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4 December, 2009

Just wanted to drop off a post of an essay I recently wrote for my psychology class.  It is actually… just a mini-essay, if even that.  But it has a familiar theme in it, if you know anything about me.


During my studying of our book “Exploring Psychology”, I noticed two references to Carl Sagan.  One was a direct quote and one was regarding a study on apes which cited a book by Sagan and his wife in regards the behavior of apes and the relationship to man.  I thought it was incredibly interesting that the highly renowned astronomer would be cited in the book not once but twice!  So I researched to find what I didn’t know about Carl Sagan and his relationship to psychology.

I’d like to give a little background on myself before I continue so that one can better understand my particular interest and view and, admittedly, bias.

I am a Humanist/Rationalist (in a similar vain to Isaac Asimov) and a member of the Long Now Foundation.  The Long Now hopes to provide a counterpoint to today’s “faster/cheaper” mind set and promote “slower/better” thinking – creatively fostering responsibility in the framework of the next 10,000 years.  Put more succinctly, we hope to get people out of their narrow and “short here” mind set and looking toward the distant future of humankind.  Certainly Carl Sagan’s ideas of the universe fit into a much bigger here and a much longer now for mankind.

I was semi-surprised to find that Sagan had as little to do with the science of behavior and mental processes as he did, considering that he’d been mentioned at all.  This being said, it makes complete sense that he would delve into the mind and the human condition.  As Sagan might have said, in our quest for the discovery of the cosmos, our search to know our place in the universe, it is important to first understand ourselves; why we are, what we are, and who we are.

In Dr. Sagan’s essay The Fine Art of Baloney Detection, we find a set of questions with a logical underpinning that encourage us to be skeptical and detect fact over “baloney” in science and truth, a concept relative to the Scientific Method.  “What skeptical thinking boils down to is the means to construct, and to understand, a reasoned argument and – especially important – to recognize a fallacious or fraudulent argument”, Sagan says.  The human mind wants things to be simple.  It wants realities to be non-complicated.  So it searches for patterns and the easy way out, which often leads to false science and supernatural beliefs.

But this condition is satisfactory to the majority of man.  They thus become people who directly experience only themselves here and now and often fail to consider, evaluate, and plan situations that are removed in time or space that pertain to others’ experiences, and that are hypothetical rather than real to them.  Carl Sagan stressed the concept throughout his work that it is important to transcend the present and mentally traverse temporal distance, spatial distance, social distance, and hypotheticality to imagine the possibilities of what our universe is capable of.  Does this mean we can’t come up with some half-brained theory about magic or UFO conspiracies or anything like that?  No.  But will it pass the Baloney Detector?  Will one give up to the truth once revealed?  Or will they hang on with a confirmation bias?

The argument exists that this ability to transcend the “short here”, the ego driven mindset of many today, is made possible by the human capacity for abstract processing of information.  Research shows that there is considerable similarity in the way people mentally traverse different distances, that the process of abstraction underlies traversing different distances, and that this process guides the way people predict, evaluate, and plan near and distant situations.  Sagan points out in his documentary film series “Cosmos” that the brain is a clear product of mammalian evolution.  That it is its own cosmos, in a way.  … And why should we be bound by our lower instincts when we are capable of so much more.  Indeed, “we are a way for the cosmos to know itself.”

Joseph Snodgrass 02009DEC04
Internet references include: (for Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos” series), (“The Fine Art of Baloney Detection” by Carl Sagan), (The Long Now Foundation)

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