Posts Tagged ‘Carl Sagan’

A universe not made for us

April 27, 2013

Raining, but it won’t rain us out today. They moved Older Daughter’s final regular-season game up to Friday afternoon, anticipating today’s deluge, and she celebrated Senior Day with a couple of key hits in a decisive 12-2 win. (I know the score, they made me scorekeeper.)

Following Younger Daughter’s big game-tying  hit and game-winning run on Thursday, after her Tigers rallied from a huge deficit against arch-rival Ensworth, it made for a very satisfying conclusion to the Spring softball season.

A happy ending, for sure. Meaningful too?

Well, it meant a lot to those of us who were there, who cared. Could there be any deeper or more cosmic meaning to our happiness?

It may be too big a question for a rainy Saturday morning. We’ll take it up next Fall in The Philosophy of Happiness, with questions like:

 What do we really want from philosophy and religion? Palliatives? Therapy? Comfort? Do we want reassuring fables or an understanding of our actual circumstances? Dismay that the Universe does not conform to our preferences seems childish.

Meanwhile, Carl Sagan says “if we crave some cosmic purpose, then let us find ourselves a worthy goal.”

Beating St. Cecelia and Ensworth were worthy goals. But, what do we really want?


“Be grateful every day”

November 22, 2012

“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.” Carl Sagan

“What imagined target for our gratitude would best direct the will to serve the imperatives of [our] story?… If Thanksgiving requires a face, let it be the face of future generations.” Loyal Rue

How can things so insecure as the successful experiences of this world afford a stable anchorage? A chain is no stronger than its weakest link, and life is after all a chain… William James



November 20, 2012

The meaning of life? There’s a Jamesian answer, of course:

The solid meaning of life is always the same eternal thing,— the marriage, namely, of some unhabitual ideal, however special, with some fidelity, courage, and endurance; with some man’s or woman ‘s pains.—And, whatever or wherever life may be, there will always be the chance for that marriage to take place. “What Makes a Life Significant

And a  Deweyan answer too:

“The things in civilization we most prize are not of ourselves. They exist by grace of the doings and sufferings of the continuous human community in which we are a link. Ours is the responsibility of conserving, transmitting, rectifying and expanding the heritage of values we have received, that those who come after us may receive it more solid and secure, more widely accessible and more generously shared than we have received it.”

James and Dewey were both profoundly impressed by the Darwinian-evolutionary account, then still fresh and exciting in its reconstructive possibilities, of life as an unfolding saga whose ultimate meanings hang in the balance of events to which we are privileged to contribute. They were confident that our “doings and sufferings” on behalf of voluntary ideals are meaningful. Their focus was not on our lowly progenitors, but on the prospective progeny who will come after us and be grateful or not for our contributions to the great story of life.

Some say the story’s too big, the scientific and cosmic vistas too vast to accommodate meaningful lives on the human scale. Carl Sagan, who said so many fine things, disagreed.

“In this perspective the idea that our planet is at the center of the universe much less that human purpose is central to the existence of the universe is pathetic. Does life thereby lose all meaning, I think not. I think we make our lives meaningful by the courage of our questions, by the depth of our answers, by how widespread our understanding is of the essential tools for managing our future, for how skeptical we are of those in authority and of our obligation to care for one another.”

Our epic story is a strong candidate for the great unifying meaning of life, drawing together all the separate narratives of our plurality. As Richard Dawkins says: we’re among the lucky few, of all the possible beings  who might have drawn breath in our place but never will, who get a chance to write a few lines of the story.

Our gratitude should know no bounds.

Safe at home

November 15, 2012

Alain de Botton has interesting thoughts on home. “Perfect” is probably out of reach, but we could definitely do a lot better. Too many of our homes do make us “cross and angry.” Our true home, after all, extends well beyond walls. “Look again at that dot…”*

We need a home in the psychological sense as much as we need one in the physical: to compensate for a vulnerability. We need a refuge to shore up our states of mind, because so much of the world is opposed to our allegiances. We need our rooms to align us to desirable versions of ourselves and to keep alive the important, evanescent sides of us.


buildings are able to solve no more than a fraction of our dissatisfactions or prevent evil from unfolding under their watch.


Architecture, even at its most accomplished, will only ever constitute a small, and imperfect (expensive, prone to destruction, and morally unreliable), protest against the state of things.

Right. The state of things is that our little mote of terra firma, our modest corner of real estate, is in a volatile and fragile market. We delude ourselves to think we can go on forever playing the territorial game, regions and states, one against the others. Our buildings may be aesthetically appealing or not, may provide shelter from the storm or not, but they cannot sustain our belligerent nationalistic pride. We must come to think of home as the entire human abode, spaceship earth, the ultimate earthship.

Neil Tyson came to Vanderbilt, night before last, and reminded us that “the universe has a shipload of stars.” That could be bad for one’s ego, or it could be mind-expanding. “We are stardust.”

Home as safe haven, as  sturdy vehicle into the future, as mirror of our sustainable souls… the essence of home has far more to do with our states of mind than with our building design and materials. It’s a small ship, in a big  sea of stars. We are not alone, and as Thoreau said: why should we feel lonely? “Is not our planet in the Milky Way?”


The real cosmopolitans

September 18, 2012

What does “cosmopolitan” really mean? Don’t trust Google on this, it takes you straight to that silly magazine with its sex tips and “lifestyle” advice. Funny, or sad, how current linguistic use has corrupted these grand old terms. (Think also of “epicurean,” “cynic,” maybe even “platonic”…)

We started to talk about this yesterday, in connection with Anthony Appiah’s book and interview. We’ll discuss it some more today. Kosmopolites is the Greek root meaning citizen of the world, the cosmos. What a large identity to claim, and yet what a miniscule corner of existence we actually occupy.

The cosmos used to coincide strictly with the known terrestrial world, before anybody’d ever even circumnavigated it. Now we’ve seen our tiny world from space, in perspective.

So now we know: it’s a really big cosmos, and we are here.

So far as we can tell we’re the only part, around these parts anyway, that knows it’s part of a cosmos. We’re the cosmopolitans.

Alexandria was the greatest city the Western world had ever seen. People of all nations came here to live, to trade, to learn. On any given day, its harbors were thronged with merchants, scholars, and tourists. This was a city where Greeks, Egyptians, Arabs, Syrians, Hebrews, Persians, Nubians, Phoenicians, Italians, Gauls, and Iberians exchanged merchandise and ideas. It is probably here that the word ‘cosmopolitan’ realized its true meaning: citizen, not just of a nation, but of the Cosmos. To be a citizen of the Cosmos

More Saganportalmotecalendargolden record… apple pie

So who was the first cosmopolitan in philosophy? Socrates, possibly, he’s said to have declared himself a citizen of the world – but still so loyal an  Athenian that he insisted on having his hemlock. Scholars wonder if that was really him or Plato talking.

Whether Socrates was self-consciously cosmopolitan in this way or not, there is no doubt that his ideas accelerated the development of cosmopolitanism and that he was in later antiquity embraced as a citizen of the world. In fact, the first philosopher in the West to give perfectly explicit expression to cosmopolitanism was the Socratically inspired Cynic Diogenes in the fourth century bce. It is said that “when he was asked where he came from, he replied, “I am a citizen of the world.” SEP

That doesn’t sound “cynical” in the perverted modern sense at all, does it? Diogenes spent a lot of time under the stars. He knew where he was.


August 7, 2012

“It is good to renew one’s wonder, said the philosopher. Space travel has again made children of us all.”

It’s not your grandpa’s Mission Control, unless your grandpa was Ray Bradbury.

Of all the many wonderful results of the space program so far, this picture may be the most important one. It opened our eyes to the fact that our Earth is a beautiful and most precious island in an unlimited void, and that there is no other place for us to live but the thin surface layer of our planet, bordered by the bleak nothingness of space. Never before did so many people recognize how limited our Earth really is, and how perilous it would be to tamper with its ecological balance.

The space age not only holds out a mirror in which we can see ourselves, it also provides us with the technologies, the challenge, the motivation, and even with the optimism to attack these tasks with confidence. What we learn in our space program, I believe, is fully supporting what Albert Schweitzer had in mind when he said: “I am looking at the future with concern, but with good hope.” Ernst Stuhlinger

Carl Sagan said it before, Neil Tyson‘s been saying it lately: our curious and exploring nature is the most hopeful and most promising thing about us. Mars is still just a beginning.

Keep going, keep moving forward

August 1, 2012

The sun at dawn this morning is a fireball mounting the treetops, seeming to shout “get up , get moving!”

Yesterday we got up and hit the road at dawn for yet another distant college campus tour. Kayla in Chattanooga is our favorite student guide so far. “I love my school!” She really sold it. But Older Daughter’s decided she doesn’t like “sprawly” campuses. So far as I’m concerned, they’re the best kind. And we haven’t begun to see “sprawly,” anyway. But, I must remind myself, I’m just the driver.

In our absence the mailman delivered a treat, a “classic reprint” of Dr. Curtis’s Science and Human Affairs from the Viewpoint of Biology (1922). Reading it, I know exactly why he was invited to Dayton to defend the humanity of science and the science of humanity: he was the Carl Sagan of his day.

The humanistic philosophy of life, which flowered in Greece and which has blossomed again, is not the crude materialistic desire to eat, drink, and be merry. It is a spiritual joy in living and a confidence in the future, which makes this life a thing worthwhile.

The Cosmos we know today is unbelievably complex and more is being disclosed. Things undreamed of in our philosophy continually appear… The biological discovery of man’s place in nature did more than change traditional beliefs; it gave a point of departure  into a future, unknown but fraught with possibilities.

What science intends, both for the immediate and the remote future, is to keep going. The scientist believes that his rationalistic method offers a means of moving forward… The future is bright with a promise that stands at the threshold of realization.

There you go again, Dr. C., pulling dollars from my ear. It’s a trick that never gets old. The secret? Keep moving.


the only home we’ve ever known

November 23, 2011

“Like it or not, the Earth is where we make our stand.” We’re not just tourists here, this is home.

A lovely new tribute to Sagan, Voyager, and cosmic perspective. I like it.

Happy Thanksgiving.

The printing press and the age of martyrs, part 1

October 26, 2011

We’re into the 15th century in Co-Phi, commencing JMH‘s discussion of The Printing Press and the Age of Martyrs. We begin with

Zen, Renaissance & Reformation, Pomponazzi & Macchiavelli, “School of Athens,” Copernicus

This was a seed-time for Buddhism, and Nagarjuna was one of the chief gardeners. He out-Buddha’d Buddha, denying not only the reality of the self but also the possibility of repudiating it. “There is not any right doctrine,” just meditations seeking enlightenment.

The Japanese Zen master and haiku poet Ikkyu Sojun was on the Spartan side of Buddhism too.

We eat, excrete, sleep, and get up; This is our world/ All we have to do beyond that/ Is to die.

Now that’s a minimalist! It must not have been a Buddhist who said life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans. (I don’t think John Lennon was a Buddhist, but Yoko maybe?)

But, with Halloween approaching we can better appreciate his timely dream of pontificating Buddhist skeletons. Babble about “God” and  “the Buddha” and you will never find the true Way. The true Way makes skeletons of us all. As Woody Allen once said, it’s important to recall that one day we’ll all “thin out” and should hope to be well thought-of when we do.

The Renaissance was the rebirth of ancient wisdom, midwifed by Petrarch and others in their infatuation with Cicero and the “sturdy and virile” Stoics, and in their rejection of “the stupid Aristotelians” and their regurgitated syllogisms. As we noted the other day, this was the seminal moment of Humanism.

There are all kinds of humanists, not all of whom explicitly or implicitly (as JMH suggests) exalt science above faith. Besides the notorious and villified (but usually quite harmless) Secular Humanists, there are American Humanistsreligious humanists, Christian humanists, pragmatic-pluralist humanists, Unitarian Universalist humanists, humanists who subscribe to Manifestos, and more.

What they do all exalt is the priority of human welfare on earth as the most appropriate locus of human concern. Raphael’s School of Athens captures the mood precisely in Aristotle’s earth-first gesture. (Raphael evidently did not share Petrarch’s contempt for The Philosopher.)

Aristotle of Stagira (384 – 322 BC) (according to Dante Alighieri “The Master of those who know“) stretches his hand. He holds a copy of his Nichomachean Ethics — and he indicates with his gesture the worldliness, the concreteness, of his contributions to philosophy… Does his brown and blue colored clothes represent the two elements water and earth (probably to show that his philosophy is grounded, material), whereas Plato’s two colors represent fire and air?

Philosophy Professor Pietro Pamponazzi of Padua and Bologna, “doubt’s philosopher,” like me “fundamentally peripatetic,” defied Pope Leo’s condemnation of mortality. All his books “concluded that the soul is mortal.” He was a straight shooter:

One of his students demanded a straight answer on the question of the soul, “leaving aside revelation and miracles, and remaining entirely within natural limits.” The straight answer was that he agreed with Aristotle and Averroes that the independent soul of a human being needs its body, and it exists only in its body.

And, in a claim of special interest to me and my future students in next semester’s “Atheism & Philosophy” course, he “rejected the idea that people need threats of heaven and hell in order to be moral.” Even my dogs know that… or at least they act like they do. The fire-and-brimstone screamers who periodically camp in front of our student center could learn a thing or two about canine virtue.

Pomponazzi also spurned ghosts, demons, and angels. And here’s the most surprising fact about him, in this age of martyrs: he “lived a full life… and was considered the greatest Aristotelian of Italy.”

Niccolo Machiavelli “was not the conniving politico his name implies nowadays” but he does sound Nietzschean: “These [Christian] principles seem to me to have made men feeble.”

Luther was no peripatetic, and no scholastic. “In vain does one fashion a logic of faith,” in fact he said rational proofs deny  faith. “The Holy Spirit is no Skeptic,” a claim JMH calls “Luther’s gift to the history of doubt.” But plenty of the faithful had their doubts. “If we do not trust the Church to know the truth,” as Luther implied we should not, “why should we trust ourselves?”

Calvin was even nastier than our previous text let on, ordering people burned and decapitated for disagreeing with his theology. But recall, his theology entails predestination and the foreknowledge of an omniscient God. What could those “practical atheists” have done differently? Where’s the sense in punishing them for what they couldn’t change?

Nicolas Copernicus, the great heliocentrist, did not quite own up to his own Copernican Revolution. On his deathbed he said the solar-centered view was useful for calculations. Practically true, pragmatists would say. True plain and simple, most of us are now prepared to go out on a limb and say aloud.

So, Groups Five, you can research Copernicus if you want to know more than our text delivers, or– if you prefer– read on and ask us some questions about Francois Rabelais, whose poetically-dedicated posthumous words seem to leave little doubt as to his state of belief. “Sleep, gluttony, wine, women, jest and jibe: these were my gods, my only gods.” If that sounds glib, read Gargantua’s letter to Pantagruel. It’s deeply thoughtful and profound.

NOTE TO STUDENTS: Thursday’s scheduled exam  in H1 & SOL has been moved to Tuesday. If you have questions you want considered for inclusion, post ’em to the class blog by Saturday.

Trying not to think with my gut

September 30, 2011

The Thursday afternoon tutorial on William James I’ve been doing with a couple of students got cancelled yesterday, so I was able to attend the weekly meeting of the new undergraduate Philosophy Club from the beginning. It’s a small but passionate bunch, excited about ideas and eclectic in conversational range. If you like that sort of thing, drop in at 5 pm on Thursdays (James Union Building on the Middle Tennessee State University campus, roon 304).

Yesterday’s discussion began with the perennial free will debate but quickly moved on to the nature and existence of souls, the untapped potential of brains, Cartesian dualism, the possibility that we might be living in a “matrix,” collective dreaming, and on and on. Just a bit undisciplined, but what else would be the point and pleasure of an undergraduate philosophy club?

I would only remind them of Carl Sagan’s cautionary wisdom in Demon-haunted World. Asked for his gut feeling about UFOs and aliens he always responded:

I try not to think with my gut. If I’m serious about understanding the world, thinking with anything besides my brain, as tempting as that might be, is likely to get me into trouble.  Really, it’s okay to reserve judgment until the evidence is in.

The gut has its place. It’s what I was “thinking” with all day yesterday under my “StL” hat, as if the latest fortunes of a professional sports franchise in my long-ago hometown should have anything at all to do with my outlook on the value of existence. It was my gut that felt annoyed when my colleague (a long-ago East Coaster), fully informed of the Red Sox collapse, admitted not knowing about the Cards’ historic comeback.

Gut-level emotive “thinking” is what childhood indoctrination is especially good at engendering and reinforcing. Baseball is St. Louis’s civic religion, at least since the St. Louis Hegelians folded their tent. They got me early. (I attended my first Cardinals game in about 1966, just before they opened the new stadium that they tore down in 2005.)

Baloney has its place, too. And so has critical thinking. As skeptic Michael Shermer notes, “when we’re growing up we tend to be pretty credulous.” We should all read his magazine.

Extraordinary claims do require extraordinary evidence. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a world of wonders we’re living in. Our existence is a natural miracle.  Here we are, in the face of “stupefying odds.” That’s worth talking about, every Thursday afternoon. And I’m even luckier, I get paid to do it every single day.

Dawkins’ SpiritualityRainbow Warrior