Friday, January 19, 2007
THE VARIETIES OF SCIENTIFIC EXPERIENCE
BY CARL SAGAN
This is the second(1) posthumous book published and edited by Carl Sagan's widow, Ann Druyan(2). The subtitle is 'A personal view of the search for God', and this is because the book is a compilation of the 1985 Gifford Lectures (3)on Natural Theology at the University of Glasgow. Sagan himself describes "natural theology" in his introduction as "everything about the world not supplied by revelation" . A more apt description might be the attempt to read theological lessons from the natural world. I've recently finished reading this book, and these are my "midnight thoughts" on what the author says.
Sagan begins his lecture series with 'Nature and Wonder: A Reconnaissance of Heaven'. This presentation attempts to "travel outwards" from a terrestrial perspective to the furthest reaches of the visible universe. The slides that the author used to illustrate this journey are somewhat indifferently reproduced here- with updates from more recent astrophotography. Along the way to the furthest reaches the author picks up a number of historical turning points in humanity's conception of "the heavens", and how our sense of wonder has expanded as more and more of the vastness of "creation" is revealed, a vastness that makes many(most?) of our inherited religions seem paltry and petty by comparison.
Sagan used this first lecture to present the questions that he wished to pose to "natural theology", in particular the contrast between what are the really very parochial concerns and assertions of traditional theology and the huge scale of reality. as he says,
"...a general problem with much of Western theology in my view is that the God portrayed is too small. it is a god of a tiny world and not a god of a galaxy much less of a universe."
In his second lecture, 'The Retreat From Copernicus: A Modern Loss of Nerve', Sagan goes further into this idea, relating the human tendency to "project" their own psychology (hence animism) and their own sociology (hence the illusion of privilege and class "reproduced in the heavens" with the privilege of the earth and humans) to the history of what he calls "a series of assaults on human vainglory". This is the very gradual growth of the virtue of humility in the face of actual knowledge. From the dethronement of the Earth centred Universe by Copernicus to the dethronement of even our ideas of time and space by relativity the march has been pretty well invincible. Attempts at reaction, from the Roman Catholic Church's prohibition on "modernism" to the present maelstrom of the "American Id" in all its technicolour varieties- from intelligent design to primitivism to post-modernism(4)- come and go and fail. Sagan devotes a good portion of this lecture to his disagreements with one of the more intellectually respectable "retreats from this advance", the anthropic principle. I guess this goes with his own cosmological concerns, though it hardly has an effect on the public consciousness, even amongst the "intellectuals". The alternative quantum theory of "many worlds" has something more of an "excitement value", though both show tendencies of where science can veer off into mere poetry.
In his next lecture 'The Organic Universe' Sagan proceeds into what was one of the central concerns of his scientific career, the origin of life and its possibility elsewhere in the Universe. He spells out the ubiquitous presence of organic chemicals in the astronomical field, and the vast stretches of time involved in the life of our universe. All this is tied in with his argument against the classical "argument from design". In lecture #4, 'Extraterrestrial Intelligence' he goes further into his own interests. This brings up the inevitable invocation of the Drake Equation and Sagan's views of it, including his own views that not every civilization will necessarily be technologically advanced and the possibility that those who are mostly self destruct.
Sagan brings up here the possibility of communication with such extraterrestrials which led him naturally into lecture five 'Extraterrestrial Folklore:Implications for the Evolution of Religion'. This is another aside into one of Sagan's other central concerns, the debunking of pseudoscience and occult faddism. Sagan uses this chapter to compare the claims that conventional religions make for their miracles with those made by obviously fraudulent modern "urban folklore", and the comparison is none too flattering for traditional religion.
In his next lecture, 'The God Hypothesis' Sagan finally goes right to the heart of the matter that is supposed to be at the centre of the Gifford Lectures, 'Natural Theology'. In this lecture Sagan goes into the full extent of the traditional proofs of the existence of God, and he also points out the very obvious point that there are many statements in the traditional Western concept of God that are actually quite separable. Omniscient is indeed quite separable from omnipotent as is the term "benevolent" and the term "eternal", and the term "omnipresent" (let alone its contradiction "transcendental"),etc.etc.. In actual fact the various terms inevitably contradict each other, and they are not always present in the description of "God" in either thinkers in the Western tradition or, especially, in other religious traditions. The heart of this is, as Sagan says,
"I therefore conclude that the alleged natural theological arguments for the existence of God, the sort we're talking about, simply are not very compelling."
In his next lecture, 'The Religious Experience' Sagan discusses the more "personal proofs" of the sacred ie "religious experiences" with emphasis on both its possible bases ie neurochemistry and evolutionary biology. This chapter is rather far ranging as it also compares these religious experiences across cultures and their content within various cultural settings and even their meaning within a broad sweep of human sociobiology. To say the least this chapter is sketchy as it is the subject of volumes of books and not a few pages.
Sagan then goes into lecture number eight, 'Crimes Against Creation'. This is a chapter that attempts to develop ideas that Sagan expressed previously, that traditional theology is actually quite a mixture of sometimes contradictory ideas, some of them benign and some of them quite toxic. In this lecture Sagan attempted to "set the stage" for some sort of alliance between humanists such as himself and those Christians who took the emotional content of "stewardship" quite seriously. This is particularly related to the centrepiece of Sagan's lifelong political commitment, the question of nuclear disarmament and nuclear war. One wonders what he would say today in the age of concern about global warming if he were alive today. Sagan had been arrested more than once in the course of protests against the American military machine.
Finally Sagan concluded his lectures with 'The Search' in which he ties all of what he has said together. He restates that his own vision of the immensity and beauty of the universe is just as valid an answer to the "big questions" posed by religion as the various dogmas are. With considerably more of the "cardinal virtue" of humility Molly may add. And with a much greater appreciation of the fragility of human life than any of the religious traditions provides. The book concludes with an appendix that consists of questions and answers from the various lectures. Molly concludes with the following quote from 'The Search',
"Now, another way of looking at this is as a conflict within the human heart, as a conflict between the bureaucratic, hierarchical, aggressive parts of our nature, which in a neurophysiological sense we share with our reptilian ancestors, and the other parts of our nature, the generalized capacity for love, for compassion, for identification with others who may superficially not look or talk or dress exactly like us, the ability to figure the world out that is concentrated in our cerebral cortex. Our survival is(how could we have imagined it to be anything else?) a reflexion of our own nature and how we manage these contending tendencies within the human heart and mind".
Molly apologizes if this review has not conveyed the full sense of what Dr. Sagan presented in his lectures. Inevitably one individual will concentrate on those points that interest them the most. I urge readers of this blog to go to the original book as it is far richer than I could hope to present in a brief review. Those who are interested in Carl Sagan in a fuller sense are advised to go to the Carl Sagan Portal maintained by his last wife and his children and, of course, the very enlightening and entertaining Wikipedia item on him.
1)The first posthumous book was arranged by Ann Druyan and published in 1997 as 'Billions and Billions:Thoughts on Life and Death at the Brink of the Millennium'. 'The Varieties of Scientific Experience' was published by Penguin Press, New York, in 2006 (ISBN # 1-59420-107-2).
2)Carl Sagan had the good fortune to be married to three outstanding women in his lifetime. Ann Druyan was his third wife. His second was the artist Linda Salzman , and the first the scientist Lynn Margullis was the most prominent of all. There is little doubt that Margullis was by far a greater scientist than Sagan ever was, whatever his ability to capture the public imagination. Her concerns were with the origins of eucaryotic life as a symbiosis of various organisms. Her ideas about the origins of such organelles as mitochondria and chloroplasts have gone from being heresy to being orthodoxy. Her ideas about the origins of such things as flagella and cilia are somewhat more controversial, but they have something to be said for them, just as her rather extreme views about genetic interchange in modern organisms have. Time will tell. Margulis, by the way, stands in the tradition of Kropotkin and other Russian naturalists who emphasized the role of cooperation (symbiosis is the extreme version) in evolution.
3) The Gifford Lectures and their presenters read like something of a who's who of modern intellectual life. They have included William James, John Dewey, Albert Schweitzer, Reinhold Neibuhr, Gabriel Marcel, Michael Polonyi, Arnold Toynbee, Paul Tillich, Werner Heisenberg, Hannah Arendt, Noam Chomsky and Roger Penrose amongst many others with which Molly in her ignorance is not familiar. Sagan's inclusion in this company is an indication of the respect in which his ideas are held today.
4)Just as there is little to be said intellectually for the Catholic Church's attempt to "hold back the tide of modernism", an attempt that the Church seems to want to repeat again, there is little to be said for most of the more fashionable trends coming out of the USA today. Whether they be the pseudo-respectable babble of post-modernist academics who decry all rational thought and proclaim a new "triumph of the will", whether they be the dressing up of biblical literalism in pseudoscientific garb of design, intelligent or otherwise or whether they be the far !!! more marginal cultists who disgrace anarchism by saying that it must oppose such abstractions as "civilization". There are probably hundreds of other examples. All of them stand in the classic American tradition of "hucksterism". Academic ex-Marxists who babble on about "texts" can best be understood as pale imitations of the more successful Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses. This may seem insulting, but it is true, even though the academics make a much more immediate financial profit from their output. But they have little staying power.
Anyways, down from the heavens and back to the earth soon,