The Varieties of Scientific Experience, by Carl Sagan



Three and a half stars, read from December 2016 to January 2017.

This was an interesting book to be my first by Carl Sagan, because it’s actually transcripts of lectures, including some Q&A with the audience. So it’s more intimate, in a way, because you can hear him speaking; it’s very coherent, obviously, but just not structured exactly the same way it would’ve been if he’d written it for publication. And the sense I got (which I think I already knew) is that I really like Carl Sagan. He’s so thoughtful and gentle in his responses to the audience, even when I imagined that he was annoyed by the questions.

But surely there is a message in the heavens that the finiteness not just of life but of whole worlds, in fact of whole galaxies, is a bit antithetical to the conventional theological views in the West, although not in the East. And this then suggests a broader conclusion. And that is the idea of an immortal Creator. By definition, as Ann Druyan has pointed out, an immortal Creator is a cruel god, because He, never having to face the fear of death, creates innumerable creatures who do. Why should He do that? . . . It’s a little bit like the rich imposing poverty on the poor and then asking to be loved because of it.


Does trying to understand the universe at all betray a lack of humility? I believe it is true that humility is the only just response in a confrontation with the universe, but not a humility that prevents us from seeking the nature of the universe we are admiring. If we seek that nature, then love can be informed by truth instead of being based on ignorance of self-deception. If a Creator God exists, would He or She or It or whatever the appropriate pronoun is, prefer a kind of sodden blockhead who worships while understanding nothing? Or would He prefer His votaries to admire the real universe in all its intricacy? I would suggest that science is, at least in part, informed worship. My deeply held belief is that if a god of anything like the traditional sort exists, then our curiosity and intelligence are provided by such a god . . . On the other hand, if such a traditional god does not exist, then our curiosity and our intelligence are the essential tools for managing our survival in an extremely dangerous time.


I thought this was incredibly cool; it’s a way to visualize the time frame of evolution, because he says one of the things people struggle with is that the scale is too large for us to get a sense of:

Suppose your father or mother—let’s say father for the sake of definiteness—walked into this room at the ordinary human pace of walking. And suppose just behind him was his father. And just behind him was his father. How long would we have to wait before the ancestor who enters the now-open door is a creature who normally walked on all fours? The answer is a week.

Can you imagine that? A full week of a constant stream of people walking through the door, and each one of those ancestors represents a generation? The amount of time represented here is huge on a human scale. If that was one person every three seconds, we’re talking about 200,000 people, each one representing about twenty years.


Now, it is sometimes said that people who take a skeptical approach to UFOs or ancient astronauts or indeed some varieties of revealed religion are engaging in prejudice. I maintain this is not prejudice. It is postjudice. That is, not a judgment made before examining the evidence but a judgment made after examining the evidence.


Sagan quotes David Hume: “In the infancy of new religions the wise and learned commonly esteem the matter too inconsiderable to deserve their attention or regard. And then when afterwards they would willingly detect the cheat in order to undeceive the deluded multitudes, the season is now past and the records and witnesses which might clear up the matter have perished beyond recovery.” And then says himself:

Well, it seems to me that there is only one conceivable approach to these matters. If we have such an emotional stake in the answers, if we want badly to believe, and if it is important to know the truth, then nothing other than a committed, skeptical scrutiny is required. It is not very different from buying a used car. When you buy a used car, it is insufficient to remember that you badly need a car. After all, it has to work. It is insufficient to say that the used-car salesman is a friendly fellow. What you generally do is you kick the tires, you look at the odometer, you open up the hood. If you do not feel yourself expert in automobile engines, you bring a friend who is. And you do this for something as unimportant as an automobile. But on issues of the transcendent, of ethics and morals, of the origin of the world, of the nature of human beings, on those issues should we not insist upon at least equally skeptical scrutiny?


One thing that comes to my mind is how striking it is that when someone has a religious-conversion experience, it is almost always to the religion or one of the religions that are mainly believed in his or her community. Because there are so many other possibilities. For example, it’s very rare in the West that someone has a religious-conversion experience in which the principal deity has the head of an elephant and is painted blue. That is quite rare. But in India there is a blue, elephant-headed god that has many devotees. And seeing depictions of this god there is not so rare. How is it that the apparition of elephant gods is restricted to Indians and doesn’t happen except in places where there is a strong Indian tradition? How is it that apparitions of the Virgin Mary are common in the West but rarely occur in places in the East where there isn’t a strong Christian tradition? Why don’t the details of the religious belief cross over the cultural barriers? It is hard to explain unless the details are entirely determined by the local culture and have nothing to do with something that is externally valid.


Now, whether or not this explanation is right, there is no question that religions have historically played the role of making people contented with their lot. And it is customary even today to argue that the actual truth or falsity of the religious doctrine does not matter so much as the degree of social stability it brings about. People who through no fault of their own have much less in the way of material goods or respect in a society are told in many religions, “It doesn’t matter in this life. Yeah, it looks like you’re getting a bad deal, but this is just the twinkling of an eye. What really matters is the next life, and there an implacable cosmic justice awaits you.” . . .

Maybe it’s true. But it’s not hard to see that such a doctrine would be very appealing to the ruling classes of a society.


Tradition is a precious thing, a kind of distillation of tens or hundreds of thousands of generations of humans. It is a gift from our ancestors. But it is essential to remember that tradition is invented by human beings and for perfectly pragmatic reasons. If instead you believe that the traditions are from an exhortatory god and hold that the traditional wisdom is handed down directly from a deity, then we are much scandalized at the idea of challenging the conventions. But when the world is changing very fast, I suggest survival may depend precisely on our ability to change rapidly in the face of changing conditions. We live in precisely such a time.

Consider our past circumstances. Imagine our ancestors, a small, itinerant, nomadic group of hunter-gatherer people. Surely there was change in their lives . . . But by and large the change is extraordinarily slow. The same traditions for chipping stone to make spears and arrowheads, for example, continues in the East African paleoanthropological sites for tens or hundreds of thousands of years.

In such a society, the external change was slow compared to the human generation time. Back then traditional wisdom, parental prescriptions, were perfectly valid and appropriate for generations. Children growing up of course paid the closest attention to these traditions, because they represented a kind of elixir of the wisdom of previous generations; it was constantly tested, and it constantly worked . . .

Now compare that with another reality, one in which the external changes, social or biological or climatic or whatever we wish, are rapid compared to a human generation time. Then parental wisdom may not be relevant to present circumstances. Then what we ourselves were taught and learned as youngsters may have dubious relevance to the circumstances of the day. Then there is a kind of intergenerational conflict.


This next quote comes twenty pages later, in a different chapter, so I’m surprised by how seamlessly it seems to be directly related to the one I just finished typing. These lectures were given in 1985, so the “extraordinary times” he refers to frequently throughout them are referring to the arms race and the threat of nuclear war. That particular version of the crisis has ended, but I have to say going into 2017 that these words still feel incredibly relevant to me.

Since the times are so extraordinary, since they are unprecedented, it is in no way clear that the ancient prescriptions retain perfect validity today. That means that we must have a willingness to consider a wide variety of new alternatives, some of which have never been thought of before, others of which have, but have been summarily rejected by one culture or another. We run the danger of fighting to the death on ideological pretexts.

We kill each other, or threaten to kill each other, in part, I think, 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. That will change your mind. You are a threat to my version of the truth, especially the truth about who I am and what my nature is. The thought that I may have dedicated my life to a lie, that I might have accepted a conventional wisdom that no longer, if it ever did, corresponds to the external reality, that is a very painful realization. I will tend to resist it to the last. I will go to almost any lengths to prevent myself from seeing that the worldview I have dedicated my life to is inadequate . . .

Instead of this, what we need is a honing of the skills of explication, of dialogue, of what used to be called logic and rhetoric and what used to be essential to every college education, a honing of the skills of compassion, which, just like intellectual abilities, needs practice to be perfected . . . There is a worldwide closed-mindedness that imperils the species. It was always with us, but the risks weren’t as grave, because weapons of mass destruction were not then available.

We have Ten Commandments in the West. Why is there no commandment exhorting us to learn? “Thou shalt understand the world. Figure things out.” There’s nothing like that. And very few religions urge us to enhance our understanding of the natural world.


From the question and answer section, in which an audience member suggested that “in reality He is there. God is love.”

Well, if we say that the definition of God is reality, or the definition of God is love, I have no quarrel with the existence of reality or the existence of love . . . However, it does not follow that God defined in that way has anything to do with the creation of the world or of any events in human history. It does not follow that there’s anything that is omnipotent or omniscient and so on about God defined in such a manner. So all I’m saying is, we must look at the logical consistency of the various definitions. If you say God is love, clearly love exists in the world. But love is not the only thing that exists in the world . . . And I don’t see that it helps to say, forgive me, that God is love, because there are all those other definitions of God, that mean quite different things. If we muddle up all the definitions of God, then it’s very confusing what’s being talked about. There is a great opportunity for error in that case. So my proposal is that we call reality “reality,” that we call love “love,” and not call either of them God, which has, while an enormous number of other meanings, not exactly those meanings.

He is being kind there, but I think what he means—and what I believe—is that if we’re being perfectly honest, when people do this, they are (whether consciously or not) trying to obscure the issue precisely so that it is confusing what we’re talking about. Because really, the only thing religion has going for it is the fact that we can’t disprove it.


Questioner: How do you recognize the truth when it is upon us?
CS: A simple question: How can we recognize the truth? It is, of course, difficult. But there are a few simple rules. The truth ought to be logically consistent. It should not contradict itself; that is, there are some logical criteria. It ought to be consistent with what else we know . . . We should also pay attention to how badly we want to believe a given contention. The more badly we want to believe it, the more skeptical we have to be. It involves a kind of courageous self-discipline. Nobody says it’s easy. I think those three principles at least will winnow out a fair amount of chaff. It doesn’t guarantee that what remains will be true, but at least it will significantly diminish the field of discourse.


Questioner: Professor, Sagan, I’d like advice, please. Is there anything you think an individual could do to change in some way the world situation, or should we just sit back and accept it?
CS: Nope, you don’t have to sit back. [First he says some things about democracy, voting for candidates who have rational views on things, writing letters to newspapers, etc.] But more important than any of that, I believe, is that each of us must equip him- or herself with a “baloney-detection kit” . . .

I would say that the first thing to do is to realize that governments, all governments, at least on occasion, lie . . . By and large, governments distort the facts in order to remain in office.

And if we are ignorant of what the issues are and can’t even ask the critical questions, then we’re not going to make much of a difference. If we can understand the issues, if we can pose the right questions, if we can point out the contradictions, then we can make some progress.


Everyone in this room has felt aggression. Surely that’s right . . . But I also maintain that everyone in this room has felt compassion. Everyone in this room has felt love. Everyone in this room has felt kindness. And so we have two warring principles in the human heart, both of which must have evolved by natural selection, and it’s not hard to understand the selective advantage of both of them. And so the issue has to do with which is in the preponderance. And here it is the use of our intellect that is central. Because we’re talking about adjudicating between conflicting emotions. And you can’t have an adjudication between emotions by an emotion. It must be done by our perceptive intellectual ability.

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