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

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On the 10th anniversary of his death, brilliant astrophysicist and Pulitzer Prize winner Carl Sagan's prescient exploration of the relationship between religion and science and his personal search for God.

Carl Sagan is considered one of the greatest scientific minds of our time. His remarkable ability to explain science in terms easily understandable to the layman in bestselling books such as Cosmos, The Dragons of Eden, and The Demon-Haunted World won him a Pulitzer Prize and placed him firmly next to Isaac Asimov, Stephen Jay Gould, and Oliver Sachs as one of the most important and enduring communicators of science. In December 2006 it will be the tenth anniversary of Sagan's death, and Ann Druyan, his widow and longtime collaborator, will mark the occasion by releasing Sagan's famous "Gifford Lectures in Natural Theology," The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God.

The chance to give the Gifford Lectures is an honor reserved for the most distinguished scientists and philosophers of our civilization. In 1985, on the grand occasion of the centennial of the lectureship, Carl Sagan was invited to give them. He took the opportunity to set down in detail his thoughts on the relationship between religion and science as well as to describe his own personal search to understand the nature of the sacred in the vastness of the cosmos.

The Varieties of Scientific Experience, edited, updated and with an introduction by Ann Druyan, is a bit like eavesdropping on a delightfully intimate conversation with the late great astronomer and astrophysicist. In his charmingly down-to-earth voice, Sagan easily discusses his views on topics ranging from manic depression and the possibly chemical nature of transcendance to creationism and so-called intelligent design to the likelihood of intelligent life on other planets to the likelihood of nuclear annihilation of our own to a new concept of science as "informed worship." Exhibiting a breadth of intellect nothing short of astounding, he illuminates his explanations with examples from cosmology, physics, philosophy, literature, psychology, cultural anthropology, mythology, theology, and more. Sagan's humorous, wise, and at times stunningly prophetic observations on some of the greatest mysteries of the cosmos have the invigorating effect of stimulating the intellect, exciting the imagination, and reawakening us to the grandeur of life in the cosmos.

284 pages, Hardcover

First published November 7, 2006

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About the author

Carl Sagan

124 books11k followers
In 1934, scientist Carl Sagan was born in Brooklyn, N.Y. After earning bachelor and master's degrees at Cornell, Sagan earned a double doctorate at the University of Chicago in 1960. He became professor of astronomy and space science and director of the Laboratory for Planetary Studies at Cornell University, and co-founder of the Planetary Society. A great popularizer of science, Sagan produced the PBS series, "Cosmos," which was Emmy and Peabody award-winning, and was watched by 500 million people in 60 countries. A book of the same title came out in 1980, and was on The New York Times bestseller list for 7 weeks. Sagan was author, co-author or editor of 20 books, including The Dragons of Eden (1977), which won a Pulitzer, Pale Blue Dot (1995) and The Demon-Haunted World: Science As a Candle in the Dark (1996), his hardest-hitting on religion. With his wife, Ann Druyan, he was co-producer of the popular motion picture, "Contact," which featured a feminist, atheist protagonist played by Jodie Foster (1997). The film came out after Sagan's death, following a 2-year struggle with a bone marrow disease. Sagan played a leading role in NASA's Mariner, Viking, Voyager, and Galileo expeditions to other planets. Ann Druyan, in the epilogue to Sagan's last book, Billions and Billions: Thoughts on Life and Death at the Brink of the Millennium (published posthumously in 1997), gives a moving account of Carl's last days: "Contrary to the fantasies of the fundamentalists, there was no deathbed conversion, no last minute refuge taken in a comforting vision of a heaven or an afterlife. For Carl, what mattered most was what was true, not merely what would make us feel better. Even at this moment when anyone would be forgiven for turning away from the reality of our situation, Carl was unflinching. As we looked deeply into each other's eyes, it was with a shared conviction that our wondrous life together was ending forever."

For his work, Dr. Sagan received the NASA medals for Exceptional Scientific Achievement and (twice) for Distinguished Public Service, as well as the NASA Apollo Achievement Award. Asteroid 2709 Sagan is named after him. He was also awarded the John F. Kennedy Astronautics Award of the American Astronautical Society, the Explorers Club 75th Anniversary Award, the Konstantin Tsiolkovsky Medal of the Soviet Cosmonauts Federation, and the Masursky Award of the American Astronomical Society, ("for his extraordinary contributions to the development of planetary science…As a scientist trained in both astronomy and biology, Dr. Sagan has made seminal contributions to the study of planetary atmospheres, planetary surfaces, the history of the Earth, and exobiology. Many of the most productive planetary scientists working today are his present and former students and associates").

He was also a recipient of the Public Welfare Medal, the highest award of the National Academy of Sciences.

Dr. Sagan was elected Chairman of the Division of Planetary Sciences of the American Astronomical Society, President of the Planetology Section of the American Geophysical Union, and Chairman of the Astronomy Section of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. For twelve years he was the editor-in-chief of Icarus, the leading professional journal devoted to planetary research. He was cofounder and President of the Planetary Society, a 100,000-member organization that is the largest space-interest group in the world; and Distinguished Visiting Scientist, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology.

In their posthumous award to Dr. Sagan of their highest honor, the National Science Foundation declared that his "research transformed planetary science… his gifts to mankind were infinite." D. 1996.

More: https://ffrf.org/news/day/dayitems/it...

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 563 reviews
Profile Image for Greg.
1,107 reviews1,829 followers
April 15, 2011
Another goodreads.com reviewer made a comment about this book being safe for those types that believe in big G to read, that it wouldn't offend. I think that reviewer may have read a different version of this book. Sagan casually lobs out atheism grenades to dismantle a whole slew of arguments in favor of whatever you'd like to call that omniscient, omnipotent, prime mover in the sky but he does it so politely and without necessarily pointing out that he is pulling apart entire proofs with just a few words. As much as I like the two arch-atheists who blurb the back of this book (Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris) Sagan's demeanor is what is missing in the fight between the believers and the 'new-Atheists', he's as effective as any of the current so-called Four Horsemen but he has a style that is less combative than at least 3/4's of them and slides doubts into his arguments that I imagine settling into someone's mind and then maybe a few months or a year or whenever later will ignite a few thoughts, like maybe when they are unable to fall asleep one night and their mind is just rifling through miscellaneous clutter scattered here and there in the cortex and that little doubt meme Sagan slipped in so innocently will spark something.

This book is a series of nine lectures about 'natural-religion', or religion that can be proved through observation. They were given in 1985 as part of the Gifford Lectures. The Gifford Lectures are apparently a pretty big deal and a who's who of intellectuals have been invited to give them over the years, and the basic topic is always natural-religion, which is a pretty open ended topic for one to talk about. Sagan begins by placing the Earth and it's inhabitants in a cosmic picture, he makes us realize how small we really are in the picture of the entire cosmos and he then gives a quick history of science lecture that shows how gradually the Aristotelean heliocentric view of the cosmos was decentered and from there begins talking about the painful process of having old cherished beliefs destroyed by new knowledge and the importance of putting our most cherished and emotionally held beliefs and doctrines to the most skeptical questioning.

The lectures are all great. Sagan's excitement and love for what he is discussing comes through in the book and it's inspiring to read someone who seems so genuinely interested in imparting what he finds awesome to others. And he talks about all of the things in this book without ever breaking into jargon, burying the read (or listener, since these are lectures) with scientific details or in seeming to ever talk down the reader.

Originally I thought I'd make this one of my rambling half-confessional half-diatribe reviews, but I think I'll just stick with what I have so far. I don't really like recommending books to people, but this one I will. Sagan does a great job making the world we live in seem great, wondrous, beautiful and full of mystery just as it is without having to resort to or add any myths or superstitious nonsense.
Profile Image for Jay.
17 reviews6 followers
June 26, 2013
Where should I begin? A little over two years ago I watched the entire Cosmos television series on Netflix and - despite the fact I've always been scientifically literate and tried to live my day to day life with a healthy dose of skepticism, logic and reason - this television series rocked me to my core.

I am not exaggerating when I tell people Carl Sagan changed my life. Never before had I experienced such depth of personal character and scientific knowledge. Never before had I witnessed such a candid presentation of the potential perils facing the future of the human species coupled with the level of hope, optimism and wonder often found only within the heart and mind of a child... all of this presented through the lens of human growth and scientific achievement throughout history.

What does all this have to do with this book? The Varieties of Scientific Experience was my first book from Carl Sagan immediately following my exposure to his Cosmos Television series and I was thrilled to find that Sagan remains true to his reputation regardless of medium. I have yet to find anyone else who can present scientific fact in such an engaging way or anyone who can challenge superstition and religious dogma with such grace, patience or genuine compassion.

If you are looking for a book willing to tackle the big questions in life - Why are we here, where did we come from and what is our purpose? - with logic and reason wrapped inside a generous slice of humility then look no further. When venturing through territory where Sagan is well versed he is direct and informative. When stepping into areas where he does not have a definitive answer he is skeptical yet humble.

What an amazing human being Carl Sagan was and what an enjoyable testament to his life and his work this book is.
Profile Image for Kevin.
478 reviews71 followers
December 6, 2019
"If you are searching for sacred knowledge and not just a palliative for your fears, then you will train yourself to be a good skeptic." ~Ann Druyan

Believe in something without evidence and you are superstitious. Believe in something that runs counter to mountains of existing, quantifiable evidence and you are religious.

One of the most preposterous tenants of western theology is that everything exists for the benefit of man. The prevalent fundamentalist philosophy is one of anthropocentric smallness and irrefutability, a philosophy that only works if truths are somehow distorted or ignored. Carl Sagan, himself well versed in scripture, plows through these ideological conundrums to reveal a universal order many times more vast and awe-inspiring than anything the pulpit propagandists would like you to believe. Sagan's contention here is simple - if something as important as religion cannot withstand rational scrutiny, then it has no more validity than Greek mythology or Mayan astrology.

"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." ~C.S. (pg 31)
Profile Image for Shaun.
522 reviews181 followers
July 2, 2015
Carl Sagan, a brilliant and humble man.

This is a compilation of the Gifford Lectures on Natural Theology which he presented in 1985 at the University of Glascow.

If there were ever a champion for science, it was Sagan. And thank "God" for him. The beauty and eloquence of his words are only superceded by the beauty and eloquence of his ideas.

Some passages that stood out for me

There is also a wonderful question and answer section provided. Of particular interest are those questions designed to get Sagan to concede to the possibility if not likelihood of a God. I think one of the most important points he makes both in the lecture itself and during these questions is that a lot depends on how you define "God." Most atheists I know are not opposed to the idea of a powerful force that is beyond our immediate understanding. They are willing to go wherever the evidence takes them and many are agnostic. However, that broad, hazy interpretation of God is much different than the very specific and rigid Gods of various traditional religions, many of whom supposedly dictated religious texts filled with absolute truths about the world.

There are also some wonderful, thought-provoking, and humbling photos of the universe. Great read which I highly recommend.
Profile Image for robin friedman.
1,778 reviews210 followers
July 18, 2021
Carl Sagan's Search For God

I was moved to read Carl Sagan's "The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God" (2006) after reading the classic study for which it is named: "The Varieties of Religious Experience" (1902) by the American philosopher and psychologist, William James. As was James's book, Sagan's book consists of the text of Gifford lectures, Sagan lectured in 1985, James in 1901 -- 1902. The Gifford lectures were established in Scotland in 1888 to "promote and diffuse the study of Natural Theology in the widest sense of the term -- in other words, the knowledge of God." Many distinguished thinkers have delivered the Gifford lectures over the years.

Carl Sagan (1934 -- 1996) was an American astronomer who became famous for his efforts in presenting science to a wide lay audience. In spite of the title of his book, which was given not by Sagan but by his editor, Ann Druyan, Sagan's lectures include no mention of James and little consideration of James's approach to religion in the "Varieties". Sagan's book is fascinating nonetheless. But I find it tempting to think of ways in which his approach might be complemented by that of James.

Sagan approaches religion from his background as a scientist. He takes complex scientific ideas and explains them learnedly and eloquently. He covers matters such as the origin of the universe and of the planets, the age of the universe, geological time, the origin of life, the likelihood of finding life on other planets in other galaxies, UFO's, and much else. The book is punchy and provocative without becoming overbearing.

Sagan argues that mankind's source of knowledge of the world comes through science. He argues that the view of the world presented in the Bible, with its creator God active in human affairs, cannot stand the light of scientific scrutiny. He is a skeptic in matters of religion and revelation and he argues that the better course for people is to withhold judgment on matters that they do not know or understand until sufficient reliable evidence is available on which to draw a conclusion. He describes, broadly, in his book how modern science gradually has destroyed the sense of a teleological (purpose-driven) human-centered universe, created and directed by a God with a divine plan, and replaced it instead with universal scientific laws of physics and chemistry. As have many thinkers before him, Sagan examines many of the traditional proofs for the existence of God and finds them wanting. He gives particular emphasis in this book to the argument from design and to the cosmological argument. In his concluding chapter, Sagan comes close to equating the religious search -- in the subtitle of the book -- with the search for scientific knowledge. He concludes (p.221) "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 on 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." From this book, Sagan's philosophical heroes, whom he mentions many times, appear to be Spinoza and Albert Einstein, excellent company indeed.

I want to make a brief comparison of Sagan's approach with that of William James and to suggest that the two approaches largely bypass each other because they are directed to different questions. Sagan considers religion from the standpoint of scientific knowledge. James, in contrast, took as the theme of his "Varieties" the "exploration of religious themes and religious impulses." James defines the scope of his study as "the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude so far as they apprehend themselves to relation to whatever they may consider the divine." Thus, James explored the phenomena and the experiences of religious life without making any commitment to the cause of or the "objectivity" of these experiences, without commitment to revelation or particular religious dogma, and without challenging the teachings of science. James tried to consider what it was of value that people found in the religious quest and in religious experience. He tried to do so, for the most part, by leaving science free to explore and expand our understanding of the world and of physical law -- as this was understood in James's day and as it has expanded dramatically in our own.

Sagan's account is stimulating, and it reminded me of how much science has indeed changed our outlook on life -- including our religious outlook. I found it liberating. But I found it offered only a partial understanding of the religious search, it purports to describe in the subtitle, and of the religious life. I think religion needs to be approached by, in the words of many religious teachers, "looking within". Such a search need not require the contravention of the teachings of science, the postulating of revelation or of divine entities, or the deprecating of the value of the scientific endeavor. It is a search for meaning and self-understanding. I think this approach goes further even than the approach James took in his "Varieties", but his text suggests it to me. In this sense, I think that Sagan has only studied part of his broad issue. There is room both for his scientific approach and for the complementary approach of William James, who in his Gifford Lectures delivered the still-landmark study of the Varieties of Religious Experience.

Robin Friedman
Profile Image for Erik.
25 reviews12 followers
March 24, 2009
This is the first book of Carl Sagan's that I've read, and I think it's probably the perfect bridge for me between my science books and the books on religion (or atheism) that I've read.

I have seen Cosmos and found it remarkably ahead of its time, and the same is true for what Carl had lectured on at the Gifford Lectures, from which this book is transcribed. Always ahead of his time, and always showing amazing grasp of the topic at hand, the book is both funny and astonishing. Even though much of what he has said I've heard before (I'd even go so far as to say that more recent critics of religion, such as Dawkins and Hitchens, have simply rehashed Carl's original ideas) - the way Carl has with words is something you have to read firsthand. He phrases things in a way that, even though they are ideas not new to me, he gave me another way of thinking about them. And that's one of the things I love the most about science.

I almost took a star off because the end chapter focuses a bit too much on our self-immolation at the hands of nuclear weapons (due to the paranoia of Cold War Soviet aggression) but I felt that it serves to keep the book rooted in a point of history that is both important and still quite relevant. Therefore, 5 stars.

Highly recommend this book for fellow atheists, freethinkers, agnostics, and doubters. Even those who are already believers might find it enjoyable, despite being a challenge to their faith.
Profile Image for Katherine Parker.
48 reviews5 followers
December 29, 2008
Carl Sagan rules the Universe, kind of literally. I wish I were as smart as CS.

Eric got me this book for Christmas, and I read it straight through, even the Q&A transcripts in the back. If you are interested in spirituality but don't believe in the Big Daddy in the Sky, if our mere existence (not to mention manatees, ferns, toads, the molten core of the earth, and billions and billions of stars) makes you sorta awestruck when you pause to think about it, this book will not fail to delight. I was happy to read that one of my main beefs with monotheistic religion (namely, that most people's view of God is too small - a micromanager who is watching over every aspect of your life, arranging it specially for you) was brought up by CS, who agrees with me. He also makes a beautiful argument that one of the best ways to search for/know/glorify God is to try to understand the natural world, the universe, and the laws that govern its operation. Even if you do believe in the esteemed JC as Your Personal Savior, you should still read this book. No matter who you are, this book will enlarge your idea of how amazing the universe is, shrink your sense about your own importance in it, and maybe spur you to see every moment of consciousness, every animal, plant, drop of water on this planet, as infinitely precious and worthy of esteem and care.
Profile Image for Jorge Zuluaga.
268 reviews283 followers
June 29, 2020
Como todo lo publicado por el par Sagan-Druyan, este es un libro excelente. Como también sucede con casi todos los libros de este par, la diversidad de la ciencia debería ser prácticamente de lectura obligatoria en colegios y universidades (independientemente de la carrera).

Como deben saber, el libro contiene una (impecable) transcripción de una serie de conferencias sobre "teología natural" (la búsqueda de dios o dioses a través de la inquisición intelectual y el razonamiento, en lugar de la iluminación) que dicto Carl Sagan en Escocia en 1985. Las conferencias hacen parte de unos ciclos sobre el tema que se vienen dictando allí desde 1888 y en los que han participado científicos, humanistas y teólogos (https://www.giffordlectures.org/).

En el texto Sagan brilla como siempre por su claridad y respeto hacia el lector, incluso al tratar temas tan delicados como la existencia de dios, las experiencias religiosas, la responsabilidad de la religión en el futuro de la humanidad y otras cosas en las que muchos científicos, al ser cuestionados, ciertamente no seríamos políticamente correctos.

Las ideas sobre dios y la religión que expone Sagan en estas charlas son cuando menos aleccionadoras, tanto para quienes no somos creyentes, como para quiénes lo son.

En particular retaría a cualquier creyente o agnóstico inteligente y extrovertido (que declare abiertamente su posición positiva o neutra frente a dios) de que leyera la conferencia "la hipótesis de dios" en este volumen y que después sostuviera sus convicciones sin sentir un poco de vergüenza. Y no porque Sagan destruya la idea de dios de un plumazo (nadie ha podido hacerlo nunca en realidad), sino porque sus impecables razonamientos, sus citas y ejemplos, muestran lo increíblemente insatisfactorio de este concepto.

No me cabe la menor duda que frente a cuestiones de fe solo hay dos posibilidades: o eres un creyente vergonzante (alguien que no puede resistir a creer en cosas que no puede pensar o mostrar, pero que no se siente particularmente orgulloso de ellos y más bien un poco avergonzado) o eres un ateo sin vergüenza.

Pero también retaría a todos los no creyentes, o a los ateos sin vergüenza para que leyeran el capítulo "los crímenes contra la creación" sin reconocer por un momento que la religión, usada apropiadamente, podría tener actualmente el poder para revertir algunos de los problemas más acuciantes de la sociedad y el medio ambiente.
Profile Image for Brooke.
537 reviews287 followers
November 11, 2009
This book is a collection of the lectures Sagan gave during his Gifford Lectures appointment in Glasglow. Although he gave the lectures in 1985, they needed very little updating (done with minimal footnotes) upon their publication in 2006. I think the only thing I noticed that is irrelevant now is Sagan's musings about whether or not the universe is forever expanding, and the implications of a universe that expands and contracts (a footnote helpfully reveals that evidence now shows a rapidly expanding universe).

I've noticed many reviews on Goodreads refer to Sagan as an atheist, which isn't correct (he's been quoted elsewhere that an atheist would have to know a lot more than Sagan does), but I can see how it's easy to come away from the book with that idea - his agnostic stance isn't really demonstrated until the Q&A transcript at the end of the lectures, where he points out that you can't prove something without evidence, but that a lack of evidence is not proof that something doesn't exist.

There's a little bit of an overlap between this and Sagan's The Demon-Haunted World Science as a Candle in the Dark, but I think this is the better book; as I noted in my review of The Demon-Haunted World, the latter part of that book seems like a tangent that doesn't quite fit with the first part. The lectures in this collection, on the other hand, all go together very well and transition into each other nicely. On the other hand, The Demon-Haunted World demonstrates more of the balance between Sagan's wonder and skepticism. The lectures come off as being more on the skeptic side.
Profile Image for Daniel Villines.
376 reviews50 followers
August 2, 2012
Imagine that at some long ago point in human history, a human first looked at her hand, and knew for certain that that hand was her very own. And from there she would look at things, think about how things worked, and put things together in order to survive and ultimately to thrive.

Now imagine some distant point in the future. Where will we be? It’s impossible to say but the possibilities, if made simple enough, are clear. We will either be alive and thriving, or we will not be anywhere at all.

The Varieties of Scientific Experience is a realistic attempt to define where humanity is on the path between that past moment of realization and those two possible futures. Sagan gives this assessment in the most selfless of terms that humans can avail themselves of, which is the scientific method. Everything he puts forth is qualified in terms of its level of understanding and nothing is put forth that does not have Sagan’s beliefs as supported by physical and real evidence. It is simply the very best that humans can do to define ourselves, and to define everything around us.

As for our actual location on that path, readers are left to decide for themselves. There are no certainties expressed by Sagan. The books thickness alone is enough convey the fact that arm-twisting, complicated mythos, or assertions of opinions based on lengthy stories are not included. And again, the selflessness of science (as well as our very survival) demands that we as individuals make this evaluation for ourselves. Our future depends upon it.
Profile Image for David.
559 reviews131 followers
May 7, 2022
You can 'hear' Carl's voice throughout this series of lectures. It is clear, calm, and very rational. The final 30 pages are a transcription of selected questions and answers where Dr. Sagan shines with his ability to think and speak so clearly impromptu. We need more people that can think critically and listen to both sides this way.

Maybe we do have people like this around today, but they are not getting covered by the media. They might be too 'boring' or not controversial enough to gain ratings. But these are the people we should be listening to!

These are the Gifford Lectures on Natural Theology of 1985 that Carl Sagan gave at the University of Glasgow. Each lecture progressively builds toward his later chapters. He starts with his strong background in cosmology and his work on SETI (Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence) research. My favorite chapters are 6 and 7: "The God Hypothesis" and "The Religious Experience".

Ch 8 "Crimes Against Creation" focuses on the great fear in the 1980's about the spiraling Nuclear Weapon race. Ronald Reagan was in office; Star Wars missile defense was a hot topic; the Cold War was in full-swing. Might we annihilate humanity?

The 16 page editor's introduction Carl's wife and science partner, Ann Drunyan, is a beautiful overview of what is coming in this book. Don't skip this! She writes how there was laughter during the lectures that were not captured in this pure text transcription. And even Ann is in awe of the Q&A sessions that captured a sense of what it was like to explore a question with Carl.

"He (Carl) avidly studied the world's religions, both living and defunct, with the same hunger for learning that he brought to scientific subjects. He was enchanted by their poetry and history. When he debated religious leaders, he frequently surprised them with his ability to out-quote the sacred texts. Some of these debates led to long-standing friendships and alliances for the protections of life. However, he never understood why anyone would want to separate science, which is just a way of searching for what is true, from what we hold sacred, which are those truths that inspire love and awe."

Wiki Carl Sagan: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carl_Sagan
A true visionary!
Easy 5*

Excerpts of gold:

Ch 4 Extraterrestrial Intelligence
"Certainly on this planet it is not apparent that there are beings more intelligent than humans, although a case can be made for dolphins and whales, and in fact if humans succeed in destroying themselves with nuclear weapons, a case could be made that ALL the other animals are smarter than humans."

John Adams said: "Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence."

"If scientists can be fooled on the question of the simple interpretation of straightforward data of the sort that they are routinely obtaining from other kinds of astronomical objects, when the stakes are high, when the emotional predispositions are working, what must be the situation where the evidence is much weaker, where the will to believe is much greater, where the skeptical scientific tradition has hardly made a toehold - namely, in the area of religion?"

Ch 5: Extraterrestrial Folklore
Paraphrasing Hume: "Is it more probable that nature should go out of her course or that a man should tell a lie?"

"There is a religion that says that all diseases are psychogenic, that there is no such thing as a microorganism producing disease. There is no such thing as a cellular malfunction producing a disease, that the only thing that produces disease is not thinking right, not having adequate faith. And I need not remind you that there is a significant body of medical evidence to the contrary."

"When you buy a used car, it is insufficient to remember that you badly need a car. After all, it has to work. It is insufficient to say that the used=car salesman is a friendly fellow. What you generally do is you kick the tires, you look at the odometer, you open up the hood. If you do not feel yourself expert in automobile engines, you bring a friend who is. And you do this for something as unimportant as an automobile. But on issues of the transcendent, of ethics and morals, of the origin of the world, of the nature of human beings, on those issues should we not insist upon at least equally skeptical scrutiny?"

Ch 6: The God Hypothesis
Causality: "Those things were caused by something else. And so, after a while, you find yourself back to remote times and causes. Well, it can't go on forever, an infinite regress of causes, as Aristotle and later Thomas Aquinas argued, and there fore you need to come to an uncaused first cause. Something that started everything going that was not itself caused; that is, that was always there. And this is defined as God."

[the moral argument for the existence of God] Immanuel Kant "argument is very simple. It's just that we are moral beings; therefore God exists. That is, how else would we know to be moral?"

[if God is omnipotent] "You start out the universe, you can do anything. You can see all future consequences of your present action. You want certain desired end. Why don't you arrange it in the beginning? The intervention of God in human affairs speaks of incompetence. I don't say incompetence on a human scale. Clearly all the views of God are much more competent than the most competent human. But it does not speak of omni-competence. It says there are limitations."

Ch 7: The Religious Experience
Ivan Turgenev said: "Whatever a man prays for, he prays for a miracle. Every prayer reduces itself to this: 'Great God, grant that twice two be not four.'" And from a different tradition, let me quote a Yiddish proverb, which goes, "If praying did any good, they would be hiring men to pray."

"Now, this has not led to a school of people who do statistical tests on the efficacy of prayer. Hard to know why not. Except that people who don't believe in prayer perhaps are not very interested in this, and those who do are convinced of its efficacy and therefore do not need to go to statistical tests."

"Area all human emotions to some extent mediated by molecules? If a molecule ingested from the outside can change behavior, is there generally some comparable molecule on the inside that can change behavior?"

[what about a molecule that could create a religious experience?] "Now, what's the good of that? Why would that have any selective advantage? If for no other reason, it would produce social conformity, or, put in more favorable terms, it would ensure social stability and morality. And this is, of course, one of the principal justifications of religion."

"People who through no fault of their own have much less in the way of material goods or respect in a society are told in many religions, 'It doesn't matter in this life. Yeah, it looks like you're getting a bad deal, but this is just the twinkling of an eye. What really matters is the next life, and there an implacable cosmic justice awaits you. All those who seem unjustly enriched by the rewards of this life will be punished greatly in the next, whereas you who are the hewers and carriers, the humble people who are content with you lot in this life, will be raised to glory in the next.'
Maybe it's true. But it's not hard to see that such a doctrine would be very appealing to the ruling classes of a society. It calms any revolutionary tendencies or even mild complaints and therefore has powerful utility."

"Is it not likely that in earlier times, in less sophisticated circumstances, those who wished to impose a certain set of behavioral tenets claimed that they had been handed them by a god or gods?"

Pierre-Simon was the marquis de Laplace, one of the great scientists in the post-Newtonian age, and also a partisan of the French Revolution. In his 'System of the World', in 1796, he said, "Far from us be the dangerous maxim that it is sometimes useful to mislead, to deceive, and enslave mankind to ensure their happiness."

Bertrand Russell, from his 'Skeptical Essays', published in 1928 said: "I wish to propose for the reader's favorable consideration a doctrine which may, I fear, appear wildly paradoxical and subversive. The doctrine in question is this: that it is undesirable to believe a proposition when there is no ground whatever for supposing it true. I must of course admit that if such an opinion became common it would completely transform our social life and our political system. Since both are at present faultless this must weigh against it."

Ch 8: Crimes Against Creation
"the Christian fundamentalist view in the United States is that the end of the wold is unerringly predicted in the book of Revelation, that the details in the book of Revelation are sufficiently similar to those of a nuclear war that it is the duty of a Christian not to prevent prevent nuclear war. The Christian who does so would be interfering with God's plan."

"And in particular there is the issue of the Golden Rule. Christianity says that you should love your enemy." ... not just Christianity. The Golden Rule was uttered by Rabbi Hillel before Jesus, and by the Buddha centuries before Rabbi Hillel. It is involved in many different religions. ... But isn't it interesting that no nation of Christians has adopted it?"

"We are spending a million million dollars every year, worldwide, on armaments. A million million dollars. Think of what you could do with a million million dollars. A visitor from somewhere else - the legendary intelligent extraterrestrial - dipping down to the Earth and inquiring what we are about and finding such prodigies of human inventiveness and such enormous fractions of our wealth devoted not just to the means of war but to the means of massive global destruction - such a being would surely deduce that our prospects are not very good and perhaps go on to some other, more promising world."

Ch 9: The Search
"We kill each other, or threaten to kill each other, in part, I think, because we are afraid we might not ourselves know the truth, that someone else with a different doctrine might have a closer approximation to the truth. Our history is in part a battle to the death of inadequate myths. If I can't convince you, I must kill you. That will change your mind. You are a threat to my version of the truth, especially the truth about who I am and what my nature is. The thought that I may have dedicated my life to a lie, that I might have accepted a conventional wisdom that no longer , if it ever did, corresponds to the external reality, that is a very painful realization."

"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. If we are to understand another's belief, then we must also understand the deficiencies and inadequacies of our own. And those deficiencies and inadequacies are very major. This is true whichever political or ideological or ethnic or cultural tradition we come from. In a complex universe, in a society undergoing unprecedented change, how can we find the truth if we are not willing to question everything and to give a fair hearing to everything? There is a worldwide close-mindedness that imperils the species. It was always with us, but the risks weren't as grave, because weapons of mass destruction were not then available."

"I think it is striking how poorly religions, by and large, have accommodated the the astonishing truths that have emerged in the last few centuries."

"Or look at the status of women, about which finally the planet is coming to its senses in our own time. Or even things like smallpox and other disfiguring and fatal diseases, diseases of children, that were once thought to be an inevitable, God-given part of life. The clergy argued, and some still do, that those diseases were sent by God as a scourge for mankind. Now there are no more cases of smallpox on the planet. For a few tens of millions of dollars and the efforts of physicians from a hundred countries, coordinated by the World Health Organization, smallpox has been removed from the planet Earth."

And the final sentence...

"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."

"The more badly we want to believe it, the more skeptical we have to be. It involves a kind of courageous self-discipline. Nobody says it's easy."

"Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Neither is it evidence of presence."

Questioner: As a scientist, would you deny the possibility of water having been changed into wine in the Bible?
Carl Sagan: Deny the possibility? Certainly not. I would not deny any such possibility. But I would, of course, not spend a moment on it unless there was some evidence for it."

"And therefore I would say that the first thing to do is to realize that governments, all governments, at least on occasion, lie. And some of them do it all the time - some of them do it only every second statement - but, by and large, governments distort the facts in order to remain in office."
Profile Image for Laura.
255 reviews1 follower
January 7, 2013
Well, I do wish everyone would read this book. I know that those with minds that are closed - whether known or not or willingly or not - would still not respond to the arguments that Sagan makes, but it might make a difference for those who are willing to take inquiry seriously. Sagan was a genius, but it was his ability to communicate to the masses that made him historical.

Throughout his lectures, he evokes the wisdom of others --

From the intro: "he insisted with Bertrand Russell that 'what is wanted is not the will to believe, but the desire to find out, which is the exact opposite.'"

On miracles, he quotes Hume and then Thomas Paine: "Is it more probable that nature should go out of her course or that a man should tell a lie?"

On the function of religion, he quotes Pierre-Simon (post-Newtonian scientist and partisan of the French Revolution): "Far from us be the dangerous maxim that it is sometimes useful to mislead, to deceive, and enslave mankind to ensure their happiness."

And finally, in his own words, the final paragraph: "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."

Then he goes on to school some common folk in the Q&A (the common folk being those smart enough to brave asking questions - those smarter than me).
Profile Image for Cat Lennon.
1 review1 follower
June 20, 2015
This is quite possibly my favorite book of all time, at least up until this point.

While, of course, almost every page could stand to be expanded upon, this book is a wonderful introduction to the orientation of humanity in the universe and the search for God through the eyes of a scientist- or somebody armed with only scientific truths. It put into words some of the elements of astronomy that caused cognitive dissonance for me when I took my ASTR 101 class in college as a very educated Catholic (in apologetics, no less). The same basic truths revealed in this book caused me to question the years and years of study of (albeit basic) theology and philosophy that I had used to convince myself of truths that now seem so logically incestuous, complex, and comparatively trivial/meaningless that I don't understand how I ever could have thought I was headed in the right direction. Many of the ideas in this book reinforced my initial thoughts on those little dogmatic quirks.

Carl thinks skepticism is the best route in the face of uncompelling or nonexistent evidence, while remaining open to new evidence and appreciating the immense beauty found in even just the natural wonders of physics and astronomy, and humanity as well- evolved as we are.

This book does not cover everything. There is still so much to be explored, but if you are religious, it will demand that you look at your existence from a completely different perspective. You may find yourself questioning the little dogmatic quirks of your religion, or the concept of religion overall.

I highly recommend it. Oh, and the first paragraph of the acknowledgements made me tear up, but I tend to be overly sentimental. The world lost a great man in 1996.
Profile Image for Dustin.
92 reviews15 followers
June 12, 2008
Carl Sagan was one of the best at taking an exceptionally complex issue, often fraught with emotional and intuitional baggage, and rendering it into language that anyone can easily understand. He was also extremely generous in allowing that in any discussion of science or religion, no one, not even he, has all the answers, or maybe ever will.

This book is a transcript of a series of lectures he gave at Glasgow University, dealing with natural religion, which basically deals with the intersection of real science and religion (as opposed to the pseudo-scientific quackery often paraded on tv as "science.") Also included are transcripts of Q&A sessions that were held after each lecture.

A must read. I won't even bother to try to summarize any of his ideas or findings, as there is no way I could do any of them justice.
Profile Image for Mike.
7 reviews
January 15, 2008
Sagan quietly states in the middle of a sobering paragraph that "God is the sum of all natural laws in the universe." Yes, Sagan challenges the faithful to provide evidence acceptable to him (which is nothing less than a phenomenon observed and replicated by many), and his demand is contrary to the law of faith. However, Sagan's challenge motivates me to undertake careful inventory of my own knowledge, both secular and religious, to substantiate my personal beliefs. In the near future, I hope to answer in the affirmative the following question: "can I defend my faith as well as Sagan does in undermining it?"
Profile Image for Bin.
4 reviews3 followers
October 2, 2007
The Varieties of Scientific Experience is a transcript of Carl Sagan's presentation of the Gifford Lectures.

While each lecture is self contained, the come together as a whole - each obliquely addressing questions about man's place in the universe, basic science, the relationship of rational inquiry to religion, and the implications of belief in extraterrestrial life.

Here, Sagan is presented in his typical form. He is at once witty, understandable, profound, and compassionate.

Of particular interest is the transcript of the various Q&A sessions which accompanied the lectures. Sagan displays great charm and humanity in his handling of those who attempt to attack his ideas. It's truly incredible to observe the confident humility of one of science's greatest minds.
Profile Image for John.
31 reviews5 followers
February 21, 2008
An absolutely positive mindfuck, built as you know Carl Sagan would build a book of his own essays. I particularly liked the section in the back where he's transcribed the post-lecture questions and well-fielded answers. You'll be entirely entertained and interested, guaranteed.

The book is not solely about God, it's also about (other) extraterrestrial intelligence and many other interrelated fields. Also, Sagan's not one tenth so vehement an atheist as Dawkins, and potential readers afraid of learning the truth about God can rest easy sitting down with this one.
August 31, 2020
Carl Sagan, como siempre deslumbrante. El libro es el contenido textual (grabado y luego escrito) de las conferencias sobre Teología Natural, llamadas las "Gifford Lectures", en las cuales fue invitado, y luego, después de cada conferencia, se abría el típico foro de preguntas y respuestas (Q&A) en donde con la parsimonia característica, se debatía en muchas ocasiones a gente que no lograba socavar los conceptos aquí presentados.
La teología natural, según nos describe, es la concepción religiosa que parte a partir del análisis del mundo natural, con lógica, sin tradición oral alguna. Esto es, el uso de las herramientas como la biología, paleogenética, genética molecular, paleoantropología, cosmología, astrofísica y otras para poder darle sentido ontológico a la vida, sin necesidad de algún texto antiguo repleto de información no comprobable. Verdaderamente hacer un review sobre este libro implicaría una larga letanía sobre el por qué dejé ser ser creyente (nací en Guayaquil, Ecuador, último hijo de una familia católica), y eso es verdaderamente extenuante. Los puntos de vista planteados por Sagan son siempre bienvenidos y repletos de lógica; se observa eso no siempre en las conferencias, también se observa en las respuestas que se le da a las personas que precisamente le hacen preguntas -pro deidades-, en donde es fácil ver el tipo de falacias lógicas que normalmente se emplean para hablar de dios. Es verdaderamente increíble haber leído este libro, muy reconfortante y como siempre, leer a Carl Sagan es ingresar a una especie de biblioteca humana, que comprende todo, que explica todo, y que es de brazos abiertos para comprender muchos conceptos ajenos que puedan aparecer, siempre con ese escepticismo característico.
Profile Image for jeremy.
1,113 reviews275 followers
September 21, 2014
transcribed from his 1985 gifford lectures in glasgow, carl sagan's the varieties of scientific experience is an intrepid, erudite, and remarkably lucid examination of the universe, cosmology, extraterrestrial intelligence, religion, god, nuclear warfare, and humanity's future. sagan's prose is frequently breathtaking and his ability to succinctly convey and richly illustrate ideas is utterly enchanting.

published ten years after his death in 1996 (and edited by his widow, ann druyan), the varieties of scientific experience is as compelling and poignant as when the lectures were first delivered nearly three decades ago. although there have been some significant scientific developments and revelations in that span of time, the essence and character of sagan's talks have lost none of their luster.
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.

Profile Image for Marita Mazanishvili.
65 reviews12 followers
October 8, 2016
"მულტიდისციპლინარული" და introduction ტიპის წიგნია (:D) კოსმოსზე, რელიგიურ გამოცდილებებზე, ანთროპოლოგიაზე, extra-terrestrial life-ზე, ადამიანურ ცნობისმოყვარეობაზე და ა.შ განსაკუთრებით საინტერესო იყო ატომური იარაღისა და ადამიანური ეთიკის მიმართება. სეიგანის აზრით, ის ფაქტი რომ კაცობრიობამ თვითდესტრუქციული იარაღი შექმნა, მაგრამ თავს მაინც არ ინადგურებს ჩვენს ეთიკურობაზე მიანიშნებს. btw ატომური იარაღის გამოყენების აკრძალვა დღესდღეობით არ არსებობს და ქვეყნები იტოვებენ უფლებას, რომ საჭიროების შემთხვევაში ატომური იარაღი გამოიყენონ. შესაბამისად "ეთიკურები ვართ და იმიტომ" არგუმენტი არ მგონია მთლად სწორი, თუ ესეთი "ეთიკურები" ვართ, ავკრძალოთ. თუმცა წიგნის ავტორი აშკარად აღფრთოვანებულია ადამიანებით და ძნელია ეს განწყობა არ გაიზიარო, მინიმუმ წიგნის კითხვის პროცესში მაინც :D
Profile Image for Alex.
1,418 reviews4,327 followers
February 23, 2010
A collection of Sagan's lectures on atheism from the 80s. Terrific stuff. I don't love books by atheists (although I am one), but this is great.
Profile Image for Michael.
110 reviews38 followers
August 31, 2014
ეს არის სეიგანის მიერ ედინბურგში ჩატარებული ჯიფორდის 1985 წლის ლექციები, რომელიც სეიგანის მეუღლემ ენ დრიანმა 2006 წელს გამოსცა მისი სიკვდილიდან 10 წლის თავზე.
ლექციების თემები მრავალფეროვანია: მეცნიერება, რელიგია, ღმერთი, სკეპტიც��ზმი, უხო ცივილიზაციები, პოლიტიკა, სიცოცხლე, ბირთვული საშიშროება და ა.შ. თუმცა სეიგანის გამოკვეთილი მესიჯი რომელიც ყველა თემაში ვლინდება არის სკეპტიციზმის და ფხიზელი გონების აუცილებლობა, რომლის გარეშეც თანამედროვე ეპოქაში დიდ გამოწვევებს და საშიშროებებს ვერ გავუმკლავდებით.
როდესაც მეორად ავტომობილს ვყიდულობთ ბუნებრივია საგულდაგულოდ ვამოწმებთ საბურავებს, ძრავს, ავტომობილის საერთო მდგომარეობას, მოტყუებული რომ არ დავრჩეთ, მაშინ რატომ არ უნდა შევამოწმოთ და გავარკვიოთ იმაზე მეტი რასაც მთავრობა და რელიგიური ავტორიტეტები გვეუბნებიან? რატომ ვუჯერებთ მათ გაცილებით ადვილად? განა ჩვენი მომავალი მეტად არ არის დამოკიდებული მათ მოქმედებაზე? ამ ნაწილის რეზიუმედ ჯორჯ კარლინის ციტატა კარგად ჩაჯდებოდა "უთხარით ხალხს რომ არსებობს უჩინარი კაცი რომელმაც შექმნა სამყარო და მათი დიდი უმრავლესობა დაგიჯერებთ. უთხარით მათ რომ საღებავი სველია და ისინი შეეხებიან რათა დარწმუნდნენ"
სეიგანი ჩვეული ინტელექტუალური, სკეპტიკური და მეცნიერული აკურატულობით განიხილავს ისეთ საკითხებს როგორიცაა: ამოუცნობი მფრინავი ობიექტები და უცხო ცივლიზაციის ვიზიტები, ადამიანთა გატაცება და ა.შ. ღმერთის არსებობის "მტკიცებულებები" რელიგიის როლი და ფუნქცია, კაცობრიობა და ბირთვული ომის საფრთხე. საინტერესოა ასვე კითხვებიც ლექციების ბოლოს და სეიგანის პასუხები.
Profile Image for Ryan.
223 reviews52 followers
January 18, 2009
It is so refreshing to finally finish a book. Since my life as an adult has begun (post-college), finishing a book is an increasingly rare event. I currently am on a science kick to such a degree that I have found myself wondering if I ought to go back to school and get an undergraduate degree in biology. Why? Just for fun. Anyway, this book is a book of recorded lectures that Sagan gave in Britain--something called the Gifford Lectures, which are probably prestigious. Anyway, they concern science and religion, and, really, for Carl, how religion just doesn't stand up to any sort of scrutiny. One major theme of the book is that no one should ever believe a proposition unless there be evidence to support that proposition. I think this is a basic, fair piece of advice to follow.
When he's not discussing the debate between science and religion, he is discussing what we have learned in the realm of astrophysics, and he does an excellent job.
Since Sagan has died, I don't think anyone has picked up the mantle for champion of science. Dawkins has tried, but he is rather insolent and argumentative. Although I personally like Dawkins a lot, I don't think his personality suits him to be the champion of science that is needed.
Profile Image for Stefany GG.
82 reviews42 followers
September 18, 2014
Me gusta cuando transcriben las conferencias de los grandes pensadores a modo de libro, de esta forma están a tu alcance y te permiten formar parte de ellas aunque no estuviste ahí.

Carl Sagan fue un gran visionario y siempre quiso difundir el conocimiento y la curiosidad como un modo a partir del cual podemos hacernos una mente crítica y valorar lo importante que es indagar más sobre las cosas, formando un entendimiento basado en la ciencia y una continua búsqueda de la verdad. Hace observaciones muy inteligentes sobre las maravillas del cosmos despertando nuestra imaginación y estimulando las ganas de saber más. Creo que expone con mucha humildad sus observaciones sobre cómo funciona la ciencia y, a su vez, la existencia de un dios (que no importa la religión) que a veces se basa en ideas poco coherentes o inteligibles, invitándonos a informarnos más y madurar nuestra opinión al respecto.
February 19, 2008
These are the collected Gifford Hall lectures that Carl Sagan delivered in 1985. There's all the usual stuff about the need for healthy skepticism, as well as a brief tour of the various phenomenon involved in the creation of astronomical bodies, but the key thing I came away from this book with, is that Carl Sagan has found that the pursuit of science, the pursuit of real understanding about the natural world to be even more spiritually satisfying and profound than the mundane religions and fairy tales and superstitions that our society has yet to relinquish.
Profile Image for Scott.
30 reviews3 followers
February 11, 2012
This is a must-read for Carl Sagan fans. I love his optimism and open-mindedness, as well as his refusal to accept unsupported beliefs just because they might make us feel better. Today's popularizers of science and skepticism (Richard Dawkins, et al) are saying a lot of the same things, but Sagan had a gift for tempering uncompromising skepticism with an empathy for believers that didn't require them to feel like chumps. He personified the free and responsible search for truth and meaning. I wish he were still with us today.
Profile Image for David Rubenstein.
801 reviews2,521 followers
October 17, 2010
It has been many years since I last read any of Carl Sagan's books. This book was a delightful surprise. Easy to read, very thoughtful, and quite entertaining. In a nutshell, Sagan does not come out and say "there is no god." Instead, he simply says that there is no physical evidence for the existence of a god.
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