Thursday, June 20, 2013

The Varieties of Scientific Experience

This posthumous edition of Carl Sagan's 1985 Gifford Lectures, rediscovered and edited by his wife Ann Druyan, was our book club selection for June. It stimulated an interesting discussion on natural theology, agnosticism, religion and ethics. I didn't read the whole book but a good part of it, including the key chapter on "The Religious Experience."

My view was that Sagan's ability as an astronomer to vividly describe just what a pathetic speck in the universe mankind is doesn't really help me much. I'm just as much an agnostic regarding man's place in the universe and his momentary existence in the epochs of time as I am about religion and God in general.

Certainly, given what we know now about the universe, all religion is revealed to be a social mythology. The notion of a personal God who is attentive to mankind's prayers, intervening in our lives and taking us up into heaven is, in the context of the entire universe, as improbable as the idols and superstitions of primitive tribesmen.

Just as certainly, there is a spiritual dimension to the human personality and real experiences that can only be called religious. For me personally, Teilhard de Chardin's effort to reconcile his religion with his scientific understanding in the teleological notion of God's becoming is as close to satisfying as a natural theology is likely to get. Some in our group argued against it, saying evolution does not in fact mean progress. But I'm not sure Teilhard was speaking of just progress as part of the becoming.

In any case, what is more important to me is the ethical consequences of whatever belief or value system one has in life and I found this missing in Sagan's book (it might have been in a chapter I didn't read but no one corrected me when I said this in the meeting). For this reason, I could just as well have skipped it, since I already accept his scientific view of the universe.

But the book occasioned a good discussion about things you rarely get a chance to talk about, so that alone made it worthwhile.

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