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The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God Hardcover – November 2, 2006

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Editorial Reviews

From Scientific American

Sagan, writing from beyond the grave (actually his new book, The Varieties of Scientific Experience, is an edited version of his 1985 Gifford Lectures), asks why, if God created the universe, he left the evidence so scant. He might have embedded Maxwell’s equations in Egyptian hieroglyphs. The Ten Commandments might have been engraved on the moon. "Or why not a hundred- kilometer crucifix in Earth orbit?… Why should God be so clear in the Bible and so obscure in the world?" He laments what he calls a "retreat from Copernicus," a loss of nerve, an emotional regression to the idea that humanity must occupy center stage. Both Gingerich and Collins, along with most every reconciler of science and religion, invoke the anthropic principle: that the values of certain physical constants such as the charge of the electron appear to be "fine-tuned" to produce a universe hospitable to the rise of conscious, worshipful life. But the universe is not all that hospitable-try leaving Earth without a space suit. Life took billions of years to take root on this planet, and it is an open question whether it made it anywhere else. To us carboniferous creatures, the dials may seem miraculously tweaked, but different physical laws might have led to universes harboring equally awe-filled forms of energy, cooking up anthropic arguments of their own.

George Johnson is author of Fire in the Mind: Science, Faith, and the Search for Order and six other books. He resides on the Web at

From Booklist

"The objectives of religion and science, I believe, are identical or very nearly so." So declares Carl Sagan in the first of the Gifford Lectures he delivered in 1985, published now to mark the tenth anniversary of the astronomer's death. Because he finds that scientists share a deep sense of wonder, Sagan defines science as a type of "informed worship," a definition clarified by awe-inspiring astronomical photographs. However, many readers will conclude that Sagan fails to link science and religion as kindred pursuits of truth. For despite the titular nod to William James, another famous Gifford lecturer, Sagan wants no variety of religious experience that will not fit within an empirical paradigm. In the transcendent visions of scripture, he sees only the effects of biochemicals that confer reproductive advantage. Still, Sagan recognizes in Christian admonitions to love one's enemy a much-needed moral guide in a world threatened by the weapons science has made possible. And even readers who turn elsewhere for a fuller understanding of religion will appreciate Sagan's passion for a science that teaches us to look up. Bryce Christensen
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Press HC, The (November 2, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1594201072
  • ISBN-13: 978-1594201073
  • Product Dimensions: 5.8 x 1.1 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (144 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #373,448 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

129 of 133 people found the following review helpful By STEPHEN PLETKO on January 19, 2007
Format: Hardcover

Former professor of astronomy & space sciences and former director of the Laboratory for Planetary Studies at Cornell University Dr. Carl Sagan (Nov. 1934 to Dec. 1996) has risen from the dead to write a book on his search for God!!

Well, not quite. Sagan's third wife & widow and his longtime collaborator Ann "Annie" Druyan has turned his 1985 lectures (formally entitled the "Gifford Lectures on Natural Theology") that he presented at the University of Glasgow in Scotland into a fascinating book. Astronomer and the Sagans' dear friend Steven Soter wrote scientific updates that appear in the book's footnotes and, as well, he made "many editorial contributions."

The purpose of these lectures as Druyan tells us is as follows:

"Carl saw these lectures as a chance to set down in detail his understanding of the relationship between religion and science and something of his own search to understand the nature of the sacred."

But exactly why did Druyan turn these lectures into a book (which she edited)? Here's her answer:

"In the midst of the worldwide pandemic of extreme fundamentalist violence and during 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 needed for than ever."

Thank goodness that she thought this way because she has given all of us a valuable book to be cherished, "a...stunningly valuable legacy left to all of us by a great human being." For those who have followed Sagan's writings in the past, the science he presents will be familiar and easy to follow.
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129 of 139 people found the following review helpful By The Spinozanator VINE VOICE on November 12, 2006
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Science's esteemed friend Carl Sagan died prematurely in 1996. What a pleasure it is to read more of his crystal clear prose. In these transcripts of his 1985 Gifford Lectures on Natural Theology at the University of Glasgow, he gives us his rich insights on the relationship between science and religion. William James had a turn in the early 20th century and turned his lectures into the acclaimed "Varieties of Religious Experiences." "Varieties of Scientific Experiences" is edited by Sagan's widow and collaborator Ann Druyan and she acknowledges his admiration for James in the title of this book.

Starting with cosmology, Sagan leads us through a naturalistic view of the universe - meaning except for the most extreme liberal interpretation of God, He is not part of the equation. But the believer who desires the bigger picture should not be scared off - this eloquent book is more considerate and gentle than the recent books on religion by Dawkins, Harris, and Dennett. As usual with Sagan, it is also a treatise on why we should view our world with a scientific, rational mind-set. Sagan's bottom line was always: "Show me the evidence." In an interview, Sagan was once pressed by a reporter for a premature conclusion. When asked, "But what's your gut feeling," Sagan replied, "I try not to think with my gut."

I spent a whole day being stimulated and intrigued by this book and there is not a dull page. An 11th century Hindu logician presented the following proofs for the Hindu "all-knowing and imperishable but not necessarily omnipotent and compassionate God":

1. First cause - sounds familiar
2. Argument from atomic combinations - bonding of atoms requires a conscious agent
3. Argument from suspension of the world - somebody has to be holding it up
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103 of 111 people found the following review helpful By Kevin Currie-Knight VINE VOICE on February 12, 2007
Format: Hardcover
I would love to spend a paragraph or two on how lucky we were and are to have had Carl Sagan among us. Of course, anyone reading this review likely already knows that this is true and the extent of its truth. So, I will get to the point.

This is a very impressive posthumous collection of Sagan's Gifford's lectures where he talks about the intersection (or lack thereof) of sceince and religion. Most importantly, he talks about how the religious experience - more appropriately, the experience of extreme awe at our surroundings - is more apt for science than in religion. Where religious awe and wonderment revels in mystery, sceintific awe acknowledges the mystery and goes about extirpate that mystery via some explanation. Wheras religion's version of solving a problem is to postulate magic, science's version of solving problems involves solving them with evidence.

The first few essays are about the idea of the 'religious experience' - the acknowledgement of how small we are and how vast is the universe; the acknowledgement of how sublime all of our surroundings truly are. But science, suggests Sagan, seeks to find out about those surrounding, while religion revels in the idea of the 'incomprehensible.'

There is an essay that continues this theme by postulating on the possible NATURALISTIC origins of life. While we have not solved the puzzle, Sagan walks us through very plausible examples of how the chemical process COULD HAVE gone (certainly more plausible than an infinitely complex god deciding to create all of this, by which you then have to explain how THAT god arose.)

Another essay exposes the very embarassing 'proofs' of god that theologians have come up with through the years.
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