Oct 5, 2012

Guest Post by Troythulu - Review of Carl Sagan's The Varieties of Scientific Experience: a personal view of the search for God.

The Varieties of Scientific Experience: a personal view of the search for God

By Carl Sagan

First, I’d like to thank Kate for hosting this post on her site, and for her kindness in letting me choose a book of this nature to review. It’s a delicate subject for most of us, believers and non-believers alike, and I would not be doing this review of the book it’s about were this book not of the highest taste on the subject matter.

Here goes…

I've recently reread this, a collection taken from the 1985 Gifford Lectures in Scotland, of a series of talks given by Dr. Sagan on his views on the relationship of science and religion, and edited from the original audio transcripts by Ann Druyan.

It’s a touchy subject, I’m sure, but that’s precisely because it’s a very important one that we should give much thought to regardless of what it is we believe.

The first chapter, Nature and Wonder, discusses our early attempts to understand the universe, that humility is not incompatible with such attempts, from our most ancient traditions to the dawn of the scientific age, with pictures used to bring the point home on what we've found out.

My favorite part of this talk is the mention of a 1750 book by Thomas Wright of Durham, An Original Theory or New Hypothesis of the Universe, and the images used in it then to show the scale of the solar system relative to the cosmos, some of these are included in this book.

Chapter 2, The Retreat from Copernicus, is about the history of scientific discovery, and of our natural tendency to project ourselves, especially onto nature. Sagan discusses a version of an argument, the Anthropic Principle, offering a few of his own thoughts on it as an astronomer and astrophysicist.

One thing that strikes me about Carl is that not only is he always good for a quote, there also didn't ever seem to be a dogmatic bone in his body. While giving his own views, he notes them as such, and never insists that others adopt them as truths.

It’s one of the reasons why it’s so enjoyable to read and listen to him.

The 3rd talk in the series, The Organic Universe, is about the science of life, what we've learned, the nature of the molecules that make up our bodies, and the implications this has on and the importance of the quest for life on other worlds.

Lecture four, Extraterrestrial Intelligence, deals with the implications of contacting intelligent life existing elsewhere in the universe. Here is discussed, among other examples, the concept of life on Mars, from its early days to the present (as of 1985), and some of the science involved in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI), with a discussion of the now famous Drake Equation that relates to it.

Chapter 5, Extraterrestrial Folklore, is about the connections between belief and the idea of contact between humans and extraterrestrial beings, particularly in the popular idea of UFOs, and the importance of being careful in not to too quickly convincing ourselves of something when we want to believe and the stakes are high, as they often very much are.

The 6th talk, I must preface this by saying that it’s very tastefully done, is The God Hypothesis, and it discusses many different concepts of what we may mean when we (And by we, I mean people all over the world of every creed) say God, throughout history, with the most prevalent arguments for the existence of such dealt with here, and Sagan’s thoughts on these as a scientist and thinker.

The seventh chapter, The Religious Experience, also very respectful, and using good science deals with our own personal experiences of the Infinite. I’m struck by how Sagan can deal with such a touchy subject so personally but so matter-of-factly too.

Lecture 8, Crimes Against Creation, are Carl’s views about the nature of change over history and prehistory and why we must be able to deal wisely with change in our dealings with each other and the environment which we depend on to survive.

The last talk, chapter 9, The Search, begins with a quote by Leo Tolstoy, “Without knowing what I am and why I am here, life is impossible.” (Anna Karenina), and offers Sagan’s thoughts on our origins and identity as human beings, and our place in the universe, with the final paragraph beginning, “I think if we ever reach the point that we think we thoroughly understand who we are and where we came from, we will have failed.” Sobering words indeed.

Finally, there’s a section of the question and answer sessions given after each talk, and I think this part is especially interesting as Sagan directly engages the audience, clarifies and qualifies his points made in each talk, and fills in a gap here and there in his own knowledge.

There are in the footnotes those scientific findings made after the lectures, as complete as can be in updates given the limitations of space and the publishing date of the book.

Regarding his own views, Dr. Sagan comes across as being open and likeable, and in his relating of science, those as well as firm but fair.

I give this book two thumbs up for its clarity and readability, and it is an example of the mellow, scholarly, and clear speaking and writing style of a pioneering popularizer of science.


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