What Happens When We Die, According to Carl Sagan

In Philosophy & Culture

Carl Sagan

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If you are anything like me, then you are not an astrophysicist. You may know that the universe is expanding, or that we live in a multiverse (or do we?). Maybe you’ve worked with medicine, plants or with technology, or you saw Interstellar in theaters (and intuitively thought the whole thing was possible).

Most of us know enough about science to be interested in the world around us. There is one author in particular we can thank for this.

Carl Sagan

Carl Sagan may be one of the most influential science writers of all time. He was certainly at the forefront of popularizing the subject with the public, contributing nearly twenty books to bring science to broader reading audiences.

Here’s Sagan’s perspective on death and the afterlife, shared in his book Billions & Billions: Thoughts on Life and Death at the Brink of the Millennium.

“I would love to believe that when I die I will live again, that some thinking, feeling, remembering part of me will continue. But as much as I want to believe that, and despite the ancient and worldwide cultural traditions that assert an afterlife, I know of nothing to suggest that it is more than wishful thinking. I want to grow really old with my wife, Annie, whom I dearly love. I want to see my younger children grow up and to play a role in their character and intellectual development. I want to meet still unconceived grandchildren. There are scientific problems whose outcomes I long to witness—such as the exploration of many of the worlds in our Solar System and the search for life elsewhere. I want to learn how major trends in human history, both hopeful and worrisome, work themselves out: the dangers and promise of our technology, say; the emancipation of women; the growing political, economic, and technological ascendancy of China; interstellar flight. If there were life after death, I might, no matter when I die, satisfy most of these deep curiosities and longings. But if death is nothing more than an endless dreamless sleep, this is a forlorn hope. Maybe this perspective has given me a little extra motivation to stay alive. The world is so exquisite, with so much love and moral depth, that there is no reason to deceive ourselves with pretty stories for which there’s little good evidence. Far better, it seems to me, in our vulnerability, is to look Death in the eye and to be grateful every day for the brief but magnificent opportunity that life provides.”

How Carl Sagan Described Death to His Daughter

When your father is Carl Sagan, your first lesson on what death is won’t be sugar-coated. But it will nevertheless be sweet and compassionate.

That’s how Sasha Sagan, Carl’s daughter, describes the lesson she received in a recent essay in New York Magazine.

Carl Sagan remained true to this when his young daughter asked him if he would ever get to see his dead parents in the afterlife.

In Sasha’s words:

“He considered his answer carefully. Finally, he said that there was nothing he would like more in the world than to see his mother and father again, but that he had no reason—and no evidence—to support the idea of an afterlife, so he couldn’t give in to the temptation. ‘Why?’ Then he told me, very tenderly, that it can be dangerous to believe things just because you want them to be true. You can get tricked if you don’t question yourself and others, especially people in a position of authority. He told me that anything that’s truly real can stand up to scrutiny.”

It’s not all difficult truths. Later in the essay, Sasha describes how her father made up feel about being alive: “We are star stuff, my dad famously said, and he made me feel that way. It sounds like Sagan was a great teacher at home as well as at work.

Sadly, Sasha soon after had to apply her father’s life lessons. Carl passed away when she was 14.

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