The Varieties of Scientific Experience

I’ll admit, I’m not usually a fan of reading amateur book reviews.  More often than not, they end up being more a reflection of the reviewer’s personal tastes than anything resembling an objective analysis.  But, to be true to the function of this blog, it has been a topic on my mind recently.  To spare everyone (or rather, anyone who reads this), I’ll steer clear of a lengthy exposé and limit myself to what I gained from the book.

As is the case with most books, it’s too long.  Most of what is contained in the book could be summarized into a few chapters.  But in the book’s defense, it is an edited version of Sagan’s 1985 Gifford Lectures.  And it was compiled by Sagan’s last wife Ann Druyan, so being concise was less of a goal than bringing Sagan’s voice back to life.

I think the most notable aspect of the book was the very stark difference in tone that Sagan takes to the topic of religion, very much in stark contrast to the strong-atheist approaches of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens.  Sagan is no proponent of religion, and makes no apologetic remarks to meld science and religion together.  But he also does not attack religion as the largely fundamentalist and backwards social vestige of our past that the aforementioned trio sees religion as.

Sagan takes the view (an admittedly ‘safe’ one) that “God” is the laws of physics, not an omnipotent, omniscient, and lovingly personal god.  It’s a view that is credited to Einstein, and continues to be espoused by other physicists, such as Stephen Hawking.  I have always been a bit turned off to this approach, because it seems to confuse very different views of “God,” and also because it seems a bit superfluous; aren’t the laws of physics just the laws of physics?  Calling it “God” doesn’t seem to accomplish anything more than the aggrandizement of the physics community’s collective ego.  😛

Another area where I think Sagan dodges the bullet and remains in the happy town of agnosticism is in claims for the existence of God (not the physics-laws type of god).  Is it really an area in which science must remain completely agnostic?  Until about a year ago, my own opinion was a resounding “yes.”  I learned about Gould’s idea of “Non-overlapping Magesteria” and fell in love (incidentally, I met my wife shortly thereafter).  Gould’s approach calls for a cease-fire between science and religion.  Draw the line in the sand, and as long as each side stays off the other’s turf, all is good.

In practice (and as increasingly brought up by critics of his idea even in theory), it never works so well.  Religion has no interest in being relegated to the sidelines whilst their children learn of evolution – and subsequently suffer bouts of low self-esteem as a result of learning of their simian past.  😛  So conflict has ensued.  But the reverse has not really been the case; science hasn’t tried to invade the land of Meaning that is coveted by religion.

In large part, this is probably a good thing.  I’m scared to think of the authority that a physicist or mathematician could bring to bear on social matters if allowed: equations to rule our relationships with others?  But in another sense, there is a point of contention that science has not challenged religion upon: the existence of God.  Now, we’re not talking about a metaphorical god, but a real god (or at least one that can affect the physical world).  “But he’s beyond the physical world, and beyond our comprehension!”

That’s what I would have said.  Or at least “it’s a topic that science simply cannot address.”  After reading some of Dawkins’ work, though, the answer is far less clear.  Almost any religion doesn’t just believe in some amorphous supernatural entity.  It’s a god that has done things.  Created worlds.  Engineered miracles.  It is a god that interacted with our world in such a way to leave evidence.  Or rather, the stories of each god lend themselves to scientific verification.  Did God flood the world?  Or even more interestingly, what God didn’t do.

In other words, it’s putting the mythology of any religion to the test.  Does the hypothesis (religious dogma) match the observed reality (evidence or lack thereof)?  It’s an intriguing take on the issue of the existence of God that Sagan really doesn’t address, and probably should at least consider given his adherence to the scientific method.

But this takes us back to the original comment linking Sagan to Dawkins.  Sagan isn’t out to root-out religion from humanity.  His mission is much more humble and, well, attainable: to try for Gould’s Non-overlapping Magesteria.  And try really hard, because there is so much at stake.  Sagan is a great optimist.  And I say “great” because he has really put alot of thought into these matters, and cares deeply for the continued survival of humanity.  His optimism is not based in naïvety or ignorance, but a recognition of the potential for embracing the common ground between science and religion – the survival and flourishing of humanity.

The Varieties of Scientific Experience is a good look at Sagan’s perspective on the intersect between science and religion.  But more than anything, his good will towards religion is a much needed commodity in today’s political environment where religious fundamentalism and secular atheism are beginning to butt heads in a way that won’t be very beneficial to anyone . . .

Until next time, bonnes pensées.


  1. dag

    In all this discussion of the conflict between science and religion, I’ve always thought there’s been an unfortunate casualty. Most religions go beyond the dogma and offer some good guidance on morality and ethics. (Notwithstanding some equally poor advice coming from the same sources.) But the general “be kind to your fellow man” message are the parts of religion that science won’t and can’t touch. Those are the aspects I subscribe to, anyway.

  2. admin

    Yes, many religions can and do offer good guidance on morality and ethics. It would be unfair (and as you point out, it often is a casualty of the debate) to characterize religion’s moral and ethical prescriptions as dubious. The simple fact that many ethical norms are embraced by both secular and religious ideologies shows a good deal of overlap. The differences obviously steal the limelight, and thereby end up steering the debate in very antagonistic directions.

    I’m not quite so sure I’d agree with your dichotomy between the ethical and the material. Evolutionary biology/psychology as well as sociology and other “soft sciences” have a lot to say on ethical and social issues. To leave ethics entirely in the hands of religion would not only stifle a lot of intelligent debate on such matters within the scientific community, but would also invoke the incommensurable differences in moral issues among different religions. There is a lot of general “be kind to your fellow man” advice, but it’s shared status among different religions only exists (I think) at a rather superficial level. Religions are not all the same, and many of the ideological aspects that differentiate one from another show quite different ethical foundations.

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