Thursday, March 18, 2010


Approaching the truth

A book by Carl Sagan that I read  some decades ago, about cosmology and the survival of the planet, contained a particular passage I remember, a down-to-earth observation about the economy.  While reaching for the stars, Sagan was always ready to make comparisons that brought us back to basic earthly preoccupations.

One passage in the book referred to the price of oil. Sagan observed how the turbulent market for black gold has the potential to turn the whole world upside down, as economists were suggesting and Sagan himself insisted. His speculations proved correct, as we now know.

In the course of devouring a whole host of popular science books, considering cosmological questions about the origins of the universe and the diverse theories of how it come into being, and reflecting on interesting facts like, for example, how everything in the universe spins –planets, galaxies, stars - but not the universe itself, I came to realise that it is somehow by immersing oneself in the current of different conjectures and theories advanced by the physicists that one comes close to an understanding of the truth. The truth about the importance of being attentive.

Image Problem

More than once, in my readings of books by leading Anglo-Saxon intellectuals and writers of popular scientific literature, like David Deutsch, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennet, and their illustrious predecessor Carl Sagan, I have been saddened to come across the word “balkanization”.  It has turned up in a variety of reference works and articles as well. Depending on the context, the word signified  something that could be summed up as a combination of religious and nationalistic literalism, intellectual infancy and metaphysical chauvinism, reinforced by a thick-skinned resistance to the contemporary re-examination of ancient misconceptions.  Saddened, I say, because I happen to come from the part of the world to which this lovely word refers. In all the various contexts in which the word was used, it had a much wider significance than the one offered by the Oxford English Dictionary: Balkanize, v. divide (a region or body) into smaller mutually hostile states or groups., Balkanization, n.
It is hard not to agree that there is far more grandeur and poetry in Cicero’s reason, or Descartes’s light, or the scientific facts and speculations of our own time, than there is in any of the world’s great dogmas of religious, nationalistic and market fundamentalism.

Carl Sagan once said something to the effect that science convinced us that everything that is not obvious, everything that is magical, gigantic, is scientific. After experiencing the bleak reality of life in the post-war Balkans I feel entitled to lay claim to a degree of expertise in the science of demonstrating how everything infused with prejudice, the marriage of political and religious manipulation is wretched, degrading and banal. And in hoping that no-one will ever again have need of this kind of expertise.


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