Elise's Reviews > The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God

The Varieties of Scientific Experience by Carl Sagan
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Nov 22, 11

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Read from November 15 to 22, 2011

Before I was REALLY into science fiction, the one bit of science fiction I became interested in was the movie "Contact," which I saw as an adolescent - though admittedly, I was more interested in the tomboyish female heroine (go, Jodie Foster!) than in the stuff about outer space. Anyway, "Contact" was based on a novel of the same name by Carl Sagan. I bought the book soon after seeing the movie, but never really stuck with reading it - I remember feeling like a lot of it was going over my head, even though I had the advantage of knowing how Hollywood wanted me to imagine everything. Recently, a friend recommended "The Varieties of Scientific Experience," so I thought I'd give Carl Sagan another try.

The book consists of nine lectures Sagan gave in the mid-80s as part of the Gifford lecture series on natural theology. He tackles the issue that has perplexed both religious and non-religious people for years - how do we reconcile religious belief with scientific discovery and evidence, specifically evidence from the field of astrophysics, Sagan's specialty? The first few chapters/lectures were a bit science-heavy for me (which probably isn't true for most readers - I'm just not so good with science), but Sagan provides a couple of key takeaways, in my opinion: first, the universe is vast, and we are small; second, the universe has been around for much longer than we, humans, have.

In the second three-quarters of the book, Sagan goes more into the intersection between God and science, which is where I became more engaged. He also explores the question of the existence of extraterrestrials - another throwback, as I remember a period of time in my adolescenthood when UFO sightings seemed to be all over the news.

Sagan forces us to consider a number of questions, several of which I found particularly interesting. First, he basically goes into the creation debate: considering the vastness of the universe, both physically and in age, where and when did God enter? Did he create the entire universe, or did he just enter the picture that week humans entered the world? In other words, can we give God credit for having created the dinosaurs and all the other species of living things that existed before humans? Either way, since we know we are not to take the seven days literally, how do we reconcile the story of creation with the indisputable evidence that we evolved?

Another main point that I found intriguing is when Sagan discusses how advanced our means of self-extinction have become. The most natural instinct of all living beings is to preserve their species, and paradoxically, humans have spent years developing nuclear weapons that have the ability to wipe us all out. Sagan explains (in one of my most favorite images in the book) that if you take a picture of the earth from outer space, you won't see any country borders - they are human inventions, just like the equator. Yet, these invented borders have caused us to come close to obliterating entire cultures and nations. Sagan asks, do we have an obligation to continue preserving our species, which, after all, is the natural inclination of any species, or are we merely behaving according to some kind of destiny, as laid out in, say, the Book of Revelations? Either way, a bit freaky to think about.

I appreciated Sagan's skepticism, and how he both acknowledges the many forms of skepticism that exist. He also challenges the many justifications for the existence of God, without coming across as a non-believer. He doesn't go into whether or not he believes in or practices any kind of religion, but I imagine he often found himself in a position, as a scientist and an overall curious person, to constantly question what is real, and what should be believed. That's not something many people would be able or willing to talk about openly, but Sagan did so through the Gifford lectures - and inspired me, at least, to keep on with the search.
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