Carl Sagan, now an icon of science and skepticism, was wrong. A lot. He engaged in pseudoscience and failed to apply scientific knowledge in his own writings. He wrote about epistemology, getting some of that wrong, too. This is not to diminish his accomplishments, nor to suggest Sagan should not be an example to which we should aspire. Exactly the opposite is true. Among the niceties of being nonreligious, is that one can admire heroes without needing them to be flawless as gods. Carl Sagan’s life and writings give us all realistic view of what being skeptical means, occasional stumbles and all. Abstractly “perfect” deities don’t teach us anything about how to be human, but Carl Sagan does. We’re unlikely to sprout wings and join the seraphim, but we can adopt demonstrably useful, positive humanistic and skeptical values. The kind Sagan epitomized.
The birth trauma theory
- transition from peaceful, serene existence to “panic” state caused by crushing uterine contractions
- a sense of punishment for no apparent reason
- the experience of crossing a tunnel-like threshold into a new world
He suggested that the traumatic experience of birth explains many things, from the foundations of religion to near-death experiences which are triggered memories of the traumatic birth experience.
I do not know how close the analogies are between personal perinatal experiences and particular cosmological models. […] But the analogies are very close, and the possible connection between psychiatry and cosmology seems very real.
Sagan uses rather furtive language, at least. Still, we must note this essay is striking failure at applying critical thought. Citing Stanislav Grof is a gross error. This nutjob has been studying “the science of shamanism” for decades, and since the ’60’s at least, has studied psuedoscientific nonsense known as “transpersonal psychology“. It’s hard to understand how a skeptic would take seriously what Grof has to say. It’s like citing Deepak Chopra instead of a Dan Dennett or a Neil deGrasse Tyson.
Next, all of the psychology is wrong, and it was known to be wrong even when Sagan wrote the essay. The experience of squeezing through a narrow fleshy tube is nothing like serenely floating down a tunnel. There would be no light at the end, either, because a baby’s eyes would be tightly flush with the vaginal wall. Further, humans do not create long term episodic memories before around age two or so. The reason why is obvious, a baby’s brain is still forming, its senses not developed. Information “learned” during this period is not reliable, even if the cognitive bits that do learning even function yet. There is no “repressed memory” to be summoned in moments of stress. Lastly, even if a newborn could somehow form memories of birth, it certainly has no concepts of punishment or moral culpability. These are complex ideas which will require years to master.
Do extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence?
One of Sagan’s best-known quotes is his remarking that the evidence required to prove a claim must equal its a priori likelihood (Sagan did not invent the quote though, it is often credited to Marcello Truzzi and earlier philosophers). Sagan employed this argument specifically in a discussion about extraterrestrial intelligence. The most defensible interpretation of this idea, is that given a particular claim strikes a person as “extraordinary”, then any evidence which is sufficient to compel acceptance of validity of the claim will also be seen as extraordinary. This is true, but it is a statement about psychology, not about evidence. Philosophically, the concept is empty. First, there is no objective meaning of “extraordinary”. Microwave ovens are magic to pre-modern peoples and commonplace to everyone else. A given research paper might seem amazing to a lay reader, but utterly dull to a scientist who works in that field and is knowledgeable about the literature- to them, the paper might merely be an incremental step. Does the standard of evidence then change depending on who we ask? This is clearly false.
That leads to a second counterargument: shouldn’t a sound epistemology have a single, cohesive standard about what gets counted as “proven”? Multiple standards reek of bias and favoritism, just the things we should not be considering. Either the evidence compels agreement, or it does not. What we think of the claim changes nothing.
Sagan the agnostic
Carl Sagan also repeated widely-held, but incorrect views of atheism and agnosticism and generally refused the label “atheist” on the commonly cited grounds—
To be certain of the existence of God and to be certain of the nonexistence of God seem to me to be the confident extremes in a subject so riddled with doubt and uncertainty as to inspire very little confidence indeed
I realize that most secularists still accept this shallow reasoning, but I explain why it is not rational here. In short, this defense of agnosticism requires a kind of special pleading and perhaps appeal to ignorance. It is not the case that we must know everything, in order to know anything.
Candle in the darkness
Why am I bashing Carl Sagan, and on his birthday? Well, if you’re anything like me, you’ve already been inundated with Sagan adulation and nigh-worship. I think my readers know his many great accomplishments and contributions. Sagan didn’t stand on accomplishments and fame, and wasn’t impressed by them. He emphasized the journey. Progress. The spirit of exploration and growth. He knew, too, that we’re flawed beings whose noble moments are the fleeting reward for a thousand failed attempts. The flawed Carl Sagan, the imperfect human Carl Sagan is infinitely more inspiring to me as a skeptic than the litany of awards or pithy quotes about cosmological wonderment. Here’s what his life teaches me:
You will sometimes fail in endeavor and in the eyes of your own convictions. Not might; you will. Accepting this as part of life makes it a whole lot easier to catch.
Embrace your stumblings as opportunities for growth. Sagan was never embarrassed to be wrong.
There are no masters of skepticism, no mavens of critical thinking. None. You can try your hardest to see yourself objectively. No one can do more, and no one is 100% successful.
In spite of all of this, you can still do great things and inspire people, which might make it worth all the trouble. Never stop trying.
So happy birthday, Carl, and thanks. We miss you.