THE DEMON-HAUNTED WORLD: Science as a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan. New York: Random House, 1995. 457 pages, extensive references, index. Hardcover; $25.95. PSCF 48 (December 1996): 263.

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THE DEMON-HAUNTED WORLD: Science as a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan. New York: Random House, 1995. 457 pages, extensive references, index. Hardcover; $25.95.
PSCF 48 (December 1996): 263.

Sagan is the David Duncan Professor of Astronomy and Space Sciences at Cornell University. He is author of many best sellers, including Cosmos, which became the most widely read science book ever published in the English language.

In this book Sagan discusses the claims of the paranormal and fringe-science. For instance, he examines closely such issues as astrology (p. 303), crop circles (p. 75), channelers (pp. 203-206), UFO abductees (pp. 185-186), faith-healing fakes (p. 229), and witch-hunting (p. 119). Readers of The Skeptical Inquirer will notice that Sagan’s approach is very similar.

Sagan writes:

The Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal is an organization of scientists, academics, magicians, and others dedicated to skeptical scrutiny of emerging or full-blown pseudo-sciences. It was founded by the University of Buffalo philosopher Paul Kurtz in 1976. I’ve been affiliated with it since its beginning. Its acronym, CSICOP, is pronounced sci-cop C as if it’s an organization of scientists performing a police function  CSICOP publishes a bimonthly periodical called The Skeptical Inquirer. On the day it arrives, I take it home from the office and pore through its pages, wondering what new misunderstandings will be revealed (p. 299).

Sagan points out that in 1991 two pranksters in England admitted that they had been making crop figures for 15 years. They flattened the wheat with a heavy steel bar. Later on they used planks and ropes, but the media paid brief attention to the confession of these hoaxers. Why? Sagan concludes, Demons sell; hoaxers are boring and in bad taste’ (p. 76).

Christians must admire Sagan’s commitment to critical thinking, logic, and freedom of thought. He takes on many subjects in this book, and the vast majority of his analysis is exceptional. However, his opinions on religious matters are affected by his devotion to scientism. Sagan believes only that which can be proved by science is true. He disputes psychologist Charles Tart’s assertion that scientism is dehumanizing, despiritualizing’ (p. 267). Sagan comments, There is very little doubt that, in the everyday world, matter (and energy) exist. The evidence is all around us. In contrast, as I’ve mentioned earlier the evidence for something non-material called `spirit’ or `soul’ is very much in doubt’ (p. 267).

Science can only prove things about the physical world, and it cannot prove anything about the spiritual world. Does that mean that the mind and soul don’t exist? Of course not! First, we must realize that science is not the only way to truth. Even Sagan must admit that he must justify values like be objective’ or report data honestly’. Where do those values come from? They came from outside science, but they must be in place for science to work.

Sagan gives an illustration that contrasts physics and metaphysics. He shows that the physicist’s idea will have to be discarded if tests fail in the laboratory. Therefore, the main difference between physics and metaphysics is that the meta-physicist has no laboratory. This is a cute story, but can science answer the basic questions that underline all knowledge? Metaphysics is necessary for science to take place. It is not true that science is superior to metaphysics like Sagan would have us believe. The presuppositions of science can only be validated by philosophy. J. P. Moreland has correctly said, The validation of science is a philosophical issue, not a scientific one, and any claim to the contrary will be a self-refuting philosophical claim’ (Scaling the Secular City, p. 197).

Second, the absence of scientific evidence for the soul does not mean the soul does not exist. Sagan himself states, Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence’ (p. 213).

I was impressed with the way Sagan put his inner thoughts on the table. For instance, he comments, Plainly, there’s something within me that’s ready to believe in life after death…If some good evidence for life after death was announced, I’d be eager to examine it; but it would have to be real scientific data, not mere anecdote’ (pp. 203-204). What kind of evidence is Sagan looking for? It certainly is not vague prophecies. He states, Think of how many religions attempt to validate themselves with prophecy…Think of how many people rely on these prophecies, however vague, however unfulfilled, to support or prop up their beliefs…Yet has there ever been a religion with the prophetic accuracy and reliability of science? (p. 30). The answer to that question is yes. Christianity can point to very clear passages such as Isaiah 53 and Daniel 11 written hundreds of years before the events occurred.

While comparing science to religion, Sagan comments, Science is far from a perfect instrument of knowledge. It’s just the best we have (pp. 27-28). Here Sagan is only half right. Science is imperfect, but it is not better than the Bible.’

The Demon-Haunted World is a thought-provoking book that I thoroughly enjoyed. Some of Sagan’s anti-Christian views come through, but on the whole, this book uses critical thinking and logic and applies them to the claims of the paranormal and fringe-science of our day.

Reviewed by Everette Hatcher III, P.O. Box 23416, Little Rock, AR 72221.

 

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