Thursday, March 24, 2011

Review: Carl Sagan: The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark

My first exposure to Carl Sagan was the catch phrase "billions and billions," which comedians attributed to him. I knew that he had a science show on United States Public Broadcasting. I had some notion that he was not a supporter of religion. But I frankly had no first-hand, in-depth knowledge of a person whom I've come to consider an important North American intellectual of the 20th century CE.

My first real exposure to his work was an abridged audio version of his science fiction novel Contact, which, aside from begin an excellent drama, was an excellent introduction to the science behind the Search for Extra-Terrestial Intelligence (SETI) and how this project, upon finding alien intelligence, might play out in our world, with its contemporary political and religious characteristics. I've acquired the full-length book and look forward to reading it.

I acquired the audio book version of The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. After listening to it, I got a paperback version from a local library to help me complete this review.

I want to discuss here why I believe this book is a good read for North American Muslims. Web-accessible reviews for a general audience include:
The most important reason for Muslims to read this is that, just as science has a ne'er-do-well cousin called pseudo-science, religion has pseudo-religion.
One religious leader writes to mm of his longing for "disciplined integrity" in religion:
We have grown far too sentimental ... Devotionlism and cheap psychology on one side, and arrogance and dogmatic intolerance on the other distort authentic religious life almost beyond recognition. Sometimes I come close to despair, but then I live tenaciously and always with hope... Honest religion, more familiar than its critics with the distortions and absurdities perpetrated in its name, has an active interest in encouraging a healthy skepticism for its own purposes... There is the possibility for religion and science to forge a potent partnership against pseudo-science. Strangely, I think it would sson be engaged also in opposing pseudo-religion.
I once heard Jeffrey Lang, a professor of mathematics at Kansas University, present a lecture in West Lafayette, Indiana. In this lecture, he explained that each assertion we make about Islam limits the number of people who will believe in it. Think linear algebra. Each time a constraint is added, there are fewer solutions. Or, as Professor Lang did, he took the chalkboard and stated, "There is no god but God" and then drew a vertical line down the middle of the board, dividing it in half. Then he said, "Muhammad is his Messenger," and then drew a vertical line down the middle of the left half of the board. He repeated this process with doctrines (I don't remember which ones) such as the Day of Judgment and obligations such as ritual prayer and prohibitions such as avoiding intoxicants. We must therefore be very cautious with every statement we make about Islam, because each one will narrow this religion. I often worry when I hear the aaya:

رَبَّنَا لَا تَجْعَلْنَا فِتْنَةً لِّلَّذِينَ كَفَرُوا
Our Lord! do not make us a trial for those who disbelieve
One meaning may be "Do not try us with persecution from the disbelievers." Another meaning may be that our actions might be a reason for people to disbelieve, and perhaps God may hold us to account for driving people away from His path. Psuedo-religion is what drives people away. It's claiming that a person has to adopt different cultural habits or understand obscure and anachronistic theological arguments to be a good Muslim.

The second reason is the book's implications for citizenship, society and politics. Skepticism as a tool to understand the material universe should naturally lead to its use in the social and political spheres. Are men and women essentially different, and, if so, how should our social and legal and political structures reflect these? Does the king's family deserve to inherit rule, one king to the next? Are the people of a different race or culture such a threat? Is a defendant guilty simply because the district attorney says so in a press conference?

A highlights of this book includes the extensive quotation from Friedrich von Spee's criticism of witchcraft trials in the German city of Würzburg in 1631 CE.

Carl Sagan is the author of the original "baloney detection kit," and it is presented in Chapter 12.

Each chapter begins with a quotation, which are often worth the time to read the chapter. for example, Chapter 13, Obsesses with Reality, opens with a quotation from William K. Clifford's The Ethics of Belief (1874). Describing a shipowner who manages to convince himself that his unseaworthy passenger vessel is in fact seaworthy and sends the emigrants and crew to their deaths,
What shall we say of him? Surely this, that he was very guilty of the death of those men. It is admitted that he did sincerely believe in the soundness of his ship; but the sincerity of his conviction can in nowise help him, because he had no right to believe on such evidence as was before him. He had acquired his belief not by honestly earning it in patient investigation, but by stifling his doubts ...
Carl Sagan passed away in 1996. I'm not sure if he could have sustained his optimism or even his sanity through the next 15 years.

In recent news, there was a fuss over a Muslim in UK who talked about the theory of evolution in a positive manner. My public school science education in Columbia County, Georgia was so poor I never really learned much biology. I recently completed The Theory of Evolution: A History of Controversy (Great Courses) by Edward J. Larson, and I thought it helped me catch up on some of the science I should have learned in high school.

This book has been translated into Turkish.

Muslim Media Review Series of Science Reviews