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Thread: Is Carl Sagan's description of ancient history correct or incorrect?

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    Is Carl Sagan's description of ancient history correct or incorrect?

    If you read Carl Sagan's books, or watch his Cosmos from 1980, the view of history he presents goes roughly like the quote below, from The Demon-Haunted World:

    Quote Originally Posted by Carl Sagan
    Something akin to laws of Nature were once glimpsed in a determinedly polytheistic society, in which some scholars toyed with a form of atheism. This approach of the pre-Socratics was, beginning in about the fourth century BC, quenched by Plato, Aristotle and then Christian theologians. If the skein of historical causality had been different - if the brilliant guesses of the atomists on the nature of matter, the plurality of worlds, the vastness of space and time had been treasured and built upon, if the innovative technology of Archimedes had been taught and emulated, if the notion of invariable laws of Nature that humans must seek out and understand had been widely propagated - I wonder what kind of world we would live in now.
    In Pale Blue Dot, he described Lucretius as "the first popularizer of science". And in Cosmos he also talks about the Library of Alexandria and Hypatia.

    However, I have seem his view of history being criticized for being flawed and misleading. Is it correct or incorrect?

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    Veteran Member Sarpedon's Avatar
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    Not just Greece, but also China and India.

    In all places where it arose, it was more or less dismissed or overwhelmed by dominant social forces, which were more conservative. Perhaps rational thought required the data, stability and applications that more advanced societies provided to take a firm hold.

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    Veteran Member skepticalbip's Avatar
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    I took his description more as historical metaphor, so not necessarily either correct or incorrect. It seemed to me he was pointing out how much the attribution of agency to explain reality has held back our understanding of that reality. Such attribution of agency is ingrained even in our language such as "this car just doesn't want to go straight". He did point out ancient 'scientists' who saw reality without attribution of agency but also pointed out that their examples were not adopted generally.

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    Sapere aude Politesse's Avatar
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    It's obviously biased, but I would hesitate to say incorrect.

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    I think it's incorrect.

    The two outlooks simply coexisted. Kepler was an astrologer, Newton was an alchemist.

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    Super Moderator Bronzeage's Avatar
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    I remember the original Sagan Cosmos episode about the Planet Venus. The first astronomer to get a good focus could only see swirling clouds in the Venusian atmosphere. This led the astronomer to speculate that Venus was a wet swampy place, where dinosaurs waded through the marsh. Sagan's comment was, "Observation: can's see anything. Conclusion: Dinosaurs."

    So, Sagan is caught concluding with his pants down.

    When I look at Leonardo Di Vinci's notebook, he has lots of cool stuff which were impossible in his day because the materials needed to engineer the device did not exist. For some of his drawings, the materials still don't exist. Suppose Democritus's ideas about atoms and matter became accepted canon for the structure of the universe. When would the social engines which drive technology have taken advantage of this idea. Steel of various types has been around for several thousands of years. A better understanding of crystals and their structure might have helped, but we had no way to determine one steel crystal from another. As is was, steel suitable for making fine springs was not practical until the 1600's.

    Ideas are easy to come by, and it's really easy to look back and pick out the good ideas from the past.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Sarpedon View Post
    Not just Greece, but also China and India.

    In all places where it arose, it was more or less dismissed or overwhelmed by dominant social forces, which were more conservative. Perhaps rational thought required the data, stability and applications that more advanced societies provided to take a firm hold.
    ^^^

    That. The passage you've included in your post sounds like something you'd hear in a popularized science book, than an academic history. It sounds good for people on the science bandwagon who don't know much about history, but the past pretty much had to unfold exactly as it did.

    There needed to be widespread human rights in place before any system of thought could seriously challenge religion, setting aside the fact that our knowledge of materialism was lacking up until about the 19th century.

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    Really? Had to unfold the way it did?

    I can think of various leaders in history who, if they had made different decisions, history would have turned out differently.

    It was not predetermined that the Romans would defeat the Carthaginians, either.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Tammuz View Post
    Really? Had to unfold the way it did?

    I can think of various leaders in history who, if they had made different decisions, history would have turned out differently.

    It was not predetermined that the Romans would defeat the Carthaginians, either.
    That's a deeper discussion but yes.

    Some aspects of history were inevitable - in this case some social forces were so dominant that there was no way for materialism to flourish. Although, on the other hand, as someone else mentioned it may have also been a case of materialism being in deep embryo. We did it throughout history, just not very well. And it's only been recently that we do it well enough for people to jump on the bandwagon, while the brunt of the world is still demon-haunted.

    In ancient times science was so primitive as to make it irrelevant.

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    Administrator lpetrich's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Bronzeage View Post
    I remember the original Sagan Cosmos episode about the Planet Venus. The first astronomer to get a good focus could only see swirling clouds in the Venusian atmosphere. This led the astronomer to speculate that Venus was a wet swampy place, where dinosaurs waded through the marsh. Sagan's comment was, "Observation: can's see anything. Conclusion: Dinosaurs."

    So, Sagan is caught concluding with his pants down.
    That example looks silly, and it is an oversimplification of astronomers' actual speculations. Svante Arrhenius proposed the tropical-jungle theory in 1898. He was inspired by an early theory of planetary formation in which the Sun makes rings of material that condenses into planes. The outermost planets are the oldest ones and the innermost ones the youngest ones. Thus, Mars is older than the Earth, which is older than Venus. The swamps? Out of analogy with the Earth's Carboniferous Period and its big swamps.

    In the mid 1950's, Donald Menzel and Fred Whipple proposed that Venus had a planetwide ocean of water, while Fred Hoyle proposed a planetwide ocean of hydrocarbons. Some other scientists proposed a desert.

    Then in 1958, radio observations of Venus showed unexpectedly strong emissions. A hot surface? Or something weird in the planet's ionosphere. In 1961, Carl Sagan wrote
    The state of our knowledge of Venus is amply illustrated by the fact that the Carboniferous swamp, the wind-swept desert, the planetary oil field, and the global Seltzer ocean each have their serious proponents, and those planning eventual manned expeditions to Venus must be exceedingly perplexed over whether to send along a paleobotanist, a mineralogist, a petroleum geologist, or a deep-sea diver.
    In 1962, The American Mariner 2 flew by, and found that Venus was brighter in radio waves toward the center than toward the edge or limb. Venus clearly had a hot surface.

    In 1965, The Soviet Venera 4 attempted to land. It reported back that Venus's atmosphere was mostly CO2, and its last reported temperature was 250 C. A day later, Mariner 5 flew by, and from its inferred atmosphere profile, Venus's inferred surface temperature was around 500 C, in rough agreement with radio observations and Mariner 2.

    Later Soviet spacecraft succeeded in landing - and finding temperatures around 450 C and pressures around 90 atm, in good agreement with Mariner-5 estimates. Venera 4 had conked out on the way down.

    Quote Originally Posted by Bronzeage
    When I look at Leonardo Di Vinci's notebook, he has lots of cool stuff which were impossible in his day because the materials needed to engineer the device did not exist. For some of his drawings, the materials still don't exist. Suppose Democritus's ideas about atoms and matter became accepted canon for the structure of the universe. When would the social engines which drive technology have taken advantage of this idea. Steel of various types has been around for several thousands of years. A better understanding of crystals and their structure might have helped, but we had no way to determine one steel crystal from another. As is was, steel suitable for making fine springs was not practical until the 1600's.
    It's a LONG way from Democritus's speculations to modern chemistry. A LONG way. One needs:

    • Identification of chemical elements
    • Law of definite proportions -- some combinations of elements follow it and some don't
    • Atomic weights and simple atom combinations as explanations of definite proportions
    • Atomic valences

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