Carl Sagan Predicts the Decline of America: Unable to Know “What’s True,” We Will Slide, “Without Noticing, Back into Superstition & Darkness” (1995)

in Psychology, Science | January 26th, 2017

There have been many theories of how human history works. Some, like German thinker G.W.F. Hegel, have thought of progress as inevitable. Others have embraced a more static view, full of “Great Men” and an immutable natural order. Then we have the counter-Enlightenment thinker Giambattista Vico. The 18th century Neapolitan philosopher took human irrationalism seriously, and wrote about our tendency to rely on myth and metaphor rather than reason or nature. Vico’s most “revolutionary move,” wrote Isaiah Berlin, “is to have denied the doctrine of a timeless natural law” that could be “known in principle to any man, at any time, anywhere.”

Vico’s theory of history included inevitable periods of decline (and heavily influenced the historical thinking of James Joyce and Friedrich Nietzsche). He describes his concept “most colorfully,” writes Alexander Bertland at the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “when he gives this axiom”:

Men first felt necessity then look for utility, next attend to comfort, still later amuse themselves with pleasure, thence grow dissolute in luxury, and finally go mad and waste their substance.

The description may remind us of Shakespeare’s “Seven Ages of Man.” But for Vico, Bertland notes, every decline heralds a new beginning. History is “presented clearly as a circular motion in which nations rise and fall… over and over again.”



Two-hundred and twenty years after Vico’s 1774 death, Carl Sagan—another thinker who took human irrationalism seriously—published his book The Demon Haunted World, showing how much our everyday thinking derives from metaphor, mythology, and superstition. He also foresaw a future in which his nation, the U.S., would fall into a period of terrible decline:

I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time — when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness…

Sagan believed in progress and, unlike Vico, thought that “timeless natural law” is discoverable with the tools of science. And yet, he feared “the candle in the dark” of science would be snuffed out by “the dumbing down of America…”

…most evident in the slow decay of substantive content in the enormously influential media, the 30 second sound bites (now down to 10 seconds or less), lowest common denominator programming, credulous presentations on pseudoscience and superstition, but especially a kind of celebration of ignorance…

Sagan died in 1996, a year after he wrote these words. No doubt he would have seen the fine art of distracting and misinforming people through social media as a late, perhaps terminal, sign of the demise of scientific thinking. His passionate advocacy for science education stemmed from his conviction that we must and can reverse the downward trend.

As he says in the poetic excerpt from Cosmos above, “I believe our future depends powerfully on how well we understand this cosmos in which we float like a mote of dust in the morning sky.”

When Sagan refers to “our” understanding of science, he does not mean, as he says above, a “very few” technocrats, academics, and research scientists. Sagan invested so much effort in popular books and television because he believed that all of us needed to use the tools of science: “a way of thinking,” not just “a body of knowledge.” Without scientific thinking, we cannot grasp the most important issues we all jointly face.

We’ve arranged a civilization in which most crucial elements profoundly depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces.

Sagan’s 1995 predictions are now being heralded as prophetic. As Director of Public Radio International’s Science Friday, Charles Bergquist recently tweeted, “Carl Sagan had either a time machine or a crystal ball.” Matt Novak cautions against falling back into superstitious thinking in our praise of Demon Haunted World. After all, he says, “the ‘accuracy’ of predictions is often a Rorschach test” and “some of Sagan’s concerns” in other parts of the book “sound rather quaint.”

Of course Sagan couldn’t predict the future, but he did have a very informed, rigorous understanding of the issues of twenty years ago, and his prediction extrapolates from trends that have only continued to deepen. If the tools of science education—like most of the country’s wealth—end up the sole property of an elite, the rest of us will fall back into a state of gross ignorance, “superstition and darkness.” Whether we might come back around again to progress, as Giambattista Vico thought, is a matter of sheer conjecture. But perhaps there’s still time to reverse the trend before the worst arrives. As Novak writes, “here’s hoping Sagan, one of the smartest people of the 20th century, was wrong.”

via Charles Bergquist

Related Content:

Carl Sagan Presents His “Baloney Detection Kit”: 8 Tools for Skeptical Thinking

Carl Sagan & the Dalai Lama Meet in 1991 and Discuss When Science Can Answer Big Questions Better Than Religion

An Introduction to Hegel’s Philosophy of History: The Road to Progress Runs First Through Dark Times

Philosopher Richard Rorty Chillingly Predicts the Results of the 2016 Election … Back in 1998

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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Comments (19)

  1. Bill W. says . . .
    January 26, 2017 / 6:11 am

    “Superstition and darkness?” In other words, Sagan believes America will become a God-fearing nation again, and is UPSET about it? That’s awesome if true! Can’t wait. Religion and science go hand-in-hand, but most booksmart people (like him, R.I.P.), lack the wisdom to know that, and why. God always wins!

  2. Jonathan Collins says . . .
    January 26, 2017 / 7:17 am

    This site has become a broken record. I guess chicken little is running this site now. I used to come here for informative articles, now it’s just a daily screed about how the US is hurtling towards the apaocolypse with the (fair and free) election of Donald Trump. Give it a rest! Please!

  3. Dan Colman says . . .
    January 26, 2017 / 8:24 am

    Jonathan,

    Feel free to spend your time elsewhere. No one is forcing you to visit.

    Dan (editor)

  4. CosmosTheInLost says . . .
    January 26, 2017 / 9:49 am

    Ahh, if Protestant America only valued the truth, rationality, and scientific rigor like the Catholic middle ages did:

    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/cosmostheinlost/2014/03/21/science-terrible-middle-ages/

  5. Joe C. says . . .
    January 26, 2017 / 10:01 am

    Really Bill you want to talk about God, how quaint. Let’s talk about Santa Claus too. When you talk about God fearing people I fear the stupidity of people like you, you mostly just want to ram your ridiculous beliefs down people’s throats.

  6. Luis says . . .
    January 26, 2017 / 10:40 am

    It is very hard to make predictions about what is going to happen, the political vision of the new president makes hard to reasoning about how good or bad are his decisions that target either people, companies and nation. For this I agree that we should give him a rest.

    At the same time, just in 4 days, I got shocked with some of the happenings we are seeing: environmental opinions and propaganda completely erased from public exposure; tweeter accounts censored; scientific research blocked from media. With all this happenings, I wounder were is the people common scene and conscience? I was raised in a society were concern’s of the public opinion, education, governments and authorities were spreading democratic values and pushing humanity to a better future. Now we see the nation that was leading this movement, the nation who started the most wars and conflicts in name of democratic values and fundamental rights, is censuring its own people.

  7. Joan Lane says . . .
    January 26, 2017 / 10:50 am

    Thank you for your informative and insightful article.

  8. Luis says . . .
    January 26, 2017 / 10:55 am

    If you are so wise, why being disrespectful with people instead of being polite and showing your reasons? Maybe you can change them. But I have question for you to think about. Have church ever proved the existence of God? No. And what about science? Have any scientist ever proved the non existence of God? I guess not… Who is right here?

  9. Marjorie Cunningham says . . .
    January 26, 2017 / 11:49 am

    The United States of America is on the verge of a new beginning, but I fear it’s going to be in a downward direction. Carl Sagan, a personal hero of mine, would shudder to see what’s happening in a country that has been rising for so many generations, and his prediction of descent into chaos may become all too real. To have a leader, who obtained office by dubious means, abolish and erase so many accomplishments that took years to gain is soul sickening, and we can only hope this insanity is temporary.

  10. Bill W. says . . .
    January 26, 2017 / 3:10 pm

    Little people use little words; besides, you atheists ram your unproven lack-of-belief ‘down OUR throats’ all the time too. Every time you step outside and admire the view, plants, animals, etc., that alone is all the proof you need of God’s Creation. Speaking of Sagan, do you believe alien-life may exist somewhere amongst the billions of stars? Yes? Then how can you completely count-out that an Intelligent God may also exist? That inconsistency of belief is illogical, and doesn’t employ Scientific Method. God is a variable, like it or not, as when trying to explain the unexplained, ALL theories must be taken into consideration before a conclusion is decided upon–even Carl will tell you that! Until then, keep believing that a mysterious explosion with no-known-cause made things so-perfect. God did it. How? He’s God, He can do anything; a mortal like you or me cannot even begin to second-guess the How or Why of His omnipotence. That would be arrogant and lacking in faith.

  11. Nancy Duggan says . . .
    January 26, 2017 / 3:49 pm

    I’m assuming it’s a typo, but “Two-hundred and fifty years after Vico’s 1774 death, Carl Sagan—another thinker who took human irrationalism seriously—published his book…” the math’s a little off.

  12. J.K. Bentley says . . .
    January 26, 2017 / 6:51 pm

    Sagan was a candle of light in our demon- and God-haunted night. Thank you for posting this. The fundamentalists are going to be more strident in their opposition to rational thought in the days ahead. I hope you can keep your site up, open, and educational.

  13. dave says . . .
    January 26, 2017 / 9:01 pm

    What are these dubious means are you referring to? I remember Trump won the Electoral College. Do you remember a different election. Or, as I think, you are a disappointed Obamaite.
    Also, what accomplishments? The bankrupting of this country? Or maybe the lowering of America’s respect in the eyes of the world? Could it be making the American military less effective and subject to insane social experiments?

    So far Trump is doing exactly what he promised in the campaign. Unlike every other politician EVER!
    It’s refreshing.

  14. Nathan says . . .
    January 26, 2017 / 9:05 pm

    Nihilistic future casting is something most atheists have in common. One can only assume that the lack of intellectual curiosity spawns images of dread and dark circumstances. However, Sagan’s fear of a services driven world was brought on by Clinton, Bush and Obama. The new brinkmanship in the US is in defence of craft and production happening at home. Wouldn’t this bring us closer to a community that understands the value of hard work and craft?

  15. John says . . .
    January 27, 2017 / 3:29 am

    well said Sir.

  16. Mike says . . .
    January 27, 2017 / 7:25 am

    Religion is what morons turn to when they don’t have the mental processing power to understand science. Aleluya!

  17. Jeffrey Spaulding says . . .
    January 27, 2017 / 7:26 am

    This article was likely posted with the intent that we think that Sagan was predicting Donald Trump’s election. It seems to me, however, that it could just as cogently be referring to the Left’s increasingly pronounced tendencies to ignore undesirable realities, and to repeatedly pronounce ideology in the hope that it will somehow turn into reality.

  18. Josh Jones says . . .
    January 27, 2017 / 10:28 am

    This article was posted with the intent that you draw your own conclusions. And there you go, you’ve done it!

  19. Ha says . . .
    February 1, 2017 / 7:13 am

    Dear Dave,

    “Also, what accomplishments?… Or maybe the lowering of America’s respect in the eyes of the world?”

    Whatever Obama accomplished, I really don’t think that he ever lowered the respect the rest of the world had for America to a level that Trump has done in, let’s see, less than a fortnight.

    Good luck to us all.

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