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

Image by NASA, via Wikimedia Commons

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

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

A Free Course on Dante’s Divine Comedy from Yale University

Over the years, we've featured the many drawings that have adorned the pages of Dante's Divine Comedy, from medieval times to modern. Illustrations by Botticelli, Gustave Doré, William Blake and Mœbius, they've all gotten their due. Less has been said here, however, about the actual text itself. Perhaps the most important work in Italian literature, Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) wrote the Divine Comedy (consisting of Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso) between the years 1308 and 1320. And that text is largely the subject of Dante in Translation, a free online course taught by Yale's Giuseppe Mazzotta. The course description reads as follows:

The course is an introduction to Dante and his cultural milieu through a critical reading of the Divine Comedy and selected minor works (Vita nuova, Convivio, De vulgari eloquentia, Epistle to Cangrande). An analysis of Dante's autobiography, the Vita nuova, establishes the poetic and political circumstances of the Comedy's composition. Readings of Inferno, Purgatory and Paradise seek to situate Dante's work within the intellectual and social context of the late Middle Ages, with special attention paid to political, philosophical and theological concerns. Topics in the Divine Comedy explored over the course of the semester include the relationship between ethics and aesthetics; love and knowledge; and exile and history.

You can watch the 24 lectures from the course above, or find them on YouTube and iTunes in video and audio formats. To get more information on the course, including the syllabus, visit this Yale website.

Primary texts used in this course include:

  • Dante. Divine Comedy. Translated by John D. Sinclair. New York: Oxford University Press, 1968.
  • Dante. Vita Nuova. Translated by Mark Musa. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1973.

Dante in Translation will be added to our list of Free Online Literature courses, a subset of our collection, 1,300 Free Online Courses from Top Universities.

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Related Content:

William Blake’s Last Work: Illustrations for Dante’s Divine Comedy (1827)

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Physics from Hell: How Dante’s Inferno Inspired Galileo’s Physics

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Why Time Seems to Speed Up as We Get Older: What the Research Says

No matter what age we've attained, we can think back to childhood and feel just how agonizingly long it then took for Christmas to come, for the school day to end, for a tray of cookies to come out of the oven. Mysterious as this apparent change in the speed of time may at first seem, it actually makes a kind of intuitive sense: one day represents, at the age of fifty, a tenth of the proportion of the time we've experienced so far than it does at the age of five. As our timeline lengthens, our perception of certain fixed units on that timeline — a minute, a year, a decade — shortens.

But there are other factors in play as well. "Individual perceptions of time are strongly influenced by our level of focus, physical state and mood," write The Independent's Muireann Irish and Claire O'Callaghan. "Just as 'a watched pot never boils,' when we are concentrating on an event, time occasionally appears to pass more slowly than usual. This is also the case when we’re bored; time can seem to drag endlessly." This might well contribute to the childhood perception of slow time, since kids have to spend so many of their days in the classroom, an environment that strikes most of them as expressly designed to induce boredom.




In addition, according to Scientific American, "our brain encodes new experiences, but not familiar ones, into memory, and our retrospective judgment of time is based on how many new memories we create over a certain period. In other words, the more new memories we build on a weekend getaway, the longer that trip will seem in hindsight." The relatively high frequency of distinctive memories created earlier in life and low frequency of distinctive memories created later in life means that "our early years tend to be relatively overrepresented in our autobiographical memory and, on reflection, seem to have lasted longer."

You can see some of the ideas and theories behind this almost universally agreed-on sense that time speeds up as we grow older in the video from the National Geographic Channel show Brain Games above. It also introduces a few new ones into the mix, connecting them all with how much energy the brain uses to record which kinds of experiences, suggesting that even a sense as fundamental as the one we use to mark time has a great deal more complexity to it than we understand. Ultimately, though, it all comes back to the words of no less a thinker on relativity than Albert Einstein: "Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it seems like a minute."

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Free Online Psychology & Neuroscience Courses

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Read Prince’s First Interview, Printed in His High School Newspaper (1976)

Two years before Prince released his first album For You and before he began his ascent into the funk-rock-pop pantheon, he was a very talented, very ambitious, and occasionally frustrated high school senior at Central High in Minneapolis. That’s where the school newspaper got him to sit for an interview, more of a character sketch, to talk about his hopes for a musical career. You can read it below.

If Prince was charismatic enough to be picked up on the high school paper’s radar, he doesn’t let it show in the article.

Mostly, he rues the location of his home town.




“I think it is very hard for a band to make it in this state, even if they’re good. Mainly because there aren’t any big record companies or studios in this state. I really feel that if we would have lived in Los Angeles or New York or some other big city, we would have gotten over by now.”

By the ‘80s, of course, he had made Minneapolis the center of his own musical empire, and Paisley Park became his home, compound, and music studio, the place where he would eventually pass away.

But he did like high school, according to him, because the music teachers let him do his own thing. Already a multi-instrumentalist, the article finds Prince just starting to explore singing. This might be the most surprising part of the piece. Prince’s range and the amount of character (and literally characters, male, female, or a mix) in his songs would lead you to believe that his voice came first.

Maybe some of the humility came from his status in the high school band. The name Grand Central was inspired by Prince’s obsession with Graham Central Station, whose bass player Larry Graham would later join Prince’s ‘90s band and also convert him to become a Jehovah’s Witness. Competing for attention was Morris Day and André Cymone, who Prince would write for and produce after he got his record contract. It was friendly but serious competition.

To round out the article, Prince—who plays by ear—gets asked if he has any advice for fellow students: “I advise anyone who wants to learn guitar to get a teacher unless they are very musically inclined. One should learn all their scales too. That is very important.”

You can read the full article below:

Nelson Finds It “Hard To Become Known”

“I play with Grand Central Corporation. I’ve been playing with them for two years,” Prince Nelson, senior at Central, said. Prince started playing piano at age seven and guitar when he got out of eighth grade.

Prince was born in Minneapolis. When asked, he said, “I was born here, unfortunately.” Why? “I think it is very hard for a band to make it in this state, even if they’re good. Mainly because there aren’t any big record companies or studios in this state. I really feel that if we would have lived in Los Angeles or New York or some other big city, we would have gotten over by now.”

He likes Central a great deal, because his music teachers let him work on his own. He now is working with Mr. Bickham, a music teacher at Central, but has been working with Mrs. Doepkes.

He plays several instruments, such as guitar, bass, all keyboards, and drums. He also sings sometimes, which he picked up recently. He played saxophone in seventh grade but gave it up. He regrets he did. He quit playing sax when school ended one summer. He never had time to practice sax anymore when he went back to school. He does not play in the school band. Why? “I really don’t have time to make the concerts.”

Prince has a brother that goes to Central whose name is Duane Nelson, who is more athletically enthusiastic. He plays on the basketball team and played on the football team. Duane is also a senior.

Prince plays by ear. “I’ve had about two lessons, but they didn’t help much. I think you’ll always be able to do what your ear tells you, so just think how great you’d be with lessons also,” he said.

“I advise anyone who wants to learn guitar to get a teacher unless they are very musically inclined. One should learn all their scales too. That is very important,” he continued.

Prince would also like to say that his band is in the process of recording an album containing songs they have composed. It should be released during the early part of the summer.

“Eventually I would like to go to college and start lessons again when I’m much older.”

via That Eric Alper

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Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the FunkZone Podcast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.

George Orwell Explains How “Newspeak” Works, the Official Language of His Totalitarian Dystopia in 1984

As we noted yesterday, and you likely noticed elsewhere, George Orwell’s classic dystopian novel 1984 shot to the top of the charts—or the Amazon bestseller list—in the wake of “alternative facts,” the latest Orwellian coinage for bald-faced lying. The ridiculous phrase immediately produced a barrage of parodies, hashtags, and memes; healthy ways of venting rage and disbelief. But maybe there is a danger there too, letting such words sink into the discourse, lest they become what Orwell called "Newspeak."

It’s easy to hear “Newspeak,” the “official language of Oceania,” as “news speak.” This is perfectly reasonable, but it gives us the impression that it relates strictly to its appearance in mass media. Orwell obviously intended the ambiguity---it is the language of official propaganda after all---but the portmanteau actually comes from the words “new speak”—and it has been created to supersede “Oldspeak,” Orwell writes, “or Standard English, as we should call it.”




In other words, Newspeak isn’t just a set of buzzwords, but the deliberate replacement of one set of words in the language for another. The transition is still in progress in the fictional 1984, but is expected to be completed “by about the year 2050.” Students of history and linguistics will recognize that this is a ludicrously accelerated pace for the complete replacement of one vocabulary and syntax by another. (We might call Orwell’s English Socialists “accelerationsts.”) Newspeak appears not through history or social change but through the will of the Party.

The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of Ingsoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible.

It's entirely plausible that “alternative facts,” or “altfacts,” would fit right into the “Ninth and Tenth Editions of the Newspeak Dictionary,” though it might easily fall out of favor and “be suppressed later.” No telling if it would make the cut for “the final, perfected version” of Newspeak, “as embodied in the Eleventh Edition of the Dictionary.”

These quotations come not from the main text of 1984 but from an appendix called “The Principles of Newspeak,” which you can hear read at the top of the post. Here, Orwell dispassionately discusses the “perfected” form of Newspeak, including its grammatical “peculiarities,” such as “an almost complete interchangeability between different parts of speech” (an issue current translators have encountered). He then introduces its vocabulary, divided into “three distinct classes," A, B, and C.

The A class contains “everyday life” words that have been mutated with cumbersome prefixes and intensifiers: “uncold” for warm, “pluscold and doublepluscold” for “very cold” and “superlatively cold.” The B class contains the compound words: sinister doublethink coinages like “joycamp (forced-labor camp)" and “Minipax (Ministry of Peace, i.e. Ministry of War).” These, Orwell explains, are similar to “the characteristic features of political language... in totalitarian countries” of the early 20th century.

The citizen of Oceania, Orwell tells us, must have "an outlook similar to that of the ancient Hebrew who knew, without knowing much else, that all nations other than his own worshipped 'false gods'.... His sexual life, for example, was entirely regulated by the two Newspeak words sexcrime (sexual immorality) and goodsex (chastity)." The latter included only "intercourse between man and wife, for the sole purpose of begetting children, and without physical pleasure on the part of he woman: all else was sexcrime."

The C class of words may be the most insidious of all. While it “consisted entirely of scientific and technical terms” that “resembled the scientific terms in use today,” the Party took care “to define them rigidly and strip them of undesirable meanings.” For example,

There was no vocabulary expressing the function of Science as a habit of mind, or a method of thought irrespective of its particular branches. There was, indeed, no word for ‘Science,’ any meaning that it could possibly bear being already sufficiently covered by the word Ingsoc.

Orwell then goes on to discuss the difficulty of translating the work of the past into Newspeak. He uses as an example the Declaration of Independence: “All mans are equal was a possible Newspeak sentence," but only in that "it expressed a palpable untruth---i.e. that all men are of equal size, weight, or strength.” As for the rest of Thomas Jefferson’s rousing preamble, “it would have been quite impossible to render this into Newspeak,” writes Orwell. “The nearest one could come to doing so would be to swallow the whole passage up in the single word crimethink.”

Related Content:  

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Huxley to Orwell: My Hellish Vision of the Future is Better Than Yours (1949)

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

81-Year-Old Man Walks into a Guitar Shop & Starts Playing a Sublime Solo: Ignore the Talents of the Elderly at Your Own Peril

Last spring, I caught a Who concert in Oakland, California, on what happened to be songwriter/guitarist Pete Townshend's 71st birthday. Five songs into their set, the band played "My Generation"--yes, the song best known for the line "I hope I die before I get old"--and I couldn't help but think: Townshend's playing with more inspiration now than when I first saw The Who play in 1982. Biologically, he's supposed to be over the hill. Musically, he's still playing a very fine rock guitar.

The same thought crossed my mind at Desert Trip, the October mega concert held in Indio, California. Featuring The Rolling Stones, The Who (again), Paul McCartney, Neil Young and Roger Waters--in short, musicians all over the age of 70--Desert Trip became more colloquially known as "Oldchella."




Even, Mick Jagger called it “the come and see us before we die tour." And yet. And yet. Despite the jokes, they're all still playing with verve, putting on tight, rousing shows. (I'll admit that Bob Dylan is the notable exception.)

So what's the takeaway? We can't stop the clock. Eventually, we get old. Nothing we can do about that. But if you've got your health, if you've got the desire, if you've spent decades refining your craft, then there's no reason you can't still do great work. That applies to musicians. (Witness 81-year-old Bob Wood above). It also applies to other parts of life, including our professional lives. Our culture hastily writes off the talents and accumulated experience of an entire generation of people. But stop for a second. Watch the video above and extrapolate it to other parts of life. Then think about all that gets needlessly lost.

Would you like to support the mission of Open Culture? Please consider making a donation to our site. It's hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us continue providing the best free cultural and educational materials to learners everywhere.

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Hear Jeremy Irons Read the Poetry of T.S. Eliot (Available for a Limited Time)

We may have come nearly to the end of January already, but we can still call 2017 a new year — at least until we've listened to the poetry of T.S. Eliot to properly ring it in. "There's surely no better poet than Eliot to help us confront the problem of finding meaning in a world where old certainties are being troubled," says Martha Kearney, host of BBC Radio 4's New Year's series celebrating his work.

"Our lives are so busy now that we need some help from the season to just take stock, both of where we've been and where we might like to go to," says the first episode's guest, novelist Jeanette Winterson. We need to inhabit "that inward moment that poetry's so good at," and that Eliot made entirely his own. The bulk of that broadcast comprises a reading of Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" by Jeremy Irons, surely one of the poet's ideal living interpreters. (Note: you can stream all of the episodes in the series here.)




Irons reads more in the second, which includes a discussion with Winterson and Anthony Julius, Chair of Law and the Arts and University College London, about the opening of "Gerontion" and the "ugly references" made in Eliot's other poems. The discussion in the third, in which Irons takes on Eliot's immortal "The Waste Land," looks for the source of the power of its "poetry of fragments" with former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams and Scots Makar (something like a Poet Laureate of Scotland) Jackie Kay.

"The Waste Land" continues as a subject in part four, as its guest, the actress Fiona Shaw, has drawn acclaim for her own reading of the poem, but the Irons section of the broadcast offers various other selections, including "The Hollow Men," "Ash Wednesday," and "Journey of the Magi." Finally, in part five, Kearney and Rory Stewart, Member of Parliament and man of letters, talk about and hear Irons deliver Eliot's "Four Quartets," whose language Stewart memorized on a walk through Nepal and which he later used during his political campaign.

This poetic, conversational, and performative radio feast comes to nearly four hours (listen to all of the episodes here), but you've got only the next six days to stream it. Otherwise you'll have to wait until Radio 4's next, as yet announced calendar-appropriate celebration of Eliot. They've used his work to refresh audiences after a troubling year; perhaps they'll use it again to get us through the cruelest month of this one.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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