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. Yet, with all those fantastic numbers, Sagan reminds us, there is a uniformity among that host of fiery orbs. Sodium here is the same as that at the edge of our perception. Organic molecules, without which life could exist nowhere, are present everywhere. What are the odds that we humans are the sole intelligent life?
Extraterrestrial life and the implications arising from that possibility, form a sub-theme of the series. From the suggestion that so many stars exist, it naturally follows that many of them have planets, some of which ought to be capable of hosting life, perhaps even intelligent life. It's only logical that such life would also seek who might be residing as cosmic neighbours. Sagan explains the famous Drake Equation, which postulated the odds of such life existing. It hasn't been found, he admits, but that's no reason not to search for it. In his lectures, he supposes that in other places, intelligent life might last millions of years. That life might - ought - to be well in advance of ours. Furthermore, he contends, what does such life imply for our concept of a god who fashioned us and our beliefs? Is it rational, he asks, to think a universe as vast as ours should be initiated, let alone controlled, by a human-devised supernatural being?
Before an audience interested in nature and theology, Sagan posits a new concept of a god. Not one with supernatural powers and dabbling in affairs of a single species on a remote planet, but something different. This deity should represent the expanse and complexity of the universe we are only beginning to understand. He explains how older versions of deities hampered scientific investigation - they're still doing so. A new, less defined and more open concept of the spiritual aspect of the universe is in order. Entirely new religious experiences can derive from redefining our relationship to the universe, one more realistic and, in Sagan's view, much grander and more fulfilling. This concept, of course, underlies the book's title. By adapting William James' highly insightful, if less informed, work of human religiosity, Ann Druyan, Sagan's wife and collaborator, gave a "tip of the hat" to that earlier collection. "The Varieties of Religious Experience", a previous Gifford Lectures series, also sought a broadened sense of spiritual values. James' work needed little "updating", but Druyan offers some examples of what has been learned in the two decades since her husband's lectures to fill in meaningful details. Sagan would have applauded, since each new bit of information buttresses his case. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
on 11 May 2008
Although I am the first to acknowledge I could not write a book of the quality of any (or almost any) I review, I usually do not feel so much in the presence of a great thinker as I did when reading this book. Perhaps the last time I felt it was when reading Darwin's
The Origin Of Species
I can say this after just having read and been so impressed by Dawkins
The God Delusion
but it was in a different way. This book may have often gone over my head, both in the science presented and the caliber of Sagan's thought. Dawkins at least gave me the illusion I might be able to carry on a conversation with him without feeling completely tongue-tied. Not the Dawkins' couldn't go over my head and I suspect in his scientific works he would, however much he addressed them to a popular audience, but reading Sagan is something else indeed. Like a visit to some distant galaxy.
The Selected Q&A that appear at the end of this book may give one a feeling of just how sharp Sagan was: one thing to compose lectures such as comprise this book, quite another to field such a variety of questions.
Just for the lessons in astronomy alone as well as what is known that may suggest life elsewhere (which as a good scientist Sagan was quick to acknowledge he knew no evidence of), this book was worthwhile reading. That Sagan seems to have been as widely read in world religion was impressive. His concerns about nuclear winter were ... alarming. As he observed, how many of us seem to be "in denial" about this danger. And it is with that concern that these lectures end, not in some far off galaxy that have a planet that has life but with Sagan's grave concern about, as he said, "the tragic reluctance to come to grips with the bankruptcy of the nuclear arms race". Reminded here by Sagan of the extreme dangers of nuclear winter to many forms of life on Earth (Sagan suspects "roaches and grass and sulfur-metabolizing worms ..." may survive), what to make of political leaders who consider any limited proactive nuclear strike?
on 27 December 2009
This wonderful book arrived with me as a Christmas present. Sagan is sagacious, insightful and spells out with fascinating clarity the insignicant locale in the Milky Way in which we find ourselves. On the other hand he is equally spellbinding on the micro world that makes us up and links us to all life on this planet and so much beyond. In this context the suffocating mediocrity of religious leaders, their banal certainties and insistence that their Stone Age God knows best are washed aside in the power of Sagan's descriptions. If you seek religious transcendence, offered with a benign tolerance to those who take a different view, Sagan is an exemplar of the best on offer.
This book is awesome. Thank God (excuse the pun) these lectures were recorded and published. OK I'm obviously biased, but, for me, Carl Sagan is one of the most remarkable humans to have existed. In these lectures, Sagan commands total control over the God question. In so doing he is balanced, tolerant, understanding, open and most importantly friendly - a sharp contrast to the likes of Dawkins. The bottom line, however, is clear enough, as Sagan cleverly exposes the hypocrisy, contradictions, lies and arrogance of religion, particularly the notion that a super being was responsible for creating humanity and the universe(s). The manner in which Sagan exposes the limitations of religious belief and its consequential subversion/manipulation/dismissal of scientific discoveries is completed by a profound understanding of the human condition. Sagan accepts that some humans, throughout our history, need to believe and those religions evolve to meet this innate desire. At the same time Sagan is explicit in his view that all this spiritual naval gazing is merely the vague murmurings of a primate obsessed with the notion that their species are the most important collection of atoms in the universe and that they've got a God to prove it. Sagan poetically reminds us that planet Earth has been around a lot longer than us and is just one of probably trillions and trillions of other planets orbiting stars much like our own. I wish I had a time machine so I could go back and sit and listen and be mesmerised.
on 7 June 2008
This wonderful book is based on mislaid transcripts of Sagan's Gifford lectures at the University of Glasgow in 1985. They form a touching and warmly fascinating reminder of the unique personality that was Carl Sagan. If, like me, you stayed up late at night in the pre-VCR age to watch his landmark 1980 series 'Cosmos', you'll have some idea of the scope of Sagan's intellect.
These lectures centre on the comparison between the view of the universe contained within the sceintific and religous paradigms. Sagan's knowledge of astronomy and his support of what can be crudely summarised as informed scepticism gives some suggestion of his point of view. His topics are extra terrestrial intelligence, the exploration of the universe, the development of the scientific method and the dangers posed by the ability of the human race to destroy itself.
The book is beautifully designed with Sagan's original slides and illustrations replaced by new images from, for instance, the Cassini probe. Sensitive editing by his colleague and wife Ann Druyan points out where Sagan's beloved scientific method has moved knowledge on since the lectures were given. Transcripts of the question and answer sessions at the lectures are an especial delight, and give a touching indication of Sagan's empathy.
This is a fine testament to a wise man. I really enjoyed hearing his voice again, and it stands comparison with other current advocates of the scientific, sceptical position who are rather more shrill and less empatic in their advocacy. Perhaps the stakes are higher? Sagan is a model for those who find enough to worship in human potential and the universe around them.
on 10 April 2008
Carl Sagan is one of my heroes. His mind encapsulates such a vast array of knowledge, yet his delivery is always couched with a mixture of enthusiastic energy for all things around us. In this book, you are taken on a wide ranging journey through history, science, philosophy and religion. You may not agree with everything he has to say, but you cannot walk away feeling the encounter was not worth the time and effort.
on 17 August 2012
having read most of carl sagan's books i was pleased to discover this new release a few months back. i was particularly attracted to the title having formerly read william james's excellent set of gifford lectures on religion and spirituality. this book is probably the most natural dialog i've read from carl sagan and i'm amazed this work was a transcript from original audio recordings. the q&a session at the back is superb, recalling the live sessions he shared with the audience in glasgow after each lecture. the content is fascinating, with a superb set of modern illustrations, tackling head on the big questions about the existence of the cosmos and the functionality and fallibility of religions. ann druyan did a superb job breathing life into this work and we can only thank her for releasing in my opinion his best ever book after cosmos.
this leads me to one gripe, and that's with the publishing of this book. on the back cover is a description that is completely at odds with the content of the book. it portrays this work and carl sagan as in some way part of the childish militant atheist movement led by people such as richard dawkings. furthermore it contains a typically nasty and barbed quotation from richard dawkings attempting to paraphrase who carl was and what his religious views were. i can understand penguin wanting to cash in on the modern anti-god zeitgeist but let's not use a dead man to champion a cause he was probably not fully committed to.
i'm not in any way saying carl wasn't critical of religion, but he did it in a way that was respectful and insightful. he won people over by inspiring rather than deriding; that's something that can't be said of richard dawkings.
In 1985 the late Carl Sagan delivered the Gifford Lectures in Glasgow, Scotland. The Gifford Lectures were founded over 125 years ago, to promote religion based on science and evidence, rather than the supernatural and the revelation of a holy text.
Carl Sagan therefore was somewhat of a curious choice. For what he presented in these lectures, published in book form 21 years after the lectures were delivered, is a universe that leaves no room for God - not the sort of God that theists of the orthodox Christian, Muslim and Jewish stripes worship, at any rate. In fact, there is no room for a supernatural in the sense of an alternative reality that can coexist with the laws of physics.
The lectures start by calibrating Earth's place in the vastness of the cosmos, the dimensions of which will be familiar to any cosmology buff. Thousands of billions of stars in our own galaxy, and thousands of billions of galaxies in the universe, with thousands of billions of stars each. And it's a cosmos of extraordinary violence: supernovae have probably wiped out innumerable planets, and if intelligent life is a common place in the universe, countless examples of sentient life, too. This, he opined, is `a different view ... of a deity carefully taking pains to promote the well being of intelligent creatures (p.29).
The possibility of alien intelligences being annihilated, oblivious to us, sets the scene for what is to follow in the subsequent lectures. Sagan believed that we are probably not the only intelligent life there is the universe. It could turn up in the strangest places, right under our noses in cosmic terms - there are warm spots on Neptune, as cosy as the room you are sitting in right now (p.58). The universe is replete with organic molecules that make the building blocks of life on Earth. The same carbon atoms that we find in the smoke emitted by heated olive oil can be found in the tail of comets. In any given point of the universe where these molecules exist, the chances of their coalescing to form even a rudimentary form of life is miniscule - but the universe has plenty of space, and plenty of time, plenty of places, innumerable opportunities to create a basic synthesis to get the process of evolution underway, and eventually the formation life that becomes consciously self-aware.
This does not mean that we are ever likely to encounter alien intelligences face to face. The impossibility of interstellar travel means that the best option, as with the SETI programme, is to listen out for the tell tale signals of a technological civilisation, such as radio broadcasts. That literally brings tales of UFO encounters - extraterrestrial folklore - down to Earth. The grip of such folklore is tenacious. UFO sightings are fewer and further between nowadays but books that claim the aliens built the pyramids remain popular. Sagan gives short shrift to such notions: ` [T]he first pyramid that was ever constructed fell down and ... the second pyramid, halfway through construction, had the angle of its sides dramatically pared ... exceeding the angle of repose was unlikely to be made by an extraterrestrial spacefaring civilization' ( p.127). As for UFO testimony then David Hume's old adage about miracles applies: when one hears such testimony, we should ask if it would be more miraculous to disbelieve it than reach for the standard explanation that the person telling the story has been deceived, or seeks to deceive. We have never found a single example of an ET among us but we all know plenty of fraudsters, and plenty of those gullible enough to believe them.
The chapter on the "God Hypothesis" offers cold comfort to those who would seek to base the claims of religion on the way the universe is. Believers hold that not only is there a God, but that he has certain characteristics, attributes and powers. He is omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent. He is benevolent. He created the universe and can raise a man from the dead and knows your innermost thoughts. But trying to justify this God with the tool of reason presents huge problems. Take the problem of evil - or, if we want a more neutral term, the problem of suffering, - which contradicts the proposition that God is benevolent and wise. There is suffering in the world. There is a benevolent God, active in the world. Only one of these propositions can logically be true. Suffice to say, the arguments for this God are weak and the supporting evidence scant: `the moral argument, the ontological argument, the argument from consciousness, and the argument from experience ... the net result is not very impressive' (p. 165). Ultimately, the presence of God is adduced from revelation, not the way the world is. `Why', Sagan asks `should God be so clear in the Bible and so obscure in the world?' (p. 167)
Having presented such cold comfort for natural theologians (and even less for those who hold that faith alone suffices to validate God), Sagan offered a caveat. He was prepared to consider, unlike contemporary atheists like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, the transformative potential of the Christian tenet of the Golden Rule. What if politicians were to practise it (including professedly Christian politicians)? The backdrop to his considering this question in these lectures was the salience of the nuclear arms race and the very real fear and possibility of nuclear war. This was 1985 and the Cold War was then in deep-freeze. Times have moved on and the context of the discussion has dated. But perhaps for theologians, the dearth of scientific proof to support the claims of Christian revelation need not preclude a serious consideration of what actually living the Golden Rule would actually entail here on this pale blue dot on which we live.
Overall, a marvellous book (and beautifully illustrated, too). If you enjoy books that address the big questions, then you will love this book, as I did.
on 25 December 2009
This is a great book. I bought it because I'd started stargazing recently, but also because the more I've pondered over the years, the more I've come to a definition of a god away from scripture - here Sagan gives a useful and more fulfilling definition of a "god defined as the laws of the universe" without sacrificing any of his science or by watering-down content. I have long wondered why the Jewish/Christian/Islamic Bibles never mentioned explicit lines like "in the 1980s there will be a video format called Betamax" (my own arbirary random frustration as an enquiring teenager) - and this is the first book that I've read that validates that kind of frustration, the word of God, after all! Here Sagan promotes the idea that the stars, galaxies and nebulae down to the quantum level - that is the scripture - and that the only devotion is to never stop looking - and a recurrent Sagan theme - we are extremely close to blowing ourselves up - takes the form of a sobering chapter on nuclear weapons, that is especially chilling. Sagan talks a lot about how we still behave as if the universe revolves around us, even now, even with science's insights in the last fifty years of space travel, whilst at the same time cleverly highlighting the privilege of our existence, which can be (gulp) wiped out at any time by asteroids or ourselves.
I am 99% athiest but previously I felt science writing to be too cold and ever so slightly arrogant. I still respect the effort of peace loving people of faith. I thought the tone of Dawkin's God Delusion a little sweeping and ill-informed on the religious side - and felt it was a missed opportunity to elegantly offer the astounding journey into the heart of science. I find it very brave that a scientist is willing to even utter the word "God" at all in their findings and evalutaions - I guess that's where this definition of "natural theology" fits in with these series of lectures.. Obviously the God that Sagan talks about is an empirical one. I think that is part of Sagan's appeal - but unlike a lot of writing that tries to unify the religous with the hard scientist, Sagan is no new-ager and avoids the proliferation of one of the most abused words in the English language - "spirituality"
I also bought this collection because I live close to Glasgow and they must have been a riveting series of talks. The Questions and Answers section is particularly enlightening as Sagan seemingly answers questions on-the-fly with such respect, depth and knowledge. Great deep stuff.
on 28 April 2007
carl sagan had a gift that allowed him to make people like me begin to understand things that are usually restricted to scientists.his ability to communicate was exceptional.we are very lucky that although he is no longer with us, his thoughts are still written down in his very special way for us to enjoy.i have read most of his work and still found that this book is as exciting and thought provoking as ever.