Carl Sagan, and the Baloney Detection Kit

When asked to cite the most influential person to the way I perceive the universe I have no hesitation to say that it is Carl Sagan.

The first time I heard about Carl Sagan was in a Physics Lecture in year twelve at school. Our teacher had recorded the opening episode of Cosmos and from not too far into it my world view expanded and I’ve never looked at things the same way again. The original Cosmos television series from the 1980s is where Sagan entered most of our lives but for many it was through his academic works or the leading role he played in the American space program.

NASA gave Sagan three weeks to design a message to be engraved on two twenty three centimetre wide aluminium plaques attached to the Pioneer Deep Space Probes.

As well as his work in the scientific community Sagan also wrote fiction – I’ve found most of the best scientific minds also have a highly developed imagination.

He wrote the book Contact,  and in 1997  was made into a Hollywood movie staring Jodie Foster. At the end of this book (spoiler alert) the main character is labeled as a fraud and even begins to doubt her memory. She goes on to search for deeper meanings eventually in the last passage discovers the pattern of a perfect circle encrypted in the decimal places for the mathematical constant Pi. The gist of this revelation being that the shape of a circle, and if so, the universe was designed and did not simply spring into existence.

Initially I found this an odd inclusion for probably the world’s most famous atheist. But later reading his work The Demon Haunted World this is the sort of evidence that would pass all of the tests in his well publicised Baloney Detection Kit.

Sagan is a famous skeptic and this Baloney Detection Kit  provides a set of tools for testing arguments and detecting fallacious or fraudulent arguments:

Baloney Detection Kit

  • Wherever possible there must be independent confirmation of the facts.
  • Encourage substantive debate on the evidence by knowledgeable proponents of all points of view.
  • Arguments from authority carry little weight (in science there are no “authorities”).
  • Spin more than one hypothesis – don’t simply run with the first idea that caught your fancy.
  • Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it’s yours.
  • Quantify, wherever possible.
  • If there is a chain of argument every link in the chain must work.
  • Occam’s razor – if there are two hypotheses that explain the data equally well choose the simpler.
  • Ask whether the hypothesis can, at least in principle, be falsified (shown to be false by some unambiguous test). In other words, it is testable? Can others duplicate the experiment and get the same result?

“If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first create the universe.” — Carl E. Sagan, professor, Cosmos, 1980

Another of his books that is worth seeking out is The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God. It was published on the tenth anniversary of his death and is based on his famous Gifford Lectures in Natural Theology.

The suppression of uncomfortable ideas may be common in religion or in politics, but it is not the path to knowledge, and there’s no place for it in the endeavor of science. We do not know beforehand where fundamental insights will arise from about our mysterious and lovely solar system.

The history of our study of our solar system shows us clearly that accepted and conventional ideas are often wrong, and that fundamental insights can arise from the most unexpected sources. – Carl Sagan

“S” is for Carl Sagan

No-Form, No thought, No Mind

When we study a new art form we are given forms of movement and told to repeat them endlessly. Our teachers are vigilant and correct our form when we stray but a hair’s breadth.

In Search of Simplicity

As we advance we are given ever more complicated forms to practice, yet we see our teachers break their own rules, seeming to do exactly what we are berated for.

I see shades of Form and No-Form argument in the following passage from Takuan Soho.

The mind that becomes fixed and stops in one place does not function freely. Similarly, the wheels of a cart go around because they are not held rigidly in place. If they were to stick tight, they would not go around. The mind is also something that does not function if it becomes attached to a single situation. – Takuan Soho

One must know the correct form intimately, from the subtle angle of a finger to the large movements of the torso, before we can perceive where to lesson our grip on that form.

You cannot throw the pieces of a cart in a pile and expect to use it as a cart. It must follow the form…but not too rigidly or it becomes a model of a cart—not the real thing itself.

It is the same when we practice any art form, we copy the masters endlessly, searching for those subtitles that belay their importance, hidden many times by large flourishing strokes of the brush or pen.

In the martial arts the form alone is not effective in actual combat.

When one has reached maturity in the art, one will have a formless form. It is like ice dissolving in water. When one has no form, one can be all forms; when one has no style, he can fit in with any style. – Bruce Lee

In a passage from his novel “Musashi“, Eiji Yoshikawa wrote:

Yoshino told Musashi he was rigid and would lose any battle in that state. She cut open her lute to show him how it could produce such varying sounds with only four strings.

It had a central wooden piece that was held in place but not firmly.

“If the cross piece were as taut and unbending as you are, one stroke of the pick would break a string, perhaps even the sounding  board itself.”


Takuan Soho’s writing is infused with wit and multiple levels of meaning. In the following passage he discusses the ‘Mind of No-Mind’ motif.

The mind that thinks about removing what is within it will by the very act be occupied. If one will not think about it, the mind will remove these thoughts by itself and of itself become No-Mind.

If one always approaches the mind in this way, at a later date it will suddenly come to this condition by itself. If one tries to achieve this suddenly, it will never get there.

An old poem says:

To think, “I will not think”—
This, too, is something in one’s thoughts.
Simply do not think
About not thinking at all.

You have got to love that!

“N” is for No-Form, No-Thought, No-Mind

What is Immovable Wisdom?

As with many terms used in Zen and the martial arts, Immovable wisdom is often misinterpreted to have a mind that does not move, when it is almost the exact opposite; it does not stop, or is not stopped. This state is sometimes described in Japanese as Fudoshin, Immovable Mind, and many physical tests for it have been developed for Aikido (and other disciplines) examinations.

Fudoshin - Wallpapers on the web

Early in their study students will misinterpret this “test” and will become hard like wood or stone…and fail. Instead they must learn not to allow their mind to be moved, or caught, by the examiner. The mind must become like still water; not “caught” by the hook as it passes through.

…the mind that does not stop at all is called Immovable Wisdom. – Takuan Soho

Takuan Soho, in a letter to the Samurai Yagyū Munenori, wrote of  “Immovable Wisdom” and how a person near enlightenment was capable of controlling a thousand arms, their mind not stopping at any particular one. He goes on to say that …one who understands this is no different from the Kannon with a thousand arms and a thousand eyes.

…the ordinary man simply believes that it is blessed because of its 1000 arms. The man of half-baked wisdom, wondering how anybody could have 1000 eyes, calls it a lie and gives in to slander. But if one understands a little better, they will have a respectful belief based on principle and will not need the simple faith of the ordinary man, or the slander of the other, and they will understand that Buddhism, with this one thing manifests its principle well.

he goes on…

All religions are like this… The ordinary man thinks only on the surface, the man who attacks… is even worse. This religion, that religion, there are various kinds but at their deepest points they are settled in the one conclusion.

“I” is for Immovable Wisdom

Humanity, how do we ensure the survival of our species?

It’s to dangerous to keep the consciousness of the universe on only one planet, it could be wiped out… Sax Russell, from Kim Stanley Robinson‘s Red Mars

Mars, 2001, with the southern polar ice cap vi...

Mars, 2001, with the southern polar ice cap visible on the bottom. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy is top of my “Recommended Reads” list and I am featuring it and an authorial review on day M of the A to Z April Challenge (14 April).

In the first volume, Red Mars, Sax Russell, a scientist and one of the first 100 people on Mars has a long and thought-provoking monologue that I found life changing. I’ve included just an excerpt of it in this post; it was in response to Anne Clayborne’s case for leaving Mars as it is – too beautiful to risk loosing.

The beauty of Mars exists in the Human mind , … Without the human presence it is just a concentration of atoms, no different from any other random speck of matter in the universe.

It’s we who understand it, and we who give it meaning…

But science is more than that. Science is part of a larger human enterprise, and that enterprise includes going to the stars, adapting to other planets, adapting them to us. Science is creation. The lack of life here [on Mars] and th lack of any findings in 50 years of SETI indicates that life is rare, and intelligent life even rarer.

And yet the whole meaning of the universe, its beauty, is contained in the consciousness of intelligent life. We are the consciousness of the universe, and our job is to spread tha around, to go look at things, to live everywhere we can. It’s too dangerous to keep the consciousness of the universe on only one planet, it could be wiped out…

We can transform Mars and build a cathedral,  as a monument to humanity and the universe both!

This is more “one hand clapping” stuff I know but read in its entirety, and using the terraforming of Mars as a literary example, it makes a compelling argument, and one wonders why this argument is brushed aside by our nations’ leaders.

“H” is for Humanity

The strategic game of Go

The Japanese game of Go has fascinated me for many and I have included it in a scene in the novel I’m writing. In the scene, set in May 1917, the main point of view character Lieutenant “Wilkins” has been granted passage on the Japanese battle Cruiser Kasagi from Cape Town to England. On the ship he meets the ethnologist Yanagita and they begin a life long friendship.

"Go" a type of Asian chess

"Go" (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It was after midnight and only a minimal crew were on duty. Wilkins stepped through the hatch leading out onto the deck and inhaled, through his nose, the crisp air into his lungs. He held this breath, for a several long seconds before exhaling audibly and headed forward along the starboard deck.

The stars shone as brilliant pin points in the dark sky—perfect for navigation; clear skies and negligible swell would make taking readings from the sextant child’s play. The only sound was the quiet whirl of a breeze in his ears and an intermittent clicking sound coming from up forward.

Wilkins had always enjoyed walking, particularly early in the morning and again late at night just before sleep. Since his bout of influenza he had not returned to the habit. Maybe this was why he felt so constrained. The ship was just coasting along as if the world were not at war.

He maintained a solid pace around the perimeter of the ship. His body had grown accustomed to his enforced docility and soon his shins ached with every long stride. He had made about three circumnavigations of the ship before he heard a familiar voice call out.

‘Wilkins-san, please come and join us,’ called Yanagita from the shadows of the guns on the foredeck.

Yanagita sat cross-legged on a thick cushion, and opposite him was a grey haired man. Between them, in the moonlight, was a low wooden table—about knee height. Their eyes were bright and smiles wide.

‘Come sit with us a while,’ Yanagita said, raising his arm to welcome Wilkins to their table.

Despite the cool air, both the Japanese men were naked to the waist. Wilkins stood for a moment.

‘I’m sorry Yanagita-san, I’ve disturbed you both,’ he said and nodded to the older man.

‘No, do not worry, please, let me introduce Kawabata-san, ni go-shokai shimasu,’ Yanagita said nodding towards the grey haired man.

Wilkins put out his hand.

‘Good evening Kawabata-san, komban wa,’ he said and glanced to Yanagita to check his pronunciation.

Kawabata looked to be in his late fifties. His grey hair was cropped short and rough. He reminded Wilkins of the veteran sailors he had met in northern Canada and the Arctic.

Kawabata nodded his dark tanned head and motioned for Wilkins to join them.

‘Dozo,’ he said.

‘Thank-you, arigato,’ Wilkins said realising that Kawabata may not speak English.

He lowered himself to the ground and sat between them at the small low table.

‘Wilkins-san, you have walked passed us several times. You are, in a hurry, to get to this war?

‘Yes,’ he replied, ‘it’s a dire time for the Empire and our Allies.’

‘All the more reason to use this respite to recover your strength properly.’

‘I know,’ Wilkins sighed, ‘but I need to play my part.’

Wilkins was aware of Kawabata watching him. Did the old man understand?

Yanagita continued, ‘We all have a part to play but it is rarely what we expect.’ He paused and then gestured at the table. ‘This is Go.’

The table top looked to be one solid piece of wood about ten inches thick, and it had a square grid of lines etched upon it in black. Many small black and white stones had been placed haphazardly across the table, but always at the intersections of the gridded lines.

‘A cousin to the game of Chess,’ Yanagita continued.

Wilkins nodded.

‘Yes, checkers, Chinese Checkers I think we call it.’

‘Ah no, Wilkins-san, not Chinese Checkers, this is Go. It is a game of strategy, some say, invented by the Chinese Emperor Shun almost forty-one centuries ago. But I think an Emperor would have too many things on his mind to invent such a game.’

Wilkins’ travels had given him the opportunity to discover the customs of many indigenous peoples and he had learnt many Inuit games; becoming adept at seal fin puzzles.

‘What are the rules Yanagita-san, can you teach me to play?’

Yanagita smiled.

‘Samimasen, I am sorry Wilkins-san, not tonight. But you are most welcome to watch. You see Kawabata and I have a wager on this particular game.’

He picked up a black stone from the wooden bowl on the table closest to him and placed it with a click at the intersection of two lines in the grid.

Over a hundred of the black and white stones already lay on the board. Looking closer Wilkins began to see patterns in their placement; less like chess—where the pieces represented men on a battlefield—and more like the cities and borders of a continent, where areas of the board were encompassed by either black or white stones.

‘Who is winning,’ Wilkins asked without looking up at either of the Japanese men.

‘I am ahead by two,’ Yanagita said, ‘but it is not so simple. You see this is part of a long standing argument between us. We are re-enacting a game played over ninety years ago on the 19th of July, 1836, between Go Masters Yasui Shintetsu and Mizutani Takuma. Kawabata-san believes that Yasui made an error early in the game that eventually cost him the match. And so we test this theory.’

‘So you just take over from that point, to see who is right?’ Wilkins asked.

‘In a way yes,’ Yanagita explained, ‘but we must keep to the original strategies they used in that game.’

Kawabata then bowed to Yanagita and placed his white stone on a different section of the board. They then placed several more stones in quick succession without seeming to watch each other’s movements.

A doorway opened behind Kawabata and a swath of light flooded the deck. A young Japanese Ensign carried an exquisite wooden box toward them.

Kawabata jumped to his feet and looked up and down the ship.

‘Iie,’ he whispered, trying to take the box from the young man.

‘Dozo, dozo,’ the young man responded, turning his body to ensure Kawabata could not wrest the box from his grasp.

He bowed once, and then again, even deeper, until Kawabata returned his seat. He placed the box on the deck between Wilkins and Kawabata, nodding to Wilkins and then looking to Yanagita for reassurance. He opened the double sided top of the box to reveal a small kit stove.

‘Would you like some tea, Wilkins-san,’ Yanagita said.

Wilkins nodded to Yanagita and again to the young man, who responded with a cheerful grin. Wilkins now noticed the young man’s swollen jaw and several bruises on one side of his face.

‘Arigato, Takeshi-san,’ Yanagita said bowing to the young man.’

The game of Go resumed as the young man built a small fire with kindling wood and heated some water in a blackened steel kettle.

‘Takeshi-san,’ Yanagita said, ‘is one of Lieutenant Obata’s men, as is Seaman Kawabata. Kawabata was Takeshi-san’s Kenjitsu Sensei when he was a young boy.’

The game progressed and Wilkins began to comprehend some of the strategy. The object was to secure sections of the board for your colour. But unlike chess, once the pieces were placed on the board, they were not moved again; unless they were surrounded by an opponent’s stones, and then they were removed and placed alongside the playing area.

‘Was this a famous game?’ Wilkins asked.

Steam rose from the kettle and Takeshi took it from the stove and placed it on a small cloth he had laid out upon the deck.

‘Yes,’ Yanagita replied his speech slowing as Kawabata placed one of his gleaming white stones on the board.

Kawabata looked up to Yanagita with a rye smile.

‘Yes Wilkins-san, it was a famous game. Not one practiced by beginners, but famous.’ He fell silent for a moment. ‘Kawabata-san has provided me a great lesson tonight,’ he said bowing low. ‘And well timed,’ he said receiving his tea from the young Takeshi.

In this low light the bright green powdered tea had a pleasant contrast to the pale interior of the old tea cups. They looked like they had been bouncing around in Kawabata’s kit bag for decades. The cracks, chips and heavy stains on them gave tribute, like proud medals of honour, to their passage through time. The tea was tepid and very bitter. When Takeshi had served all three men, he put out the fire and packed up the stove, bowing to each of them; last of all to Kawabata who squirmed in his seat, and again looked about nervously. Yanagita and Kawabata continued to place stones on the board but now with little concentration.

‘So Kawabata has won the game?’ Wilkins asked.

‘Yes, he will win,’ Yanagita replied.

‘So he has the advantage and you are just playing it out.’

‘Iie, no Wilkins-san. I am still ahead but Kawabata has found suki—an opening—in the strategy played by Master Mizutani and will eventually win.’

He smiled towards at Kawabata.

‘We will try again another time, though, I am not convinced that Master Mizutani would have left this suki. Tonight it is my own skill that has been found wanting.’

G is for the strategic game of “Go”

The Bureau of the Five-Grain Transmigration – from A Journey to the West

A Journey to the West is one of the four great Clasics of Chinese literature and was written in the sixteenth centuury by Wu Cheng’en. In the west it is better known by as “Monkey” because of the 1960’s cult television series of that name.

A scene of Journey to the West

A scene of Journey to the West (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It tells the story of the pilrimage of the buddist monk Xuangzang. In this excerpt the character Pilgrim (aka the Handsome Monkey King) is called by the derogatoryly term pi-ma-wen, by “Idiot” (aka. Piggy).

“Just now when we entered the hall,” Pilgrim said, “I chanced to notice a little door on our right. Judging from the foul stench coming through it, I think it must be a Bureau of Five-Grain Transmigration. Send them in there.”

Idiot, in truth, was rather good at crude labour! He leaped down, threw the three statues over his shoulder, and carried them out of the hall. When he kicked open the door, he found a huge privy inside. Chuckling to himself he said, “This pi-ma-wen truly has a way with words! He even bestows on a privy a sacred title! The Bureau of Five-Grain Transmigration. What a name!” Yu, A.C. 1977, The Journey to the West Volume II Pg. 315. (Translation of)

An illustration of Zhū Bājiè

It seems as though even the classics can’t let a good peice of toilety humour pass them by.

“F” is for the bureau of Five-Grain Transmigration

Is Ego the mind killer?

There is no more destructive but imperative construct to our existence than Ego. With too little of it we are like a washed out water colour painting, too much and then self destruction is  inevitable.

Don’t mistake modesty for a lack of ego either, some of the most outwardly modest people suffer the same malady.

Sir Hubert Wilkins the great polar explorer, ornithologist, pilot, soldier, geographer and photographer is a great example of this.  General Sir John Monash , on returning to Australia after WWI eulogised Wilkins as “The bravest man alive” at a large public gathering. He later received a message from Wilkins “begging him not to praise him publicly again.”

And Vilhjalmur Stefanson, a fellow polar explorer met With General Monash later and told the Australian papers:

Sir John Monash seems to agree with me that Wilkins is so aggressively modest that he carries it to a fault. It ought to be enough to hide your light under a bushel without threatening to knock anybody down who wants to take the bushel away.

I think Wilkins hid a large ego under that same bushel, and it is more likely that it was the escape of this ego that he feared more. Wilkins came close on several occasions to destruction, and causing the death of the men and women who served with him but in the end it may have been his strong caring nature that helped keep his ego under that bushel.

A little luck didn’t go astray either.

Ego in the martial arts has ruined many teachers. It seems that a large ego is a prerequisite to lead a dojo, it is especially to attractive to new students who seek a sensei/master/guru figure.

I have seen several sensei self destruct, believing to much of their own publicity and get summarily purged from their style’s national or international organisation. The ego must be held in check.

The first step must be awareness.

“E” is for Ego