“The Death of Inadequate Myths”

Review by John C. Snider © 2009

Boy, I miss Carl Sagan.  I miss his good humor.  I miss his candor.  I miss his eloquence in explaining complex scientific ideas in a way that children and laymen could understand.  I miss the funny way he said “billions and billions.”

Alas, Sagan died an untimely death, succumbing to leukemia in 1996 at the age of 62.  The world lost one of its foremost advocates of science, reason and humanism.  (And his novel Contact wasn’t half-bad, either!)

Now Sagan’s widow, author/producer Ann Druyan, has released what is likely the last major posthumous work of her famous husband: The Varieties of Scientific Experience (which I’ll call VoSE for purposes of convenience).

Subtitled “A Personal View of the Search for God,” VoSE is transcribed from a series of talks Sagan delivered in Scotland in 1985 as part of the prestigious Gifford Lectures series.  Established in the late 19th century, the Lectures are intended to support discussions relating to “natural theology,” i.e. theology supported by science.  (One wonders if there can ever be such a thing.  Thus far science has swept theology aside at every turn, until all that is left for believers is a short list of unknowable and unprovable propositions.)

Nonetheless, Sagan, armed with a lifetime of scientific experience and philosophical introspection, rose admirably to the task.  If the chapters are any indication, there were nine lectures, each of which concluded with an opportunity for questions and answers.

Sagan’s discussions cover an amazingly wide swath of philosophical territory (and as might be expected, he only scratches the surface of each sub-topic).  In Chapter 1 “Nature and Wonder,” he outlines the nearly incomprehensible vastness of the cosmos, and shows how Biblical wisdom, at least, betrays a pathetically earthbound perspective in comparison to what it might have revealed about the nature of the universe.

Chapter 2 “The Retreat from Copernicus” looks back at how human preconceptions and religious biases have clouded and retarded the scientific quest for truth.  The institutionalized resistance to the Copernican revolution (debunking for good the notion that the earth was the center of the universe) and Darwin’s theory of natural selection are good examples.

In Chapter 3 “The Organic Universe,” Sagan looks at the apparent cosmic ubiquity of carbon-based materials, which hints that life could have arisen in many, many places throughout the universe; and in Chapter 4 “Extraterrestrial Intelligence” he uses the famous Drake equation to wonder how difficult it might be for organic life to become as smart as we are.

Chapter 5 “Extraterrestrial Folklore” explores the possibility that religion has an evolutionary basis, and in Chapter 6 “The God Hypothesis,” Sagan merely brushes up against a few of the “not very compelling” arguments for the existence of God (something Richard Dawkins has done at great length in his recent book The God Delusion).

Sagan looks at possible biochemical causes for “The Religious Experience” in Chapter 7, and in Chapter 8 “Crimes against Creation,” he analyzes the then-fearsome grip that the Cold War and the threat of nuclear annihilation had on the world.  Remember, this was 1985: Ronald Reagan was in office and the fall of Communism was still half a decade away.  This chapter is simultaneously the most “dated” of the chapters and the most prophetic.  He speaks at some length on the now-long-discredited “Chariots of the Gods” theories of Eric Von Daniken, which were still making the rounds at that time.  And yet, at one point Sagan discusses the dangers of combining “the End is nigh” fundamentalist Christianity with the very real possibility of atomic Armageddon.  (Carl would turn in his grave if he knew what the 90s held for the White House.)

Chapter 9 concludes with a call to “The Search.”  Sagan laments that the mass media, and culture in general, are too often hopelessly fatalistic in the face of the problems looming over the world.  From Sagan’s humanistic perspective, the most logical way forward… is hope.  Sagan didn’t think the world would end any time soon, unless human beings caused it, and he was confident in the ability of humans to solve human problems.

He also makes the following observation, which is eerily appropriate to the current world conflict: “We kill each other, or threaten to kill each other… because we are afraid we might not ourselves know the truth, that someone else with a different doctrine might have a closer approximation to the truth.  Our history is in part a battle to the death of inadequate myths.  If I can’t convince you, I must kill you.”

Druyan is a restrained and judicious editor, adding only the occasional footnote on recent historical events or scientific discoveries that might have changed what Sagan said in his lectures.  Overall, The Varieties of Scientific Experience is a wonderful book, full of thought-provoking questions that are just as relevant today as they were two decades ago.

The Varieties of Scientific Experience (pub. by Penguin, Nov 2007, 304 pp trade ppb, $16) is available from Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.

(A version of this review was originally published at SciFiDimensions.com in April 2007.)

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