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What Carl Sagan has to say about science and truth

maht91's picture

 When I started reading The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan, I did not really know what to expect. Sagan invites the reader to be critical and skeptical of things we read, see, or hear about. He wants us to distinguish between what is "valid science" and "pseudoscience." As a science major, I have always accepted science as factual information that is true until proven otherwise since I was young. In my current biology class, we are studying about paleontology which involves looking at fossil records of animals to infer relationships between extinct and living species. This class gets me wondering about how I can fully trust and appreciate what I am learning since it is all based on the evidence we have right now which will probably change in the next couple of years when a new discovery is made. Sagan says that we have to be skeptical of what we read, and I try to do that when I am reading science. It is interesting to see if science and religion would receive the same weight of skepticism since Sagan believes that there is a lot in real science that will get us closer to the truth (page 4). But how much importance can we place on science for explaining disease and death for instance for someone who is very religious and spiritual and does not believe in scientific discovers. How could you explain the truth for that person? 

 In the chapter about Hallucinations, there is a line on page 105 that says: "...much of culture is hallucination," and that "the whole intent and function of ritual appears to be...[a] group wish to hallucinate reality." I looked up the definition of the word hallucinate. According to the OED, hallucinate is "to be deceived, to suffer illusions, entertain false notions, blunder, mistake." I looked up the etymology and it says that it means "to wander in mind, talk idly, prate." I am wondering what the quote above means after looking up the definitions of hallucination as a verb and a noun. I feel that it is extreme to suggest that people's rituals are a way to "entertain false notions" about reality. 



maht91's picture

  Also, in the chapter titled

  Also, in the chapter titled The City of Grief, Sagan talks extensively about alien abductions and how for "people suffering from sleep paralysis they truly believe it's real." It was interesting that he brought up that its is the responsibility of the abductee to provide proof. But even if the abductees provide a proof, is science able to explain it? And if science is able to explain it using scientific methods, does that make it real to everyone? to the abductee? to scientists? In the same chapter, on page 194, one of the points says that "Sagen refuses to take seriously the witnesses' reports of anything that the twentieth-century science can't explain." I still refuse that there is a universal truth and question whether how reality is different for different people. Sagan seems to dismiss the idea that witnesses' reports are serious if science does not dictate that they are true. The book mentions that people who see aliens and think that they were abducted might have been diagnosed with an illness. For me, this suggests that their reality might change under this new circumstance and thus even if science can't explain what they see, it should still be considered "real" to them.

 On page 223 of Obsessed with Reality, Sagan suggests that "Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence." Does that mean that ghosts are real for people who have seen them or are the stories of people abducted by aliens true? This makes me wonder how much skepticism plays a role in suggesting something as valid science versus pseudoscience taking into consideration Sagan's above quote.


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