You Are What You Read

Reviews of books as I read them. This is basically a (web)log of books I've read.

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Location: Lawrenceville, Georgia, United States

I am a DBA/database analyst by day, full time father on evenings and weekends.

Friday, January 29, 2010

The Varieties of Scientific Experience

The Varieties of Scientific Experience is a compilation of Carl Sagan's Gifford Lectures in 1985. In the lectures he presents a scientific view of the universe as well as a logical approach to the idea of God. The first lecture starts with images and descriptions of our solar system and the neighboring space around us. Sagan shows a great sense of awe at the vastness and variety of the universe.

In the following chapters he discusses the anthropic principle and the organic matter that is in the rest of the universe. He points out how pervasive organic compounds are throughout our solar system and beyond. Then he talks about something he is well known for, the possibility of extraterrestrial life and the search for intelligent life beyond Earth. He points out the difficulties of communication across the expanse of the cosmos. He also brings up the historical mistakes and blunders, such as the canals of Mars and the classical belief that the planets were kept in motion by God's hand.

In the last few lectures Sagan brings a logical and methodical view of the existence of God. He deftly debunks standard arguments for God's existence. He contrasts Western and Eastern views of the gods. Next he points out the biological basis for many religious experiences, namely chemicals such as epinephrine. Each scientific discovery like this makes God's domain more and more remote. He describes this well in chapter 3, "The Organic Universe": "So as science advances, there seems to be less and less for God to do. ... evolving before our eyes has been a God of the Gaps; that is, whatever it is we cannot explain lately is attributed to God. And then after a while, we explain it, and so that's no longer god's realm. The theologians give that one up, and it walks over onto the science side of the duty roster." I've never seen a more cogent explanation for the God of the Gaps.

I found the last section of questions and answers the most interesting. A dialogue of back and forth discussion is usually more interesting and a one-way lecture. The attendees at the lectures ask some interesting questions and he responds well. Apparently bringing a scientific approach to religion was controversial and didn't sit well with all the attendees. In a response to a questioner to proposed that "God is love", he gives a cogent rebuttal ending with the summary, "So my proposal is that we call reality 'reality,' that we call love 'love,' and not call either of them God, which has, while an enormous number of other meanings, not exactly those meanings." It is refreshing to read such a clear definition that does away with so much nonsense, which has a way of infecting discourse.

Though the book is short it is full of good information and thoughtful analysis. Sagan is known as a good science writer and he doesn't disappoint here, even though these we lectures given to a live audience. It would have been a fascinating experience to have been there. Many of the arguments he makes aren't new but he expresses them well and shows a depth of knowledge about astronomy and the rest of the universe of science. It's well worth the read. A-

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