The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God (Carl Sagan 2007)

A fitting cross-post for the holiday season. This is one of the best books on the timeless subject of science and religion. Carl Sagan, the great Cornell University astronomer and popularizer of science, passed away on this day in 1996.

It is titled after the classic The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature (1902; free online) by Harvard psychologist and philosopher William James, one of the founders of pragmatism and modern psychology, as “experimental philosophy” at the time.

Interestingly, both books are based on the authors’ Gifford Lectures on natural theology (drawing on ordinary experience and reason), which is one of the most prestigious lecture series in Scottish academia.

carl sagan

Carl Sagan (1934-1996)

If we ever reach the point where we think we thoroughly understand who we are and where we came from, we will have failed. (Carl Sagan)

There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle. (Albert Einstein)

Maybe you have to believe in the value of everything to believe in the value of anything. (Jon Mooallem)

This is yet one more powerful argument for awe and humility and against apathy and hubris. Contrary to popular opinion, science does not progress from ignorance to ever greater knowledge, but the other way around: from “knowledge” to a better quality of ignorance:

Science produces ignorance, and ignorance fuels science. We have a quality scale for ignorance. We judge the value of science by the ignorance it defines. (Stuart Firestein, Chair of the Department of Biological Sciences at Columbia, and author of Ignorance: How It Drives Science, Oxford 2012)

Former Chief Scientist of Xerox and now self-declared “Chief of Confusion,” John Seely Brown, whose ideas we discussed in the Honors Salon this fall, extends this argument to the realm of education with his “golden triangle for entrepreneurial learning,” which is meant to strengthen and guide the desire to learn from the world by cultivating a sense of awe, curiosity, and humility to foster imagination, intuition, and inspiration.

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