On the 10th anniversary of his death, brilliant astrophysisist and Pulitzer Prize winner Carl Sagan's prescient exploration of the relationship between religion and science and his personal search for God
Carl Sagan is considered one of the greatest scientific minds of our time. His remarkable ability to explain science in terms easily understandable to the layman in bestselling books such as Cosmos, The Dragons of Eden, and The Demon-Haunted World won him a Pulitzer Prize and placed him firmly next to Isaac Asimov, Stephen Jay Gould, and Oliver Sachs as one of the most important and enduring communicators of science. In December 2006 it will be the tenth anniversary of Sagan's death, and Ann Druyan, his widow and longtime collaborator, will mark the occasion by releasing Sagan's famous "Gifford Lectures in Natural Theology," The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God.
The chance to give the Gifford Lectures is an honor reserved for the most distinguished scientists and philosophers of our civilization. In 1985, on the grand occasion of the centennial of the lectureship, Carl Sagan was invited to give them. He took the opportunity to set down in detail his thoughts on the relationship between religion and science as well as to describe his own personal search to understand the nature of the sacred in the vastness of the cosmos.
The Varieties of Scientific Experience, edited, updated and with an introduction by Ann Druyan, is a bit like eavesdropping on a delightfully intimate conversation with the late great astronomer and astrophysicist. In his charmingly down-to-earth voice, Sagan easily discusses his views on topics ranging from manic depression and the possibly chemical nature of transcendance to creationism and so-called intelligent design to the likelihood of intelligent life on other planets to the likelihood of nuclear annihilation of our own to a new concept of science as "informed worship." Exhibiting a breadth of intellect nothing short of astounding, he illuminates his explanations with examples from cosmology, physics, philosophy, literature, psychology, cultural anthropology, mythology, theology, and more. Sagan's humorous, wise, and at times stunningly prophetic observations on some of the greatest mysteries of the cosmos have the invigorating effect of stimulating the intellect, exciting the imagination, and reawakening us to the grandeur of life in the cosmos.
"Ann Druyan has unearthed a treasure. It is a treasure of reason, compassion, and scientific awe. It should be the next book you read."
--Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith
"A stunningly valuable legacy left to all of us by a great human being. I miss him so."
An Interview with Ann DruyanWhen did Carl Sagan write The Varieties of Scientific Experience and why?
Carl Sagan actually spoke the book at the University of Glasgow in the form of the Gifford Lectures in 1985. We had always thought that we would one day collaborate on a book about religion and science, which would integrate these lectures with additional research and ideas. Our working title was Ethos. It was going to be the book after the last one. Unfortunately, we never got a chance to write it.
What are the Gifford Lectures and can you explain Sagan's involvement with them?
In 1885, Adam Lord Gifford, a jurist, gave the four Scottish universities an endowment of ?80,000 to establish a continuing lectureship on the topic of "natural theology" which Carl described as "everything about the world not supplied by revelation." Gifford created a forum for the greatest philosophers, scientists and theologians to discuss what they had learned about the sacred. James Frazer, Albert Schweitzer, Alfred North Whitehead, Werner Heisenberg, Hannah Arendt and Neils Bohr were Gifford lecturers. Carl was humbled at the prospect of being asked to join such an illustrious group. He considered the invitation to give these lectures as one of the greatest honors of his life. We thought and talked about them constantly during the year leading up to his presentation. He spoke without any notes?only six or eight key words per lecture that were like the bases of a baseball diamond. They guided his pathway and he wanted to be sure to touch upon each one. The audio transcripts of the lectures were a stunning reminder of the eloquence and clarity of this great teacher.
Carl viewed the Gifford lectureship as a spiritual challenge to search his heart and brain for what he knew would be a lasting testament of his philosophy. I think he fulfilled his challenge to himself. I was there for every lecture and the atmosphere at the University of Glasgow was crackling with excitement. There was a pin drop silence as he spoke, frequently interrupted by laughter at his humorous observations. He really connected with that audience and the crowds grew with every lecture.
Why did you wait until now to publish this book?
Public interest in the contrasting approaches of religion and science is surging. The old "intelligent design" arguments that masquerade as science, have reappeared yet again. I thought of how persuasively Carl had dealt with these subjects in the lectures. I went hunting for them in his vast archive. I knew they were in there somewhere. After months of searching, I gave up. A friend of ours came to me after spending about a half hour in the archive and asked: Is this what you're looking for? I had goose bumps as I began to read. We were approaching the tenth anniversary of Carl's death and yet the number of people who write to me about him from around the world keeps growing. Many of them ask a variation on the same question: What did Dr. Sagan think about God? Here was a chance to let him speak for himself on topics that have only become more central in the years since his death.
You were together for twenty years, as professional collaborators and as husband and wife. What was that like? How was your experience with Varieties different than other projects?
Once in the Sea of Cortez, we saw a pair of dolphins zooming alongside the ship we were sailing on. They would execute these sudden turns without any apparent signaling, while moving so fast that they were just a blur in the water. Carl took me in his arms and said "that's us, Annie." And that's exactly what it felt like: Two sea mammals moving together as one through the ocean of ideas.
Editing Carl's transcript into a book was wonderfully evocative of the times we had, thinking and writing together. Having him talk inside my head even more than usual gave me the delightful illusion that we were working together once again. That is not to say that when he was alive we did not have some extremely vigorous disagreements about content and style. But even in the midst of the most intense disagreement, one of us would remind the other that our time together was finite. That was enough to get us back on track.
The Varieties of Scientific Experience--can you explain the significance of this title?
In the first years of the 20th century, the American psychologist and philosopher William James gave the Gifford Lectures. He later turned them into an exceptionally influential book entitled The Varieties of Religious Experience, which remains in print till this day. Carl was fond of James's definition of religion as a "feeling of being at home in the universe." My variation on James's title is intended to convey our belief that science opens the way to levels of consciousness that are otherwise inaccessible to us; that contrary to our cultural bias, the only gratification that science denies to us is deception; that the varieties of scientific experience in Carl Sagan's fearless life and work were exemplified by oneness, humility, community, wonder and love. It's also a tip of the hat to the illustrious history of the Gifford lectures.
You write that Sagan viewed science as a kind of "informed worship." Can you explain/elaborate upon this?
Carl saw science as a form of spiritual discipline. Science has been the means of weaning ourselves of our childhood delusions of centrality in the universe, which in and of itself has to be considered a great leap forward for us spiritually. He also believed that to love anything or anyone deeply you must be willing to see the object of your love not as you fantasize it or wish it to be, but as it really is. The scientific method enables us to know and therefore to love nature with an unprecedented depth of understanding. The universe that science has revealed is more vast, complex, fascinating, and far more ancient than our ancestors, including our inspired prophets, ever conceived. The over- arching insight of modern science is the relatedness, the oneness of all. For Carl, Darwin's insight that life evolved over the eons through natural selection was not just better science than Genesis, it also afforded a deeper, more satisfying spiritual experience.
Where do you see the lines of science and religion intersecting today? What are the biggest current issues that are putting these two fields at odds with each other?
The last several years have been an intensely reactionary period and fear-based politics tend to go hand in hand with fear-based religion. The Bush administration has been relentlessly hostile to science, from the President's willful mispronunciation of the word "nuclear" to the brutal slashing of funding for scientific research to the attempts to undermine the great insights of science of even a century ago. This is part of an overall contempt for reality that has characterized the administration's Iraq policy. As we know, all of this has taken place against a dramatic spike in violent religious fundamentalism.
In this environment we are given a false choice between the compassion, community and awe of religion and a vision of science as cold, inhuman, and ultimately, a threat to our future. Nobody can deny the misuse of science, but that can only be prevented or corrected by an electorate that is comfortable with the values and insights of science. What is needed is a great spiritual rebirth. We need to find our nerve and move courageously forward out into the cosmos. It's my hope that this horrendous period of retreat is about to end.
What do you hope people will take away from this book?
Many things, because Carl has given us a feast of ideas. One, is that we should not be afraid to search for God as complete human beings who can both think and feel deeply. Also, that science has revealed a grander narrative of creation and reality than any previous method of searching for truth. It's not finished and it probably never will be--but that is what makes it so powerful--the permanently revolutionary error-- correcting mechanism at the heart of its methodology. There is nothing sacred about any single step along the way--only the search itself is sacred.
What are you currently working on? What's your next project?
I'm working on three dramatic films, one in collaboration with Martin Scorsese, another with Richard Gere, and the third an Imax film about climate change. I am continuing to work with The Planetary Society on our next solar sail spacecraft mission. And I've just begun a memoir about what I learned during my time with Carl.
The Varieties of Scientific Experience - Other formats:
There are no customer reviews available at this time. Would you like to write a review?
November 01, 2006
Number of Print Pages*
Adobe DRM EPUB
* Number of eBook pages may differ. Click here for more information.