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Varieties of Scientific Experience (5)

From: ralphellectual
Sent on: Friday, December 26, 2008 1:32 PM
Chapter 8, "Crimes Against Creation," begins with the question of tradition, survival, and rapid change. Sagan elaborates a changed perspective due to technological expansion including space exploration, and recounts his own experiences including the Mars Viking missions. (195) Sagan emerges with a renewed appreciation of Earth, the precariousness of life, and loss incurred by the extinction of species. He also elaborates the consequences of nuclear war. Religion should be judged by its perspective on extinction via nuclear war. (205) (Sagan also emphasizes our dependence on plant life.)  Religion can also play a salutary role, depending on how it is acted upon, in various political and ethical dilemmas. Sagan points out the dangers of fundamentalist eschatology. (207) Imagine if the Golden Rule preached by various religions were actually adhered to. (208ff)

Chapter 9, "The Search": Sagan thinks that if we don't extinguish ourselves, we will ultimately establish settlements on other worlds. (214) We can follow either side of our potential for good or ill. We need to hone our positive, which are now pro-survival, skills. Our prevailing tendency to close-mindedness imperils our existence. Why is there not a Biblical commandment directing us to learn and figure things out? (217-8) Popular culture presents countless apocalyptic scenarios, but not optimistic prospects for the future. But society has changed drastically in history, and we can change. (219) We must never be satisfued with the state of our knowledge and must continue to broaden our perspective. (221)

Selected question and answer sequences in the lecture series are included in a supplementary chapter. One questioner asks whether science will ever come upon a demonstration of the existence of God. Sagan mentions Democritus as one of his heroes. Is religion really internal rather than external, someone asks? If so, Sagan responds, why then pronounce authoritatively on astronomy? Would our xenophobia override our reaction to contact with an alien intelligence? Skepticism about Drake's equation is another topic. Another wants to know how we can recognize truth. In response to another question, Sagan concludes that the Shroud of Turin is a hoax. Sagan also addresses the criteria of scientificity vs. those of religion.  How would allegations about the Bermuda Triangle be scientifically investigated? Another questioner claims it is arrogant to dismiss the possibility that God has left us evidence of his own existence. Messages decoded from the Torah via computer analysis, redolent of Kabbalism, is one possibility, but Sagan dismisses such misuse of quantitative analysis. Sagan also responds to the dogmatic assertion that God is love. Sagan admits the possibility, even with lack of corroborating evidence, of the existence of a historical Jesus. 

Evidence for the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence has parallels with the question of evidence for God's existence (intelligent design). Why isn't the universe clearly artificial?
The question of proof and burden of proof is further debated. Sagan has to address mispresentations of Einstein's views on God. Sagan debunks Arthur Eddington's arguments for the existence of God, and the simplistic assertion that thought is a form of energy. As for psychic realities, Sagan is unconvinced by the argument that we are anything more than material beings. The argument from personal experience is not an argument for Sagan. The unconscious, meditation, and altered states of consciousness are important areas for research, but Sagan doesn't believe there is anything more than the brain at work. 

Sagan tries to explain the conception of an expanding universe, but he spends more time on addressing questions about fundamentalism, creationism, nuclear war, Star Wars and the nuclear arms race. Can religion adapt to the needs of the present and future, and align itself with advances in scientific knowledge? That is a key question. Sagan closes with questions of political activism and managing aggression.

Not all the dialogue survived to make its way into transcripts, so it's difficult to tell what percentage of the questioners were purveyors of religious idiocy.

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