Carl Sagan’s Dream

10 December 2012


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I have finally watched the whole of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos: A Personal Journey television series. I have in earlier posts expressed my admiration for Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation: A Personal View and Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man, which I have watched numerous times, but, until now, Sagan’s Cosmos had eluded me. (And I didn’t even include it in my post Documentaries Worth Watching — because I hadn’t yet watched it when I wrote that.)

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While the Cosmos series is ostensibly a popular exposition of cosmology — and even, we could say, Big History before big history was known as such, since Sagan insistently places human beings in their cosmological context — the Cold War, strangely, is never far from the surface. Sagan had evidently felt so sharply the existential threat of nuclear war that he returns to this human, all-too-human theme in several places in his exposition of the grandeur of the essentially impersonal, and therefore inhuman, cosmos.

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This concern for nuclear war reaches its zenith in the final episode, “Who Speaks for Earth,” when Sagan recounts the narrative of a dream of nuclear war ending our terrestrial civilization. This dream sequence does not appear in the book version of Cosmos — perhaps it was included in the television series in order to give human interest to such a difficult topic.

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Sagan narrates a dream sequence of visiting a planet that is home to an alien civilization. Gazing down on the planet from space, he sees the lighted night side of the planet, but as he watches, the whole world goes dark. He checks the “Book of Worlds” — what in an earlier episode he called the Encyclopedia Galactica, which I wrote about in Cyberspace and Outer Space — and finds that the world was rated as having less than a one percent chance of survival for the next hundred years.

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As the narration continues, Sagan comforts himself for this loss by listening to radio and television broadcasts from Earth. Most of the snippets of news in this aural montage feature stories of atomic weapons or political tension. As he is listening, the broadcasts from Earth are interrupted and fall silent. Disturbed by this, wondering why the broadcasts from Earth suddenly stopped, he looks up the entry for Earth in the Book of Worlds, and reviews it. He finds that Earth, too, was given a chance of survival of less than one percent over the next hundred years. “Not very good odds,” as Sagan observes. He sees that terrestrial civilization has been destroyed by a full nuclear exchange, and he then recites a melancholy litany of things that will be no more with the end of human civilization.

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Sagan uses this device of his dream of terrestrial civilization extinguished by nuclear war to introduce his theme of the episode — who speaks for Earth? After the dream narrative, Sagan then describes nuclear war again, in less personal but still horrific terms, and then asks, “We know who speaks for the nations, but who speaks for the earth?” This, then, allows Sagan another summary of his history of science, this time noting the dark underside of science as a part of human civilization. Sagan returns to the Library of Alexandria, where some of the first moments of the series are set. Thus Sagan comes full circle, in a nice narrative closure.

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Sagan’s final recap of the history of science in this last episode mirrors an earlier theme from episode seven, “The Backbone of Night,” in which he discussed two distinct traditions of ancient Greek civilization, one that he traces to Democritus and Aristarchus, that is about the sunny uplands of the human intellect as revealed by the best science of which human beings are capable, which is then followed by an almost malevolent account of a counter-tradition that he traces to Pythagoras and Plato, in which the pursuit of knowledge gets caught up in mysticism, obscurantism, and superstition. Even from the earliest beginnings of the Western tradition, it seems, we are dogged by the dialectic of eros and thanatos.

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In episode eight, “Journeys in Space and Time,” Sagan offers us a counter-factual history in which the early beginnings of science in ancient Greek civilization develop continuously and are never interrupted and derailed by the Dark Ages. Sagan speculates that we might now be going to the stars, in spaceships emblazoned with Greek letters, if we had not experienced a thousand year hiatus in the development of science. This idea reappears in a subtle way in Sagan’s dream narrative: when describing the alien civilization that falls silent he suggests that they might have come through a similarly dark time, that they were survivors of past catastrophes, only to be later destroyed by forces they could not control — like us. For Sagan, industrial-technological civilization is its own worst enemy.

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It is interesting and instructive to compare Sagan’s historical perspective to that of Kenneth Clark, who begins his Civilisation: A Personal View in the midst of the European dark ages in order to make the point that civilization made it through this period, as Clark says, by the skin of our teeth. Sagan clearly thought that we are now only making it through by the skin of our teeth. The ever-present threat of nuclear war could end our civilization at any time, and that would be it for all of us. Another way to formulate this would be to say that, for Clark, the “great filter” of human civilization was the dark ages, while for Sagan the great filter is now.

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Clark’s decision to begin in the dark ages was an elegant solution to the problem of how to tell the story of Western civilization without spending all 13 episodes on the Greeks and the Romans — something I would be tempted to do. The solution was to avoid classical antiquity altogether, and to begin with the pitiful remnants of the dark ages and how these gradually grew into a new civilization. Sagan approached this differently, distributing expositions of past and possible dark ages throughout his narrative, so that it appears in the first and the last episode and several of the episodes in between — as I said above, the spirit and the existential angst of the Cold War is never far below the surface of Cosmos.

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Is the history of ancient science any less essential to Western civilization than the history of ancient art? I don’t like to admit it, but I don’t think so. I think that ancient art and ancient science are equally essential and implicated in the world today — and for that reason, equally dispensable. Sagan, then, could have adopted the same “solution” as Clark: avoid classical antiquity altogether, and start with the rebuilding of Western civilization after its early medieval nadir. But Clark got the dark ages out of the way, and, once finished with them, did not return to the theme of the end of civilization. For Sagan, the potential end of civilization is an ever-present menace, so that it could not be taken up in the first episode and then forgotten.

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Another theme that appears in a subtle way in several episodes of Sagan’s Cosmos is that of the social responsibility of scientists. Sagan does not pose this in a strong or an explicit way, but it does come up from time to time, entangled as it is with the development of science and technology. If we recall one of antiquity’s greatest scientists, Archimedes, we remember that Archimedes was known for constructing engines of war for the defense of Syracuse, and that Archimedes himself was a victim of war, struck down by a soldier because he refused to leave his mathematical work.

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In episode seven, “The Backbone of Night,” mentioned above for its contrast between the traditions of Democritus on the one hand and Pythagoras on the other (i.e., the contrast between science and mysticism), Sagan discusses how many philosophers of antiquity — including the greatest among them, Plato and Aristotle — defended retrograde institutions like slavery, and how they served tyrants. (This is, in essence, a Marxist argument that Plato and Aristotle were creating an ideological superstructure to defend the economic infrastructure of the society of which they were a privileged part.) I assume that this reference to tyrants was an oblique reference to Plato’s brief foray into practical politics when he visited the tyrant Dionysius II of Syracuse (yes, the same Syracuse) in the capacity of what we would today call a political adviser. Even Plato was insufficiently brilliant to transform the dissolute Dionysius II into a philosopher king.

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This unsuccessful intervention in Syracuse is recounted in Plato’s seventh letter, and in the famous seventh letter Plato made in quite clear that he was doing exactly that he presented as the duty of the philosopher in his famous allegory of the cave in Book VII of Plato’s Republic: after the philosopher has, by his own effort, raised himself out of the cave of shadows and eventually come to look at the blinding form of The Good, he has an obligation to return to the cave of shadows to try to make those still chained below understand their bondage to mere appearances. Plato wrote that he did not want to be considered a mere man of words, and so he undertook his mission to Syracuse, although he was rebuffed and unsuccessful, as most philosophers who return to the cave of shadows are rebuffed by those they seek to enlighten.

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Plato, then, took the responsibilities of the philosopher seriously — so seriously that he undertook a mission likely to fail. But who most needs our intervention? Should we preach to the choir, or should we attempt to pursue our intellectual ministry among the philosophical equivalents of prostitutes, beggars, and thieves? So Plato was no stranger to the social responsibility of the intellectual, and Plato’s mentor, Socrates, took the social responsibility of the intellectual so far as to die for it. Sagan has some harsh words for Plato, and perhaps some of them are deserved, but Plato lived in a dark time, after the defeat of Athens in the Peloponnesian war, and all his efforts must be seen in this context. Could he have done more? Perhaps. Could Socrates have done more? I think not. Socrates gave all.

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In the last episode of Cosmos, “Who speaks for Earth?” that includes the dream narrative recounted above, Sagan says that he really has no idea why ancient civilization failed and gave way to barbarism, but that he would make one observation: that no scientist working at the Library of Alexandria ever questioned the injustices of the society of which he was a part. This is a echo of his earlier criticisms of Plato and Aristotle for defending the institution slavery. And despite disowning knowledge of why Greek civilization failed, he adds another explanation, related to the previous: that ancient science was an elite undertaking that did not broadly involve the mass of the people of antiquity.

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It was precisely Plato’s desire to initiate the masses into what he called the “dear delight” of philosophy that inspired Plato to write so beautifully in a popular style (he wrote in dialogue form), and to convey his ideas in parables and allegories that are as enchanting as stories as they are compelling as philosophical analysis. Plato did what he could, but in a society in which there was no broadly-based moral revulsion of slavery, and in which literacy was quite low compared to the level of contemporary expectations, it was inevitable that much of what Plato and Aristotle said fell on deaf ears. Bertrand Russell, in discussing Aristotle’s disproportionate influence over medieval scholasticism pointed out that this was not Aristotle’s fault, but the result of Aristotle having produced his comprehensive body of work at the end of an intellectually creative period.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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I dreamed a dream…

10 March 2011


Plate 43 of Goya’s Los Caprichos series of etchings: ‘The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters.’

Last Saturday night I had a stomach ache when I went to bed. As a result, I tossed and turned, sleeping fitfully, and when I did sleep I dreamed vividly. This is unusual for me. I rarely remember my dreams. This is more or less a choice. I find the irrationality of dreams irritating, so I have made no attempt to remember or cultivate them in my life. As a result, my dream life has withered. (Everyone knows that the more time you spend trying to remember your dreams, or even cultivating them by keeping a dream journal, the more likely you are to recall them. The opposite is also true.) When I sleep, I usually disappear into oblivion until I wake; my rupture with the world is complete and absolute. It therefore takes a relatively powerful dream to break through my benign neglect of the dream world.

For me, even more rare than a dream is a dream that is philosophically significant. I have had a few philosophically interesting dreams in my life, but only a handful in total. Nevertheless, I know it from my limited experience to be a fascinating experience. There is a famous story that English philosopher G. E. Moore (a friend and contemporary of Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein) had a dream in which he was unable to distinguish tables from propositions. Since G. E. Moore is known for his “common sense” philosophy, one can understand how disturbing such a dream might have been.

My philosophical dream that occurred sometime between Saturday night and Sunday morning did, in a way, concern itself with propositions, but only indirectly — it didn’t involve mistaking propositions (abstract objects) for anything else or mistaking tables (concrete objects) for anything else (much less each other). What I did experience in my dream was a kind of experience — experience without language, as though I were living in the world of our pre-linguistic ancestors.

In my dream I can recall encountering objects in all of the ordinary ways that we encounter objects in our experience, but primarily seeing them. I moved through a world of objects, and in my dream I had no words whatsoever to describe these objects, but I knew what they were, and I had definite feelings toward them (for example, feelings of desire or avoidance), and perhaps it could even be said that I had ideas of these ordinary objects, but the world of this particular dream was most definitely a pre-linguistic or non-linguistic world. Within the dream my experience of the world was utterly unmediated by language or the concepts institutionalized in language. For me this was a unique experience, and quite different from anything I have experienced previously either in dreams or in waking life. Perhaps dreams of non-linguistic experience are common, but I am unaware of this since I have made no study of dreams.

I began thinking of this dream as soon as I woke up — the power of the dreamed experience stayed with me for some time, and though I took no notes at the time I can still recall it several days later –and I immediately realized that there is an established terminology in phenomenology for such experience: prepredicative experience. So I dreamed prepredicatively.

The term “prepredicative” is introduced in Husserl’s Experience and Judgment: Investigations in a Genealogy of Logic. This was actually a manuscript assembled by Ludwig Landgrebe from Husserl’s manuscripts, though under Husserl’s direction while the latter was still alive. In his Introduction Landgrebe called the book, “a collaboration of a wholly unique kind” (p. 7).

Throughout his philosophical career, Husserl bent every effort to try to get to the experience itself without any mediation. An obvious corollary of this philosophical project was to get at experience, including the fundamental and constitutive experiences of logic, without recourse to language or even to the concepts employed in language. One can see this quest for unmediated experience as Quixotic yet doomed, or as simply foolish. There are few in the Anglo-American tradition today that even believe anything like this is possible. Most philosophers today believe that they have “seen through” any and all attempts to get at “pure experience” (which was what William James called it).

It is actually quite difficult to pluck out a good quote from Husserl that perfectly expresses his position in a pithy aphorism. Husserl does have some pithy aphorisms — like to the things themselves — but these are few and far between. For the most part, reading Husserl is a lot like reading medieval logicians like Ockham and Buridan: you have to put in several years of study before you can even understand what he is getting at, and why it is so difficult for him to express what he is getting at in clear and concise language. Anyway, for a flavor of Husserl’s ruminations on the prepredicative, consider the following:

“An object, as the possible substrate of a judgment, can be self-evidently given without having to be judged about in a predicative judgment. On the other hand, a self-evident predicative judgment concerning this object is not possible unless the object itself is given with self-evidence. For judgments of experience, this is, to begin with, nothing astonishing; indeed, in this case we seem only to be expressing a truism with the allusion to the founding of predicative self-evidence on the prepredicative. But the return to objective, prepredicative self-evidence obtains its proper emphasis and full significance only with the stipulation that this relation of founding concerns not only judgments grounded in experience but every self-evident predicative judgment in general, and therewith also the judgments of the logician himself, with their apodictic self-evidence, which, after all, make the claim of being valid ‘in themselves,’ i.e., regardless of their possible application to a determinate range of substrates.”

Edmund Husserl, Experience and Judgment: Investigations in a Genealogy of Logic, revised and edited by Ludwig Landgrebe, translated by James S. Churchill and Karl Ameriks, Northwestern University Press, Evanston, 1973, p. 20, emphasis in original

Now that this definitive quote from Husserl has cleared matters up, we can move on.

I consider my dream to be a sufficient thought experiment to prove to me for my own purposes that prepredicative experience is in fact possible. This is definitely an odd claim for me to make. Most if not all thought experiments are based on conscious intentions to think in a certain way about certain things. I cannot tell anyone except a lucid dreamer (and I have never myself experienced lucid dreams) to try this thought experiment, so it is not that kind of experiment that admits of repetition and independent confirmation. Nevertheless, I have experienced it myself and now “feel it in my bones.” While dream evidence (which sounds frighteningly like “spectral evidence” ) is not science, it is philosophy, at least in so far as I understand the openness of philosophical inquiry to any method whatsoever.

Moreover, I will make the further and perhaps even more tenuous claim that my dream of prepredicative experience is just about as close as someone from our age can come to experiencing the pre-linguistic world of our early ancestors, which would also have been innocent of those concepts that were built up with the use of language over the past fifty thousand years or so since anatomical modernity made speech possible and an ordinary part of human experience.

At this point in my exposition I am likely to lose even sympathetic phenomenologists, since there is a strong resistance among those who take up philosophical questions in this spirit with identifying ideas or experiences with particular historical instantiations. This resistance has a long, complex, and interesting history. Both Frege, the ancestor of analytical Anglo-American philosophy, and Husserl, and ancestor of continental philosophy, are part of this story.

Frege was dead-set against confusing the origins of things for the things themselves, and especially for confusing logic with any natural history of how logic came about in human experience. His writings frequently contain passages like the following:

“While the mathematician defines objects, concepts, and relations, the psychological logician is spying upon the origin and evolution of ideas, and to him at bottom the mathematician’s defining can only appear foolish because it does not reproduce the essence of ideation. ”

Gottlob Frege, The Basic Laws of Arithmetic: Exposition of the System, p. 24

This position consistently rejected by Frege is sometimes called psychologism, or logical psychologism. The early Husserl had psychologistic tendencies, but Frege wrote a devastating review of Husserl’s book Philosophy of Arithmetic, and Husserl henceforth explicitly repudiated logical psychologism. J. N. Mohanty wrote an entire book, Husserl and Frege, to prove that Husserl was moving in this direction anyway and that Frege did not “convert” Husserl to anti-psychologism, but it seems clear to me that Frege, at least at this point, had a decisive influence on Husserl.

Frege also wrote the following in a posthumously published manuscript:

“‘2 times 2 is 4’ is true and will continue to be so even if, as a result of Darwinian evolution, human beings were to come to assert that 2 times 2 is 5. Every truth is eternal and independent of being thought by anyone and of the psychological make-up of anyone thinking it.”

Gottlob Frege, “17 Key Sentences on Logic” in Posthumous Writings, University of Chicago Press, 1979, p. 174

I do not disagree with Frege, and I am not suggesting a psychologistic approach to logic, or even a more vague psychologistic orientation of thought, but because of my dreamed experience I have come to think that it is possible to speak meaningfully of experience independent of language and the infrastructure of concepts made possible by language. It therefore also seems entirely reasonable to me that say that we might be able to speak meaningfully of the genesis of language and language-dependent concepts from a pre-linguistic stage of human experience. Moreover, I will assert that under certain (admittedly unusual) circumstances, it is possible for those of us living long after the introduction of language to experience something analogous to the experiences our ancestors prior to language.

None of this strikes me as particularly controversial, much less heretical, but I know the history of these ideas well enough to know why such claims — especially when interpreted unsympathetically — could be construed as controversial. That is why I have filled in a little more background of the intellectual history than I do in most posts. It would be easy to devote a weighty volume, indeed several volumes, to an exposition of this idea, why it is controversial, and how it is to be understood in a way that does not contradiction the clarifications of Frege and Husserl, with which I have no issue. Perhaps if I live long enough I may eventually write those volumes. In the meantime, I wanted to set down the idea before I forgot it.

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