Varieties of Scientific Experience: Carl Sagan on Science …

Posted: June 26, 2015 at 2:43 am

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by Maria Popova

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 was recently on NPRs Science Friday to discuss my favorite science books of the year and a listener called in, asking for a recommendation for a good book on science and religion an excellent question, given the long history of this polarization, which occupied great minds from Galileo to Einstein to Ada Lovelace to Isaac Asimov, and many more.

The best book on the subject, by far, is The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God (public library) a remarkable posthumous collection of essays by Carl Sagan, based on the prestigious Gifford Lectures on Natural Theology he delivered at the university of Glasgow in 1985, following in the footsteps of such celebrated philosophers as James Frazer, Arthur Eddington, Werner Heisenberg, Niels Bohr, Alfred North Whitehead, Albert Schweitzer, and Hannah Arendt. Titled after the famous treatise on religion by William James, who delivered the Gifford Lectures in the beginning of the twentieth century, this anthology of illustrated and illustrious meditations showcase Sagans singular gift for championing knowledge with equal parts conviction and humility.

Sagans widow, Ann Druyan the love of his life and the greatest bastion of his legacy contextualizes the lectures in the introduction:

Carl Sagan was a scientist, but he had some qualities that I associate with the Old Testament. When he came up against a wallthe wall of jargon that mystifies science and withholds its treasures from the rest of us, for example, or the wall around our souls that keeps us from taking the revelations of science to heartwhen he came up against one of those topless old walls, he would, like some latter-day Joshua, use all of his many strengths to bring it down.


He believed that the little we do know about nature suggests that we know even less about God. We had only just managed to get an inkling of the grandeur of the cosmos and its exquisite laws that guide the evolution of trillions if not infinite numbers of worlds. This newly acquired vision made the God who created the World seem hopelessly local and dated, bound to transparently human misperceptions and conceits of the past.


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June 26th, 2015 at 2:43 am