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Consciousness In The Cosmos: Perspective of Mind: Carl Sagan

This posting will discuss the views of the late Carl Sagan in relation to the emergence of "Mind." He was best known as a world-famous astronomer and science author.

Carl Sagan adheres strictly to a materialistic perspective when he discusses the emergence of Mind, which he considers intelligence that is inseparable from the brain.

It is through the stages and generations of evolution that the human brain unfolded. Sagan refers to chromosomal DNA as the "book of life." The DNA double helix is a language written only in four letters. The variation of these letters is seemingly infinite. As for human beings, their hereditary material requires some five billion bits of information. These "bits of information in the encyclopedia of life-in the nucleus of each of our cells-if written out in, say English, would fill a thousand volumes. Every one of your hundred trillion cells contains a complete library of instructions on how to make every part of you." [Carl Sagan, COSMOS, Ballantine Books, 1980, p. 227.]

And Sagan considers that the evolving brain has increased not only in complexity but in information content. The brain has developed from the inside out--and the brain reflects the major stages of evolution through which it has evolved.

Sagan notes that in "the human intrauterine development we run through stages very much like fish, reptiles and nonprimate mammals before we become recognizably human." And thus it is not surprising that we possess a corresponding "Triune Brain." [Carl Sagan, THE DRAGONS OF EDEN: SPECULATIONS ON THE EVOLUTION OF HUMAN INTELLIGENCE, Ballantine Books, 1977, p. 59.]

The schematic of a human's Triune Brain is as follows: * The Reptilian Complex * The Limbic System * The Neocortex

Declaring that there is considerable evidence for the localization of brain function--as well as discussing in detail the electrochemical nature of brain function--Sagan lays the groundwork with his depth discussion of the Triune Brain.

The Reptilian Complex is the site from which our propensity arises for "aggressive behavior, territoriality, and the establishment of social hierarchies." The Reptilian Complex still performs dinosaur functions, according to Sagan. [Ibid, pp. 62-63.]

The Limbic System is mammalian. It is the base for our emotions. Our passions, our altruistic behavior, spawn from the Limbic System-- which also is devoted to oral, gustatory, and sexual functions.

The Neocortex is our third, newly human brain in terms of evolution. "Among other functions, the frontal lobes seem to be connected with deliberation and the regulation of action; the parietal lobes, with spatial perception and the exchange of information between the brain and the rest of the body; the temporal lobes with a variety of complex perceptual taks; and the occipital lobes, with vision, the dominant sense in humans..." Sagan suggests, too, that the Neocortex is the locus for abstract thinking and nonverbal intuition. The Neocortex is what makes possible our judgments, what makes for the moral knowledge of good and evil. It is also the site from which our creativity emerges. And the Neocortex is home to our sense of self. [Ibid, p. 98.]

Interestingly, Sagan focuses on our dreams in relation to the brain. He notes what most of us know--that our dreamworld is full of magic, ritual, passion, and agression. The dreamworld is still the realm of our Limbic and Reptilian brains--and especially of the Reptilian Complex. Sagan puts it poetically: "the dragons can be heard, hissing and rasping, and the dinosaurs thunder still." [Ibid, 157.]

Sagan does not believe the Neocortex is much involved in our dreams. There is little evidence of "skepticism and reason" in our dreams. Rather he considers that our dream state allows the Reptilian Complex to fantasize a reality that suggests *it* is still in control.

As for control, Sagan draws upon the Platonic metaphor about the human soul as an uneasy charioteer drawn by two horses in different directions. He considers this metaphor as remarkably similar to our "neural chassis." The two horses correspond to our Reptilian Complex and Limbic System, and the charioteer to our Neocortex--which is barely in control.

According to Carl Sagan, the complexity of a brain--whether animal or human--revolves around the number of electrical microcircuits which it possesses. (The human brain contains about ten billion switching elements called "neutrons.") And this complexity may not only result from the number of switching elements in the brain, but also from an "abundance of specialized switching elements in the brain." [Ibid, p. 44.]

It is, however, the Neocortex where "matter is transformed into consciousness." It comprises more than two-thirds of our brain mass. The realm of intuition and critical analysis,--it is the Neocortex where we have our ideas and inspirations, where we read and write, where we compose music or do mathematics. Sagan puts it thus: "It is the distinction of our species, the seat of our humanity. Civilization is the product of the cerebral cortex." [COSMOS, p. 229.]

Beyond our motor abilities, our eye-hand coordination, our intellectual prowess--there is our Mind's ability to create culture(s) and civilization(s). Sagan believes that "Culture" has in a sense acted as a feedback-cycle system to enhance even further the evolution of human intelligence. He considers that Culture--our art and music, our science and technology, our legal and ethical systems--was made possible by the "collaborative work" of our cerebral hemispheres. Essentially human culture is the function of the "corpus callosum," the brain's bridge between the left and right hemispheres.

But it is our Culture that makes us *more* human! We create it, it acts upon us. It's a feedback cycle of the Mind system.

Sagan ponders on this issue of Culture in terms of the future development of Mind--of human intelligence. He believes that the future belongs to those societies that enable the Neocortex of our nature to flourish. We cannot, however, ignore our reptilian and mammalian traits; but, nonetheless, for future development "broad and powerful thinking is desperately needed." [THE DRAGONS OF EDEN, p. 20.]

What is required for the future of Mind, for our future? Sagan believes that we are already seeing a preview of a new form of thinking--multidisciplinary thinking. He notes that already our Mind and Culture have begun to produce a "range of remarkably gifted multidisciplinary scientists and scholars." Sagan continues that such gifted individuals express a freedom of non-conformity and creativity in the pursuit of their interests. [Sagan surely was one of these gifted individuals, himself.] [Ibid, p. 202.]

Diversity, creativity, non-conformitiy, experimentation is what Sagan declares will determine the successful future in all our human realms--whether social, political, economic, or cultural.

Beyond this, our immediate and future potential of Mind, Sagan focuses on our progression toward the stars. This progress entails some fascinating moves: evolve machine intelligence, rapport with other terrestrial intelligence, and communication with extraterrestrial intelligence.

Sagan considers it a "given" that we must extend our intelligence extrasomatically. This means the development of machine intelligence! We have to move beyond our fears, our human chauvinism (anthropocentrism) and extend our intelligence into Machine Minds.

In tandem, we need to overcome our chauvinism and admit to those other higher intelligences sharing this planet. We very much need to improve communication with the "great apes, with the dolphins, but particularly with those intelligent masters of the deep, the great whales." [COSMOS, p. 226.]

Sagan believes that Extraterrestrials will have brains, "slowly accreted by evolution, as ours have," will perhaps share similarities. He believes any successful, long-lived civilization (terrestrial or extraterrestrial) will, by necessity, have resolved the tensions of our various brain components. Extraterrestials, too, surely would have extended their Mind extrasomatically into intelligent machines.

Sagan believes that building upon our ability to communicate better, learn better the language and culture, with higher terrestrial cultures-- and extending our intelligence into machines--that when we do finally encounter the Extraterrestrial, we and our machines will be better prepared to understand the *other's* intelligence, language and cultural forms, and machines.

Carl Sagan holds hope for human intelligence, for our extension of Mind. We are still people from divergent and cultural backgrounds, yet our intelligence is beckoning us toward greater webs of global relationships. In due course, he hopes that we will simply be the "whole human community, the entire planet Earth." And further, Sagan dreams of our comprehension that we are a "local embodiment of a Cosmos grown to self-awareness." We have become "starstuff pondering the stars." [Ibid, 286.]


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