Carl Sagan

Demon-Haunted World

Instead of acknowledging that in many areas we are ignorant, we have tended to say things like the Universe is permeated with the ineffable. A God of the Gaps is assigned responsibility for what we do not yet understand.

Humans may crave absolute certainty; they may aspire to it; they may pretend, as partisans of certain religions do, to have attained it. But the history of science by far the most successful claim to knowledge accessible to humans - teaches that the most we can hope for is successive improvement in our understanding, learning from our mistakes, an asymptotic approach to the Universe, but with the proviso that absolute certainty will always elude us.

There's no doubt that humans commonly hallucinate. There's considerable doubt about whether extraterrestrials exist, frequent our planet, or abduct and molest us. We might argue about details, but the one category of explanation is surely much better supported than the other. The main reservation you might then have is: why do so many people today report this particular set of hallucinations? Why sombre little beings, and flying saucers, and sexual experimentation?

The typical modern extraterrestrial reported in America in the eighties and early nineties is small, with disproportionately large head and eyes, undeveloped facial features, no visible eyebrows or genitals, and smooth grey skin. It looks to me eerily like a foetus in roughly the twelfth week of pregnancy, or a starving child. Why so many of us might be obsessing on foetuses or malnourished children, and imagining them attacking and sexually manipulating us, is an interesting question.

Most of these figures are only after your money. That's the good news. But what worries me is that a Carlos will come along with bigger fish to fry - attractive, commanding, patriotic, exuding leadership. All of us long for a competent, uncorrupt, charismatic leader. We will leap at the opportunity to support, to believe, to feel good. Most reporters, editors and producers, swept up with the rest of us, will shy away from real sceptical scrutiny. He won't be selling you prayers or crystals or tears. Perhaps he'll be selling you a war, or a scapegoat, or a much more all-encompassing bundle of beliefs than Carlos's. Whatever it is, it will be accompanied by warnings about the dangers of scepticism.

Thomas Jefferson and George Washington owned slaves; Albert Einstein and Mohandas Gandhi were imperfect husbands and fathers. The list goes on indefinitely. We are all flawed and creatures of our times. Is it fair to judge us by the unknown standards of the future? Some of the habits of our age will doubtless be considered barbaric by later generations - perhaps for insisting that small children and even infants sleep alone instead of with their parents; or exciting nationalist passions as a means of gaining popular approval and achieving high political office; or allowing bribery and corruption as a way of life; or keeping pets; or eating animals and jailing chimpanzees; or criminalizing the use of euphoriants by adults; or allowing our children to grow up ignorant.