Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Carl Sagan - Still the most effective spokesperson regarding science & religion

Science Times had a nice article (A Familiar and Prescient Voice, Brought to Life) yesterday on Carl Sagan and his book, The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God.
Now, however, Dr. Sagan has rejoined the cosmic debate from the grave. The occasion is the publication last month of “The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God” (Penguin). The book is based on a series of lectures exploring the boundary between science and religion that Dr. Sagan gave in Glasgow in 1985, and it was edited by Ann Druyan, his widow and collaborator.
While there have been many books on the topic of science & religion recently, the one thing that stands out about Sagan is his tone that nicely balances a respect for believers with his skeptical approach to religion.

Near the end of his book, Dr. Sagan parses the difference between belief and science this way: “I think if we ever reach the point where we think we thoroughly understand who we are and where we came from, we will have failed.”

The search for who we are does not lead to complacency or arrogance, he explains. “It goes with a courageous intent to greet the universe as it really is, not to foist our emotional predispositions on it but to courageously accept what our explorations tell us.”

Another review of his book was published in Washington Post a few books back. Here his views on God are addressed more directly:

Sagan does not deny the existence of God. Nor does he affirm it. As he quips in the lively Q&A section appended to the lectures, "Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence." What Sagan does do is insist on the primacy of scientific method and scientific evidence, and he holds the many and various "proofs" of God's existence up to these scientific standards. Most are found wanting. But Sagan is not harsh in his critiques of religious thought; he is more perplexed by theology's narrow and unimaginative vision.

Why would an all-powerful God work only on a local (and recent) project like the Earth when there is a vast, 15-billion-year-old universe out there, with countless galaxies containing countless stars and the possibility of countless worlds? Why didn't God let us know about quantum mechanics and natural selection and cosmology from the get-go? And why would theologians insist on such a provincial version of the creation and God's imagination?

Sagan is not being flip or heretical, though he is intellectually playful and obviously likes the fray. Sagan took his own spirituality seriously -- indeed, he defined science as "informed worship." The closest he comes to articulating his own view of God is to describe admiringly the philosophies of Spinoza and Einstein, who basically considered God the sum total of all the laws of physics. These laws, he emphasizes again and again, govern not just the Earth and humanity but every solar system and every star and every galaxy. They are not local ordinances.


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