Review: Carl Sagan’s The Varieties Of Scientific Experience
I recently finished reading Carl Sagan’s new book, The Varieties Of Scientific Experience, and recommend it as an antidote to the lethal venom that has been building up along the epistemological boundary between supernaturalism and naturalism since Sagan’s death.
How, you ask, can Sagan, dead these eleven years, have just come out with a new book? TVOSE is a compilation of Sagan’s 1985 Gifford Lectures On Natural Theology in Scotland, about the relationship between religion and science. Here’s a sample:
“The astronomer Sir William Huggins frightened the world in 1910. He was minding his own business, doing astronomy, but as a result of his astronomy (the work I’m talking about was done in the last third of the nineteenth century) there were national panics in Japan, in Russia, in much of the southern and midwestern United States. A hundred thousand people in their pajamas emerged onto the roofs of Constantinople. The pope issued a statement condemning the hoarding of cylinders of oxygen in Rome. And there were people all over the world who committed suicide. All because of Sir William Huggins’ work. Very few scientists can make similar claims, at least until the invention of nuclear weapons. What exactly did he do? Well, Huggins was one of the first astronomical spectroscopists…. “p. 69
The Gifford Lectures were made famous in 1902 by William James’ classic Varieties Of Religious Experience which gave Sagan the inspiration for his series. Sagan reflects on the history of the long struggle between science and religion, including the painful adaptations each has made to the other over the years. He talked about biochemistry, physics, evolution, astronomy, and scientists’ own religious feelings as they grapple with the natural universe. He outlines the risk to humanity from nuclear weapons (let no one say this is an outdated concern). TVOSE is a deep and very involved series of lectures.
“Does trying to understand the universe betray a lack of humility? I believe it is true that humility is the only just response in a confrontation with the universe, but not a humility that prevents us from seeking the nature of the universe we are admiring…
I would suggest that science is, at least in part, informed worship… the enterprise of knowledge is consistent surely with science; it should be with religion, and it is essential for the welfare of the human species.”
Sagan understood the desire to believe. It was no pale theoretical fancy to him; he yearned to reach into the inmost nature of the universe. Even in his dying years he worked tirelessly to build connections with people of faith. Where a religious person expressed wonder at the universe, or opposed violence, or moved to save the natural environment, Sagan agreed and recognized common purpose. He respected the religious desire to frame the universe in some larger meaning, because he had the same desire even if he could not reach the same conclusion.
Today contempt is everywhere between science and religion. We have Richard Dawkins taking advice on American religious culture from PZ Meyers (possibly the worst, most divisive possible choice). We have Sam Harris positing the end of all religions as a solution to mankind’s problems. We have the Discovery institute trying to poison science education with thinly veiled creationism. The opportunity for peace, to say nothing of achieving any common purpose or reaching any constructive compromise, seems more remote than ever.
So let Harris languish on the discount rack; it’s a very good time to read Sagan. TVOSE may seem quaint, 22 years after the lectures were given, but it could hardly be more timely.