Thursday, November 20, 2014

Varieties of Scientific Experience

The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God
ed. Ann Druyan, © 2006
304 pages

In 1985, Carl Sagan delivered a series of lectures to the University of Glasgow on the general subject of natural theology, or rational bases of religion.  Not being a religious man, Sagan’s own lectures (“A Search for Who We Are”)  probe for the instincts that give rise to religion, compare them to man’s search for knowledge through science, and suggest that in ways religion has been superseded by the scientific enterprise.  This is the record of a naturalist’s examination of religion, and his failure to be convinced. But unlike the works produced by the ‘new atheism’, Sagan’s approach is without bellicosity.. He doesn't savage religion in the manner of Christopher Hitchens, or cold-bloodedly shoot it down in the manner of Richard Dawkins.  He begins by talking about subjects that seem to be unrelated – UFOs, for instance --  before skillfully guiding the chat toward more relevant material; having appealed to the readers’ skepticism regarding prehistorical aliens, for instance, he merely suggests it be directed towards another subject: miracles, say.  His conclusions are not pompous accusations and grandiose speeches: they are the gentle question, the urging to follow a thought or an instinct through to its conclusion. It strikes me as a potentially effective way to create room for skeptical thought in a religious mind, but there are limits. Sagan never touches on his own religious experience, but his biographies suggest he grew up in a secularized Jewish home, with no meaningful belief in deity or religious practice. For the religious reader, Sagan's argument may lack some strength  he explains what he imagines religious conviction to be based on, but as an outsider his reach is limited.  Religion has a power beyond the mental distractions Sagan catalogs here, the feelings of warm-fuzziness and wonder. At one point he refers to the Christian sacrament of wine and the native American use of peyote to generate religious hallucinations, but a sip of wine at the Communion table is hardly comparable to mind-altering substances.  Sagan isn't an opponent of religion; he hails it as a potential source of moral order, especially in the dark times of the Cold War.  He thinks it should know its place, however, that faith should cede victory to the scientific method in realms like the acquisition of knowledge.  The deeply religious will find his argument reductionist; is there nothing more to life than that which can be measured and weighed?  Sagan's strength here is arguing for more skepticism in everyday affairs, but I think he misses in his  simplistic appraisal of religion.

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