Our televisions are alight with a new and updated version of the series Cosmos. In the relatively short span of time since the airing of that original series, humankind’s knowledge about the universe has increased many fold. What has not advanced as quickly is our ability to use that knowledge in healthy and productive ways that advance human flourishing. The world is careening between extremes, of most importance at the moment, with Russia in a Back to the Future Soviet Union moment.
Carl Sagan was not only a popularizer of science, mainly in the realm of astronomy, but also a first rate astronomer, astrophysicist, and cosmologist in his own right. I first came upon him in 1967, as an eager 12 year old with a sometimes overpowering hunger for scientific knowledge, especially in the areas of astronomy, geology, and biology. The book that sparked my lifetime interest and occasional formal education in the sciences, was Intelligent Life in the Universe, which he co-authored with I. S. Shklovskii. What Dr. Sagan instilled in me from this one book was not to be afraid to ask questions–even those that on the surface may seem obvious or outlandish–and to imagine the possible alternatives elsewhere to the type of life found here on earth, given an extremely old and expansive universe that, despite the then popular TV program, Star Trek, would ensure that we would never be able to travel the stars to completely confirm our speculations, warp drive and all. (At least, sadly, not in my lifetime). The subtext to his message to a voraciously curious 12 year old was not to be afraid; that intellectual honesty and integrity is more important than societal acceptance of what are proper questions and knowledge, that sometimes asking those questions and then pursuing them will actually lead to real answers.
Writer Ann Druyan is also worthy of mention here because, probably more than anyone else, she contributed to making Carl Sagan the popularizer that he became. One of three writers for the first Cosmos series, she later married Sagan and became his associate, helping him write several books on the subject of the scientific method and critical thinking. Most prominent of the works that she assisted in bringing to print is The Varieties of Scientific Experience. which consists of an edited version of a series of Sagan’s Gifford Lectures given in 1985.
The Gifford Lectures were established in the U.K. in 1888, and consist of the selection of a prominent thinkers to promote the study of what was called “natural theology” and are held at various Scottish universities. Over the years the lectures have hosted some of the most prominent scientists and thinkers of the time, including such notaries as Hannah Arendt, Freeman Dyson, William James, John Dewey, Albert Schweitzer, Niels Bohr, Arnold Toynbee, Iris Murdoch, J. B. S. Haldane, Werner Heisenberg, Roger Penrose, and many others.
“Natural theology” is a philosophical approach to theology that is very old. It is the concept that, as opposed to “revealed” theology, that the best way to understand the nature of the creator is through reason and experience. In the 19th century it became the hope of many individuals that the steady advance of scientific knowledge could be reconciled with theological belief. Over time, especially in the lectures, it has become apparent that such a reconciliation is becoming less and less likely, unless the various revealed theological definitions of “god” is changed as a result of our knowledge.
In choosing the title of the book, Ann Druyan meant to harken back to William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience, based on his own Gifford Lectures given in the years 1901 and 1902 at Edinburgh. To James, the psychological study of religion and the religious experience was an important aspect in understanding human nature. Religion in his definition included “the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine.” Thus James’ definition is more expansive than that of a particular set of religious beliefs or dogma. In our own time we would define James’ definition as “spirituality.”
At the time that he gave his lectures, not unlike our own, the world was divided by dogmatic religious interpretations of “god” and those who considered such beliefs to be a type of psychological defect. James proposed a different path, positing that the act of faith and revelation–whatever its basis–was an artifact of human nature that warranted study. He thus advocated for a tolerant attitude to these beliefs, regardless of the fact that the originators may have been unhinged in some way, given that oftentimes a positive effect resulted. The danger, of course, is as George Santayana wrote, that taking James’ approach too far leads to a “tendency to disintegrate the idea of truth, to recommend belief without reason and to encourage superstition.” I think this critique goes too far in its misunderstanding of James’ American pragmatist views. To James, these beliefs were of utility only so far as they advanced a good, which he would define as the health of the individual and society.
Thus we come to Sagan’s work. Ann Druyan in the introduction to her husband’s book states: “My variation on James’s title is intended to convey that science opens the way to levels of consciousness that are otherwise inaccessible to us; that, contrary to our cultural bias, the only gratification that science denies to us is deception.” The intent here is to extend and inform James’ work and to incorporate Santayana’s warning; that it is still possible to feel wonder and connectedness to creation while eschewing deception. Among our contemporaries, the neuroscientist Sam Harris has followed this path of inquiry. But, I think, Sagan’s lectures go farther in their intent and it is the same message that he conveyed to me as a curious 12 year old: that there are no taboo questions, that all aspects of human experience are open to inquiry. James opens us to this same line of inquiry from an earlier foundation in a form of language that is obscure to us today: that this includes all forms of human expression. The recent work of Daniel Dennett has also explored this territory.
Sagan opens his lectures with the following passage:
The word “religion” comes from the Latin for “binding together,” to connect that which has been sundered apart. It’s a very interesting concept. And in this sense of seeking the deepest interrelations among things that superficially appear to be sundered, the objectives of religion and science, I believe, are identical or very nearly so. But the question has to do with the reliability of the truths claimed by the two fields and the methods of approach. By far the best way I know to engage the religious sensibility, the sense of awe, is to look up on a clear night. I believe that it is very difficult to know who we are until we understand where and when we are. I think everyone in every culture has felt a sense of awe and wonder looking at the sky. This is reflected throughout the world in both science and religion. Thomas Carlyle said that wonder is the basis of worship. And Albert Einstein said, “I maintain that the cosmic religious feeling is the strongest and noblest motive for scientific research.” So if both Carlyle and Einstein could agree on something, it has a modest possibility of even being right….
He then explores the fear that lies at the root of most of our hopes that there is something more than ourselves; our mortality:
All that we have seen is something of a vast and intricate and lovely universe. There is no particular theological conclusion that comes out of an exercise such as the one we have just gone through. What is more, when we understand something of the astronomical dynamics, the evolution of worlds, we recognize that worlds are born and worlds die, they have lifetimes just as humans do, and therefore that there is a great deal of suffering and death in the cosmos if there is a great deal of life….and perhaps even intelligence is a cosmic commonplace, then it must follow that there is massive destruction, obliteration of whole planets, that routinely occurs, frequently, throughout the universe. Well, that is a different view than the traditional Western sense of a deity carefully taking pains to promote the well-being of intelligent creatures. It’s a very different sort of conclusion that modern astronomy suggests. There is a passage from Tennyson that comes to mind: “I found Him in the shining of the stars, / I mark’d Him in the flowering of His fields.” So far pretty ordinary. “But,” Tennyson goes on, “in His ways with men I find Him not…. Why is all around us here / As if some lesser god had made the world, / but had not force to shape it as he would…?”
Taking the reality of the universe into account, he then leads to a new view of what constitutes spirituality by leading with the observations of Thomas Paine:
“From whence, then, could arise the solitary and strange conceit that the Almighty, who had millions of worlds equally dependent on his protection, should quit the care of all the rest, and come to die in our world because, they say, one man and one woman ate an apple? And, on the other hand, are we to suppose that every world in the boundless creation had an Eve, an apple, a serpent, and a redeemer?” Paine is saying that we have a theology that is Earth-centered and involves a tiny piece of space, and when we step back, when we attain a broader cosmic perspective, some of it seems very small in scale. And in fact a general problem with much of Western theology in my view is that the God portrayed is too small. It is a god of a tiny world and not a god of a galaxy, much less of a universe…. 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.
In the final lecture Sagan then explains clearly why there are no bad questions that seek understanding:
If Newton were restricted, in working through the theory of gravitation, to apples and forbidden to look at the motion of the Moon or the Earth, it is clear he would not have made much progress. It is precisely being able to look at the effects down here, look at the effects up there, comparing the two, which permits, encourages, the development of a broad and general theory. If we are stuck on one planet, if we know only this planet, then we are extremely limited in our understanding even of this planet. If we know only one kind of life, we are extremely limited in our understanding even of that kind of life. If we know only one kind of intelligence, we are extremely limited in knowing even that kind of intelligence. But seeking out our counterparts elsewhere, broadening our perspective, even if we do not find what we are looking for, gives us a framework in which to understand ourselves far better. I think if we ever reach the point where we think we thoroughly understand who we are and where we came from, we will have failed. I think this search does not lead to a complacent satisfaction that we know the answer, not an arrogant sense that the answer is before us and we need do only one more experiment to find it out. It goes with a courageous intent to greet the universe as it really is, not to foist our emotional predispositions on it but to courageously accept what our explorations tell us.