Sagan’s 1985 Gifford lectures, edited by his widow.
Launched in 1888, this Scottish university lecture series invites speakers to explore how the natural world illuminates issues of theology. The noted American astronomer took it as an opportunity for a broad examination of the relationship between science and religion. Drawing on Thomas Carlyle’s dictum that wonder is the basis of worship, Sagan begins with a series of astronomical images, displaying the vast scope of the universe as revealed by science. He then cites Thomas Paine, noting that our idea that God is intimately concerned with the doings of creatures on one tiny planet betrays a limited conception of the deity. Beginning with Copernicus, science has steadily demonstrated the insignificance of Earth and its creatures in the grand design of the universe. In his view, the adoption by some cosmologists of the anthropic principle—the argument that the universe appears to be designed to support intelligent life—is a retreat from the lessons of Copernicus and his scientific heirs. Sagan extends this line of argument by examining several ideas common to his work: scientific evidence for the chemical origins of life on Earth, the likelihood of multiple inhabited worlds and the question of possible contact with aliens. (He remains skeptical that such contact has occurred.) He examines the “God hypothesis” from the viewpoint of science, noting that an omnipotent God could have left an early statement of some modern scientific discovery as unambiguous proof of His existence. The lectures end on a sober note, with Sagan considering the possibility of humankind’s destroying itself in a nuclear war. A lively set of exchanges with audience members is a welcome bonus.
A fitting memorial to one of the great popularizers of scientific thought.