Carl Sagan (1934-1996) recently published a new book. In 1985, he delivered the Gifford Lectures, a year-long Scottish academic appointment designed to promote the study of natural theology. The transcripts of the lectures were lost for many years, but were finally rediscovered, edited, and published in 2006 as the book The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God. I found it impossible to read this enjoyable and enlightening book without hearing Sagan's distinctive verbal delivery echoing in my mind as I read the text. I'll touch on a few of the topics he covered: God, the Universe, extraterrestrial life, religion, and Mormonism.
The God Hypothesis
Sagan does not believe in God and doesn't hide that fact, but he does not adopt the aggressive and sometimes demeaning tone of 21st-century New Atheists. He starts out Chapter 6, The God Hypothesis, defining the term "God." He considers theologian Paul Tillich, who "explicitly denied God's existence, at least as a supernatural power." He notes the "naive Western view of God as an outsize, light-skinned male with a long white beard, who sits on a very large throne in the sky and tallies the fall of every sparrow." He discusses the views of Spinoza and Einstein, who professed belief in God, "but by God they meant something not very different from the sum total of the physical laws of the universe; that is, gravitation plus quantum mechanics plus grand unified field theories plus a few other things equaled God." Given this diversity, he frames the God question as: "What kind of god are you talking about, and what is the evidence that this god exists?" He reminds us that the Romans called Christians atheists, so "what kind of god are you talking about?" has more bite than you might think.
In the balance of the chapter, Sagan briefly reviews and rejects arguments for the existence of God, such as the following on the argument from experience:
People have religious experiences. No question about it. They have them worldwide .... They are powerful, emotionally extremely convincing, and they often lead to people reforming their lives and doing good works, although the opposite also happens. ... I do not mean in any way to object to or deride religious experiences. But the question is, can any such experience provide other than anecdotal evidence of the existence of God or gods? One million UFO cases since 1947. And yet, as far as we can tell, they do not correspond — any of them — to visitations to the Earth by spacecraft from elsewhere. Large numbers of people can have can have experiences that can be profound and moving and still not correspond to anything like an exact sense of external reality.
So Sagan rejects the God hypothesis, but it's nice he addresses the topic in a serious way.
The Organic Universe
Sagan was an astronomer best known as a popularizer via the popular and enduring PBS series Cosmos, but he was also a pioneer in the serious business of space exploration. Here's from his Wikipedia entry:
Sagan was associated with the American space program from its inception. From the 1950s onward, he worked as an advisor to NASA, where one of his duties included briefing the Apollo astronauts before their flights to the Moon. Sagan contributed to many of the robotic spacecraft missions that explored the solar system, arranging experiments on many of the expeditions. He conceived the idea of adding an unalterable and universal message on spacecraft destined to leave the solar system that could potentially be understood by any extraterrestrial intelligence that might find it. Sagan assembled the first physical message that was sent into space: a gold-anodized plaque, attached to the space probe Pioneer 10, launched in 1972. Pioneer 11, also carrying another copy of the plaque, was launched the following year. He continued to refine his designs; the most elaborate message he helped to develop and assemble was the Voyager Golden Record that was sent out with the Voyager space probes in 1977.So let's not forget that Carl Sagan was the primary author of our first intended communication from the human race to anyone else who's out there. He's our first interplanetary author.
The first couple of chapters in the book review the contours of the unimaginably vast and ancient Universe we live in. Chapter 3, The Organic Universe, details the surprising natural abundance of organic compounds (aka the building blocks of life), noting that "it tells us something relevant about the likelihood of extraterrestrial life." They are found in comets: he notes C2, NH2, CN or cyanide, HCN or hydrogen cyanide, and CH3CN or acetonitrile as having been found in cometary coronas, with the suggestion these are pieces of larger, more complex molecules to be found in cometary nuclei. Carbonaceous (rich in carbon compounds) meteorites that fall to Earth have "several percent to as much as 10 percent of complex organic matter in them." The dark portion of the surface of Iapetus, one of Saturn's moons, is carbonaceous. Then there is Titan, Saturn's largest moon, which features a variety of organic molecules in gaseous form in its atmosphere and sports huge lakes of liquid hydrocarbons on its surface with frozen methane and frozen water below the surface. There is also evidence of interstellar organic matter.
Is There Life Out There?
That discussion leads naturally into Sagan's discussion of extraterrestrial intelligence, his view being that if life developed naturally on Earth (organic matter to nucleic acids to DNA to microbes to humans) and if organic matter is scattered widely and abundantly throughout the Universe, then there is likely to be a good deal of intelligent life out there. This could be good news or bad news, depending on whether our closest neighbors resemble the Federation, the Klingons, or the Borg.
A modern theistic view of this process (not Sagan's view, of course) might be that this is just how God works: He scatters organic matter throughout the Universe, then lets life be created in millions of places, evolving from the ground up, on planets like Earth that are lucky enough to have liquid water around for a few billion years. A view something like this is found in LDS scripture: "Worlds without number have I created; and I also created them for mine own purpose" (Moses 1:33). I wonder what Sagan would have thought of that passage?
In part 2 I'll cover Sagan's comments on religion and Mormonism.