Book Plunge: The Demon-Haunted World

What do I think of this work of the man who brought us Cosmos? Let’s talk about it on Deeper Waters.

Carl Sagan is famous for saying “The Cosmos is all that is or was or ever will be.” While as a Christian I disagree with this sentiment, there is a debt of gratitude owed to Sagan as Sagan was one of those people wanting to popularize science for a non-scientific audience and open them up to scientific thinking.

I read Sagan’s book after an atheist recommended I read it in response to my suggesting he read Keener’s “Miracles.” I was pleasantly surprised by what I saw in Sagan’s work. While Sagan is definitely an atheist, one does not find the usual vitriol one has come to find in the works of the new atheists. I often had the impression that Sagan would have been the kind of atheist I could sit down and reasonably chat with concerning why I hold the position that I do.

In fact, much of what is in this book should be amenable to Christians easily and if some of it is not, that could point to a great insecurity that exists in the mind of the Christian who has that fear. Why should we who think God revealed Himself in Jesus in this world think that further study in this world will somehow disprove that truth? (And besides, if it did, we should be thankful. Who wants to go through life believing what is untrue?)

We should be applauding the work of Sagan to get science into the mainstream and support scientific research. I also wholly agree with him that our young people are not thinking enough, though that does not just extend to science, and need to have a greater education rather than just being entertained all day. I would support entirely seeing shows on TV that would grab the interest of young people so they could learn about areas such as science.

When I was in school, for instance, we would watch 3-2-1-Contact. I know several others who grew up watching people like Bill Nye, the Science Guy. While I am against just purely entertaining our children, I think there are ways we can do education that are attractive to students and make them want to learn. I know today a number of adults that still remember rules of grammar and math by thinking of old episodes of Schoolhouse Rock.

Yet there are some concerns. I think too often Sagan puts all the eggs in the science basket. Science is an important piece of the puzzle, but it can too often be made the whole deal. This could be understandable however since science was the passion of Sagan and it’s easy to see everything in light of that passion and think it is the most important.

Sagan is certainly right to go after the gullibility in our culture with pseudoscience, as he should, but when it comes to him stepping out of his field, he is too quick to also buy into gullibility. We must all check ourselves for bias and it’s too easy to think a story or claim meshes with our worldview and is therefore reliable. i will not thus comment on Sagan’s science. I am not an authority there. But there are areas I do consider myself an authority in that I think Sagan gets wrong. It is a warning to all of us.

For instance, on page 37, Sagan sees metaphysics as philosophy or as he says “Truths you could recognize just by thinking about them.” This is not an accurate description. Metaphysics is really the study of being as being. It is true to say that metaphysics has no laboratory while physics does, but this is the problem of saying that a branch of knowledge is not as valid because it does not go about the same way another one does. History has no laboratory. Mathematics has no laboratory. Literature has no laboratory, yet we would not say that those are less valid branches of knowledge. It is a mistake to see the way that science does what it does and think every other way is insufficient.

Also, Sagan makes the claim that Deuteronomy was a forgery found in the time of Josiah. Considering works have been written on Deuteronomy showing that it fits in perfectly as a Suzerain treaty which dates to the time it is traditionally thought to have been written in, this is problematic. In fact, one could hardly say it agrees with Josiah. Why would Josiah write a document that would put his kingship thus far in a bad light by showing how far he had failed?

I also think Sagan should be taken with a huge grain of salt when talking about the medieval period, especially since his main source seems to be Gibbon. (Another problematic area comes in when one would like to check Sagan’s sources. He does say what books he uses, but no page numbers are cited so one cannot know where the claims are found.) This is especially with regards to Witch Trials and the Inquisition. More modern readers would be benefited by seeing a work like Kamen’s on the Spanish Inquisition or seeing the research of James Hannam on the medieval period.

There are other areas where Sagan just gets facts wrong such as thinking the transmission of the biblical accounts would be like a telephone game (page 357) or that the Bible teaches a flat Earth (300) or claims of genocide in the Bible. (290)

Also, on page 278, Sagan thinks an infinite universe would be a problem for Christian theism. I do not see why this is. It would mean changing one’s interpretation of Genesis perhaps (Though I hold to Walton’s view so that would not be much of a problem) but from a Thomistic perspective, an eternal universe still depends on God.

Commendable in all of this also is the fact that Sagan does not deny the failures of science. Science has brought us cures for diseases, but it has also brought us weapons of mass destruction. The solution to this is not to teach more science, but rather to teach more morality. Science can be just as badly used as religion can be. One can say science works by pointing to launching a man to the moon, but one could also say it works by pointing at a missile hitting a city. A difference with religion of course is that the man who launches a missile on innocents is not violating any principles of science, but a Christian who murders an innocent man is violating a principle of Christianity.

Despite all this, I found myself rather pleased ultimately by Sagan’s work. While I do think he puts too much in the science basket, it is understandable and one would hope that today’s new atheists would learn to be a bit more like Sagan. I can thus commend this work to others in understanding the importance of science for our society.

In Christ,
Nick Peters