When Carl searches for gods

I’m constantly perplexed by the science versus religion debates that seek differences and separations rather than symmetry, which is an attempt that feels more political than for humanity.

To many people, these dramatized scenes are mere entertainments. But to some people, the questioning of gods and religion is really a perpetual existential question. Whether that’s through historical records, the arts, the sciences, to search for god is to ultimately return to the question that nudges our very own meaning and existence. Because even with waves of solid scientific data, these numbers and fact can’t settle many uneasy hearts. Hence; the role of religion, stories, or even just imaginations, which is to reconcile with the unknown.

So when I discovered Carl Sagan’s book, The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God, I was elated. Carl Sagan was known to be someone who was so close to being an atheist by the end of his life, even though he found the term itself a bit jarring. As someone who dedicated his life mapping the universe and searching for extraterrestrial life, who gave us numerous ways to detect baloneys, and who meticulously sorted out strongest evidence by the sharpest calculations, his search for god was an intriguing anomaly.

This book is a transcript of Sagan’s 1985 Gifford lectures that was edited and published by Ann Druyan in 2006. Almost half of the book consists of Sagan’s stern and logical rebuttal against some of the most enduring arguments for the existence of a higher being.

The Q&A Section, however, which is the last half of the book, is a goldmine of precious insights about our varied definition of god, on telescoping inside human hearts’ for meanings, and on our basic needs for a sense of purpose. With his atmospheric charm, Sagan answered some of our deepest yearnings for truth, especially that truth that crosses the boundaries of science and nestled in the secret corner of our beliefs.

How can we recognize the truth? It is, of course, difficult. But there are a few simple rules. The truth ought to be logically consistent.

We should also pay attention to how badly we want to believe the given contention. The more badly we want to believe it, the more skeptical we have to be. It involves a kind of courageous self-discipline.

Emphasizing the importance of having evidence, I still didn’t find him as merely pushing his scientism ideals. As stated by Ann Druyan, “Carl didn’t want just to believe: He wanted to know.” He displayed not just an appetite for criticism, but also an unrivalled drive to learn and to know, whether that’s in science or in religion.

Yet even though he is standing on a hard-rock objective truth on top of the giants, the likes of Einstein and Newton, physics is still, according to one questioner at the end of the session, “successive approximation to truth.“ And Sagan agreed.

Beyond the truths and our beliefs, it is not whether science can prove or disapprove god or whether god even exists at all, but it’s also about the lives that weave in and out of this question.

In this same passionate debate with the questioner who asked to whom the burdening of proof lies on, Sagan responded:

SAGAN: Have you thought of the political applications of this?

QUESTIONER: If you take a physical proposition, would you say you know that in every case the burden of proof rests to prove one type of case or the other type of case?

SAGAN: The burden of proof always falls on those who make the contention

QUESTIONER: Well, all right. Yes. But only in the sense that it’s disproving the other contention.

SAGAN: No, no. It can be in an area where no one has any other contentions.

QUESTIONER: Yes, well –

SAGAN: It is – and it seems to me quite proper. Because otherwise opinions would be launched very casually if those who proposed them did not have the burden of demonstrating their truth. Here is a set of thirty-one proposals that I make, and good-bye. I mean, you would be left with chaotic circumstances.

On the flip side of that, we are, too, left with a chaotic environment when debates of sensitive nature aren’t nourished with a collaborative spirit to reach successive approximation to the truth.

There is a social danger when these sorts of debates that dissect and search for the historical god materialize merely as an entertainment. If it doesn’t have a slight drama, the conversation isn’t worth starting.

We know people the likes of Bill Maher who capitalizes on such thing, whose insistence to divide and alienate the others hinder us from progressing together. And many of us, in one way or another, often replicate this in our daily conversations, perhaps unknowingly.

Guy Consolmagno, a Jesuit and Vatican’s astronomer, in conversation with Krista Tippett, admitted that to have faith doesn’t mean to have no doubt. But to jump, despite it. That’s the realm of faith, which is very similar to science; to swim in uncertainty.

It’s when you have the doubts that faith kicks in. And that’s true in science as well as anything else.

Einstein, too, knew very well what it means to swim in uncertainties, as he dealt with the bizarre nature of the quantum world. He used the word ‘god’ often, not to refer to the god as many people know it, but the summation of all laws in the world; the secret sauce of this universe soup that Einstein seeks to discover all his life. But this process, in a letter to a kid who asked whether scientist pray, Einstein replied:

Everyone who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that some spirit is manifest in the laws of the universe, one that is vastly superior to that of man. In this way, the pursuit of science leads to a religious feeling of a special sort, which is surely quite different from the religiosity of someone more naïve.

It’s something that Guy Consolmagno would agree when he asked what he should do with his faith and the answer is obvious – to play cards with gods.

It’s saddening to see that the science and religion debate fizzles like sparkling bubbles, giving you quick stimulation, but stays pale and flat against the long road of time. I think in many ways we have always had had this debate for decades and even centuries; questions that try to place and balance two different ends that seemingly contradict in our mind, one that is felt by the senses, the other felt by the heart.

Sagan taught us to be constantly aware of our weak tendencies when our desired will outweighs the objective reality. But despite that, the question of god still underlined Sagan’s studies (otherwise he wouldn’t bother discussing this in a lengthy seminar and Ann Druyan published it in this book over two decades later) and our own studies in and of life too. It’s a light that casts a shadow in almost all of our facets of life and I think we owe these heartening yet difficult questions some decent place in our mind, to illuminate what science cannot.

CBS. Getty Images. From Wired

P.S. I write children’s story for adults about the moon. See it here. Or email me to purchase.


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