A couple months ago I watched the first episode of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, in which Sagan introduced the series.

Some of Sagan’s statements stand out to me. He says “because the cosmos is also within us we’re made of star stuff.” He also says the “same laws of physics apply everywhere throughout the cosmos.”  [My quotations from the show are paraphrases, but I’ve tried to relate them as accurately as possible]. Toward the end of the episode, he warns us:

We can enhance life and come to know the universe that made us or we can squander our 15 billion year heritage in meaningless self-destruction.

Those statements represent to me a faith-like or religious-like approach to the universe. He employs a metaphor that is probably meant to inspire awe. We are made of matter–atoms and other things–but he renders “matter” as “star stuff.” The same laws apply everywhere. The corollary is that if they do not appear to apply everywhere, then we just haven’t discovered the right laws, or we haven’t discovered all the laws, or we have formulated the laws incorrectly. Life is assumed to be a good thing. It is a “heritage,” 15 billion years in the making, much richer than if it had been merely 10,000 years in the making. It’s possible for us to “squander” those good things and if we do, then the resulting self-destruction is “meaningless,” much worse, I guess, than a self-destruction that is meaningful.

Those statements represent certain values and starting assumptions that are not easily answered by Sagan’s approach to the Cosmos. He has to make certain leaps–not “leaps of faith” exactly but leaps nonetheless–to assume that “the same laws of physics” apply everywhere. He entertains certain values about what causes wonder and awe and expresses those values through the “star stuff” metaphors. And he also has certain values about good (“life” and “our” 15-billion year “heritage”) and about what is meaningful and meaningless, presuming that meaninglessness itself is a bad, or at least discomfiting (and therefore bad) thing.

I risk committing an error here. It’s one thing to point out that awe exists, that people speak in metaphors, that people have values, even values not easily reducible to a materialistic view of the universe or values not testable by a process we can call “scientific.” It’s another thing to take it too far, to say that because those statements are “faith-like” or “religious-like” in some ways, they are therefore expressions of something that can be answered only by or derived from faith or religion. The error is to say “gotcha” when all Sagan is guilty of is holding complicated views.

And yet there is a disjuncture in Cosmos among the scientific values, the materialist values, and the set of values that are not testable by science or not easily reducible to Sagan’s materialist assumptions. It’s worth pointing out that disjuncture if only to understand why some people are uneasy about Sagan’s project and to understand that this discomfort is not merely an expression of anti-scientific or anti-intellectual angst.


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47 Responses to Why “star stuff”? Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, episode 1

  1. RTod says:

    It’s nice to see someone approach Comsos without the assumption that the only question we should ask is how loudly we should sing its praises. That being said, I’d probably make three points in its defense here:

    1. Cosmos wasn’t really made for people who are really into science; in fact quite the opposite. It was made for people who thought science boring and uninteresting. That it reached outside of the cold industry vocabulary in hopes of doing that seems a feature rather than a bug.

    2. As to “we can squander our 15 billion year heritage in meaningless self-destruction,” its worth remembering that when Sagan made Cosmos the Big Existential Bad we all feared wasn’t the surprise execution of hundreds at the hand of Islamic fundamentalists, it was mutual (and possible total) annihilation due to nuclear war. It’s hard to understand these days, but back then it was a real and palpable anxiety.

    3. Finally, I’ll stick up for “star stuff.” Poetry and science should be allowed to coexist, without us having to choose one or the other.

    • I don’t really disagree with most of that, especially your point #2 (which is still a legitimate fear, even though not as often talked about).

      But as for #1, I do think there’s an “argument” (for lack of a better word) to Cosmos that’s not entirely benign. Yes, the show designed to show introduce science to those who aren’t scientists. But it’s also a brief for a worldview that has merits but also it’s own weaknesses.

      • Brandon Berg says:

        I don’t think total nuclear annihilation was never a real possibility, though certainly it could have done a lot of damage and sry civilization back centuries. Arguably we face a much greater danger now, from biological and nanotech weapons. Calling it now: It will one day become possible for one person to engineer a pathogen. When that happens, humanity is screwed.

        • Oscar Gordon says:

          Been reading John Ringo’s Black Tide series, Brandon?

        • Michael Cain says:

          Not too long back Charlie Stross posed a question on his blog about possible reasons that (apparently) no civilization in our galaxy has built von Neumann probes. My own thought was that a species-destroying virus is a much easier technical problem than building a self-replicating spaceship that’s durable enough to reach nearby stars. Or at least a civilization-killing virus, and the second time you try for high tech it’s a lot harder without easy fossil fuels.

  2. greginak says:

    That we are made of “star stuff” is, while poetic, the current understanding of how the universe works. It’s the truth ( or as much as science can understand). All the basic elements were either made in stars or in supernova. It is also seems to be true that the laws of physics are the same throughout the universe. Those are essentially facts unless some new physics comes along to replace what we now know.

    • But it’s also a trivial fact, no? We could say we’re all made of matter, or we’re all made of elements. I think Sagan was going for an evocative image and not simply intending on relating the bare facts of the matter.

      • Errrgh….I guess I shouldn’t have called it a “trivial” fact. I’m not sure what word I was looking for.

        • greginak says:

          Not sure i see it as trivial. It is certainly not obvious. It would only be known to the general pop through science education, which Cosmos was. It is a true fact expressed well that many people have and still do find amazing. The point of the show was to explain all sorts of cool science in an entertaining and captivating manner. If he botched the science to make a good image i can see a place to criticize that.

        • Well, I’m certainly not arguing he botched the science. (And I probably wouldn’t know if he did.)

      • Brandon Berg says:

        The implication he was trying to get across is that everything is special because it’s star-stuff. But another, arguably more rational, interpretation is that star-stuff isn’t all that special and is actually pretty mundane.

        • greginak says:

          I think he was explaining something that wasn’t well known then. It isn’t even well known now and when i’ve told people about i have to get some handiwipes since it blows their minds. Lots of people find it an incredibly cool thing.

        • Perhaps I’m giving short shrift to the revelation that the elements that make us up were made by stars. So, I guess I can see how that’s not well- or widely-known. (I would be surprised, however, if people today haven’t at least heard of the Big Bang. They might not know about the Big Bang creating the hydrogen that coalesced into stars and the stars creating the other elements–if I grok the point right–but they probably have heard of this big whatever that allegedly started it all.)

          Still, and probably unsurprisingly, I think Brandon has a point. Sagan seems to want “we’re made of star stuff” to evoke wonder, and it evidently does in the people Greginak has told that to. And as a cool fact that others may not know but now know thanks to Cosmos, well, I guess I have to concede that. But if everything is made by stars, why must it be important that we are made by stars, too?

        • Oscar Gordon says:

          You should read some of his other work.

        • Michael Drew says:

          But if everything is made by stars, why must it be important that we are made by stars, too?

          Why is it it any way important to avoid bringing attention to it? It;s in keeping with the thrust of the way science has infected with human self-conception during the last so many hundred years: increasing understanding of how we;re not apart from, more than, or above Nature, but are simply of it – we are simply more Nature. That was the reason for the panicked reaction to heliocentrism, to Darwin, to Sagan’s idea here, and to the notion that consciousness is roughly mechanistically explainable. The stuff in us has been in stars before, and will be again: the universe cycles through.

          That is part and parcel of a particular worldview. (I’m struggling to understand what the problem is if Cosmos contains a brief for a particular worldview – does it pretend not to in some way? (See my comment below.).) And it can certainly be argued with on the merits, i.e. it might be wrong for all I know. But I don’t see how it’s not an interesting enough idea to merit some sustained attention, and if it’s true, some wonder (perhaps enough to justify waxing a bit poetic in a piece designed to provoke popular interest in the subject matter).

        • Michael Drew says:

          infected = intersected

        • (I’m struggling to understand what the problem is if Cosmos contains a brief for a particular worldview – does it pretend not to in some way?…) And it can certainly be argued with on the merits, i.e. it might be wrong for all I know. But I don’t see how it’s not an interesting enough idea to merit some sustained attention,….

          I do think it deserves sustained attention, and I don’t really argue with the facts behind it. For all I know, Sagan is right that we’re made of “star stuff.”

          I don’t have a problem with the fact that Sagan’s series has and promotes a worldview. It would hardly be interesting if it didn’t. I am in this post, however, trying to point out some limits to that worldview that aren’t apparent or are in my opinion little remarked upon when people talk about the series.

          (As an aside, I think people here are getting a little stuck on my reference to “star stuff.” Sagan’s use of the term is one of my points (and it’s referred to in the title), so I can’t particularly blame them. But it’s not the only thing I’m talking about.)

        • Michael Drew says:

          You allude to it a bit, but let’s just be straight about it. It seems like you’re advancing a common critique of materialist world views wherein there is supposedly some internal contradiction (in the denial of God) if they evince feelings of awe and mystery about the universe.

          I guess if that’s what you’re doing, and you come pretty code to just describing it that way yourself, then that’s what you’re doing.

        • “You should read some of his other work.”

          I’ve read (err, skimmed) Varieties of Scientific Experience several years ago. But since I don’t remember what I took from it, maybe I should read it again, not to mention read some of his other stuff.

        • It seems like you’re advancing a common critique of materialist world views wherein there is supposedly some internal contradiction (in the denial of God) if they evince feelings of awe and mystery about the universe

          That is very close to what I’m doing but I haven’t put it in those terms mostly because I want to hedge a bit. I don’t really believe that feeling awe, joy, and wonder contardict a materialist worldview.* And I certainly don’t think those feelings by themselves necessarily imply the existence of god. But I do think they’re not easily explainable by that view and I do believe that Sagan tries to elide the difficulty.

          Which….is probably what you’re saying I’m saying. It’s bad for people to hedge in their writing–it’s not honest and not particularly responsible–and I am hedging.

          *And I am heeding ppnl’s critique of my use of the term “materialist” below. I’ve offered a definition of what I mean, but I’m not comfortable with it and need to think more about his or her point.

        • oscar.gordon says:

          So, if I have this right, you are basically being critical because Sagan is employing philosophical rhetoric to engage the uninformed in matters of scientific interest, and you find that hypocritical(?) because Sagan is vocally opposed to the more mystical (for lack of a better word) descriptors?

          In short, awe at the wonders of the natural universe should be limited to those who believe in a supernatural universe?

        • So, if I have this right, you are basically being critical because Sagan is employing philosophical rhetoric to engage the uninformed in matters of scientific interest, and you find that hypocritical(?) because Sagan is vocally opposed to the more mystical (for lack of a better word) descriptors?

          In short, awe at the wonders of the natural universe should be limited to those who believe in a supernatural universe?

          Sorry for my delay in answering, Oscar, I just now noticed this comment.

          I think that gets at what I’m objecting to, maybe with the added proviso that Sagan not only seems to be arguing that awe, etc., should be limited to the natural universe, but also that one of the arguments in Cosmos is that it should be so limited.

          I should say I’m uneasy with my own proviso, though. I don’t think Sagan would call the natural universe “limited” at all. He’d probably say some combination of “there’s so much more to explore” and “the natural universe in principle might be unlimited.” For the latter, I’m thinking of things like the multi-verse hypothesis, although I forget if Sagan engaged that in the series. (I’ll find out, though, if I watch the other episodes.)

    • Oscar Gordon says:

      Let’s also keep in mind he was an Astronomer and about to talk in great detail about the stars, planets, and all the other bits & bobs out there. Telling the audience that they are made of “Star Stuff” is a nice way to build a connection between the audience who is arguably ignorant & the material about to be discussed.

      If he succeeds in planting the idea in your head that you are built from the matter forged in the heart of a star, then you now have something of an investment in learning more about where you come from, and who doesn’t enjoy learning a bit about their history?

  3. ppnl says:

    I remember many years ago talking to a cousin and slowly coming to realize that he didn’t know that the stars were other suns. That was before the time Sagan was doing his series. Maybe a little earlier.

    The experience really changed my view of the world. I began to understand that some people seem to live in a world without poetry or curiosity. Muggles? So I’m all for a little poetry and am not sure what you are objecting to.

    I think Sagan first used the “star stuff” quote in 1973 in “Cosmic Connection” but references to us as star stuff goes back to the early 1900s.

    • I’m not really objecting to his use of “star stuff” or to his project of teach people about astronomy and the history of science. I’m trying to point out, though, that Sagan chooses to rely (must rely?) on statements of value that are not scientific or not easily reducible to what I see as his materialist worldview.

      I’m not saying those statements are therefore wrong or the cause in which they are made is unworthy (I personally don’t think we should squander human civilization on nuclear war, either). But I point them out because I see part of what Sagan doing as trying to delegitimate non-scientific and non-materialist views of the world.

      (It’s hard to get all that from episode 1. I make no promises, but I’m going to try to review the other episodes and point out what I mean. Who knows, maybe after revisiting the rest of the series, I’ll find I was at least a little mistaken in my recollection of what Sagan does.)

      • I fear I’ve just caught myself in a contradiction here. I say I’m not objecting to Sagan’s “project” and yet say I bring all this up because “part of” his project is to try “to delegitimate non-scientific and non-materialists views of the world.”

        So I guess I am objecting to his project, or more accurately part of it.

      • ppnl says:

        ” But I point them out because I see part of what Sagan doing as trying to delegitimate non-scientific and non-materialist views of the world. ”

        It seems to me that you have a stunted view of what a scientific and materialistic world view is. If a materialistic world view rejected all poetry, passion and joy then it wouldn’t be of much value to me. I find joy is exploration, discovery and understanding.

        The problem with “non-materialistic” is that you can’t even define what it means in any intellectually useful sense. There is literally nothing there to understand.

        • I’ll have to think on that, ppnl.

          I guess by “materialistic,” I mean the claim that only matter exists and everything else is epiphenomenal to matter. By “non-materialistic,” I mean the claim that something exists beyond matter.

          Still, I’m not sure how far that gets me. It’s probably a caricature of what you (and Sagan) believe. So that’s why I’ll have to think more about what I’m saying.

          As for “scientific,” I mean “that which is falsifiable.” I don’t think that “scientific” is bad, just that some of what Sagan says is non-scientific. Even then, maybe I’m caricaturing his views, or trying to pigeonhole him as someone who believes that only that which is “scientific” has value. I’m probably mistaken to the extent I’m doing that.

        • ppnl says:

          ” I guess by “materialistic,” I mean the claim that only matter exists and everything else is epiphenomenal to matter. By “non-materialistic,” I mean the claim that something exists beyond matter. ”

          Yeah, you are going to have to do better than that. First of all matter particles only make up part of what exists. You also have field particles such as light and gravitatons. And how about energy? Does it exist? And there may be many things that exist that isn’t matter that we just don’t know about yet.

          The key point is not that it is matter but that it is explorable, understandable and testable. Materialists would gladly believe in ghosts if you could obtain samples of ectoplasm on demand.

          ” As for “scientific,” I mean “that which is falsifiable.” ”

          Well yes but you have to understand why. consider Feynman’s first principle:

          “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.”

          If something is not falsifiable or in some way testable then there is no barrier to fooling yourself. There is no way to reason about it in any useful way. That does not prove that it does not exist it only means that its existence has no consequence.

          ” I don’t think that “scientific” is bad, just that some of what Sagan says is non-scientific. ”

          “We are star stuff” isn’t non-scientific. It may be stated poetically but it is nevertheless a true fact. If you think you can steal all poetry and passion from materialists then you have a long fight ahead of you.

        • Michael Drew says:

          Guys, relax.

          “Materialism” is not a controversial term to use to describe the idea that Gabriel is expelling. It’s a philosophical term of art that Gabriel is using pretty much perfectly. Whether the world is all matter, or matter-energy, or some matter and some energy, or whatever, Materialism refers to the idea that the world all That Stuff, and not at all Other Stuff, Spirit Stuff etc. I.e. Not-Dualism.

          ppnl is, I think, right to say that that means it’s all theoretically investigable through science in some sense. But then that gets into the problem of what is the definition/limit on what “science” can or does consist of as a mode of exploration. We don’t really need to go down that road just to settle on the term. The term is well-settled as a philosophical label.

          Just relax on this one, folks. The meaning of “materialism” here is pretty well-settled and not controversial. Gabriel is on firm found.

        • Michael Drew says:

          exploring

        • I guess I shouldn’t have said “matter.” I like your definition better (“that it is explorable, understandable and testable”).

          But as for this:

          Materialists would gladly believe in ghosts if you could obtain samples of ectoplasm on demand.

          I’m not so sure. If there were such a thing as ectoplasm samples, then they wouldn’t be ghosts.

          “We are star stuff” isn’t non-scientific. It may be stated poetically but it is nevertheless a true fact. If you think you can steal all poetry and passion from materialists then you have a long fight ahead of you.

          I think it’s non-scientific in the sense that there are things in addition to science, and “we are star stuff” mixes the scientific fact that we are star stuff with the poetic expression. It doesn’t mean the poetic expression or metaphors are bad or that scientists shouldn’t use them, it just means that there’s more to it than only science.

          (By the way, it’s good that you’re challenging me on this. These are things I need to think over more than I have and you’re forcing me to do so.)

        • Thanks, Michael. It’s probably obvious that I haven’t much training (i.e., I haven’t done more than take a few introductory classes) as a scientist or as a philosopher.

          I do think ppnl is right to challenge me, even though I think I disagree with him/her. The reason: I should be as precise as possible, and if I use a term clumsily, he’s right to call me on it.

          At the same time, I really do appreciate your charitable reading of what I’ve been saying here (even if you don’t agree with my takeaway). Your grokking of how I’m using “materialism” matches well with what I’m trying to say.

        • ppnl says:

          ” I’m not so sure. If there were such a thing as ectoplasm samples, then they wouldn’t be ghosts. ”

          Yeah, that’s the problem isn’t it? Ghosts must be defined negatively. They are defined by what they aren’t instead of what they are. They cannot be matter energy or any other quantifiable entity. There can’t be samples of ectoplasm to pass between labs for doing tests because then it wouldn’t really be ghosts.

          But that’s epistemological insanity. How can you insist that they exist if you deny that logic reason and evidence is applicable to them? And in the end that is all materialism is.

          ” think it’s non-scientific in the sense that there are things in addition to science, and “we are star stuff” mixes the scientific fact that we are star stuff with the poetic expression. ”

          There is nothing unscientific about poetry. There is nothing unscientific about joy, love or passion. All of these are high level descriptions of phenomena that can be explained at lower levels of physchology, neuroscience, chemistry and ultimately physics.

        • I think we’re at an impasse, or at least I am. So I’m going to leave the conversation.

          I’m just not ready to concede my argument, but I am acknowledging that I don’t know how to answer what you’ve just said and some of the other things you’ve brought up. And what you’ve said is reasonable enough that it behooves me to admit that I don’t have an answer.

          If/when I write another post about this, of course I’ll be willing to reengage with any thoughts you have about it.

          If you want to get the last word, feel free. I promise I’ll read it, but I probably won’t respond.

          And thanks for reading and commenting. We’re probably not going to agree on this issue–and it’s probably the case I need to think through some things better–but I do appreciate having an audience.

  4. (((By the way, thanks, all, for the comments. If you have more, I promise I’ll read and try to respond, but I have to go to work now and won’t be back until night.)))

  5. Michael Drew says:

    I feel like there is some backstory about Cosmos and the role it plays perhaps in some circles that you run in or have run in, which it might be illuminating for those who might read this series to have laid out for them in so many words. I sort of feel like I’m coming inin he middle of the story here. Which I might be. Maybe I missed a post?

    • There is a back story. I’ve alluded to it in other posts but never really explained it. In fact, I’ve toyed with doing a post before this one to foreground that story. It’s not so much about Cosmos as it is about the attitude and worldview that I think it represents.

      And to be clear, I enjoy the series. I enjoyed it the first time I remember seeing it (in the early 1990s, if I’m not mistaken), even though at that time I had similar concerns to what I’m expressing in the OP. It’s well-done and deserves to be taken seriously. And even though I’m criticizing it in a way I haven’t heard many people criticize it, I am trying to take it seriously.

  6. oscar.gordon says:

    I think that gets at what I’m objecting to, maybe with the added proviso that Sagan not only seems to be arguing that awe, etc., should be limited to the natural universe, but also that one of the arguments in Cosmos is that it should be so limited.

    It’s been a long time since I’ve watched Cosmos or read Pale Blue Dot, but I think you are a touch off base. It never struck me as an argument against belief per se, but against belief from ignorance.

    If the source of wonder & awe in your life only comes from your belief in the supernatural, or is heavily influenced by a belief in the supernatural, then perhaps you are not aware of all the wonder that exists in the natural. Sagan was exploring some pretty heady concepts for people who are ignorant of them. Ideas that burst the ideological bubble that our little ball of dirt is the center of God’s universe. Sure, you know that the Earth orbits the sun, and perhaps you know that we are part of a Galaxy, and the Universe is big, but if you’ve never REALLY thought about such things & what that implies, it’s easy to see why your sense of awe is focused on the supernatural.

    We are made of star stuff is a way to shake you out of the geocentric thinking, a way to stick a foot in the door of your mind, so he can open it to the incredible wonders of an infinite universe. It’s not meant to drive out belief in the divine, as such, but rather a way to show that the divine, if it exists, has rendered works so much greater than you ever imagined, and to explain that science is the tool we have to explore those works.

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