Paul Nelson examines the available evidence suggesting, “that Sagan’s understanding of design detection was far subtler and more open-ended than many realize.”
The late astronomer and science popularizer Carl Sagan (1934-1996) is often seen as an exemplar of a certain attitude on the relationship of science and theology: skeptical, anti-religion, pro-naturalism. Abundant evidence supports this view of Sagan, but there are fascinating hints in both his technical and popular writings that Sagan’s understanding of design detection was far subtler and more open-ended than many realize. Like his British contemporary, the astronomer Fred Hoyle (1915-2001), Sagan left evidence that he might well have enjoyed conversations with intelligent design theorists. Such historical counterfactuals are tricky at best, of course, so let’s look at some of the available evidence, and the reader can speculate on her own.
Design Detection in Sagan’s Novel Contact
The last chapter (24) of Sagan’s novel Contact (1985; later made into a film  starring Jodie Foster) is an unmistakable example of number mysticism and design detection, using pi — the mathematical constant and irrational number expressing the ratio between the circumference of any circle and its diameter. Entitled “The Artist’s Signature,” the chapter opens with two epigraphs, as follows:
“Behold, I tell you a mystery; we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed.” (1 COR. 15:51)
“The universe seems…to have been determined and ordered in accordance with the creator of all things; for the pattern was fixed, like a preliminary sketch, by the determination of number pre-existent in the mind of the world-creating God.” NICOMACHUS OF GERASA, ARITHMETIC I, 6 (CA. AD 100)
This passage, from the very end of the chapter — and the book — bears quoting. Sagan places the whole section in italics for emphasis:
The universe was made on purpose, the circle said…As long as you live in this universe, and have a modest talent for mathematics, sooner or later you’ll find it. It’s already here. It’s inside everything. You don’t have to leave your planet to find it. In the fabric of space and the nature of matter, as in a great work of art, there is, written small, the artist’s signature. Standing over humans, gods, and demons, subsuming Caretakers and Tunnel builders, there is an intelligence that antedates the universe. [Emphasis added.]
Design’s Narrative Power
Of course, Contact is a novel, not a scientific or philosophical treatise. Sagan was writing for drama (Contact actually started out as a movie treatment in 1980-81). But rather like his contemporaries Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick, Sagan loved to play around with concepts of design detection and non-human intelligence. Their narrative power was undeniable.
Sagan and Intelligent Design
In 1985, when Contact was first published, intelligent design as an intellectual position was largely confined to the edges of academic philosophy, in the work of people such as the Canadian philosopher John Leslie, and a few hardy souls in the neighborhood of books like Thaxton, Bradley, and Olsen, The Mystery of Life’s Origin (1984).
When ID appeared to become a real cultural threat, however — as it did starting in the mid 1990s in the United States — the dynamic shifted. Still, while Sagan was anti-religious, he was decidedly not anti-design, in the generic sense of the detectability of intelligent causation as a mode distinct from ordinary physical causation. In any case, he died in 1996, and therefore missed the coming high points of the ID debate. Others took up the skeptical mantle, to make sure that design never found a footing in science proper.
As boundary-pushers, both Sagan and Hoyle caught plenty of flak during their lifetimes. Sagan, for instance, was never elected to the National Academy of Sciences. Both paid a price for their popularity and willingness to write novels toying with non-human intelligences. It is interesting, then, to wonder how Sagan would have responded to ID, as articulated by Michael Behe, William Dembski, Stephen Meyer, etc., and how he might have separated his own views from it