Carl Sagan’s Fallacy

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Carl Sagan (1934-1996) was an astronomer, planetary scientist, and eminent science popularizer in America during the middle-to-late 20th century.  While his undergraduate degrees were in physics and biographies label him an “astrophysicist,” he is seldom if ever referenced professionally by leading physicists of the late 20th and 21st century.

Aided by the power of mass media, Sagan became representative of a high caste of ‘priest-like’ authorities for philosophic naturalism, scientism, and technology.  His 1980 television series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage was broadcast in 60 nations to an estimated audience of 500 million and either shaped or confirmed an understanding about the universe for millions of viewers.  Mention the word “cosmos,” and most adults today immediately think “Carl Sagan.”

Born to a Reform Jewish family, Carl’s mother was a theist while his father was a religious skeptic.  It was the influence of his father who would largely mold the budding “scientist’s” worldview.  Later in life, Sagan would affirm “I’m an agnostic.”

The public is largely unaware that Carl Sagan’s conceptual model of the cosmos embraced the inherent metaphysical perspective of 17th century Sir Isaac Newton—that space and time were both absolutes and separate.  Despite his numerous contributions, Sagan unintentionally kept the public living in the past regarding the findings of modern theoretical physics.

Maybe because Sagan lack training in philosophy, like many, he never questioned his Newtonian frame of reference.

Sagan died in 1996, three years before another young science popularizer and theoretical physicist, Brian Greene (dba 2/9/63), would write and publish his first book, The Elegant Universe.  Greene’s goal was to educate society regarding Albert Einstein’s discoveries.

Listen to Sagan’s explanation about space, time, and the universe in the video below and see if you can identify his Newtonian perspective.  If you can’t, chances are you’ve inadvertently absorbed the same view and are living in the 19th century, scientifically speaking.

Brian Greene has written a total of four books engaged in the huge task of awakening the public to the discoveries of physics over the last century.  His books also contain the more speculative realms of superstring theory and related concept of multiverse.

“The classical Newtonian worldview was pleasing. Not only did it describe natural phenomena with striking accuracy, but the details of the description—the mathematics—aligned tightly with experience…classical (Newtonian) physics provided a rigorous grounding for human intuition.”

“However, during the late 19th and early 20th century, the classical conceptions of space, time, and reality–the ones that for hundreds of years had not only worked but also concisely expressed our intuitive sense of the world–were overthrown.”

“While struggling with puzzles involving electricity, magnetism, and light’s motion, Einstein realized that Newton’s conception of space and time, the cornerstone of classical physics, was flawed. Over the course of a few intense weeks in the spring of 1905, he determined that space and time are not independent and absolute, as Newton had thought, but are enmeshed and relative in a manner that flies in the face of common experience.  Some ten years later, Einstein hammered a final nail in the Newtonian coffin by rewriting the laws of gravitational physics. This time, not only did Einstein show that space and time are part of a unified whole, he also showed that by warping and curving they participate in cosmic evolution (change). Far from being the rigid, unchanging structures envisioned by Newton, space and time in Einstein’s reworking are flexible and dynamic.” The Fabric of the Cosmos, Brian Greene, Vintage, 2004, p.

Greene’s statement “our intuitive sense of the world—were overthrown” largely applies to the community of physicists, not the general public who sense little need to reject “common experience.”

Since naturalists, predisposed to evolutionary theory, more-or-less hold to Newton’s metaphysics rather than Einstein’s, it’s understandable why they never imagined the possibility that the cosmos could have been “stretched” into existence in a relatively short moment of time, rather than over the course of billions of years.

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