“Pale Blue Dot” is a famous photograph taken in 1990 by the Voyager 1 space probe from a distance of roughly 6 billion kilometers (or 3.7 billion miles) out in space. Voyager had completed its primary mission and was exiting our solar system, but, at the request of the writer and astronomer Carl Sagan (who died in 1996), NASA directed it to turn its camera around for a parting photograph of the Earth.
In 1994, Sagan published a book titled “Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space.” Like his many other best-selling books and his famous “Cosmos” television series, it was a skillful work of scientific popularization but also used science to communicate his overall worldview.
“From this distant vantage point,” he wrote, “the Earth might not seem of any particular interest.” But that, of course, would necessarily be the “vantage point” of an alien extraterrestrial. For us, it’s different.
The Earth is our home. Our entire lives, the lives of all of our ancestors, all of human history, all the joys and sorrows of human civilization, have played themselves out on this single small planet — “on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam,” as Sagan labeled it, a “dot,” a “pixel.”
Sagan saw his atheism confirmed in the photograph. Confidently dismissing a central claim of “thousands of confident religions,” he continued:
“The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity — in all this vastness — there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.”
Curiously, Carl Gustav Jung (who died in 1961), the enormously influential Swiss psychiatrist and psychotherapist who, after breaking with Sigmund Freud, founded analytical psychology, had seen something rather comparable in February 1944. This was only four decades after Wilbur and Orville Wright’s successful flight at Kitty Hawk, and long before either satellites or manned space travel. But he drew an entirely different lesson from the sight.
At the age of 68, and by then the world’s most famous living psychologist, Jung suffered a major heart attack and underwent what he described as an out-of-body experience:
“It seemed to me that I was high up in space. Far below I saw the globe of the Earth, bathed in a gloriously blue light. I saw the deep blue sea and the continents. Far below my feet lay Ceylon, and in the distance ahead of me the subcontinent of India. My field of vision did not include the whole earth, but its global shape was plainly distinguishable and its outlines shone with a silvery gleam through that wonderful blue light. In many places the globe seemed colored, or spotted dark green like oxydized silver. Far away to the left lay a broad expanse — the reddish-yellow desert of Arabia; it was as though the silver of the Earth had there assumed a reddish-gold hue. Then came the Red Sea, and far, far back — as if in the upper left of a map — I could just make out a bit of the Mediterranean. My gaze was directed chiefly toward that. Everything else appeared indistinct. I could also see the snow-covered Himalayas, but in that direction it was foggy or cloudy. I did not look to the right at all. I knew that I was on the point of departing from the Earth.”
Later, Jung calculated that the distance from Earth’s surface that he would need to have reached in order to enjoy such a view was approximately a thousand miles. “The sight of the Earth from this height,” he reflected, “was the most glorious thing I had ever seen.”33 comments on this story
Sagan’s atheism was reinforced by a NASA satellite photo. By contrast, Carl Jung’s vision, as he saw it, of the Earth from space — he was resolutely certain that what he had seen was reality, not hallucination — transformed him. Though he had long been interested in religion, mysticism and the occult, Jung had always insisted on his rigorous objectivity as a scientist. In his final years, however, he wrote forthrightly and spoke openly about the transcendent, about another world behind and beyond this one. He didn’t merely believe that there was such another world; he claimed to know.
Daniel Peterson teaches Arabic studies, founded BYU's Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, directs MormonScholarsTestify.org, chairs mormoninterpreter.com, blogs daily at patheos.com/blogs/danpeterson and speaks only for himself.