TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 14 May 2012
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.