Jennifer'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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's review
Aug 15, 12

bookshelves: non-fiction, owned, physics, religion, science
Read from August 06 to 07, 2012

I had been wanting to read this book since it first came out in 2006. First, it took me a while to procure a copy. Then, I convinced myself that I had to read James's The Varieties of Religious Experience first. For whatever reason, nas much as I was interested in James's work, I just could make any headway. (Perhaps it's because the edition I own is a bulky tome, and I just got sick of carting it around.)

But suddenly, this summer, it was time. We'd been watching Cosmos together as a family, and while I found the first episode a little tedious, I've just been rapturously in love with it since then. Additionally, some recent conversations at Impression 5 about the big questions of physics have had me eyeing the science shelves of my collection much more seriously when I get home.

So in I dove. This book started out magnificently. Full of the awe at the grandeur of the universe that Sagan was always so enthusiastic about. And the first half contains absolutely gorgeous illustrations. I can hardly imagine anyone not being swept up in Sagan's sense of wonder. Well, anyone not too busy being offended by Sagan's skeptical approach to the claims of the religions of the world. Seriously. I got done with this book thinking I had no business going to church ever again. I'm still recovering.

Anyway, a third of my way into this book, I ran around declaring that this was going to be one of my top ten favorite nonfiction books of all time. Now that I'm finished, I'm not so sure. The problem seems to be a disconnect between what I was hoping for in this book, and what Sagan's intent was in giving these lectures. I eagerly sought out this book to understand better Sagan's spiritual understanding of the universe. To get a glimpse of how his scientific quest sustained and uplifted him. But of course, Sagan's faith? belief? understanding? propelled him further -- to action.

The final chapter focused on the likelihood of the human race exterminating itself before taking the next steps into the stars. Specifically, he focused on the nightmare scenario of nuclear holocaust. Which just felt dated. I know, I know, there are still enough nuclear warheads on this plant to blow us all up several times over, but the sense of urgency seems to have passed. Maybe we're deluding ourselves, but it no longer seems as likely a scenario. It seems much more likely to me, today, that if we are going to destroy ourselves, it will be through climate change/ecosystem collapse -- another concern that was near and dear to Sagan's heart. But the central idea of his conclusion -- that we much unite our religious and scientific efforts in the name of saving ourselves, remains powerful and true.

One of the most delightful features of the book was the excerpts from the transcripts of the Q&A sessions from this lecture series that concludes the book. It was wonderful to read his responses to multiple questioners who tried to back him into various corners -- his answers were always respectful, always assertive, always thoughtful. It did a good deal to pull me out of the funk of the "we're all gonna die" chapter. But still, I am left with the disquieting feeling -- what more could I be doing to protect the future of the human race?

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