Book Review: “The Varieties of Scientific Experience” by Carl Sagan

Ann Druyan gives the 21st century a much needed gift of another book by Carl Sagan. It is based on the talk he gave at the Gifford Lectures at the University of Glasgow, in 1985. Druyan’s introduction alone is a beautiful piece, and contains one of my favourite quotes:

“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.”

(my bold)

She explains that her title for the book is a “tip of the hat” to the Gifford Lectures—William James, an American psychologist and philosopher, compiled a book on his Gifford Lectures entitled The Varieties of Religious Experience. Sagan’s talk outlines his ideas on the relationship between religion and science, as the subtitle of the book describes; “A personal view of the search of God.”

Readers of Sagan’s previous works will be familiar with his assertion that science and spirituality can and should be deeply connected. It is a mistake to separate the two, applying each arbitrarily to different areas of navigating through life. If we are serious in our search to understand the cosmos and our relationship with it, we would be wise to listen diligently to what nature tells us. Nature has been willing to give up its secrets to those with the discipline to learn the language of science.

As always, Sagan’s arguments are beautifully crafted in style to be both concise and poetic. He continues to articulate reasons why we should use a scientific and rational mind-set to view the world—among many, how else are we to avoid the dangers in mixing ignorance with power? But, more than that, he offers insight for those who are searching to be connected with God, no matter what kind of idea one attributes to that word. We can do better than blindly follow our feelings.

Sagan is always eloquent and never condescending, even when urging us to consider the many ways in which we project our emotional predispositions onto the universe. If we have the courage to take these ideas to heart, we will find it is our own intuitions—our own blind trust in our emotions—that prevents us from knowing how the universe really is and, therefore, reconciling that knowledge with a genuine feeling of connectedness to it.

If none of that convinces you, I present my Google image search findings–which, on the first page of results, includes a goofy picture of myself and this awesome photo of Kirsten Dunst:

Goofy Sara & Sagan book Kirsten Dunst reading Sagan book

4 Responses to “Book Review: “The Varieties of Scientific Experience” by Carl Sagan”

  1. I’m very excited to read this. I’m currently finishing Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World, and love it.

  2. John Greg says:

    I pre-ordered this book before it was released; I’m glad I did so, as it seems a wee bit hard to find. This is a truly wonderful book. Like all Sagan books it is deeply informative, but it is also very moving. I shed a few tears on more than one occasion while reading this book.

    I certainly never knew Sagan, but I sure do miss him.

    Also, the picture on the first inside page, of thousands of galaxies, not stars; galaxies, is, well, simply spell-binding.

  3. Rob Zaichick says:

    This book spoke to me in ways I have ever experienced before. Every single thing Sagan discusses puts into words what has weighed on my mind for yrs. I have looked for an explanation about what I was feeling about my devotion to the scientific method and how it relates to whether there is a God. I was moved by this book. He is so brilliant in the way he makes such cogent points so easy to understand.
    I loved this book.

  4. Jason D. says:

    Wow… Just finished this book tonight. Think it merits more than one or two readings. I will surely be reading this again as this is some of the most brilliant and ‘on-point’ logic I’ve had the pleasure to discover. Sagan was too far ahead of his time. Wish he was still around, I’d love to hear what he’d have to say today as there are lately new discoveries of solar sytems similar to ours including planets very similar to earth. If only….


  • Sara E. Mayhew

    International award-winning mangaka and 2009 TED Fellowship member, Sara E. Mayhew is a Canadian writer and illustrator striving to produce manga that promotes skepticism and critical thinking. Canada's prestigious graphic arts magazine, Applied Arts, featured her in their Young Blood article on "new talent commanding our attention". She has spoken on the TED Fellows stage at the TED 2009 conference in Long Beach, CA, and more recently at TEDActive 2010 in Palm Springs, CA. Currently, Sara is working on producing a new series, Legend of the Ztarr, that aims to introduce manga readers to skeptical and humanist values through storytelling. Her blog, There Are Four Lights, combines art and skepticism, with occasional pepperings of general geekdom and random cuteness.