Book review: The varieties of scientific experience

The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God, by Carl Sagan. Penguin, 2006.

Carl Sagan’s death in December 1996 at the age of 62 silenced one of the more passionate voices ever to describe the beauty of the natural world and to promote scientific exploration. Luckily he is still making a posthumous contribution to the current discussion of science and religion. The recently published The varieties of scientific experience contains the text of a series of lectures he gave in Scotland in 1985, edited and updated by his widow, Ann Druyan. Sagan was invited to deliver the Gifford Lectures on the occasion of their centennial; the prestigious Gifford Lecture series covers the topic of “Natural Theology in the widest sense of the term”, and Sagan spoke about the relationship between religion and science. The title for the book comes from the title of William James’s series of Gifford Lectures in 1900-1902, The varieties of religious experience (James’s lectures were also published in a book that is still well known today).

The book consists of nine lectures and selected questions and answers from the Q&A periods at the end of each lecture. The topics are familiar to anyone who has read anything by Carl Sagan: the history of our understanding of the cosmos, comets, the search for extraterrerstial intelligence, the threat of nuclear winter. The presentation of each is shaped by the central question of what religion and science mean to us. I’ve read quite a bit of Sagan’s work, so many of the ideas presented were not new to me, but I still found myself wanting to jot down particularly well-worded or beautiful passages, and I also found myself laughing out loud from time to time at his wit. Reading the book amounted to spending a couple of hours in the company of one of the more curious, intelligent, and well-educated minds of our time, and it was a pleasure to do so.

One of the passages I noted was in the first lecture, “Nature and wonder: A reconnaissance of heaven”. He closes that lecture with the words:

If a Creator God exists, would He or She or It or whatever the appropriate pronoun is, prefer a kind of sodden blockhead who worships while understanding nothing? Or would He prefer His votaries to admire the real universe in all its intricacy? I would suggest that science is, at least in part, informed worship. My deeply held belief is that if a god of anything like the traditional sort exists, then our curiosity and intelligence are provided by such a god. We would be unappreciative of those gifts if we suppressed our passion to explore the universe and ourselves. On the other hand, if such a traditional god does not exist, then our curiosity and our intelligence are the essential tools for managing our survival in an extremely dangerous time. In either case the enterprise of knowledge is consistent surely with science; it shoudl be with religion, and it is essential for the welfare of the human species.

He mentions the dangers we face several times in the course of the lectures, most particularly in the one about nuclear winter, entitled “Crimes against creation”. This was probably the most disheartening chapter in the book in a way. In the 22 years since Sagan first delivered these words, I don’t think we’ve progressed nearly as much as we should have in protecting the planet from our own follies and excesses. Nuclear weapons are still a threat, and we’re only now focusing on global warming and the attendant climate disruption. Sagan saw our times as being pivotal for the future of our species–the earth will still be here in years to come, but will we?

In the Q&A session after the last lecture, someone asked for advice about whether we as individuals can do anything about “the world situation”, or whether we just had to sit back and accept it as being out of our control. Sagan’s answer seems just as useful now as it was then: He suggests using “every democratic process” to affect government policy, and educating ourselves on issues of concern so that we can ask intelligent questions of government, spot contradictions in what our elected officials say to us, and avoid being bamboozled. Amen! In addition to being excellent advice for tackling the issues Sagan was focused on, this is also a great way to start tackling the immense problem of global warming (and for global warming there are actions that each of us can take right now to help reduce our impact on the environment–I’ll get up on the soapbox for a moment and refer you to the Step It Up web site, the Union of Concerned Scientists global warming page, or the Take Action section of the Inconvenient Truth web site).

The two lectures that touch most directly on questions of religion and science are “The god hypothesis”, which covers various arguments for and against the existence of a deity, and “The religious experience”, in which Sagan offers some thoughts on how religion might have evolved. These and the two talks about extraterrestrial intelligence (the search for it, and the folklore attached to UFO sightings and so forth) cover a lot of interesting psychological angles, and reveal some of the obstacles humans encounter when they seek the truth. The closing words of the final lecture sum it all up in a most inspiring fashion:

I think if we ever reach the point where we think we thoroughly understand who we are and where we came from, we will have failed. I think this search does not lead to a complacent satisfaction that we know the answer, not an arrogant sense that the answer is before us and we need do only one more experiment to find it out. It goes with a courageous intent to greet the universe as it really is, not to foist our emotional predispositions on it but to courageously accept what our explorations tell us.