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Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Earth v. Everywhere Else

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Astronomer Carl Sagan laid out a litany of essays in his lifetime regarding the expanse of the stars, and in the awesome backdrop of outlining for us the wonders of the cosmos he likewise assumed corresponding license to posit materialistically, which methodology will be challenged here.

Sagan has provided his own set of evidence from a physics standpoint, and there’s no basis here for taking him to task from that angle. However, the extended logic used in his arguments is still subject to deconstruction, as philosophy is another matter beyond the physical sciences which is a sandbox where scientists like to play. Astronomers meanwhile have no inside information with which to co-opt the philosophy spectrum, as much as they would like us to accept their authority on the subject. Herein is an examination of this distinction, a parsing of one of Sagan’s dissertations.  

This becomes less a critique of Sagan’s body of work and more against his argument of the inconsequential nature of the Earth. I will demonstrate how Sagan’s argumentation is uni-dimensional as well as somewhat of a lazy approach to addressing the existential questions he himself chooses to bring into the discussion.

Sagan cleverly attempts to combine the beauty and majesty of the universe with the supposed fundamental need to make a connection to that of materialism — clever in that it makes for suitable dramatic copy, but unclever in that he establishes no real linkage between the two concepts beyond romanticism when you look at what is actually being said. What Sagan is therefore doing here is presenting a philosophical argument using scientific terminology in an attempt to either legitimize his argument, or cover it up, or both.

The following is excerpted from Sagan’s discourse entitled “Pale Blue Dot,” in reference to our Earth. In one respect it is a striking treatise on the whole perspective of life and human history, but along with some strategically placed materialistic undertones for good measure in case you were too busy feeling good about it to notice. The extraneous verbiage curiously follows the course of propaganda, which is to be scattered amidst otherwise innocuous and even uplifting proclamations despite having no logical connection to them. My intent is not to divine Sagan’s intent for inserting them, but merely to consider their incongruity within the overall framework he puts forth. He is nonetheless hereby accused to be guilty of argumentation overkill.

To hear the same script of this piece first in its entirety (3:31) before proceeding, you can listen to it here. Sagan’s words appear below in pale blue italics, which is not to give them any assumed air of import.

[Sagan:] Consider again that dot. That's here, that's home, that's us. On it, everyone you love, everyone you know…

2nd Narrator: This is the glorious sound of reductionist thought waiting to happen…

…everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines…

A few opening jabs to the midsection. Notice how the religions were “confident.” Faith means you have the gall to believe in something confidently, the nerve to maintain any sort of conviction which does not have the stamp of academic approval — at least in its most recent incarnation. Interesting how the scientists weren’t mentioned as confident. In fact, they weren’t mentioned at all in this underhanded slam against our venerable Globe.

…every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there — on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

Well, yeah… A mote of dust made up of several quintillion atoms, mind you, but we won’t quibble over insignificant details. Quintillion, as in 1,000,000,000,000,000,000’s. And yet a mote, no less. Man, evolutionary inflation is brutal!

The curious thing is that using any relativity model, any object could be relegated to being viewed in the context of a mote of dust, and an atom itself could likewise be seen as the first in truly gargantuan objects. The intellectually honest will admit that technically everything is large and everything is small. By Sagan’s logic, the entire universe is insignificant since it also could be regarded as being small. Singling out the one object housing all known living organisms anywhere as being small is on the disingenuous side. That’s on par with claiming that air is overrated. But don’t spend too much energy on the notion of all-largeness and all-smallness, because it only puts you in circles. Sagan would interrupt the circle at a perfectly arbitrary and opportunistic spot to his liking. But the Earth is not small and it’s not large. It just is.

In fact, how we regard the size of an object says as much about us, the observers, as it does about what it is we’re observing. Change the perspective, and suddenly the object takes on a whole other aspect. Sagan neglects these other possibilities at his pragmatic peril.  

It shouldn’t be lost on us that anything can be reduced to a pale dot, even a galaxy, even the… universe? Yeah, but… there’s still more inside a dot like that. Making comparisons in size is an exercise in futility. The argument is reduced to absurdity on account of lack of perspective. The whole problem with this premise is that there is no objective reference we have to go by. If the discussion were a hockey game, Sagan would be redecorating the penalty box and living out his retirement in it. High-sticking in Andromeda.

It’s rather odd in the first place for a person to be characterizing our Earth as a “dot”, since as humans we can’t even fathom the enormity of the Earth. Can any of us truly comprehend something with a surface area of 200,000,000 square miles? And yet somehow it’s merely a blip on the screen? Something larger than we are capable of imagining is something incredibly small too. That seems to negate any other presumptions we might have about existence, which could be a nice place to step off, but he doesn’t do that here.

David Berlinski challenged Victor Stenger’s lofty idea that “astronomical observations demonstrate that the Earth is no more significant than a single grain of sand on a vast beach”:

What astronomical observations may, in fact, have demonstrated is that the Earth is no more numerous than a single grain of sand on a vast beach. Significance is, of course, otherwise. Nonetheless, the inference is plain: What holds for the earth holds as well for human beings.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.

Meaning has size. Meaning has size. Meaning has size Say it enough times and it might start to become true. Don’t be distracted by his usage of sentiment against destructive forces. Yes, violence is to be avoided and hurts everyone. But such a point is immaterial to the material argument he’s pursuing. Bringing up the atrocities of war merely politicizes the scientific points Sagan wants to make.

There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.

In the midst of another perfectly nice sentiment (prevalence of human conceits notwithstanding), I’m still not sure of the serpentine logical connection he keeps trying to make. Size is what determines perspective? Why would the relative sizes of objects lend anything to the discussion of morality? He doesn’t seem to say. Great, now I’m going to have to go read the book to see how it all ends.

And notice the literary device used by Sagan to phrase the dot we live on as “pale”. The implication being that if it shined brighter, that would bring it added worth. And this is a scientific principle?

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.

Hold that oh-almost-so salient thought. For dear life, even. Don’t let it out of your sight. If it moves, shoot it. We’ll get back to it momentarily after these important messages…

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life.

A-ha! Ding-ding-ding-ding-ding! Shifting gears for 600, Alex… So, going for a moment by the premise that our Earth is the only place with life, then there would be no other sentience anywhere else, and thus there would also be no other meaning anywhere else, because meaning requires sentient beings to apprehend it. Which means that if our Earth were the only place with life, all meaning would be… anyone? anyone?… right here where we are, and we would indeed have… anyone? anyone?… all importance. So there's no way around that, whether painting us as either unique or as part of some broader existence. Go with the latter and it becomes too theological for his tastes. We haven't even invoked the religious model in this refutation, and we don't need to. But it's in our back pocket anyway.

Think about sentience here and non-sentience elsewhere. Imagined anything has to trump unimagined anything else. If all the remote planets lack the ability to imagine importance, then they could have none on their own accord, but only have such when a sentient being (ergo consciousness) assigns importance to it. Sagan is developing a self-fulfilling prophecy while also failing to account for what happens to the equation if he were to remove thinkers from it. Even for accomplished authors as he, one can’t have his cake and edit, too.

So we see the idea of the relative largeness or smallness of physical objects has very little to do with what would make something important. Is there some glorious cosmic ranking system which grants superior status to items based on the amount of hyperspace they occupy? That’s another way of saying that one person amidst all this world is merely trivial. After all, we’re each just little specks. Pale ones too. A dot is a rather meaningless entity, is it not? Hey, all you dots… Shoo, shoo…

Sagan was trying to necessarily correlate the idea that civilization can’t seem to behave in a civilized manner with the idea that people aren’t all that special — he just threw that in there in the midst of the flowery language. You can’t do that, Carl! It doesn’t work that way. In one breath, human conceits can mean being self-indulgent and egocentric in our dealings with one another, or it could mean having the audacity to suppose we have more value than the inanimate elements. Those two thoughts don’t magically coalesce to mean the same thing.

In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

Not sure what this has to do with the underlying premise, but apparently he couldn’t resist. So there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere… The implication is to just throw out the entire Biblical era and all religious history, throw out the utter complexity of almost all life systems, the intricate and orderly nature of the cosmos, the wonder of consciousness and intelligence, the otherworldly feelings of love, of justice, of beauty, of meaning itself, what just is. Hmmm. Nope, no hint at all. Dang, you’d think we could get a break for once and have at least something jump out at us. Well, better luck next time… Maybe in another cosmos.

Who are we? We find that we live on an insignificant planet of a humdrum star lost in a galaxy tucked away in some forgotten corner of a universe in which there are far more galaxies than people.

And the relevance of that is…? Left out one tiny dot of a detail there, but other than that, I suppose it’s a fantastic argument. Also, how could a corner of the universe be forgotten by a universe which doesn’t have sentience? One cannot effectively adopt metaphors as his or her main argument.

I take a little umbrage with Sagan’s loose usage of terminology while also assuming a level of precision he does not enjoy. And what is it that makes the Earth ‘humdrum’? Is it because there aren’t enough flashing neon signs out in nature which advertise unlimited utopian excitement? Humdrum? Excuse me? Do you envision cabaret dancers on every street corner? Life is a cabaret, old chum… Come to the cabaret!

A summary of Sagan’s points:
• We should treat the Earth well.
• We should treat each other well.
• The Earth is small because other things are bigger.
• The Earth’s diminutive stature has correlation to its degree of significance.
• It’s arrogant of us to think that the history of the Earth is significant in whole scheme of the cosmos.

Points A and B are easily conceded, and he expresses these poetically and effectively. But they shouldn’t conceal the last two. It’s the slippage of #4 and #5 into the equation that I take issue with. Sagan speaks of “our imagined self-importance.” Is it arrogant to appreciate the wonders of life and look at human relationships as the pinnacle of all existence? Is love and happiness to Sagan really about arrogance then?

Time for some truth serum in the midst of the murky malaise Sagan attempts to sloppily paint with his off-hand to give the illusion of chaos and mystery. If it weren’t for that nagging thing known as the point, he might not be missing much. However, he dances around the issue as if it were contagious.

Case in point: As inconsequential as our blue dot could be within a wholly arbitrary context of the known or perceived cosmos, and as inconsequential as each of us inhabiting the blue dot is in comparison to that, we all still curiously carry ultimate meaning within each of us. Hmmm. Rather interesting how that happens, isn’t it? Ponder that for a few moments. If we were a video, that would give us pause.

Do we not care without limits when someone we’re close to dies? Every innocent human life is infinitely important to us. (Do the rocks care?) And funny how no one can fully express denial in his or her own ultimate meaning without first ceasing to exist and no longer being able to cogitate to underscore that expression. Do you curse your own life while you go on clinging to it?

And true, the pale blue dot may be the only physical world we've ever known (as far back as our pale blue memory goes anyway), there's also a vast inner world which speaks to us on a much more personal level than does any conglomeration of raw elements. Intuition is that mysterious thing that we can’t help but put stock in even when we’re acting like it’s the enemy to discovery.

When someone we don’t even know in their youth or in their prime dies, we feel to our inner being that they had so much more to live for. We don’t just think it — we know it, we feel it, we grieve for it. Contrast that with any concept of the Earth’s insignificance and stick it out on the curb for morning pick-up.

The truth is the Earth has been home to billions of ultimately precious lives that have enriched one another’s experience. Whether we have fit into Sagan’s idealistic ecosystem or not is hardly the main point. Even setting aside humanity but looking at the whole animal kingdom, there is still more known meaning here than elsewhere in the cosmos.

Did you notice that Sagan can’t cite another place besides Earth that carries more meaning, but simply leaves it hanging out there in mysterious terms that there is a greater significance out there somewhere. Without being able to give a description of it so that we can know to what he is referring. I just can’t buy into this faith-based science.

It’s been said that materialism on its own could never carry any meaning, because meaning cannot come from anything material. It’s not part of that physical world that many would hold fast to. If all we’re about is a accumulation of atoms, where exactly is the ‘meaning’ component of the atom? It’s a pesky unanswerable problem.

Despite Sagan’s exclusive indulgence here into the material aspect of the universe, we're by no means limited by the constraints of time or space, but instead only by how much we will or won’t allow our thoughts and emotions to expand. That unseen yet supremely felt universe is immense and untapped. It’s a full spectrum of blue, green, yellow, red, orange, and purple dots in all their multitudinous splendor. There’s room for every bit of them in any manifestation imaginable.

Limit the imagination and you limit progress, and consequently then halt knowledge and understanding. Imagination is not some magically-arrived at quasi-mirror apart from reality. It’s instead the uncharted portions of reality, which in turn cause us to sometimes painfully stretch. Trying to paint imagination as overly simplistic is possibly the worst a priori assumption one could ever hope to make.

Sagan is surely an apt cosmologist, and yet in one of his most ardent arguments, he manages to look past the magnitude of the human element itself. That can happen when one relegates his premise to only what can be written on the chalkboard of life. The resulting effect is merely a bunch of chalky dust on a lifeless board to be erased and redone again.

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