Required Reading

Every once in awhile I find myself missing university teaching.  I miss the students- wide-eyed and eager to learn, and the colleagues with whom I shared common interests and background.  I miss the discussions we had, and the ideas that they would bring to the table that would enhance and develop my own perceptions of our world.

But one of the things I miss most is the opportunity I had- every four months or so- to create a syllabus outlining the assignments and readings for the course.  In doing so, I got to share some of my favourite stories and concepts with my audience- and they actually HAD to read them (at least if they hoped to pass the course, they did).

I miss it partly because I genuinely LOVE sharing the wonderful contributions that have been made in understanding our humanity with my fellow humans, but also because sometimes I reallyreally wish that I could MAKE some people do things I want them to do.  For their own good, of course.  For their good and for the good of us all.

There are some vital things out there to which we all NEED to be exposed.

I’ve spoken before about how much I love the reboot of Cosmos.  Dr. Tyson has done an incredible job of revivifying the message that Dr. Sagan left with us when he passed away almost 20 years ago.  Inspired by the show (there IS good stuff on t.v, now and again), I decided that it was past time for me to revisit Dr. Sagan a little more fully.

With a cottage weekend on the horizon (T-minus 2 days!), I picked up some books to accompany me as I sit on the dock, cocktail in hand, and fully and formally welcome back our Canadian cottage season.

And, because sometimes I’m not-so-good with the waiting, I have to admit that I cracked the books a little prematurely.

One of them is The Demon-Haunted World- Science as a Candle in the Dark, Dr. Sagan’s penultimate work of wonder and genius.  His next-to-last published offering to the world of his eloquent view of the Cosmos and our humanity- and a warning that we haven’t managed to heed.

I read the book for the first time as a student, many years ago, but not as part of my course-dictated required readings.  As a student of the Scientific Study of Religion, I was interested in the interplay between what we have learned, through generations of scientific observation and experimentation in the natural world (both the provable and theoretical outcomes), and the stories of the supernatural that we have created and to which we continue to cling, in spite of lack of evidence and with an extremity of the beggaring of common sense.

The disconnect disturbed me then, as it does now (to an ever-growing degree).  I can no more understand today, even after more than a decade of researching how and why we construct religious beliefs and the institutions that support and further those beliefs, why people choose to remain willfully ignorant and in the thrall of superstition and fairy tales.

I understand that there is collected wisdom to be found in the stories- wisdom that stands the test of time, since it is human in origin.

Re-reading the book, I was struck- seemingly on each and every page- by how prescient Dr. Sagan truly was.  And not in any pseudo-scientific ‘psychic’ way.

On pages 25-26 he wrote (in 1995):

“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 of pseudo-science and superstition, but especially a celebration of a kind of ignorance… The plain lesson is that study- not just of science, but of anything- are avoidable, even desirable.”


That particular quote- and the one that accompanies his picture up there ^^^^- are shaking me to my very core.

The guy, through his observation of the world that he loved, knew.  He knew, back then, that we are on a slippery slope to our own destruction- one that is being expedited by our stubborn unwillingness to think for ourselves and set aside the beliefs and willful ignorance that keep us yoked to the agendas of those in power- whether the powers are religious or secular.

We believe the fairy tales because doing so is easier than thinking for ourselves.  We have an entire world of wisdom and knowledge and evidential experience to tap into- with new discoveries being made daily- and yet we persist in holding onto Bronze-Age ideas regarding the structure of the world/universe in which we live.

Re-reading his words left me intellectually and emotionally exhausted with the inspiration they still provide.  But it also left me mad as Hell (there’s that word again).

As his synopsis of his life-long love affair with science and the natural world unfolds, he speaks about the need to continually educate ourselves and question and test our conclusions- the way scientists do as they seek to explain and understand our universe.  The continuous testing of hypotheses to shape an approach to the truth is required methodology in the sciences.

In religion?  Not so much (pages 34-35).

“Which leaders of the major faiths acknowledge that their beliefs might be incomplete or erroneous and establish institutes to uncover possible doctrinal deficiencies?  Beyond the test of everyday living, who is systematically testing the circumstances in which traditional religious teachings may not longer apply?  (It is certainly conceivable that doctrines and ethics that might have worked fairly well in patriarchal or patristic or medieval times might be thoroughly invalid in the very different world we inhabit today)… Scripture is said to be divinely inspired- a phrase with many meanings.  But what is it’s simply made up by fallible humans?  Miracles are attested, but what they’re instead some mix of charlantanry, unfamiliar states of consciousness, misapprehensions of natural phenomena, and mental illness?  No contemporary religion and no New Age belief seem to me to take sufficient account of the grandeur, magnificence, subtlety and intricacy of the Universe revealed by science.  The fact that so little of the findings of modern science is prefigured in Scripture to my mind casts further doubt on its divine inspiration.

But of course I might be wrong.”

That last line is so Sagan.  Always the scientist.  Always the awareness that his hypothesis might not prove accurate and therefore have to be consigned to the dust-heap of failed attempts at understanding.

The last chapter of the book resonates these days in ways that would be spooky- if he wasn’t who he was, and if I was inclined to believe in things that are ‘spooky’.  In ‘Real Patriots Ask Questions’ he outlines why it is our responsibility, as participants in democracy, to keep ourselves informed about the world in general and the actions of our elected leaders in particular.

Since our federal government, just today, made public their intention to proceed with a staggeringly ill-conceived decision that flies in the face of majority (and scientific) opinion and is demonstrative of their typical arrogance and self-preserving agenda, that chapter hit home pretty freakin hard.

Again with the wisdom (page 434):

“If we can’t think for ourselves, if we’re unwilling to question authority, then we’re just putty in the hands of those in power.  But if the citizens are educated and form their own opinions, then those in power work for us.  In every country we should be teaching our children the scientific method and the reasons for a Bill of Rights.  With it comes a certain decency, humility and community spirit.  In the demon-haunted world we inhabit by virtue of being human, this may be all that stands between us and the enveloping darkness.”

I powered through the book.  The impact of his observations and the articulation of our current issues in a work written almost 20 years ago left me feeling like I needed to finish it quickly.  Impending danger and dark foreboding, folks.  He started warning us about it decades ago.  And not only did we not listen, we are rushing headlong- willingly blind- into the idiocy that will bring about our destruction.

This weekend, on the dock, I will savour it again- more slowly this time- to appreciate the fullness of his thoughts and the beauty and power of his words.  It will be my required (re-)reading- in amongst the literary creativity of a couple of my favourite authors of fiction.

The finale of Cosmos, a couple of weeks ago, started with Dr. Tyson ‘in’ the Library of Alexandria.  My dream palace.  Seriously.  Of all the great human constructs that have been needlessly destroyed, THAT one hurts me most of all.

It was, as Neil noted, the storehouse of the wisdom of the Classical period.  The math, the science, the philosophy, the theology.  Our stories and our discoveries about the world we live in and the universe around us.

At that time such wisdom was available only to the elite, and so, when the mob came to destroy the Library and its wonders, there weren’t many to stand against the hoard.

Intelligence and critical thinking and rationality and engagement with the realities of our world are characteristics and attributes that are actively being discouraged in our popular media and by our leaders- those in the business world, in the arena of religious belief, and those we elect to political power.  We celebrate the pedestrian, the ‘common’, the ‘creators’ of amusing 140-character soundbites.  Credulity is not only acceptable, it’s laudable.

In 1996, Carl Sagan offered another example of his great and awesome voice crying out against the wilderness of ignorance and complete lack of healthy and needful skepticism.  He shouted, but not enough of us seemed to hear.

If we don’t start hitting the books and completing our assigned readings, we students of the world are going to fail this class.  Bigtime.  And that failure will lead us, inexorably, “back into superstition and darkness.”

And when that happens, who among us will stand against the mob?

And if the dam breaks open many years too soon, and if there is no room upon the hill

And if your head explodes with dark forebodings, too, I’ll see you on the dark side of the moon.

Brain damage, indeed.

PS- For a few days, come Friday morning, I will be shutting down the connectivity to all things technological in favour of my lakeside dock and the company of good friends.  Have a fantastic weekend, WPPeeps.  And if you’re looking for something to read… Just a suggestion.  A strong and pleading suggestion, but just a suggestion nonetheless. 

19 comments on “Required Reading

  1. LindaGHill says:

    It’s late, and it’s going to take a while to digest this before I can come up with a worthy comment. However, I think between Mr. Sagan and yourself, you’ve pretty much said it all. It’s a scary time.

    Enjoy your visit to cottage country, and watch out for our national bird: the everlovin’ mosquito.

    • colemining says:

      Thanks, Linda. I’ve been forewarned about the ‘skeeters and will go prepared (inasmuch as you can prepare for the damned things). It’s supposed to be a nice weekend, weather-wise, so I’ll spend a fair bit of it in the water, hiding from them.

      I honestly can’t believe how bang on he was in his assessment of the path down which we still seem to be headed. It’s inexplicable to me. And today it made me reallyreally angry.

      Thanks for reading. Have a great weekend!

  2. DyingNote says:

    The herd will always drive almost (and that’s a critical word here) everyone over the cliff. It happens all over the world over and over again. From a nation that identified and found a cure for diabetes and that practised plastic surgery and which was at the forefront of developing maths centuries back, India has slipped into a raucous aggregate of millions of quacks.

    Having said that, I’d think that there are more people who’re aware of the pitfalls of much of what we do and how we do now than before. And that lot will not be driven over the edge and that’s the pack that will regenerate hopefully a better civilization. Sounds blase but there it is, proven time and again.

    Have a wonderful weekend!

    • colemining says:

      DN- it is certainly cyclical, to some degree, but I honestly feel we’re on a downward spiral at the moment (and that is hard for me to say- given that I try to maintain optimism in all things).

      We have so much access to information- and, in many places in the world, leisure/down time that could/should be spent informing/educating ourselves, and yet we CHOOSE to do otherwise. And we are encouraged in this intellectual sloth by our leaders- political and religious- so that they can (and do) further their own agendas at the expense of the rest of us.

      I’d hope that the clear, insightful voices will stay far away from the cliff, but if the mob keeps pushing, it becomes increasingly difficult to hold out against the tide.

      Thanks for reading! Bon weekend, to you, as well!

  3. Doobster418 says:

    Okay, I must read that book. NOW! It rings so true to me and what is almost incomprehensible to me is that, in the 20 years that have passed since Dr. Sagan wrote his words, we have regressed as a nation even further into mysticism and superstition and have become even more superstitious. And from the blogs I’ve read here on WordPress and from the comments I’ve seen on my, and others’ blogs, we’re falling deeper and deeper into the grip of this hypnotic mire that disguises itself as religion. The Dark Ages are returning to America.

    Great post, but now I’m really depressed. Enjoy your lakeside retreat.

    • colemining says:

      Yay, Doobster! Read the book. You will love the book- and be disturbed by just how much he nailed. Dr. Sagan was a brilliant mind who deserves to be remembered for so many things (the ‘popularization’ of science and education and critical thinking, for example), but his was a warning that we (continue to) ignore at our collective peril.

      His wife is quite brilliant, as well. So much wisdom and insight to be found. And yet we’re watching ‘Big Brother’ and other such nonsense.

      Enjoy the read! Have a great weekend!

  4. Great post! A very thought-provoking read.

    I also experienced a deep feeling of… I suppose it could be called intellectual sadness when I read about the destruction of the library in Alexandria. I was studying Hermeticism at the time. The idea that all this amassed knowledge just went ‘poof’, was lost and that’s that, seemed infinitely tragic. Yet from another perspective it was intriguing, viewing it as part of the cycles of human evolution.

    If you look at the history of humans you can see a predisposition to go to extremes, and when that extreme peaks there is a swing towards the opposite extreme. Now and then we hit the sweet spot between extremes, we have a golden age of sorts where views and extremes are blended, mind, body and soul work together, but it is static to stay there, so the pendulum has to keep moving.

    A lot of what Carl Sagan was saying was also echoed in the works of other people of his generation, because it reflects the times they were living in. He was not the only one to make that prediction, that assessment. And what he and others like him expressed can also be found in the works of those who lived many years before them. It’s a pattern. Therefore it can be predicted. If you study what came before you can see what will come next. Humans seem to go through enlightened phases and then dark ages, one seems to inspire the birth of the other. And we’re always heading down a slippery slope to complete destruction. The destruction happens in some form or another, and then up the slope we climb again.

    Humans are reactionary. Newton’s laws of motion. You yourself are reacting. Anger, indignation, a sense that everyone is blind to what is happening and frustration at being unable to open eyes and make people see before it is too late. That reaction is inspiring your thinking, your philosophy, your need to explore and discover, and also to express your findings. This is the sort of reaction which inspired people like Carl Sagan. So when you read his words, his reaction fuels yours.

    You’ve chosen to go down the path which people like Carl Sagan have gone down (or up). Others respond to their reactions by going along a different path. These different paths often clash, each path viewed as being the right one ergo the other paths must be the wrong one, and the people on them must be wrong, and so it goes.

    I do think that we’re living in very exciting times, because between the battle, so to speak, of all the different paths, of science, philosophy, religion, politics, etc, we’re all almost in agreement about one thing – there’s the finger of business, of human greed, in each pie. Someone profits from us being at odds with each other. As long as we’re all pointing fingers at each other, we don’t notice the fingers in pies doing their thing. What I just said reflects who I’ve been reading 😉

    Thanks for sharing, your posts are always so stimulating. There is a deeply personal undercurrent to what you write and express which is compelling.

    Have a lovely getaway!

    • colemining says:

      Good morning, Ursula! What an insightful comment!. Of course, Dr. Sagan (like others before and after him) was reflecting on the world as he saw it- given his evidence-based observations. In addition to his work in astrophysics, he was a student of humanity (and the Humanities) and taught critical thinking as he sought to popularize science and education in general. He is definitely one of my personal heroes.

      There are certainly patterns that recur over time- I study history, I know this to be fact- but Dr. Sagan’s main point was that we have so much access to information and education (even more so now) and yet continue to pay attention to those who further agendas based in pseudo-science or superstition, rather than the observable and demonstrable (through the process of the scientific method) evidence.

      And I do think it’s worse today than it was even 20 years ago. Again, as an historian, we are reverting more and more to ‘belief’ and spurious claims to support the furtherance of ideologies that are destroying our civilizations. And you are totally right- it’s prompted and encouraged by human greed and power-mongering.

      Thank you for reading and for so taking so much time to reflect. Have a fantastic weekend! xo

  5. Sagan sure hit it head on with that first quote (where do you see the Cosmos reboot? I haven’t come across it yet). I am feeling pretty depressed about the Con’s latest decision (25% of Cdns support it)–and as I looked around for thoughtful analysis by our esteemed academics, I recoiled when I saw that the U of Alberta has an “Enbridge Professorship”. The current Enbridge guy goes around defending the pipeline without any sort of balanced argument re; environmental & social impact, etc. I long for the day when academics were our sober second thought, a light in the darkness, a voice of reason…sigh. Have a great weekend, and happy reading.

    • colemining says:

      Booksy- Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey was on Fox TV (how weird is that?!?)- and its run ended a few weeks ago. Should be available on Global online/on demand, I’d think. I’m going to have to see if I can find DVDs of Carl’s original and re-watch them. I am finding so much inspiration from him (and from Dr. Tyson- who is a worthy inheritor of Carl’s legacy) the last little while.

      That Enbridge thing is reallyreally making me angry. VERYVERY angry. The Harper gov’t seems inclined to fire those scientific/academic voices that contradict their agenda- which limits their value somewhat.

      I’ll be sitting on a dock in a bay in less than 24 hours. Book in one hand, cocktail in another. After the winter we had, and the last few months… I am VERY looking forward to it. Thanks for the visit!

  6. bethbyrnes says:

    OK, there is a lot here and I have blogged about this extensively, myself.

    First off, Sagan was prescient and to be treasured. I will probably get this book for that reason. Thank you for reminding me.

    But, we can look to Plato. His Allegory of the Cave in The Republic lays out the problem perfectly. We are sheeple, leg-chained together, inside the dark cave, facing away from the light and merely glimpsing shadows on the walls that hint of a greater life outside. Anyone who wakes up, cannot awaken the others. They refuse to believe him, and worse, they try to attack and silence him. Sheeple love being endarkened: it is easier.

    Christ spoke in simple parables because his audience was not and is not sophisticated to hear the truth any other way.

    We can look at Martians on Elm Street, in the twilight zone for another take on that. We can look at G.I. Gurdjieff who spoke about humanity being sound asleep, while walking and talking. Gurdjieff counseled, if we expect to find awake men and women making wise decisions, we will be continually disappointed and discouraged. If, on the other hand, we see them for who they are: somnabulists, day and night, we will be encouraged and thrilled when we find one or another (rare) who are awake and “enlightened” by comparison.

    Oscar Ichazo said we could conceive of this as a forest. Those who sit at the base of the dense trees, on the dark forest floor, can only see a foot in front of their own noses and thus understand very little of the world. Those higher up in the tree see farther and have a better idea of the world in its reality. Those who make it to the tree-tops, in that fragile and rarefied atmosphere, perched delicately on the smallest and highest branches, will see the whole world. And understand it.

    Osho said. There is no difference between you and I, save one. We are both facing the sunrise, only I see it because my eyes are open and you do not, because yours are closed.

    Until every single one of us takes responsibility for waking up and actually seeing the world as it is, we will have a sorry, declining society of fearful, angry, cave-men, who just want to take care of themselves, no longer care for the group, and must keep any truth-tellers at bay, at the end of a gun. That is America right now. Sagan saw it coming. We need to wake up and take the brave step of sounding the alarm, far and wide, regardless of the consequences.

    • colemining says:

      Beth- I hear everything you are saying. I just have to believe that we are capable of more than we routinely demonstrate. I try to live that- and encourage by example, but it is rough going a lot of the time. Which is why I get angry/frustrated some of the time and lash out. Although even my lashing out is generally tempered by self-reflection and critical examination of what I’m angry about.

      We have to keep our voices raised- the alternative isn’t worth thinking about. And you’re right- it’s all about personal accountability. We can always find excuses– but at some point those excuses need to stop being reasons.

      We have a publicly (under)funded education system here. If we want our children to learn the things they need to learn in order to responsibly and intelligently participate in progressive societies, we have the tools we need to do so- we just have to provide our educators with the requisite resources to facilitate the most complete educational system possible.

      Starting with required reading- like Dr. Sagan.

      Thanks for your always-enlightening and -thoughtful comments! Bon weekend!

      • bethbyrnes says:

        Well, I agree and that is why I ended my little diatribe 😉 with — the brave step of sounding the alarm, hang the consequences. As for public schools system, the anti-government geniuses in the lower 50 here are trying to do away with it. It makes people smart and that is the last thing these diabolical usurpers want.

      • colemining says:

        Diatribes have their place- and are frequently required. I had a little rant of my own, last night- which is what led to the post, actually.

        We just had a conservative party lose major ground- provincially. And the latest diabolical act that the leader of our country just perpetrated (and that was a main instigation for the rant that got us to this conversation)? That might just be the straw that will see him removed from power come the next election. We can hope. I’m not counting any chickens, but there seems to be an wind of progressiveness blowing up here in the Northland. Perhaps some of it will make it down your way too.

        Hang the consequences, indeed. We’ll keep sounding that alarm until things change- and holding off the mob all by our ownselves, if required!

  7. Ste J says:

    The people in power hate an informed public and that is sad, having said that so many people are happy with their pop music and reality TV and not the ‘boring’ stuff of politics and life stuff…it really is amazing how little people know or care to know…the only interaction they have is an X next to whichever politician has a colour they like despite the fact they may be terrible for the country.

    The school systems need to be rebuilt totally to actually teach children and the everybody should be teaching their kids to question and want to be informed….yes spot on post this is. I think that it should be required reading…I’m off to rewatch Cosmos (the original) on YouTube now…that’ll calm me down and put a smile on my face.

    • colemining says:

      Too true, Ste. J. There are serious issues with our educational system- and teaching critical thinking is just one of them. Hope you enjoyed your revisiting of the original. That might be my weekend this weekend.

      Thanks for reading and your always-insightful comments.

  8. colemining says:

    Reblogged this on colemining and commented:

    We started chatting about making cottage plans this week. Believe me- it’s a matter of maintaining sanity in the face of the insane cold we’ve been subjected to over the past little bit.

    I started dreaming of lakes and docks and summer-y cocktails with a great book or 12, and remembered this post.

    It’s in keeping, subject-wise, with some of the stuff I’ve been harping about lately, yet it is allowing me to recall last summer and permitting me to hope that the sun and warmth will return.

    Have a great weekend! If you’re anywhere near this neck o’ the woods make sure to bundle up!

  9. lennymaysay says:

    Read it twice some six or so years apart. Still in awe…

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