May 4, 2009

Sagan Devolving, Part III

Carl Sagan, in many places, as most of us are aware, discusses his interest in extra-terrestrial intelligence. Sagan is confident that if man encounters intelligent beings from a distant planet, he will be able to communicate with them. He says, “I suspect we will have little difficulty in understanding each other on the simpler aspects of astronomy, physics, chemistry and perhaps mathematics.” However, I will very briefly describe inconsistencies in Sagan’s ideas about extra-terrestrial life and our presumed ability to communicate with E.T.

Sagan says,

“Intelligent organisms evolving on another world may not be like us biochemically. They will almost certainly have evolved significantly different adaptations—from enzymes to organ systems—to deal with the different circumstances of their several worlds. But they must still come to grips with the same laws of nature.” In addition, Sagan asserts, “I would certainly not expect their brains to be anatomically or physiologically or perhaps even chemically close to ours. Their brains will have had different evolutionary histories in different environments.”

Science assumes the orderliness of the universe. It is what makes science possible. Einstein once remarked that the most incomprehensible property of the universe is that it is so comprehensible. In Sagan’s materialistic worldview, the order realized in the universe came about by the ultimately random and chance activities of matter. Randomness and chance are responsible for the origin of life in its myriad of forms on Earth, as well as the appearance of human consciousness.

The materialistic view of the universe is a strange one indeed. Mindless matter, by irreducible chance and random activity becomes consciously aware of itself through the formation of human consciousness. The universe proceeds to study itself using a variety of scientific methods; views and photographs itself with electron microscopes and powerful telescopes in space, and so on. This is a highly anthropocentric view of the universe.

Materialism offers no reasonable explanation for how mere chance and randomness can account for the existence of intelligent life on Earth. Ultimately, the materialist accepts the situation on “faith.” It is a fundamental tenet of his atheistic faith. Despite the astronomical odds against self-conscious life evolving by chance, (not that rationality can actually be a product of biological evolution) Sagan thinks it is likely to have occurred more than once in the universe.

In a thoroughgoing materialism, contrary to the speculations of Sagan and his ilk, the chances of life evolving on other planets, that is, evolving to the point of rational consciousness, are just about zero, if not absolute zero. If the materialist were to engage in an honest critique of his own philosophical assumptions, he might realize there are no credible reasons consistent with his philosophical perspective for entertaining the existence of extra-terrestrial intelligence.

It is only from a theistic view of a universe, a universe with purpose and design, that we can be logically and philosophically consistent in considering the possibility of intelligent life existing on other planets.

Sagan speculates that extra-terrestrial intelligence will have brains very different from ours, but we will still be able to communicate with them. If communication is possible, it is because reason is universal. Yet, Sagan’s materialistic view of the mind precludes this kind of universality. I must break off here, and leave the interested reader to reflect on Sagan inconsistencies.

Sagan Devolving, Part II

Welcome to The Devolution of Carl Sagan, Part Deux

In one of Carl Sagan’s earlier books, The Dragons of Eden, he offers his thoughts on the abortion issue as a potential compromise between opposing sides of the issue. I will be taking a critical look at Sagan’s reasoning about abortion based on his philosophical materialism and ethical relativism.

Sagan supports legalized abortion because it avoids “the tragedy and butchery of illegal and incompetent 'back-alley' abortions.” Sagan’s resort to this particular well-worn line of propaganda by radical feminists indicates the low level of his analysis. The “back-alley” argument is misleading because the legalization of abortion merely removes the previous legal restrictions on the “back-alley” abortionist. Now he practices his deadly trade openly and more profitably due to the increase in abortions he performs. While legal abortion may be somewhat safer than illegal abortion, legal abortion is hardly a safe procedure.

Legalizing abortion dramatically increased the number of surgical abortions. Due to this huge increase in the number of surgical abortions, there is an overall increase in the number of maternal deaths and significant physical damage to the mother such as punctured uterus, infections, permanent sterility, increased rates of breast cancer, and so on. If legalized abortion is medically safe, why is the abortion industry so vigilant in its suppression of facts about abortion’s health risks and statistics on abortion related deaths? Moreover, what should we say about “the tragedy and butchery” of legal and incompetent abortions?

Sagan asserts that abortion can “serve an important social need” in civilizations “threatened by the specter of uncontrolled population growth.” If killing pre-natal children can be useful, why stop at abortion? Sagan doe not stop at abortion. He continues with his same line of reasoning and touts the advantages of infanticide practiced by ancient civilizations and some modern societies. In the name of utility, Sagan approves the very worst crimes man can commit.

Sagan’s approval of infanticide coincides with the mores and laws of a particular society. (Sagan does not recognize objective moral standards, which America’s Declaration of Independence calls “the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God.”) Because, and only because, our laws and mores condemn infanticide as murder, Sagan does not approve of infanticide for our particular culture. In accordance with the laws and mores of our society, Sagan views abortion, at least during the third trimester, as “close to murder” since a baby born prematurely at seven months is no different from a baby in utero at seven months.

Sagan continues with a discussion of the “right to life.” His analysis, though, is rather confused. He says the “right to life” is an excellent example of a “buzz word,” designed to inflame rather than illuminate. I wonder if a single American in the Founding Era considered the “right to life” in the Declaration of Independence to be a “buzz word.” Sagan claims the right-to-life has never existed anywhere on Earth except in such few places as the Jains of India. What Sagan means is that since man kills animals and plants to eat and to use in other ways, and he often exploits nature, the right-to-life does not exist.

Of course, by “right-to-life” we are referring to a natural “human right.” Nevertheless, Sagan tries to undermine this position too by his references to wars, mass murders, and so on, which are an infringement on the right-to-life.

Sagan’s logic fails, however, because pro-lifers are referring to the unborn as having the same innate and unalienable right-to-life, as do the born. Plants and animals do not have inherent natural rights because they are not “persons.” This fact certainly does not mean we have the right to exploit and abuse nature, which has been a commonplace practice in the modern industrialized world. Human rights entail responsibilities, and natural law morally obligates man to a responsible and respectful use of nature.

Man often engages in unjust wars and mass murders but one of the criteria we use to condemn wars as unjust and mass killing as mass murder is grounded in an individual’s unalienable right-to-life. If the human person does not possess the inherent and unalienable right-to-life, killing human beings, under any conceivable circumstance, is never morally wrong in any objective sense.

Sagan next attacks the pro-life argument about “potential” as “a weak argument.” Sagan does not explain anything about this view of “potential” he disagrees with, and leaves the reader wondering whether he even understands the pro-life position he criticizes. Sagan advances a lame counter-argument when he says any human egg, or sperm, or any human cell from which we may be able someday to clone a human, are potentially a human being. The problem with Sagan’s reasoning is that a human gamete, the ovum or sperm, is not, in itself, potentially a human being in the same way a conceptus is potentially (or actually) a human being. Each gamete is genetically incomplete; it is haploid. Its potency is distinctly unlike the potency of a fertilized egg. A fertilized human egg, the zygote or conceptus, has a complete complement of chromosomes; it is diploid.

When pro-lifers have referred to what is potentially a human being they have referred to the fertilized egg because not everyone agrees at what point in prenatal development we can say this is a "person". Hence, the argument was advanced that we should protect even what is potentially life. Nonetheless, we know that the human life begins from the moment of conception. Sagan's argument is a straw man.

Unlike the ovum and sperm or somatic cells, the zygote is genetically an independent entity. Nature adds nothing new to the zygote while its potency actualizes into an adult human being.

In reply to Sagan’s statement on the possibility of cloning from any human cell, we only need to point out that somatic cells are in no sense, by their nature, in potency to becoming a human being. The possibility of manipulating the genetic material of somatic cells is hardly relevant to the pro-life argument of "potentiality". The relevancy occurs not with the consideration itself of somatic cell genetic material, but with the manipulation of the genetic structure that does not respect human life.

Regarding the fertilized human egg, the necessary implication of the diploid structure of the human zygote is that human life begins at conception. However, in “Is it Possible to be Prolife and Prochoice?” Sagan further confuses the issue and avoids the obvious conclusion about when human life begins. He says,

“Despite many claims to the contrary life does not begin at conception: It is an unbroken chain that stretches back nearly to the origin of the Earth, 4.6 billion years ago. Nor does human life begin at conception: It is an unbroken chain dating back to the origin of species, tens or hundreds of thousands of years ago (Sagan and Druyan).”

When life originated on Earth, or when human life itself originated is completely irrelevant to the scientific and philosophical question of what point in the reproductive process does the life of an individual human begin. My life began in the 20th century. I did not exist 200,000 or 500,000 years ago amongst my evolutionary ancestors.

In The Dragons of Eden, Sagan says, “The reason we prohibit the killing of human beings must be because of some quality human beings possess, a quality we especially prize, that few or no other organisms on Earth enjoy.” Sagan believes the human quality in question is our intelligence. For the abortion question, Sagan suggests the transition to humanity begins with the onset of neocortical activity, (Sagan's center for human intelligence), in the fetus. Sagan considers abortion after the onset of neocortical activity as murder.

However, Sagan’s thinking is retrograde. First, a belief predominant until the middle of the 19th century mistakenly believed the fetus became human with the onset of “quickening,” that point in the process of gestation in which movement is detected. Sagan’s idea is merely a variation of “quickening” in which the fetus becomes human with the onset of neocortical activity rather than bodily movement. Advances in the scientific understanding of prenatal development supersede both views. Sagan’s neocortical activity centered hypothesis remains inferior to the old “quickening” belief because he has reduced the human person to his biology and thinking to a byproduct of brain activity, a view not required by “quickening.”

Second, Sagan viewpoint accepts the myth of materialism that we think with our brains (See more about this issue in a future post). Third, Sagan’s philosophical materialism reduces the “sanctity of human life” to a dependence on biological development and functioning, that is, the neocortical area of the brain. Fourth, according to Sagan’s view, there is no objective ground for human rights, so in principle, Sagan’s (pseudo) human rights would absurdly extend to the more intelligent species of animals. Fifth, Sagan fails to recognize the philosophical notion of personhood.

It is fair to say, aside from whatever personal bias or prejudices Sagan may have concerning abortion, his underlying philosophical assumption of crass materialism and ethical relativism make it awkward, if not impossible, for him to treat ethical issues, especially abortion, in a consistently meaningful and logically sound manner.

Carl Sagan Devolving, Part I

“A little error in the beginning amounts to a colossal one in the end.” --Aristotle

In The Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Origin of Human Intelligence, author and scientist Dr. Carl Sagan compares primate and human cognitive capacities. Sagan’s viewpoint initially presumes the human mind differs from the primate mind in degree only. This position has radical implications for how man understands his place in nature and his relation to cosmos. In essence, Sagan agrees with Charles Darwin’s statement on this subject in the Descent of Man. Darwin made the following assertion:

“The difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, certainly is one of degree and not of kind…If it could be proved that certain high mental powers, such as the formation of general concepts, self-consciousness, et cetera, were absolutely peculiar to man, which seems extremely doubtful, it is not improbable that these qualities are merely the incidental results of other highly-advanced intellectual faculties; and these again mainly the results of the continued use of perfect language.”

Sagan disagrees with mankind’s prevailing opinion throughout recorded history expressed in the words of the English philosopher John Locke: “Beast’s abstract not.” In response to Locke’s statement, Sagan asserts that abstract thought is a matter not of kind but of degree, and that higher animals display abstraction, though rarely and less deeply than humans.

The following extended excerpt from John Locke’s, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding serves to underscore the irreconcilable difference in views between Sagan and Locke. The quoted text also provides a point of reference since Sagan fails to define key terms he is using.

In Book II (Ch. 11) Locke says,

9. “The use of words then being to stand as outward marks of our internal ideas, and those ideas being taken from particular things, if every particular idea that we take in should have a distinct name, names must be endless. To prevent this, the mind makes the particular ideas received from particular objects to become general; which is done by considering them as they are in the mind such appearances, separate from all other existences, and the circumstances of real existence, as time, place, or any other concomitant ideas. This is called abstraction, whereby ideas taken from particular beings becomes general representatives of all the same kind; and their names general names, applicable to whatever exists conformable to such abstract ideas. Such precise, naked appearances in the mind, without considering how, whence, or with what others they came there, the understanding lays up (with names commonly annexed to them) as the standards to rank real existences into sorts, as they agree with these patterns, and to denominate them accordingly. Thus the same color being observed today in chalk or snow, which the mind yesterday received from milk, it considers that appearance alone, make it representative of all of that kind; and having given it the name whiteness, it by that sound signifies the same quality wheresoever to be imagined or met with; and the universals, whether ideas or terms, are made.

10. “If it may be doubted whether beasts compound and enlarge their ideas that way to any degree; this, I think, I may be positive in, that the power of abstracting is not at all in them; and that the having of general ideas is that which puts a perfect distinction between man and the brutes, and is an excellency which the faculties of brutes do by no means attain to. For it is evident we observe no footsteps in them of making use of general signs for universal ideas; from which we have reason to imagine that they have not the faculty of abstracting, or of making general ideas, since they have no use of words, or any other general signs.”

Locke’s use of the word “idea” for animal cognition (par. 10) can be confusing. For Locke, an idea in brute animal consciousness is an “image” derived from sense perception. It is particular and radically distinct in nature from ideas in the human mind, which are universal and abstract. The human mind also uses particular images from sense perception, but it is an error to think of man’s abstract ideas or universal concepts as generalized or vague images. The distinctions between universal and particular, image and (abstract) idea are critical.

In addition, I must note that my use of John Locke's writings is not to be taken as an indication of my endorsement of Lockean empricism. Locke has made a number of critical epistemological errors. My intention in quoting Locke is to provide an example of what is involved in thinking through epistemological problems, and the kind of issues involved in that process. This necessary kind of philosophical analysis is precisely what Carl Sagan lacks.

In the chapter entitled, “The Abstractions of Beasts,” Sagan describes various interesting and intriguing behaviors of orangutans and chimpanzees. For example, he explains the experiments of two psychologists at the University of Nevada, Beatrice and Robert Gardner, who teach chimpanzees American Sign Language (Ameslan). The chimps, with amazing skill, learn to communicate using Ameslan. In addition, at the Yerkes Regional Primate Center in Atlanta, Georgia, researchers teach a chimp named Lana, a unique computer language called “Yerkish.” By using proper Yerkish syntax, Lana can successfully request from a specially built computer, water, juice, companionship, chimp flicks, a big girls’ night out (just kidding), and so on.

From the artificial settings of laboratory experiments such as these, which show something of chimpanzees’ cognitive capacities, Sagan assumes that chimps can abstract. However, Sagan nowhere defines his use of the word “abstraction,” in relation to either chimpanzees or humans. Therefore, we do not know from the text what Sagan means by the word “abstraction”; and we do not know precisely what it is about the chimpanzees’ behavior that Sagan takes for proof of animal abstraction. Sagan merely describes the experiments and makes an unwarranted leap to the conclusion that chimpanzees can think abstractly.

In addition, Sagan does not discuss the critical distinctions of universal and particular knowledge, or sensory image and idea. When we compare Locke’s detailed philosophical analysis of abstraction with Sagan’s superficial discussion, it reveals that Sagan has not given much thought to the subject of abstraction.

Sagan commits the same error common to modern researchers in cognition: failure to distinguish correctly the fundamental difference between perceptual and conceptual thinking. Sagan does have a clear understanding of the diverse modes and kinds of knowledge, and fails to realize that perceptual thinking can sufficiently explain the chimpanzees’ cognitive behavior. There is no need to posit anything additional to perceptual thinking, such as abstraction, to account for primate cognitive behavior. Thus, Sagan’s discussion of animal abstraction has no scientific or philosophic merit.

Sagan’s unwarranted conclusion about animal intelligence leads him into additional absurdities such as his suggestion that chimps have “human rights.” However, personhood is the ground of natural or inherent rights in the individual. Most of us, and rightly so, are not willing to consider animals, no matter how adorable and intelligent, as persons. Sagan asks, “How smart does a chimpanzee have to be before killing him constitutes murder?” His argument is a reductio ad absurdum. For example, if we ascribe human rights to chimps as persons, then chimps must have free will and be morally responsible for their behavior. Will they be afforded full citizenship and be allowed to vote? (Considering the decadent state of our democracy, voting chimpanzees may have certain political advantages.) In addition, since adult chimps do get aggressive, Sagan’s imaginary world will need cops, courts, prisons and parole officers to deal with chimps who commit crimes.

We can see that Sagan is more than a little desperate to narrow the gap between primates and humans with his reference to our genetic likenesses. He says, “For all we know, occasional viable crosses between humans and chimpanzees are possible.”

Sagan’s final query is, “Why are there no nonhuman primates with an existing complex gestural language?” Sagan suggests the possibility that humans “systematically exterminated those other primates who displayed signs of intelligence.” Man may have been an agent of natural selection in suppressing the intellectual competition. Sagan shows how far he has devolved into nonsense when he asserts we can compensate for our (alleged) transgressions against those nonhuman primates of the far distant past: “In teaching gestural language to the chimpanzees, we are beginning a belated attempt to make amends.”

Sagan’s retrograde thinking is the product of the crude materialism of Darwinian ideology. Sagan asserts, “Consciousness and intelligence are the result of mere matter sufficiently complexly arranged.” This is the same philosophical materialism assumed by Darwin when he made the false and very non-scientific claim, “The difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, certainly is one of degree and not of kind.”

In conclusion, it should be clear that the reductionism of Sagan’s crass materialism precludes him, as it did Darwin, from acquiring a genuine understanding of intellectual abstraction.

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