Carl Sagan’s new book, The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God, is easily one of my favorite books. Dr. Sagan’s description of the cosmos opened up for me an interest I will undoubtedly cherish for the rest of my life. He describes nebulae, star formation, comets, galaxies, planets, star clusters, and darkness. One of my favorite quotes is about the vast nothingness of space.
“The universe is mainly made of nothing, that something is the exception. Nothing is the rule. That darkness is a commonplace; it is light that is the rarity…We must remember that the universe is an almost complete and impenetrable darkness and the sparse sources of light, the stars, are far beyond our present ability to create or control.”
Carl died more than 10 years ago. In 1985 he gave a series of lectures exploring the boundary between science and religion. His widow, Ann Druyan, felt that in the wake of September 11 and the attacks on the teaching of evolution that it was time to publish those lectures. Her search for the transcripts led her to one of the 1,000 filing cabinets in the archives at Cornell University.
I’ve long been mystified as to why people of “faith” give so little thought to how the world their god created actually works. In his first lecture Carl asks,
“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 understand nothing? Or would He prefer His votaries to admire the real universe in all its intricacy?”
In lecture two Dr. Sagan explains why it is decreasingly necessary to invoke god as an explanation for natural phenomenon.
“So as science advances, there seems to be less and less for God to do. It’s a big universe, of course, so He, She, or It could be profitably employed in many places. But what has clearly been happening is that evolving before our eyes has been a God of the Gaps; that is, whatever it is we cannot explain lately is attributed to God. And then after a while, we explain it, and so that’s no longer God’s realm. The theologians give that one up, and it walks over onto the science side of the duty roster.”
Also in chapter two he puts to bed the idea of many that dinosaurs were on the ark with Noah (that this requires an explanation at all is embarrassing). Even if one discounts the several methods of aging using radioisotopes all one has to do is look at the sedimentary layers. Humans bone fossils have never been found among dinosaur fossils…period!
One of the most interesting arguments in the book is in the fourth lecture and is about humans being created in the image of god. After a lengthy discussion about evolutionary processes Dr. Sagan wonders how humans would look if designed and created as opposed to evolving over time through the processes of random mutation and natural selection.
“What do we mean when we say we are made in God’s image? Do we, for example, imagine that God has nostrils and breathes? If so, what does He breathe? Air? Where is the air? Air with oxygen in it? No other planet in the solar system has oxygen except the Earth. Why restrict God to very few places? Why would He need nostrils? What about a naval? Would God have a naval? What about hair? What about a vermiform appendix? What about toes? Toes are clearly the result of our ancestors’ life in the canopy of the high forest, swingin from branch to branch. Very good to have four limbs that can hold on to trees. We just happened to have the toes in this particular transitional moment. Big toe is good for balance; little toe is not good for very much at all. It’s just an evolutionary accident. Vermiform appendix? Likewise good for nothing. It’s just on its way out.”
Religious dogmatism and faith are dangerous. Why? Because, as Carl notes, “the more likely we are to assume that the solution comes from the outside, the less likely we are to solve the problems ourselves.” Also, religious devotion causes people to close their minds and resist new ideas. They have, they believe, infallible answers.
“Instead of this, what we need is a honing of the skills of explication, of dialogue, of what used to be called logic and rhetoric and what used to be essential to every college education, a honing of the skills of compassion, which, just like intellectual abilities, need practice to be perfected.”
“How can we find the truth is we are not willing to question everything and to give a fair hearing to everything?”
“Why is there no commandment exhorting us to learn?”
This book is great! It’s poignant and smart yet easy to read. Most of the arguments against god and religion I’ve read in books by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett. Dr. Sagan’s thorough and beautiful descriptions of the universe are fascinating. Since reading this book I’ve visited WSU’s observatory, purchased powerful binoculars (Kirsten actually bought them for me), and subscribed to Astronomy magazine. The universe is grand and marvelous beyond the boundaries of my comprehension.
Thank you Carl and thank you Ms. Druyan for this excellent book.