Science's esteemed friend Carl Sagan died prematurely in 1996. What a pleasure it is to read more of his crystal clear prose. In these transcripts of his 1985 Gifford Lectures on Natural Theology at the University of Glasgow, he gives us his rich insights on the relationship between science and religion. William James had a turn in the early 20th century and turned his lectures into the acclaimed "Varieties of Religious Experiences." "Varieties of Scientific Experiences" is edited by Sagan's widow and collaborator Ann Druyan and she acknowledges his admiration for James in the title of this book.
Starting with cosmology, Sagan leads us through a naturalistic view of the universe - meaning except for the most extreme liberal interpretation of God, He is not part of the equation. But the believer who desires the bigger picture should not be scared off - this eloquent book is more considerate and gentle than the recent books on religion by Dawkins, Harris, and Dennett. As usual with Sagan, it is also a treatise on why we should view our world with a scientific, rational mind-set. Sagan's bottom line was always: "Show me the evidence." In an interview, Sagan was once pressed by a reporter for a premature conclusion. When asked, "But what's your gut feeling," Sagan replied, "I try not to think with my gut."
I spent a whole day being stimulated and intrigued by this book and there is not a dull page. An 11th century Hindu logician presented the following proofs for the Hindu "all-knowing and imperishable but not necessarily omnipotent and compassionate God":
1. First cause - sounds familiar
2. Argument from atomic combinations - bonding of atoms requires a conscious agent
3. Argument from suspension of the world - somebody has to be holding it up
4. Argument from the existence of human skills
5. Existence of authoritative knowledge - Vedas, the Hindu holy books
Sagan compares them to the Western arguments:
1. First cause - otherwise known as the cosmological argument.
2. Argument from design
3. Moral argument - attributed to Kant
4. Ontological argument - Man is imperfect, there must be something greater that is perfect, therefore God exists
5. Argument from consciousness - I have self-awareness, therefore God exists
6. Argument from religious experiences
Sagan briefly discusses each item on these somewhat similar lists, ending with, "I must say that the net result is not very impressive. It is very much as if we are seeking a rational justification for something that we otherwise hope will be true." About the moral argument, he says, "It does not follow if we are powerfully motivated to take care of our young or the young of everybody on the planet, that God made us do it. Natural selection can make us do it, and almost surely has."
After each of the nine lectures, Sagan took selected written questions from the audience - most of them from believers and one of them signed by God Almighty himself. He answered them all with wit, grace, and poise and this 37 page segment is not to be missed - the whole book is not to be missed and gets my highest recommendation. Whether or not you've previously read Carl Sagan, you're in for a treat.