Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are still two cups at my table.

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Book Review: Carl Sagan's Demon Haunted World

I picked this review up off of 24 Fighting Chickens. No kidding. It's a website of a very thoughtful karateka named Rob Redmond. I've put a permanent link to 24 Fighting Chickens over on the right. If you click on the title of this post, you'll be directed to the original on 24FC. Please visit his website. His essays are well worth reading.

The Demon-Haunted World by Carl Sagan
by 24FightingChickens in Reviews , Philosophy Books Mon September 26, 2005

I am a spiritual person, and as such I believe it is important to remain open to possibilities. However, I once read that it is also important “to not be so open-minded that your brain falls out of your head.” Under the fluttering banner of being open-minded which flaps in the wind over our heads, we may find ourselves exposed to ideas or ways of thinking about the world which have little or no basis in reality. While spirituality might try to explain the “why?” behind the world, it does not show us how the world works, nor does it explain the rules of the world that we live in.

In the face of so many new age beliefs becoming main stream, Carl Sagan authored The Demon-Haunted World as an easy-to-read introduction to the basic concepts behind science. This book answers some of the more basic puzzlers in life that three guys sitting around a camp fire might discuss while having a philosophical discussion. Sagan’s writing is neither professorial nor condescending. He take a casual approach that anyone can enjoy and read to tackle historical and modern-day misunderstandings about what science is and what it is not.

I frequently find my eyes glazing over in boredom reading the average professor’s attempts to put words on paper that people will want to read. The best indicator I have that a PhD of something or another is not that great at writing interesting books is when the drool begins to trickle from the corner of my mouth as I snore. This book passed that test with flying colors. I was interested in it from start to finish.

Sagan approaches science as a tool that people can use to understand the world. He explains how it works, and then with many real-world examples of people making claims about the failings or successes of science that are incorrect, Sagan shows us what science can actually tell us.

Science works, Sagan says, and you know it does, because you are reading this text which was written using a computer. While exploring the meaning of life or pursuing a deep and abiding spiritual faith, many are tempted to throw the baby out with the bath water, thinking science to be out to prove that there is no God or anything else supernatural in the universe.

But that is not how Sagan approaches science. He sees it as a tool that allows us to understand this world and to demonstrate ideas to one another. It allows us to theorize about how things possibly work, and it creates a framework within which scientists can learn and test ideas until real technologies, medicines, surgical techniques, and other advances are produced.

Science allows us to separate “what works” from “what is believed to work.” It is not perfect, and sometimes it lets us down, but Sagan brings us much closer to understanding how it should be used by us to better understand our environment.

I found Sagan’s book extremely powerful. Some notions I had held onto as “possible” were quickly dispensed with after reading this book. Other scientific approaches that I had doubted were raised higher in my esteem.

This book profoundly changed my worldview in many ways, and Sagan remained respectful of people’s beliefs, particularly their religious faith, throughout his well-written, entertaining, and very important book.


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