounding the Foucault pendulum, Ellie began a brief whispered exchange with der Heer.

  “I’d like to punch out that cocksure, know-it-all, holier-than-thou…”

  “Why, exactly, Ellie? Aren’t ignorance and error painful enough?”

  “Yes, if he’d shut up. But he’s corrupting millions.”

  “Sweetheart, he thinks the same about you.”

  • • •

  When she and der Heer came back from lunch, Ellie noticed immediately that Rankin appeared subdued, while Joss, who was first to speak, seemed cheerful, certainly beyond the requirements of mere cordiality.

  “Dr. Arroway,” he began, “I can understand that you’re impatient to show us your findings, and that you didn’t come here for theological disputation. But please bear with us just a bit longer. You have a sharp tongue. I can’t recall the last time Brother Rankin here got so stirred up on matters of the faith. It must be years.”

  He glanced momentarily at his colleague, who was doodling, apparently idly, on a yellow legal pad, his collar unbuttoned and his necktie loosened.

  “I was struck by one or two things you said this morning. You called yourself a Christian. May I ask? In what sense are you a Christian?”

  “You know, this wasn’t the job description when I accepted the directorship of the Argus Project.” She said this lightly. “I’m a Christian in the sense that I find Jesus Christ to be an admirable historical figure. I think the Sermon on the Mount is one of the greatest ethical statements and one of the best speeches in history. I think that ‘Love your enemy’ might even be the long-shot solution to the problem of nuclear war. I wish he was alive today. It would benef
it everybody on the planet. But I think Jesus was only a man. A great man, a brave man, a man with insight into unpopular truths. But I don’t think he was God or the son of God or the grandnephew of God.”

  “You don’t want to believe in God.” Joss said it as a simple statement. “You figure you can be a Christian and not believe in God. Let me ask you straight out: Do you believe in God?”

  “The question has a peculiar structure. If I say no, do I mean I’m convinced God doesn’t exist, or do I mean I’m not convinced he does exist? Those are two very different statements.”

  “Let’s see if they are so different, Dr. Arroway. May I call you ‘Doctor’? You believe in Occam’s Razor, isn’t that right? If you have two different, equally good explanations of the same experience, you pick the simplest. The whole history of science supports it, you say. Now, if you have serious doubts about whether there is a God—enough doubts so you’re unwilling to commit yourself to the Faith—then you must be able to imagine a world without God: a world that comes into being without God, a world where people die without God. No punishment. No reward. All the saints and prophets, all the faithful who have ever lived—why, you’d have to believe they were foolish. Deceived themselves, you’d probably say. That would be a world in which we weren’t here on Earth for any good reason—I mean for any purpose. It would all be just complicated collisions of atoms—is that right? Including the atoms that are inside human beings.

  “To me, that would be a hateful and inhuman world. I wouldn’t want to live in it. But if you can imagine that world, why straddle? Why occupy some middle ground? If you believe all that already, isn’t it much simpler to say there’s on God? You’re not being true to Occam’s Razor. I think you’re waffling. How can a thoroughgoing conscientious scientist be an agnostic if you can even imagine a world without God? Wouldn’t you just have to be an atheist?”

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