Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos”

I am currently watching Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos” on Netflix. I recall seeing bits and pieces of this throughout the 1980’s on PBS, but I was basically too young to follow it in great detail (I am only 38). It is a journey through intellectual history, with an emphasis on Astronomy and Physics, with a little Philosophy thrown in for good measure. I think that it is, overall, a very good series.

Episode 7, “The Backbone of Night” was an especially interesting episode since it seems to present a slightly different interpretation from how I have heard most Objectivists interpret the history of Ancient Greece, which tends to focus on Aristotle. Sagan agrees that the Ancient Greeks, especially the Ionians, were the birthplace of the scientific method of observation and experimentation. But, he goes on to say that there was another strand of thought running through Ancient Greece centered in Pythagoras, which deemphasized experimentation and observation in favor of “deduction”. (I think Sagan even used the word “deduction” to describe the Pythagoreans.) This ultimately led to a mystical world-view (or was based in a mystical world-view), which was expressed in the ideas of Plato. Interestingly, he even says that this Pythagorean worldview took reason out of the hands of the Ionian merchants and artisans –practical men concerned with ideas- and put it into the hands of the elite slaveholders, which was more consonant with the ownership of slaves. This was because the Pythagorean system emphasized the mind over the body, and “the body” was associated with the physical labor of the elite’s slaves. (I assume because the slaves would be viewed as less than fully rational manual laborers who merely used their bodies.)

Sagan then goes on to say that Plato’s ideas were basically adopted into Christianity. (Sagan hasn’t come out and said he’s an atheist, but he all but says so at various points in the series.) Sagan then essentially says that the early flowering of “expermentalism” in Ionia was suppressed by the Pythagoreans and later Plato, and that Aristotle was essentially no better than Plato. It wasn’t until the Enlightenment that the “Ionian world view” was rediscovered, or so says Sagan. What I found interesting is how much he deemphasized the philosophy of Aristotle in the episode be implying that it was just a sort of outgrowth of Plato. Possibly this is due to the fact that the Catholic Church adopted Aristotle after the Renaissance, along with the Aristotelian notion that the Earth was the center of the universe, although, in fairness, the notion that the Earth was the center of the universe predates Aristotle. This might lead most to believe that Aristotle is to blame for the troubles of Galileo, Copernicus, and various other natural philosophers near the Enlightenment era.

My understanding is that while Aristotle was a student of Plato, he was much more interested in experimentation and observation given his belief that the essences that form the basis of mental concepts exist in each concrete thing, rather than in some other realm. I am no expert in classical philosophy, but this is my general understanding. At any rate, the “Cosmos” series is extremely interesting, and I recommend that you watch it if you haven’t ever seen it.