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The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A…

The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for… (edition 2006)

by Carl Sagan

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Title:The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God
Authors:Carl Sagan
Info:Penguin Press HC, The (2006), Hardcover, 304 pages
Collections:Your library
Tags:nonfiction, american, science, cosmology, religion

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


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Showing 1-5 of 23 (next | show all)
A series of nine lectures that Sagan gave in 1985 at the University of Glasgow sponsored by the same folks who do the Templeton price. They are supposed to be on Natural Theology - that is scientifically proving the notion of God - and issue that Sagan sidesteps and tries to show that you should, for many valid reasons, treat the subject of God with as much skepticism as you would any scientific theories. His point on God is really - you can't prove it - so why bother? Great lectures. ( )
  stuart10er | Sep 27, 2013 |
I was taken by Sagan when I read [Cosmos], and I am taken with him in this book, the record of his 1985 Gifford Lectures. Sagan tackles questions of religion and the future of humanity using the mixture of incisive thought and open humility that he does in his other books. His main idea is that religion, like so much human activity, is tainted by a thorough parochialism. We join the religion of our culture, not noticing the thousands of alternative true faiths. For some reason, apparitions of the Virgin Mary only show up in Catholic lands. The Abrahamic faiths progress as if humans are the only creatures in the galaxy of godlike intelligence.

Sagan is an unabashed religious skeptic. He spends one chapter picking apart arguments for God's existence. He spends another chapter looking at "extraterrestrial lore" and the mind's ability to fool itself. One alleged "flying saucer" sighting, but a highway patrolman, turned out to be a farmer's wheat silo. The fantastic detail of alien sightings and abductions and the total lack of evidence associated with them form an interesting contrast. Same with early twentieth century amateur astronomer Percival Lowell's belief that he could see canals on Mars - and the total lack of evidence from telescope photos. The human mind is very good at making itself believe whatever it wants. Thought is frail.

Instead of wishful thinking and parochial views on the cosmos, Sagan calls for a scientific approach to life in the broadest sense:

We have Ten Commandments in the West. Why is there no commandment exhorting us to learn? "Thou shalt understand the world. Figure things out." There's nothing like that. And very few religions urge us to enhance our understanding of the natural world.

Reading Sagan and other religious skeptics is good for a believer like me. It's like an enema: painful but makes me examine my beliefs.

What I like about Sagan is that although he is an atheist or agnostic, he recognizes religion's power to change the world. These lectures, given in 1985 at the end of the Cold War (not that he knew that!), are concerned with the possibility of nuclear apocalypse. We forget how vast human history is, how expansive the universe is, and get caught up in petty conflicts that can have eons of repercussions. Sagan, ever the astronomer concerned with the big picture of life, calls us to think about the progress of not American, not Chinese, not Islamic, but human civilization as a whole. Would another, more advanced race be impressed by us? Or would it pity our stupidity, our efforts to play at grand civilization with stone age minds? Were Sagan alive I suspect he would be an activist for the Long Now foundation. As it is he recognizes the powerful ability of religion to change the world for the better. And as a scientific prophet, he calls for that change:

Christianity also says that redemption is possible. So an anti-Christian would be someone who argues to hate your enemy and that redemption is impossible, that bad people remain forever bad. So I ask you, which position is better suited to an age of apocalyptic weapons? What do you do if one side does not profess those views and you claim to be Christian? … You can also ask, which position is uniformly embraced by the nation-states? The answers to those questions are very clear. There is no nation that adopts the Christian position on this issue. Not one. (209)

Amen. ( )
5 vote JDHomrighausen | Aug 8, 2013 |
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 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, 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. ( )
1 vote BrookeAshley | May 21, 2013 |
Okay, FINE. I'll read it. Sheesh.
  beabatllori | Apr 2, 2013 |
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. ( )
  AlCracka | Apr 2, 2013 |
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Carl Saganprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Druyan, AnnEditorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
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In these lectures I would like, following the wording of the Gifford Trust, to tell you something of my views on what at least used to be called natural theology, which, as I understand it, is everything about the world not supplied by revelation.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0143112627, Paperback)

Carl Sagan's prophetic vision of the tragic resurgence of fundamentalism and the hope-filled potential of the next great development in human spirituality

The late great astronomer and astrophysicist describes his personal search to understand the nature of the sacred in the vastness of the cosmos. Exhibiting a breadth of intellect nothing short of astounding, Sagan presents his views on a wide range of topics, including the likelihood of intelligent life on other planets, creationism and so-called intelligent design, and a new concept of science as "informed worship." Originally presented at the centennial celebration of the famous Gifford Lectures in Scotland in 1985 but never published, this book offers a unique encounter with one of the most remarkable minds of the twentieth century.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:23:00 -0400)

Sagan sets down his detailed thoughts on the relationship between religion and science and describes his personal search to understand the nature of the sacred in the vastness of the cosmos. In 1985, Sagan was invited to give the famous Gifford Lectures in Scotland on the grand occasion of the lectureship's centennial. The result is this delightfully intimate discussion of his views on topics ranging from the likelihood of intelligent life on other planets to the danger of nuclear annihilation of our own, on creationism and so-called intelligent design to a new concept of science as "informed worship" to manic depression and the possible chemical nature of transcendence. In his trademark clear and down-to-earth voice, the late astronomer and astrophysicist illuminates his conversation with examples from cosmology, physics, philosophy, literature, psychology, cultural anthropology, mythology, theology, and more.--From publisher description.… (more)

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