Sagan demon haunted world
Philosophy and General Reading

Thinking about philosophy and Carl Sagan’s “The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark”

I find philosophy to be an incredibly controversial subject, one that is difficult to get a handle on. There is a value to philosophy, though I often struggle to understand it or place it. Perhaps this is because I lack a satisfactory definition of philosophy – a term which can represent so many different bases of ideas, including different methodologies and epistemologies ranging broadly from the analytical to the postmodern and purely subjective. For me, any grasp I may have of philosophy breaks down with the latter – I find a lot of contemporary philosophy to be subjective and lacking what I once termed “epistemological and methodological coherence”.

Maybe this last comment strikes a more explicit concern: philosophy not as a particular form of systematic enquiry, but as a weapon to enforce the formalising of opinion.  I suppose as a person who has engaged a lot with philosophy over my younger years, from the enlightenment philosophes to critical theory and anglo-american or what is otherwise known as analytical philosophy, I think I can say that, despite my struggle to find the basis for logical and rational validity, I am not of the scientific representatives who reject philosophy’s relevance. I think philosophy is relevant, in some ways, perhaps most crucially with respect to the social world. In other words, I think the situation is much more nuanced and convoluted than to merely assert “philosophy is dead” and that its fate was brought about by the march of science. Even though some of the utmost traditional philosophical areas of study are becoming (and rightfully so!) increasingly subject to scientific methodologies and epistemology – there is still something lastingly relevant to genuine philosophical thought.

From the perspective of science, one of the easiest mistakes, I think, is to presuppose the existence of some sort of rational communicative utopia. It doesn’t correlate with the phenomenology insofar that the ideas of science, of scientific logic and rationality, and more broadly of the principle of objectivity, are found to be in constant tension with the opposite: the irrational characteristics of the human social world. Science can report objectively verifiable facts and those facts may still be rejected for the benefit of political bias or general prejudice. This duality seems quite apparent, at least from my vantage. The more science becomes politicised the worse the situation because the more rational and objective engagement and communication is undermined. At the same time, the pathologies of the social world also confront the scientist, as a human being, embedded in those systems and cultural patterns. The idea of objective reality, natural and social, can easily fade by force of overwhelming communicative disorientation. That even a scientific subject of concern – say, for example, climate change (without fronting my own position and study on the subject) – is contested by some members of the scientific community (for example, see here or here) despite overwhelming consensus reveals that something fundamental in human knowledge and in the engagement with scientific study is vulnerable to bias, ulterior motivation or worse. Indeed, even scientists – perhaps especially physicists – can be guilty of hubris. But it still begs a different question. Science is principled on the basic idea of expert consensus forming, and with that a weight is given to experts in their field followed by great trust and responsibility. In such a debate, who is right and what are the facts for rational consensus? The hope, always, is that the scientific method will prevail (assuming a scientific matter). But there also seems to be implicitly a philosophical criterion here which demands consideration.

For myself, my concern is with science inasmuch as it is also with knowledge, such that the former also implies fundamental concern with reason and the idea of obtaining as objective of an understanding  of reality (social and natural) as possible within the confines of human ignorance. There is an entire thesis to be written systematically dismissing many arguments by the likes of Thomas Kuhn and others regarding the nature of “ordinary science”, “scientific revolution” and theory-forming from historical, epistemological and scientific perspectives. That science probes closer to some truer notion of reality is should not be contentious.

And yet, these concerns also become philosophical when science is forced to reflect upon itself in a critical way. And in thinking about this, I’ve come to the suspicion that the continued relevance of philosophy is possibly featured particularly with respect to the social domain as it exists in tension with such concepts of reason and unrelenting scientific consideration. Moreover, it is hard to avoid that many questions remain with respect to human behaviour, society and ethics that currently extend well beyond the scope of scientific enquiry. That scope may, indeed, continue to narrow over time, such that even the traditional philosophical subject of consciousness is becoming an increasingly scientific concern. But today it is not possible to find a scientist who, outside of thinking scientifically and performing scientific research, offers non-scientific opinion and thus also implies non-scientific philosophical assertions. That one might feign opinion as scientific – or exploit one’s position and authority in science to propagate personal bias outside of science – is something we observe all the time. To recognise the existence of bias is perhaps one of the certain hallmarks of broader intelligence in a systems-thinking frame. And yet, when all things are considered, the question of unavoidability is genuine. That, generally, the whole of science as a movement in history teaches valuable lessons – morally and broadly philosophically – does not mean that, in particular instances, subgroups may still profess scientific reason and be simultaneously fascist or bigoted or whatever.

I suppose, if one follows this course of enquiry, it can be stated that there exists and may always exist a contiguous region within a scientific society – a region of questions about greater (systemic) moral and ethical patterns and trends that require critical philosophical concepts and tools to enable science science, empiricism and evidence-based thinking to reflect upon itself in truly systemic ways. Even members of the scientific community that argue against the lasting relevance of philosophy (in whatever form) often invoke philosophical arguments outside of scientific matters of concern reveals an intriguing contradiction. That one may argue, as a matter of opinion, toward or from a basis or counter-basis of facts without the objective means to recognise potential implicit bias in the simultaneous formation of biases in those arguments, is an essential element of human irrationality that seems to come with being human (or, so the science of cognitive bias increasingly reveals). Some people are better than others in such practices of critical reflexivity, but one can hardly argue with any clarity that this is the general rule.

In any case, and whilst I have deviated somewhat from the primary trajectory, the key idea I am encircling considers whether philosophy continues to have genuine meaning in this context – that is, whether it has a role to play a critical function in human thought. As much as I have engaged with philosophy in the past, placing the role of philosophy in the enterprise of human thought (especially in the age of modern science) and excavating some satisfactory definition of “genuine” or objective philosophical theory as opposed to “bad” philosophy is something I struggle to grasp in any sort of satisfactory way. I think, primarily, because delineating between the basis of objective and even systems-based philosophy and philosophy with objective flavouring or even completely fiendish philosophical argument – the point at which one blends into another is currently subjective. And this subjective problem is what perhaps undermines completely any claim to philosophical objective enquiry, whereas science, despite microscope tensions and struggles and problems in practice, has much more of a grip on the objective.

But if the question of philosophy as a relevant critical function remains open, what I am reminded of whilst writing this short essay is piece is perhaps one of the most penetrating and thought-provoking pieces of social philosophy that I have ever read. The book I am referring to is by Carl Sagan titled “The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark” (2008). Sagan may have his critics, but this book has always struck me as being intriguing for the reason that it interweaves both science, scepticism and philosophy (social and natural) in a way that seems to exemplify the continuing power of philosophy to draw certain connections and illuminate objective patterns for the benefit of broader critical reflexivity.  Sagan evokes, if not practices with a relatively high degree of success, a rational and critical epistemology, applying scientific logic and reason along with philosophical tools to evoke deep questions about the human world. In the process, he unfolds his own humanistic values as those which he sees as a product of the unfolding of science (and, perhaps, of enlightenment reason). It is not the perfect book, by any means. And almost all popular literature shares the same fatal flaw. But what Sagan does is capture, or at least has a unique way of tracing, a sort of enlightenment scientific philosophy (however one may then project their views or biases on such a philosophy). He goes from deriving the importance of scepticism in all things (in science as well as in human policy) to forewarning about the dangers of dogma in the form of modern witch-hunts, New Age healing, and fundamentalist religion. He extracts patterns from human history – patterns of bias and repeating tendencies toward the irrational, pathological and dogmatic – to offer explanations that fit with the science.  There is also the presence of critical thinking, and, perhaps, the presence of a sort of critical theory, in which great emphasis is placed on understanding and being able to dissect fallacious arguments and practice media literacy (to be able to identify sensationally fallacious media stories and biased narratives) as well as rationally consider all that which envelops a person, with grounding in evidence; it is, in a sense, Sagan’s own social philosophical appeal to a future rational society. This is deeply philosophical inasmuch as it is motivated by science and its broader lessons.

Below are two particular passages. Reading these parts of Sagan in the contemporary social context remind one that perhaps science does serve many valuable critical lessons – even moral lessons, should one argue from the basis of its epistemology and draw out a broader philosophy of human reason. In what way, and on what basis it might philosophy be grounded in science, or cooperate and collaborate with science, I am not sure. That there are theoretical physicists who have vacated their physics departments in order to find new homes in philosophy departments, where it is felt they can then ask potentially deeper questions about the physics they are practising, is perhaps one reference point. Of course, I might also invoke MY past studies of history here, and cite the classical context in which philosophy and science were not separate, divisible parts. The natural philosopher – through the tools provided by philosophy – conceived of the scientific method, and a trace of that legacy – in the very concept and practice of scientific logic – surely remains.

That such a deep connection exists suggests that a rational, critical and objective philosophy would not see itself as being too far from also being normatively informed scientifically. Moreover, perhaps it is true that philosophy is necessarily speculative, but philosophy without science is condemned to the practice of blind speculation. From another angle, I’ve read in the past that perhaps it is the categorical imperative of philosophy to support the project of human reason, science and critical thinking – to guide such efforts and keep them honest. In some ways, I read this in Sagan – he is philosophical in his humanism without ever vacating from his scientific foundation, referring to the support of science, education and a literate and rational social class as key values (there is also a very clear economic argument to be made here, if one is thinking of psychological well-being in relation to fostering the capacity for increased social rationality, as linked in past discussions on social pathology). He writes, for example:

I worry that, especially as the Millennium edges nearer, pseudoscience and superstition will seem year by year more tempting, the siren song of unreason more sonorous and attractive. Where have we heard it before? Whenever our ethnic or national prejudices are aroused, in times of scarcity, during challenges to national self-esteem or nerve, when we agonize about our diminished cosmic place and purpose, or when fanaticism is bubbling up around us – then, habits of thought familiar from ages past reach for the controls.

The candle flame gutters. Its little pool of light trembles. Darkness gathers. The demons begin to stir.

Sagan lays out these arguments in the context of science and its potential broader moral and ethical lessons, while discussing anything from Maxwell’s equations and electromagnetism and quasars to the human genome. He does so from a framework that allows for prescient critique, such as in the following quote that I reference to close this article. Notice, too, the kernel of applied critical philosophy as the web for each concerning depiction of the future. I close with the following quote,

I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time – when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the key manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness. The dumbing down of America is most evident in the slow decay of substantive content in the enormously influential media, the 30-second sound bites (now down to 10 seconds or less), lowest common denominator programming, credulous presentations on pseudoscience and superstition, but especially a kind of celebration of ignorance.

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