EidoScope

The observable examined

Sagan’s lectures on natural theology

leave a comment »

Ann Druyan’s introduction to  Carl Sagan’s – Varieties of Scientific Experience, is wonderful. Just like he does in the lectures proper, she challenges us to open our minds to critical thinking….”what is wanted is not the will to believe, but the desire to find out….we are spiritually and culturally paralyzed, unable to face the vastness [of space], to embrace our lack of centrality and find our actual place in the fabric of nature…” Contemplate this image. The earth is but a pale blue dot afloat in the immensity of the universe…a small speck situated in a solar system within one of a hundred billion galaxies.

The book is a compilation of Sagan’s Gifford lectures on natural theology. As Sagan notes, natural theology is “…everything about the world not supplied by revelation”.

The lectures are organized as chapters. It begins with a chapter titled Nature and Wonder: a reconnaissance of heaven. It is a beautiful tour of what is known about the cosmos. Sagan introduces us to the vastness of the universe and gives us a sense of scale and our relative position in the scheme of the universe. He also tackles superstition [a belief without evidence], and operationalizes the definition of religion [ “binding together from Latin] so essentially science and religion are after understanding the interconnectedness of things.

In the next chapter – The retreat from copernicus – loss of nerve – Sagan takes on creationism, the anthropic principle [interpreting the world in human metaphors], and also gives us a sense of what the lack of centrality for Earth in the cosmic order really means.

Organic universe is another brilliant discussion on the chemical makeup, universal laws and such.  We can see a sample of his wit here .”…so as science advances, there seems to be less and less for God to do. Of course its a big universe, so He, She or It can be gainfully employed in other parts….”  I really like the notion of the  “God of Gaps”, ie., whatever we cannot explain is attributed to God.

The next lecture makes a case for why extraterrestrial intelligence may exist. Sagan also notes that whether it exists or not, it is still hugely informative because it says something about our loneliness. This is followed by a thorough debunking of “extraterrestrial folklore”, the claims of UFO sightings and visitations from aliens, that have been reported in the media over the years.

In the God hypothesis discussion, Sagan provides an operational definition of God, take us on a quick tour of the world religions and their claims and postulates. He then , with scintillating wit (there are many examples throughout), systematically deconstructs these ideas. He also put forth arguments on why God as an OmniX being is not internally consistent.

In the religious experience – he questions the efficacy of prayers, discusses the influence of hormones on human behavior, and coins a God molecule – “theotoxin” he says (tongue in cheek) “would be biasing the issue too strongly….”

In the next chapter, Crimes against creation, he is very concerned with the possibility of a nuclear winter, but in general, it can be interpreted as a general concern for the earth and its inhabitants. Elsewhere, he pleads, “… if you disagree with another human, let him live. There is nowhere in the hundred billion galaxies you will find another…”

The last chapter “Search” – anticipates the world is flat state of affairs. We started as hunter gatherers in small groups, have grown into nation states, now technology, communications, and transport have blurred those boundaries even further. In short, we have to think of ourselves as world citizens. Sagan urges us to think critically on all matters and have compassion for fellow world travelers.  He asks why there is no equivalent of a 11th commandment – thou shalt learn….

In short, if I have not already conveyed it, this compilation of Sagan’s Gifford lectures is pure cognitive pleasure. Well worthy of earning a prominent place on your bookshelves. There are others who, in recent times, have gone after organized religion, such as Dawkins or Harris, but their tone has been angry and sometimes, completely intolerant. Here, I see, Sagan, like an explosives expert, placing the bombs through beautiful, calm, cogent, and brilliant arguments, strategically on the edifice of organized religion. The image I am striving for here is the demolition of tall skyscrapers that crumble in a heap with little or no collateral damage.

Advertisements

Written by asterix98

May 6, 2012 at 10:15 pm

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: