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

Carl Sagan , Ann Druyan
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Nov. 6 2007 0143112627 978-0143112624 Reprint
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.


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From Booklist

"The objectives of religion and science, I believe, are identical or very nearly so." So declares Carl Sagan in the first of the Gifford Lectures he delivered in 1985, published now to mark the tenth anniversary of the astronomer's death. Because he finds that scientists share a deep sense of wonder, Sagan defines science as a type of "informed worship," a definition clarified by awe-inspiring astronomical photographs. However, many readers will conclude that Sagan fails to link science and religion as kindred pursuits of truth. For despite the titular nod to William James, another famous Gifford lecturer, Sagan wants no variety of religious experience that will not fit within an empirical paradigm. In the transcendent visions of scripture, he sees only the effects of biochemicals that confer reproductive advantage. Still, Sagan recognizes in Christian admonitions to love one's enemy a much-needed moral guide in a world threatened by the weapons science has made possible. And even readers who turn elsewhere for a fuller understanding of religion will appreciate Sagan's passion for a science that teaches us to look up. Bryce Christensen
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Review

"Ann Druyan has unearthed a treasure. It is a treasure of reason, compassion, and scientific awe. It should be the next book you read."
-Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith

"A stunningly valuable legacy left to all of us by a great human being. I miss him so."
-Kurt Vonnegut


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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
By Stephen Pletko TOP 50 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover
XXXXX

Former professor of astronomy & space sciences and former director of the Laboratory for Planetary Studies at Cornell University Dr. Carl Sagan (Nov. 1934 to Dec. 1996) has risen from the dead to write a book on his search for God!!

Well, not quite. Sagan's third wife & widow and his longtime collaborator Ann "Annie" Druyan has turned his 1985 lectures (formally entitled the "Gifford Lectures on Natural Theology") that he presented at the University of Glasgow in Scotland into a fascinating book. Astronomer and the Sagans' dear friend Steven Soter wrote scientific updates that appear in the book's footnotes and, as well, he made "many editorial contributions."

The purpose of these lectures as Druyan tells us is as follows:

"Carl saw these lectures as a chance to set down in detail his understanding of the relationship between religion and science and something of his own search to understand the nature of the sacred."

But exactly why did Druyan turn these lectures into a book (which she edited)? Here's her answer:

"In the midst of the worldwide pandemic of extreme fundamentalist violence and during a time in the United States when phony piety in public life reached a new low and the critical separation of church and state and public classroom were dangerously eroded, I felt that Carl's perspective on these questions was needed for than ever."

Thank goodness that she thought this way because she has given all of us a valuable book to be cherished, "a...stunningly valuable legacy left to all of us by a great human being." For those who have followed Sagan's writings in the past, the science he presents will be familiar and easy to follow.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Rediscovering a Brilliant Mind Dec 6 2009
By Oliver TOP 500 REVIEWER
Format:Paperback
20 years after his death, Carl Sagan published his latest book. Varieties of Scientific Experience is a series of lectures in which Sagan gave his views on the existence of god and the meaning of life. Sagan's views are mostly in line with those of the New Atheists (Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, Dennett), but his scientific background gives him a unique and valuable perspective. The first lecture begins with Sagan describing how small the earth is in comparison to the rest of the universe, and how small a role humans have played, even in the history of the earth. He then asks: Does it make sense that an all-powerful and all knowing god created the universe as a home for us? Are we really the center of the universe?

Despite his background as a scientist, Sagan has a wonderful way with words. These lectures are very readable, and it is hard not to come away both liking and respecting Sagan. He may have been gone for over 20 years now, but Carl Sagan is still a valuable voice with a great deal to teach us.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Searching for Heaven May 16 2007
By Stephen A. Haines HALL OF FAME TOP 500 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover
There are those who still contend Carl Sagan was not a "deep thinker". Perhaps they're correct, but the scope of his interests and his ability to impart them are unimpeachable. And peerless. The expressive and often humorous voice of science Sagan projected to an admiring public surely garnered a significant percentage of those students entering the discipline. If he left no other legacy, from plates on space probes or searching for alien life, that one is among the most admirable. Yet, that powerful intellect provoked many by issuing challenges to be answered. This collection of twenty-year-old lectures is one such thrown gauntlet. Presented to an audience which responded enthusiastically to his views, Sagan offered a redefinition of how they might view their god. As always, he did it with delightful wit and from a basis of extensive study and experience.

The Gifford Lectures centre on what's called "Natural theology". The term applies to using scientific methods to support theology. One can only hope that by 1985, the members of the audience knew of Sagan's thinking prior to his emergence on stage. From the opening lecture, "Reconnaissance of Heaven", Sagan strips away old mythologies relating how the cosmos worked. In nine lectures and a following question and answer session, he reveals the scope and workings of our universe that science has revealed. The key factor, of course, is "evidence". What we have learned about the world around us is derived from centuries of hard work by dedicated workers. The effort, performed in small, but incremental steps, has revealed a universe over 14 billion years old. It is populated by more galaxies than there are stars in our Milky Way, with each of those cosmic gatherings themselves populated by their own billions of stars.
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Amazon.com: 4.6 out of 5 stars  116 reviews
111 of 115 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A late science ICON presents his personal views on his search for God Jan. 19 2007
By Stephen Pletko - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
+++++

Former professor of astronomy & space sciences and former director of the Laboratory for Planetary Studies at Cornell University Dr. Carl Sagan (Nov. 1934 to Dec. 1996) has risen from the dead to write a book on his search for God!!

Well, not quite. Sagan's third wife & widow and his longtime collaborator Ann "Annie" Druyan has turned his 1985 lectures (formally entitled the "Gifford Lectures on Natural Theology") that he presented at the University of Glasgow in Scotland into a fascinating book. Astronomer and the Sagans' dear friend Steven Soter wrote scientific updates that appear in the book's footnotes and, as well, he made "many editorial contributions."

The purpose of these lectures as Druyan tells us is as follows:

"Carl saw these lectures as a chance to set down in detail his understanding of the relationship between religion and science and something of his own search to understand the nature of the sacred."

But exactly why did Druyan turn these lectures into a book (which she edited)? Here's her answer:

"In the midst of the worldwide pandemic of extreme fundamentalist violence and during a time in the United States when phony piety in public life reached a new low and the critical separation of church and state and public classroom were dangerously eroded, I felt that Carl's perspective on these questions was needed for than ever."

Thank goodness that she thought this way because she has given all of us a valuable book to be cherished, "a...stunningly valuable legacy left to all of us by a great human being." For those who have followed Sagan's writings in the past, the science he presents will be familiar and easy to follow. He does though illuminate his discussion with examples from such disciplines as cosmology, physics, philosophy, literature, psychology, cultural anthropology, mythology, and theology. What was especially new and unexpected to me were the religious viewpoints that he presents. I have never read these before and this is what makes this book a treat to read. These religious viewpoints are especially prominent in the last 5 chapters or lectures. They are entitled:

(1) Extraterrestrial folklore: implications for the evolution of religion

(2) The God hypothesis (an excellent chapter!!)

(3) The religious experience

(4) Crimes against creation

(5) The search

Sagan emphasizes an important point right at the beginning of the book in the "Author's Introduction" that he wrote in Glasgow, Scotland on Oct., 1985:

"I want to stress that what I will be saying are my own personal views on [the relationship] between science and religion...I hope only to trace my own thinking and understanding of [this relationship]."

This book has more than 35 figures or illustrations (mainly in the form of color photographs). The bulk of the photographs occur in the first four chapters that have the following titles (I have also included the number of illustrations per chapter):

(1) Nature and wonder: a reconnaissance of Heaven (14 illustrations)

(2) A retreat from Copernicus: a modern loss of nerve (5)

(3) The organic universe (13)

(4) Extraterrestrial intelligence (2)

After presenting all the lectures, the book ends with selected transcribed questions from the audience. Sagan answers these questions with his trademark style of elegance and style punctuating his answers with reason and rationality. I found this section most interesting.

Finally, a note on the photographs. Druyan explains:

"[I and Steven Soter] felt sure that Carl would not have wanted to use the 1985 slides from the lectures. Astronomers have seen farther and more clearly since then. Steve found the gorgeous [and more recent color] images that replace them."

I can validate Druyan's statement. All the photographs ARE gorgeous and a sight to behold.

In conclusion, this book presents the scintillating lectures of the relationship between science and religion by the late scientific icon, Carl Sagan. I leave you with Sagan's final words in the last lecture presented in this book:

"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 only to do one more experiment to find out. It goes with a courageous intent to greet the universe as it really is, not to foist our emotional predispositions on it [as religion does] but to courageously accept what our explorations tell us."

(first published 2006; editor's introduction; author's introduction; 9 lectures or chapters; main narrative 220 pages; selected Q & A; acknowledgements; figure captions; index; figure credits)

+++++
96 of 102 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars We Miss You, Mr. Sagan. Feb. 12 2007
By Kevin Currie-Knight - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
I would love to spend a paragraph or two on how lucky we were and are to have had Carl Sagan among us. Of course, anyone reading this review likely already knows that this is true and the extent of its truth. So, I will get to the point.

This is a very impressive posthumous collection of Sagan's Gifford's lectures where he talks about the intersection (or lack thereof) of sceince and religion. Most importantly, he talks about how the religious experience - more appropriately, the experience of extreme awe at our surroundings - is more apt for science than in religion. Where religious awe and wonderment revels in mystery, sceintific awe acknowledges the mystery and goes about extirpate that mystery via some explanation. Wheras religion's version of solving a problem is to postulate magic, science's version of solving problems involves solving them with evidence.

The first few essays are about the idea of the 'religious experience' - the acknowledgement of how small we are and how vast is the universe; the acknowledgement of how sublime all of our surroundings truly are. But science, suggests Sagan, seeks to find out about those surrounding, while religion revels in the idea of the 'incomprehensible.'

There is an essay that continues this theme by postulating on the possible NATURALISTIC origins of life. While we have not solved the puzzle, Sagan walks us through very plausible examples of how the chemical process COULD HAVE gone (certainly more plausible than an infinitely complex god deciding to create all of this, by which you then have to explain how THAT god arose.)

Another essay exposes the very embarassing 'proofs' of god that theologians have come up with through the years. Most atheists or agnostics will already be familiar with most of these, but Sagan rehashes and debunks them with crystal clear prose that is not so much combative as matter-of-fact. (Sagan wins over Dawkins here.)

The next few essays - of concern to Sagan his whole career through - talk about the importance of we humans realizing that just as our existince wasn't inevitable, neither is our continued existence. Sagan died in 1996 and, sad to say, not much has changed in terms of nuclear proliferation, etc. In fact, Sagan died before terrorism really took center stage via 9/11. Had he lived to see it, doubtless these essays would sound more urgent (a la Sam Harris). Yet, he writes of the dangers humans face should they want to live a full and long 21st century.

The common theme in this book - as in his earlier Demon Haunted World - was to guard against the perils of superstition, be it religious beliefs that cannot be subjected to scientific scrutiny, the belief that our planet is the center of everything, the belief that humans continued existence is assured because of divine fiat, etc.

I am not sure how else to end my review of this very worthy book but to say - Thank You, Mr. Sagan (and Mrs. Drunyan).
123 of 133 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Captivating! Nov. 12 2006
By The Spinozanator - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
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.
20 of 20 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A lost voice of reason Jan. 1 2008
By Gary Schroeder - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
This collection of Sagan's 1985 Gifford Lectures are as fresh and relevant today as they were over 20 years ago...perhaps even more so. In this collection, we are reminded of what made Sagan such as successful spokesman for scientific endeavor and rationality in general.

The material Sagan uses to frame his arguments are familiar to anyone who watched his Cosmos series on PBS. In these lectures, he hits on many of the same themes: the vastness of the universe, the immensity of time, the tiny amount of time that humankind has inhabited the earth relative to the planet's geological age, the wonders of evolution, our willingness (or even "need") to believe in the paranormal and the perils posed by nuclear weapons. These lectures are, however, more pointed about the nature (or "causes") of religion. While Sagan is quite careful and indeed artful in avoiding the direct disparagement of religion and its reliance on God as an explanation for all mysteries, his position is clear. What he requires of all statements and assertions is rigorous proof, demonstrable evidence. In this, he finds paranormal beliefs lacking. The thoroughness, forthrightness and delicacy of his arguments are all the more refreshing in this time of theocratic political leanings and scientific illiteracy in the United States.

Perhaps the most effective aspect of his arguments are that they are not condescending, mocking or inconsiderate. Rather, he dispassionately challenges the listener to find fault with his position that those things which are knowable and true are subject to analysis and confirmation. All else belongs to the realm of subjective emotion.
25 of 27 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars When we really need him Dec 13 2006
By Mary G. Dabbs - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Carl Sagan is back, just when we really need him, thanks to Ann Druyan, who has done an elegant job of editing this book. With science under attack from reactionary politicians and fundamentalist preachers, it's time for scientists to abandon their tiresome platitudes about science having nothing to say about religion and come down from their ivory towers and save the world from nonsense. With this book, Sagan continues to set a brilliant example for other scientists who need to learn to speak clearly and without condescension to non-scientists about evolution, the age of the earth, the vastness of the universe, and other matters that for the most part should not be topics of raging controversy and massive ignorance in the 21st Century.
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