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Sagan and Aristotle

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These two people have been mentioned on this board here and there but never together so far as I know. I was wondering if anyone with more expertise and knowledge regarding Aristotle could shed some light on Sagan's view of him.

I have started watching Carl Sagan's series, COSMOS: A Personal Voyage and have learned a great deal. The series has piqued my interest in many subjects and prompted me to look up quite a lot of information related to the history of science, the solar system, and philosophy. Sagan was a very deeply philosophical man, indeed. This is evident in his commentary regarding mankind's place in the universe, his take on various historical scientists, and some of the conflicts these scientific minds have had with religious doctrines, etc. Although I don't agree with his outlook in many respects, I do recognize him as interesting and extremely intelligent.

One item in particular in the series that caught my attention was Episode 7. In it, Sagan discusses early Greek science, starting with Thales and the Ionians. He praises them for their fresh approach, which was a marriage of the practical and theoretical. They observed nature and performed actual experiments and believed that the world could be explained as being formed by natural forces rather than a God, which was of course the prevailing explanation for everything at that time.

Then he moved on to Pythagoras and his followers, including Plato. These people believed in no experimentation, only thinking. You didn't have to prove your ideas or observe reality to be a scientist; you only had to think about science. They had a disdain for the practical applications of science, and reality simply didn't and shouldn't matter. This line of thinking, Sagan says, extinguished Ionianism.

Then Sagan asks, what was Plato's appeal? Why did people follow Plato and the Pythagoreans? The answer he gives, to my surprise, ties Plato and Aristotle together in a package deal that I don't think is justified.

He says that Plato and Aristotle's philosophy provided "an intellectually respectable justification for a corrupt social order." By this he means that the Greek economy at that time depended heavily on slavery. Along with Plato, he blames Aristotle. He says they were both "comfortable in a slave society, they offered justifications for oppression, they served tyrants, they taught the alienation of the body from the mind…They separated thought from matter, they divorced the Earth from the heavens.”

This is a scathing condemnation of both men, and I believe is fair to Plato, and furthermore it is true that Aristotle provided justification for slavery.

BUT...was Aristotle a Pythagorean? Did he teach a mind-body dichotomy? Did he not believe in a this-worldly view of science and observation? From what I can tell, the answer is most definitely "NO". He was not like Plato, even though he was his student. Aristotle was empiricist, and believed in science through observation. I thought that this was fairly well known, and that Sagan of all people would know it. Raphael’s famous painting, The School of Athens even compares the two, with Plato pointing towards the heavens and the "World of Forms" and Aristotle with his hand out, towards the Earth.

If anyone else has watched this or read something similar in Sagan's books, and have a deeper background on Plato or Aristotle, I would be very interested to hear what you have to say.

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The two things I see in Sagan’s argument are a total dropping of context and an inability to think in fundamental principles.

First of all, when judging an ancient culture you can’t judge it against the standard of our knowledge today. The Greeks lacked the context of 21st century culture, so how is that fair? You have to use as the backdrop what came before them and what alternatives existed at the time. The world “barbarian” comes from the Greek word barbaros, meaning foreigner. And I think the meaning of the term is the same today as it was then. There was another word for foreigner, xenos, that was more neutral. And frankly, next to Greek culture the rest of the world was barbaric (and remember it ultimately fell to the barbarians). So this was the context for Aristotle’s view that foreigners had a different nature than Greeks, and his justification for slavery. He regarded them more as children than property, and I think he would have been appalled by the treatment of Africans by Europe and early America. Also, many slaves were captured enemies who would otherwise have faced imprisonment or execution. So instead, the Greeks used their enemies to help their economy. While I would certainly not defend the practice generally, some contexts such as this may have been morally defensible. Some slaves were just Greeks who were unable to pay a debt, so they did so with their labor. To omit this kind of detail and say, "Aristotle offered justifications for oppression" does him a serious injustice.

And secondly, I think Sagan’s comments about the “marriage of the practical and theoretical” seem peculiar, given his inability to distinguish between Plato and Aristotle in a meaningful way. He praises the emergence of scientific explanation, of explanation in terms of the natural rather than supernatural. But this was the chief difference between Plato and Aristotle! Plato regarded this world as a “shadow” cast by another realm. The key to knowledge, then, was not to study our imperfect existence but to somehow intuit the true “forms” of things from the other, higher reality. Aristotle, on the other hand, believed knowledge comes from observation, from the senses. Whatever his errors, and he doesn’t completely rid himself of the idea of Platonic forms, it’s in his grounding of knowledge in experience that he should be recognized. People who criticize him because he defended slavery, or because he held a wrong model of the solar system, are either just ignorant, unable to think in fundamentals, or dishonestly bashing rational philosophy. I’m inclined to think the second was the case with Sagan. “Marriage of the practical and theoretical” is a clumsy way of saying that Greeks became more grounded in reality. But while he can see this development in science (giving credit to the use of experiments), he doesn’t recognize it in philosophy. It’s unfortunately a common problem in physics, that even some of the best minds are stuck very close to the level of concretes.

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I've enjoyed the series Cosmos, and have seen some episodes more than once. However, I've noticed a number of false premises in Sagan's views.

One fundamental contradiction he might hold may be seen in the movie Contact, with Jodie Foster. It is based on a novel by him which I've never read, so I can't vouch for whether the film is faithful to the novel or its philosophy. However, if it is faithful, than the film's "demonstration" that faith can co-exist, so to speak, with science would tell you alot about the real Carl Sagan.

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I've enjoyed the series Cosmos, and have seen some episodes more than once. However, I've noticed a number of false premises in Sagan's views.

One fundamental contradiction he might hold may be seen in the movie Contact, with Jodie Foster. It is based on a novel by him which I've never read, so I can't vouch for whether the film is faithful to the novel or its philosophy. However, if it is faithful, than the film's "demonstration" that faith can co-exist, so to speak, with science would tell you alot about the real Carl Sagan.

Although I did enjoy the film version, the book Contact is infinitely superior to it -- richer in plot as well as in character development and in the exposition of those characters' motivations, and with a far greater emphasis on "the trip" and its wonders (one of the most beautiful and imaginative pieces of writing I've had the pleasure to read, in fact) -- its theme is somewhat similar to what you've described with respect to the film. However, there seems to have been a shift in Sagan's thinking by the time the film project came about. Unlike the film, the book did not strike me as an attempt to defend old-timey religion and religious faith as valid counterparts to science, but rather to establish Science as a religion in and of itself. Sagan, in his book, poses a series of epistemological questions such as: when the work of science lies outside our own first-hand, independent, experiential knowledge (as it does for most people on earth), how can we know the things Science and scientists tell us are true? Do we not, as either non-scientists or non-specialists in a given field, place a certain amount of "faith" in their word? Should we? If yes, does not Science itself and the general approach to it then take on all the aspects of "religion"?

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I also wanted to point out that, in Sagan's book, there are several characters similar to Matthew McConaughey's film character, Palmer Joss. They do not, however, occupy a central place within the plot structure.

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The novel Contact sounds interesting after what you said, Vespasiano, and the "trip" section sounds like it might rival the novel 2001: A Space Odyssey, by Arthur C. Clarke, and its "Star-Gate" section. (There's another book that's far superior to its film; it really is fascinating, despite a message in the novel that technology is great, but if left unchecked it could ultimately lead to nuclear annhilation. Just try to ignore that and enjoy the book.)

One of the things I did like about the movie Contact--and you'll have to tell me if it's in the book--is a scene that shows the real evil--and terrifying deadliness--of mysticism by taking it to its logical conclusion (a few years prior to 9/11; people evidently didn't take the lesson in the film to heart, and they certainly didn't take it from 9/11. That in itself is terrifying.)

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One of the things I did like about the movie Contact--and you'll have to tell me if it's in the book--is a scene that shows the real evil--and terrifying deadliness--of mysticism by taking it to its logical conclusion (a few years prior to 9/11; people evidently didn't take the lesson in the film to heart, and they certainly didn't take it from 9/11. That in itself is terrifying.)

If you're referring to what I think you are, no . . . this does not occur in the novel.

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I've enjoyed the series Cosmos, and have seen some episodes more than once. However, I've noticed a number of false premises in Sagan's views.

One fundamental contradiction he might hold may be seen in the movie Contact, with Jodie Foster. It is based on a novel by him which I've never read, so I can't vouch for whether the film is faithful to the novel or its philosophy. However, if it is faithful, than the film's "demonstration" that faith can co-exist, so to speak, with science would tell you alot about the real Carl Sagan.

Both Sagan and I have a high opinion of the Dutch, as they were in the days of Huygens, almost as great a physicist as was Newton.

ruveyn

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These two people have been mentioned on this board here and there but never together so far as I know. I was wondering if anyone with more expertise and knowledge regarding Aristotle could shed some light on Sagan's view of him.
I know Sagan mentioned Aristotle in his work "The Demon-Haunted World." I also remember that it cast him in a positive light, but unfortunately I've perused my book and can't find it. Also, Sagan wrote this book some twenty years after Cosmos, so it's possible his opinion changed.

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