Sunday, August 10, 2014

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

Note:  This review was originally posted to my Epinions account.

I remember seeing these stickers all around town many years ago.  It read, “What is God?/God is love.”  Carl Sagan has a slightly different interpretation of God.  It’s not that he doesn’t believe in God.  It’s simply that he defines God as the sum of all the rules of physics, chemistry and other sciences that the universe has set forth for us.

The Varieties of Scientific Experience is the printed transcripts of his Gifford Lectures, in which he goes over various scientific topics like extraterrestrial intelligence, Darwin and our changing image of where we fit into the universe.  The book is divided into nine chapters, although I’m not sure if it was one long lecture, nine shorter lectures or somewhere in between.

The first chapter is called Nature and Wonder: A Reconnaissance of Heaven, which deals mostly with the universe and the various things to be found in it, such as stars, galaxies, supernovae and so forth.  The second is called The Retreat from Copernicus:  A Modern Loss of Nerve and is about the various theories of Earth, the universe and how old everything is.  The third chapter is called The Organic Universe and deals with evolution and the possibility of life in and beyond our solar system.

Chapters four and five, Extraterrestrial Intelligence and Extraterrestrial Folklore: Implications for the Evolution of religion deal with, as you might expect, alien life.  This is where he gets into things like the Drake Equation and abduction theories.  Sagan treats extraterrestrial life with the same skepticism as he does religion.  As much as one might want to believe that there are aliens out there, we have no definitive proof that they exist.  He does deal with the various ways that we might encounter and/or detect their presence, like radio waves.

In chapters six and seven, he gets into religion and how religion was often at odds with science.  Some have even tried to use science to prove the existence of God.  Sagan doesn’t buy into any of the supposed proofs.  At one point, he asks why God would put so much proof into the Bible, but leave such a small amount of proof in everyday life.  It would be hard to deny the existence of a God if he had a very large crucifix in orbit or was able to put some undeniable scientific truth in the Bible.

Chapter eight deals with how life on our planet might be destroyed.  It looks at nuclear war and objects hitting the Earth.  The threat of nuclear war is real and life could easily come to an end by our own hand.  The last chapter ties everything up.  Sagan tries to give us a sense of how small we are compared to the cosmic background.  After chapter nine are selected questions presented to Sagan by the audience and answers he gave.  This is definitely worth reading.  (Some of the questions were lost due to poor recording instruments.)

The overriding theme of the book seems to be to not take things at face value.  Those that argue against science say that it’s supposed to be perfect, but it’s not.  It may try to put us closer to perfection.  It may give us a set of rules that work very well, but to say that we will definitely attain perfection is a mistake.  We cannot even take what we know of science at face value.  One of the core tenants is to keep checking what we know verses what we see.

On that note, I’ve never been clear as to why radio transmissions have been our best bet for alien contact.  Sure, it’s the only means by which we can look right now, but I’m not sure why an alien civilization would necessarily be using it or why we’d be able to know that some alien transmission is what we’re looking for.  I suppose that it’s possible that an alien civilization might pick up ours and figure it out, but that’s assuming that they’re even looking.

The book isn’t long-winded or boring.  The copy I got from the library is 260 pages including the Q&A section.  It’s very easy to read a chapter at a time.  This is partly due to the pictures in the book.  Many of the pictures were used in the lecture, although a few were replaced with better versions.  The lectures took place in 1985 while the book wasn’t published until 2006.

I can’t say for certain that there is no God, but if there is a God, I doubt very much that God is anything like in the Bible or any other religious book.  I don’t think that we could possibly understand that kind of God.  Instead, I would tend to think as Sagan does that we have an entire universe set before us and it’s up to us to figure it out.  I’ve never understood why someone would accept creationism based on the word of one book, yet discount evolution despite the evidence.

I’d recommend reading the book.  I realize that there are probably people on both sides of the science/religion debate that are firm in their beliefs and either won’t read it or will come into it with some sort of preconceived notion.  Don’t do this, as it will take away from the book.  One thing I like about the book is Sagan’s ability to set up reasoning as to why he believes as he does.  Sure, people will challenge his beliefs.  This is what science is about.  I’m not saying that I’m always right.  I’d simply ask you to make a lucid counterargument.

Admittedly, a few things here ore there were left out for the sake of making the book more readable.  If anyone reading this was present at the lectures, I’d like to know how true the book is to what was actually said.

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