Carl Sagan's Problems With Plato

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Aristotle, Plato, and Pythagoras are hailed as intellectual giants and great founders of scientific thought, and it would be difficult to deny them this lofty description. In the 500s BC, Pythagoras was one of the first to recognize that the Earth was a sphere, he came up with the term "cosmos" to describe the universe, and he laid the groundwork for mathematics. Plato subsequently formed Western philosophy as it is known today. His student, Aristotle, immersed himself in astronomy, biology, physics, and geology, and made bountiful observations in all those fields. He hypothesized, gathered data, and formed conclusions, though he never eactually performed experiments.

Yet despite the collective accomplishments of Pythagoras, Plato, and Aristotle, astrophysicist and legendary science communicator Carl Sagan was not a fan.

Democritus, ancient Greek philosopher.

The trio flourished during a time of great awakening on the Greek islands. At the same time, another less heralded Greek philosopher, Democritus, was making profound discoveries as well. He was the first to recognize that everything is made of of infinitesimally small parts with spaces between them – atoms. He advocated experiment, insisting that mere perception through the senses is insufficient to arrive at true knowledge.

"Pythagoras had a very different method. He believed that laws of nature can be deduced by pure thought. He and his followers... were thoroughgoing mystics," Carl Sagan said in Cosmos.

When Pythagoras and his ilk made discoveries that questioned their world views, they elected to suppress these findings rather than change their views. Obsessed with rational numbers and beautiful shapes, they explained everything through them, so the world, too, would be suffused with harmony. But when Pythagoras was confronted with the reality of irrational numbers (i.e. the square root of two), he and his followers shoved them aside.

They also purposefully crowded out and ridiculed other thinkers. Plato apparently disliked Democritus so much, he wished that all of his books would be burned.

"[Plato] believed that ideas were far more real than the natural world," Sagan said. "He advised the astronomers not to waste their time observing the stars and planets. It was better, he believed, just to think about them. Plato expressed hostility to observation and experiment. He taught contempt for the real world and disdain for the practical application of scientific knowledge."

Sagan recounted more reasons to dislike Plato, as well as his student Aristotle:

"Plato and Aristotle were comfortable in a slave society. They offered justifications for oppression. They served tyrants. They taught the alienation of the body from the mind... They separated thought from matter. They divorced the Earth from the Heavens, divisions which were to dominate Western thinking for more than twenty centuries.

After Plato's death, Aristotle did shift away from mysticism to empiricism, but not nearly enough. He never was a true experimenter like Democritus.

"They greatly advanced the cause of science," Sagan admitted, "but in the suppression of disquieting facts, the sense that science should be kept for a small elite, the distaste for experiment, the embrace of mysticism, the easy acceptance of slave societies, their influence has significantly set back the human endeavor."

In a subsequent episode of Cosmos, Sagan pondered on where humanity might be "if that light that had dawned on the Eastern Mediterranean some 2500 years ago had not flickered out."

"We might now I think be going to the stars. We might at this moment have the first survey ships returning with astonishing results from Alpha Centauri and Barnard's Star, Sirius and Tau Ceti. There would now be great fleets of interstellar transports constructed in Earth orbit, small unmanned survey ships, liners for immigrants perhaps, great trading ships to ply the spaces between the stars."

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