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Walker Percy and Carl Sagan—Part I
The title Lost in the Cosmos is meant to be a correction to Carl Sagan’s “splendid picture book” Cosmos, which Percy understands as a failed self-help book. Sagan aims to get our minds off our insignificant selves by getting it on the magnificence of the stars and planets. Every moment in scientific progress has been about the demotion of the place of man in the cosmos, until he becomes nothing more than an insignificant speck on a pale blue dot. So he has every reason to use his mind to take pleasure in losing himself in the wonders of the cosmos. In that sense, Sagan agrees with Socrates that the way of life of the scientist or philosopher (Socrates didn’t distinguish between the two) is “learning how to die” or getting over yourself, all the illusions you have about your personal significance.
Insofar as he is mind, his thoughts, the physicist says, correspond to the whole that is cosmos. And so, far from being lost, he lives at home in the cosmos. Sagan actually agrees with the philosopher Leo Strauss that the world, so understood, is the home of the human mind.
Insofar as he is body, he can lose himself in the species, and that’s why Sagan said that we conscious beings should abandon this planet and populate many others in what we can say is a sacred effort to keep the species around. Even this solar system isn’t species-safe; the sun that is the indispensable condition of all life has only maybe a million years to go.
Even though our planet and our solar system are far from reliable homes, we’re not, Sagan explains, really displaced persons. Far from being lost or all alone, we live as parts of a species.
No mind and no body need be anxious or homeless, and self-obsession and anxiety are based on misunderstandings of who we are as minds and bodies, misunderstandings we get from religion. It’s from religion that we get the untrue and needlessly alienating view that the cosmos—understood as a world of bodies understood by minds—is not our true home.
Percy himself sides with science against superstition, such as the ridiculous New Agey superstitions about UFOs, parapsychology, astrology, Wicca, transhumanism, Gaia, pantheism, undisciplined or sentimental Western (or eat, pray, love) mixture of Buddhism and Hinduism, flaky spirituality generally, and so forth prevalent in our post-Christian age. Percy adds, of course, that the popularizing scientists have a hard time explaining why the scientific discrediting of the personal, loving God has made our replacement superstitions especially silly forms of self-denial. The least we can say is what appears to be the sophisticated movement from religion (an organized community of belief) to spirituality (as in “the God within” or “the spirituality of running”) has hardly been good for real thought about who each of us is.
Americans these days are free to choose between the atheistic free thought and joyful wonder of the scientist about the world outside himself and the blind faith in the personal friend we have in Jesus of the fundamentalist, but it turns out many or most of them aren’t choosing either.
Percy observes that the dispute between scientific popularizers such as Sagan and the later New Atheists and “fundamentalists who believe God created the world six thousand years ago” is “enough to give both science and Christianity a bad name.” The scientists are certainly right to say that the fundamentalists are wrong to willfully deny what we can know through science. Percy adds that the fundamentalists do Christianity a misleading disservice by saying that what Christianity really teaches is incompatible with what we can really know through science.
The scientists are certainly right to say that evolution happened, but they’re wrong to say that some homogeneous theory of evolution can explain who we are. So they’re wrong to say the fact of evolution—viewed in light of what we can really see with our own eyes—rules out the possibility of personal creation. Percy writes with the faith that the self-correcting method of science can be an effective antidote to the pretentious and vulgar self-helpism of scientism.
It’s not so clear that Percy expects his book, by itself, to do much good for the fundamentalists at all. None of the significant characters in Percy’s novels is or was a fundamentalist. Jane Smith, the wonderfully realistic yet elusive scientist, wife, and mother in second fictional space odyssey in Lost in the Cosmos, is a Methodist (the relatively liberal, sophisticated, and not-so-angry form of southern Protestantism) who readily becomes a Catholic.
Percy speaks against scientism with science, and he speaks against fundamentalism with both science and theology, with theologians especially attuned to science such as Thomas, Pascal, and Kierkegaard. Actually, his advice to scientists is also to read those three guys with open minds to get over their self-indulgent prejudice about what Christianity is. His advice to fundamentalists is to do the same to get over their self-indulgent prejudice that they can know God easily by reading the Bible all alone and all by itself.
Nonetheless, when I speak at evangelical (not the same as fundamentalist, admittedly) colleges I quote Percy or shamelessly sample his arguments against their prejudice that they must choose between evolutionism and creationism, between two incompatible "worldviews." Evolution happened, I say! Get over it! But that’s not to say that it’s really scientific to believe that the reigning neo-Darwinian theories actually don't explain anywhere near completely who we are or what we’re supposed to do.
At sophisticated secular colleges I begin by asking how you square what you believe about evolution and what you believe about your personal autonomy. Do you really believe you have “a theory of man” that explains how “the autonomous chimp” came into being? Or a theory that explains who that being is and what that being in supposed to do, a theory that reconciles what the Darwinians say about “the eusocial animal” and what the feminists and transhumanists say about not being determined by our bodily instincts?
My real experience—despite the self-correcting mechanisms of the scientific method—is that secularists get more angry with me than the fundamentalists. The latter actually love to argue—in the service of truth and love—more.
Well, that’s enough for now. What comes next is Percy’s question “Why is Carl Sagan so lonely?” The physicist may be able to tell us all about the cosmos, but that doesn’t mean he can really integrate himself in the world he describes.
A man's skeleton, found facedown with his hands bound, was unearthed near an ancient ceremonial circle during a high speed rail excavation project.
- A skeleton representing a man who was tossed face down into a ditch nearly 2,500 years ago with his hands bound in front of his hips was dug up during an excavation outside of London.
- The discovery was made during a high speed rail project that has been a bonanza for archaeology, as the area is home to more than 60 ancient sites along the planned route.
- An ornate grave of a high status individual from the Roman period and an ancient ceremonial circle were also discovered during the excavations.
Foul play?<p>A skeleton representing a man who was tossed face down into a ditch nearly 2,500 years ago with his hands bound in front of his hips was dug up during a high speed rail excavation.</p><p>The positioning of the remains have led archaeologists to suspect that the man may have been a victim of an ancient murder or execution. Though any bindings have since decomposed, his hands were positioned together and pinned under his pelvis. There was also no sign of a grave or coffin. </p><p>"He seems to have had his hands tied, and he was face-down in the bottom of the ditch," <a href="https://www.livescience.com/iron-age-murder-victim-england.html" target="_blank">said archaeologist Rachel Wood</a>, who led the excavation. "There are not many ways that you end up that way."</p><p>Currently, archaeologists are examining the skeleton to uncover more information about the circumstances of the man's death. Fragments of pottery found in the ditch may offer some clues as to exactly when the man died. </p><p>"If he was struck across the head with a heavy object, you could find a mark of that on the back of the skull," Wood said to <a href="https://www.livescience.com/iron-age-murder-victim-england.html" target="_blank">Live Science</a>. "If he was stabbed, you could find blade marks on the ribs. So we're hoping to find something like that, to tell us how he died."</p>
Other discoveries at Wellwick Farm<p>The grim discovery was made at Wellwick Farm near Wendover. That is about 15 miles north-west of the outskirts of London, where <a href="https://www.hs2.org.uk/building-hs2/hs2-green-corridor/" target="_blank">a tunnel</a> is going to be built as part of a HS2 high-speed rail project due to open between London and several northern cities sometime after 2028. The infrastructure project has been something of a bonanza for archaeology as the area is home to more than 60 ancient sites along the planned route that are now being excavated before construction begins. </p><p>The farm sits less than a mile away from the ancient highway <a href="http://web.stanford.edu/group/texttechnologies/cgi-bin/stanfordnottingham/places/?icknield" target="_blank">Icknield Way</a> that runs along the tops of the Chiltern Hills. The route (now mostly trails) has been used since prehistoric times. Evidence at Wellwick Farm indicates that from the Neolithic to the Medieval eras, humans have occupied the region for more than 4,000 years, making it a rich area for archaeological finds. </p><p>Wood and her colleagues found some evidence of an ancient village occupied from the late Bronze Age (more than 3,000 years ago) until the Roman Empire's invasion of southern England about 2,000 years ago. At the site were the remains of animal pens, pits for disposing food, and a roundhouse — a standard British dwelling during the Bronze Age constructed with a circular plan made of stone or wood topped with a conical thatched roof.</p>
Ceremonial burial site<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzMTk0Ni9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NDgwNTIyMX0.I49n1-j8WVhKjIZS_wVWZissnk3W1583yYXB7qaGtN8/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C82%2C0%2C83&height=700" id="44da7" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="46cfc8ca1c64fc404b32014542221275" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="top down view of coffin" data-width="1245" data-height="700" />
A high status burial in a lead-lined coffin dating back to Roman times.
Photo Credit: HS2<p>While these ancient people moved away from Wellwick Farm before the Romans invaded, a large portion of the area was still used for ritual burials for high-status members of society, Wood told Live Science. The ceremonial burial site included a circular ditch (about 60 feet across) at the center, and was a bit of a distance away from the ditch where the (suspected) murder victim was uncovered. Additionally, archaeologists found an ornately detailed grave near the sacred burial site that dates back to the Roman period, hundreds of years later when the original Bronze Age burial site would have been overgrown.</p><p>The newer grave from the Roman period encapsulated an adult skeleton contained in a lead-lined coffin. It's likely that the outer coffin had been made of wood that rotted away. Since it was clearly an ornate burial, the occupant of the grave was probably a person of high status who could afford such a lavish burial. However, according to Wood, no treasures or tokens had been discovered. </p>
Sacred timber circle<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzMTk0Ny9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY2MDAwOTQ4Mn0.eVJAUcD0uBUkVMFuMOPSgH8EssGkfLf_MjwUv0zGCI8/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C149%2C0%2C149&height=700" id="9de6a" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ee66520d470b26f5c055eaef0b95ec06" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="An aerial view of the sacred circular monument." data-width="1245" data-height="700" />
An aerial view of the sacred circular monument.
Photo Credit: HS2<p>One of the most compelling archaeological discoveries at Wellwick Farm are the indications of a huge ceremonial circle once circumscribed by timber posts lying south of the Bronze Age burial site. Though the wooden posts have rotted away, signs of the post holes remain. It's thought to date from the Neolithic period to 5,000 years ago, according to Wood.</p><p>This circle would have had a diameter stretching 210 feet across and consisted of two rings of hundreds of posts. There would have been an entry gap to the south-west. Five posts in the very center of the circle aligned with that same gap, which, according to Wood, appeared to have been in the direction of the rising sun on the day of the midwinter solstice. </p><p>Similar Neolithic timber circles have been discovered around Great Britain, such as one near <a href="https://bigthink.com/culture-religion/stonehenge-sarsens" target="_blank">Stonehenge</a> that is considered to date back to around the same time. </p>
Being skeptical isn't just about being contrarian. It's about asking the right questions of ourselves and others to gain understanding.
- It's not always easy to tell the difference between objective truth and what we believe to be true. Separating facts from opinions, according to skeptic Michael Shermer, theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss, and others, requires research, self-reflection, and time.
- Recognizing your own biases and those of others, avoiding echo chambers, actively seeking out opposing voices, and asking smart, testable questions are a few of the ways that skepticism can be a useful tool for learning and growth.
- As Derren Brown points out, being "skeptical of skepticism" can also lead to interesting revelations and teach us new things about ourselves and our psychology.
New study suggests the placebo effect can be as powerful as microdosing LSD.
- New research from Imperial College London investigated the psychological effects of microdosing LSD in 191 volunteers.
- While microdosers experienced beneficial mental health effects, the placebo group performed statistically similar to those who took LSD.
- Researchers believe the expectation of a trip could produce some of the same sensations as actually ingesting psychedelics.
Psychedelics: The scientific renaissance of mind-altering drugs<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="92360c805fe66c11de38a75b0967f417"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/5T0LmbWROKY?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>For the study published in eLife, the team recruited 191 citizen cosmonauts to microdose either LSD or a placebo over the course of several weeks and note the psychological effects. Volunteers were already microdosing LSD, so there was no true control. Each volunteer was given instructions on creating their own low-dose gel capsules, some containing LSD, others not. Then they mixed the capsules in envelopes so they didn't know if they were taking the real thing or not.</p><p>The trial design was ingenious: each capsule featured a QR code that was scanned after the addition of ingredients but before they were placed in the envelope so that researchers knew what they were ingesting.</p><p>The problem: volunteers sourced their own LSD. Lack of quality control could have had a profound effect on the results. </p><p>The results: LSD microdosers reported feeling more mindful, satisfied with life, and better overall; they also noticed a reduction in feelings of paranoia. </p><p>The catch: the control group felt the same thing, with no statistical difference between the groups. </p><p>Lead author Balázs Szigeti comments on the findings: "This suggests that the improvements may not be due to the pharmacological action of the drug but can instead be explained by the placebo effect." </p>
Credit: Alexander / Adobe Stock<p>Psychedelics are notoriously difficult to control for given the intensity of the experience. Yet there is precedent for the above findings. A <a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00213-020-05464-5" target="_blank">2019 study</a> found that 61 percent of volunteers that took a placebo instead of psilocybin felt some psychedelic effects, with a few volunteers experiencing full-on trips.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Several stated that they saw the paintings on the walls 'move' or 'reshape' themselves, others felt 'heavy. . . as if gravity [had] a stronger hold', and one had a 'come down' before another 'wave' hit her."</p><p>The Imperial team believes the expectation of a trip might have been enough to produce similar results. Senior author David Erritzoe is excited for future studies on the topic, believing they tapped into a new wave of citizen science that could push forward our knowledge of psychedelic substances.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Accounting for the placebo effect is important when assessing trends such as the use of cannabidiol oils, fad diets or supplements where social pressure or users' expectations can lead to a strong placebo response. Self-blinding citizen science initiatives could be used as an inexpensive, initial screening tool before launching expensive clinical studies."</p><p>As investments into the psychedelics market explode, with one company <a href="https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-03-03/thiel-backed-magic-mushroom-firm-atai-hits-2-billion-valuation" target="_blank">reaching a $2 billion valuation</a>, a recurring irony appears in the long arc of psychedelics and research: the power of our minds might be enough to feel greater life satisfaction and a deeper sense of mindfulness. If that's possible with a placebo, we have to question why the rush to create more pharmacology is necessary. </p><p>This is, mind you, a separate conversation over the role of psychedelics and rituals for group bonding. The function of group cohesion around consciousness-altering substances will continue to play an important role in many communities. </p><p>Of course, we should continue to explore the efficacy of psychedelics on anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, PTSD, and addiction. <a href="https://bigthink.com/surprising-science/antidepressant-effects" target="_self">Pharmacological dependence</a> is a stain on the psychiatry industry. Whether or not psychedelics can be prescribed for daily use remains to be seen, but we know a moneyed interest is expecting a return on investment—the above company, ATAI Life Sciences, raised $157 million in its Series D round. </p><p>When it comes to wellbeing, some things money just can't buy. How we navigate the tricky terrain of mainstreaming psychedelics remains to be seen. </p><p>--</p><p><em>Stay in touch with Derek on <a href="http://www.twitter.com/derekberes" target="_blank">Twitter</a> and <a href="https://www.facebook.com/DerekBeresdotcom" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Facebook</a>. His most recent book is</em> "<em><a href="https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B08KRVMP2M?pf_rd_r=MDJW43337675SZ0X00FH&pf_rd_p=edaba0ee-c2fe-4124-9f5d-b31d6b1bfbee" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy</a>."</em></p>