Dr. Fred Bortzbooks

Review of The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God

by Carl Sagan, edited by Ann Druyan

(Penguin, $27.95, 288 pages, November 2006)

Reviewed by Dr. Fred Bortz

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The late Cornell University astronomy professor and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Carl Sagan did not believe in a physical afterlife, nor was he inclined to spend his time investigating it. He approached that subject, and others usually associated with theology (including the existence and meaning of a capital-G God or gods), with a scientist's open but skeptical mind.

To Sagan, evidence and clarity of thought were paramount. And the evidence of his life shows a quest for a very different kind of hereafter, a personal and intellectual legacy that contributes to the long-term survival of our species. That evidence includes the scientific books and television programs for which he is best known to the general public, as well as his political activism.

In the latter, he found many allies whose motivations were primarily religious. He was genuinely interested in their view of the world, and he made a point of studying sacred literature and philosophy so he could better interact with them. Thus when the organizers of the famous Gifford Lectures on Natural Theology in Scotland were looking for a speaker for their 1985 centennial event, Carl Sagan was a clear choice.

The transcripts of those lectures, never before published, have been collected and edited by Sagan's widow and collaborator, Ann Druyan, in The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God. She intends the work to fill in an important gap in her husband's legacy, and she chose the title as an homage to psychologist and philosopher William James, whose own 1901 Gifford lectures, cover The Variety of Religious Experience, were among Sagan's favorite reading materials and remain in print today.

For those who still have fond memories of the narrator of the coverCosmos television series ten years after his death in December 1996, the first five lectures (with a few up-to-date astronomical images replacing the originals) will bring back Carl Sagan the tour guide, inviting his viewers on voyages of discovery and speculation through a vast, awesome creation.

Those lectures cover the physics of the cosmos, the origin of organic molecules, the rise of life and intelligence on Earth, and the possibility of the same on other worlds. Like the Cosmos narration, their emphasis was about astronomy as a scientific pursuit. Yet they also speak to a religious impulse that the television series ignited within many of its viewers.

The Gifford Lecture series' subject, natural theology, is the quest for signs of a deity in nature rather than in the supernatural. Thus the series calls on the lecturer to build bridges between the scientific and religious realms, neither accepting nor denying God unconditionally.

The bridge between Cosmos and theology is a lecture on "The God Hypothesis." Next comes an examination of "The Religious Experience," followed by "Crimes Against Creation" and "The Search." The latter discusses the complementary roles of science and religion in understanding the existence and role of humans in the universe.

The former shows Sagan at his most passionate and provocative. Then and now, he has been both praised and pilloried for using speculative science, the "nuclear winter" scenario, in service of a political agenda.

Druyan published the lectures because the time was right to rediscover Sagan's passion and provocation. "In the midst of a worldwide pandemic of extreme fundamentalist violence and in a time in the United States when phony piety in public life reached a new low and the critical separation of church and state and public classroom were dangerously eroded, I felt that Carl's perspective on these questions was more needed than ever."

Physicist Fred Bortz is the author of numerous books for young readers and reviews of current science books for adults.