Cambridge Centre for the study of Western Esotericism

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John Robert Colombo compares and contrasts lectures delivered eighty-four years apart by William James and Carl Sagan.


 William James 1842 – 1910) 

Carl Sagan (1934 – 1996)

It is safe to say that the Gifford Lectureships are the outstanding series of lectures in their field of study, but it is also safe to say that their field of study is hardly the pre-eminent one that it once was. The series was established by Adam Lord Gifford, a leading jurist in Scotland, with a bequest to four universities to co-sponsor a series of lectures to “promote and diffuse the study of Natural Theology in the widest sense of the term – in other words, the knowledge of God.” The lectures have been delivered annually since 1888, with the exception of years during the Second World War. The four universities are those of Edinburgh, Glasgow, St. Andrews, and Aberdeen.

Many significant books of science and the humanities, including theology, have been based on the texts of these lectures. Recent lectures have been broadcast in part on YouTube. For some time now the Gifford website has been sponsored by the Templeton Fund which tries its level best (without notable success) to reconcile religion and science by directing some of its vast wealth to the men and women and movements who or which try to do so.

The Gifford lecturers are recognized to be the pre-eminent thinkers in their respective fields. The list of the 120 or so speakers includes “household names,” and proof of this is that so many of the speakers are recognized by their last names alone: Arendt, Bohr, Dewey, Frazer, Gilson, Heisenberg, von Hügel, Müller, Murdoch, Niebuhr, Schweitzer, Tillich, Watson, Whitehead, etc.

In that list of “last names,” I did not include James because William James, the philosopher who was a Gifford lecturer, might be confused with his brother Henry James, the novelist who was not. Nor did I include in the high-recognition category the name Sagan, which identifies the celebrated astrophysicist and author Carl Sagan. (I will compare and contrast their contributions in due course.)

It is of passing interest to note that two distinguished Canadian philosophers have lately addressed these Scottish university audiences: Patricia Churchland in 2009 and Charles Taylor in 2010. Churchland is a noted “neurophilosopher” and Taylor is a “communitarian critic” of the modern-day project of liberalism and secularism. I lack the competence to assess Churchland’s many contributions to the nexus of neurology and philosophy, but I find Taylor’s critique of “the secular age” to be suave though largely beside the point.

It is of more-than-passing interest to compare and contrast the Gifford Lectures of William James and Carl Sagan. James delivered his series of talks in 1900-02 in Edinburgh; Sagan delivered his series in Glasgow in 1985. Thus they were heard eighty years apart. The title that James gave his series of lectures is so memorable that once heard it is never forgotten. He called it “Varieties of Religious Experience.” The memorably titled book, a classic in its field, was published in 1902, eight years before his death. The Harvard philosopher and psychologist was a brilliant thinker, a gifted writer, and the co-founder of the theory of Pragmatism. As well, he was the systematizer of his chosen field with “Principles of Psychology” published in 1890.

Carl Sagan bears a famous name for his contributions to the popularization of science, especially astronomy and cosmology, which were featured in his thirteen-part, television series Cosmos in 1980. As well as a distinguished astrophysicist, he served as director of Cornell University’s Laboratory for Planetary Studies. In  due course Sagan became a leading spokesperson for “sceptical inquiry.”

His Gifford talks were titled “The Search for Who We Are” but the series was not published under that title but as Varieties of Scientific Experience. Note the substitution of the word “scientific” for the word “religious.” These Gifford lectures were delivered in 1985, Sagan died in 1996, and the book appeared in 2006. The editing, the publication, and perhaps the titling were undertaken by Ann Druyan, the author’s widow and a talented writer and presenter in her own right. In many ways the title is quite appropriate, for it recalls the earlier title of James’s book and it strikes the non-scientific reader that it could be regarded as an updated version of James’s argument, a revisioning of what is essentially a religious-scientific discussion.

James was a psychologist through and through, Sagan an astrophysicist through and through. James peered into the human soul (that is, the innermost nature of man) to find the rationale for the “religious experience.” To accomplish the same end, Sagan peered into the heavens (in the sense of the planets and the galaxies) to find the fundament of the “scientific experience.” One professor explored the depths of man, the other professor the heights of creation. James was a materialist for whom ideas mattered, and the same may be said of Sagan. The fabled “sense of wonder” was common to both men, and they conveyed its excitement when they expatiated on the surprises found in their subjects. James’s book is subtitled “A Study in Human Nature.” Sagan’s book is subtitled “A Personal View of the Search for God” in the same way that his television series Cosmos was subtitled “A Personal Voyage.” What the dual approaches to the mysteries of man’s nature and the nature of the universe is the mind of man.

Much changed in the Western world and its human values between the year 1900 when James delivered his lectures and the year 1985 when Sagan addressed his audience. The term “Natural Theology” fell out of favour and so did the unthinking respect that intellectuals paid to partisan proponents of biblical scholarship. Sagan began his lecture on “The God Hypothesis” with these words:

“The Gifford Lectures are supposed to be on the topic of natural theology. Natural theology has long been understood to mean theological knowledge that can be established by reason and experience and experiment alone. Not by revelation, not by mystical experience, but by reason. And this is, in the long, historical sweep of the human species, a reasonably novel view.”

Sagan found this view laudable, but only up to a point. Thereupon he dismissed all the traditional arguments for the existence of God (or gods) and substituted for them arguments found in Freud’s psychoanalytic theory and Darwin’s natural selection, arguments that account for man’s continued and unthinking belief in a hierarchy of unseen deities or dimensions. He did this in a lecture or chapter titled “The God Hypothesis.”

In the early years of the Twentieth Century, psychologists tackled the problems posed by psychical research and this would have delighted James who, after all, had served as president of both the British and the American Societies for Psychical Research. What had been regarded as the study of “abnormal psychological states” came to be considered the study of “anomalous experiences.” One of the most impressive books in the field of psychical research and parapsychological studies is a posthumously published collection of James’s occasional papers on the subject, both abstract and anecdotal, titled William James on Psychical Research, edited by the psychologist Gardner Murphy and the compiler Robert Ballou. James felt that there were “unknowns” in the field, but that they may be destined to remain “forever unknown.”

It is hard to affirm that there has been any progress in the field of Religious Studies (called Comparative Religion or History of Religion) over the last century, certainly none compared with the advances made in science, notably in physics and in astronomy. The physicist’s description of the sub-atomic world went hand-in-hand with the astronomer’s discovery of the expanding universe. James was willing to give spirit-mediums a try, being impressed with the performances of a Mrs. Piper. Sagan dismissed such performances out of hand, instancing the childish and undirected nature of spirit-communication.

In the wake of the Second World War, the possibility of extraterrestrial intelligence began to be considered seriously by scientists like Sagan and his colleague Frank Drake (of the famous Drake Equation which quantifies the variables connected with the possible existence right now of other technological civilizations elsewhere in the universe). During the Cold War, Sagan took a leading position in opposition to the Strategic Defence Initiative (Star Wars) and he discussed in harrowing terms the possibility of Nuclear Winter and the extinction of human life on Earth (with the continued existence of some forms of cockroaches and sulphur-eating worms at the bottom of the seas – a fate that casts in the shade the Christian fundamentalists’ Armageddon). All these matters are discussed by Sagan. James would have known about none of this and might well have been horrified by the way societies were behaving in the second half of the Twentieth Century.

“Forever unknown” was not the position taken by Sagan. For a scientist with both speculative and operative capability, he was surprisingly open to dissident theories and wrote remarkable essays, in Broca’s Brain and elsewhere, that examined the fantasies of Velikovsky and the fancies of ufologists. He appreciated the hold that such ideas have on all of us who live on this “pale blue dot” in our “demon-haunted world.” He had little time for spiritualists and self-styled psychics, claiming that spirit-mediums always assured him that “love is important” and never offered proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem!

James delivered twenty lectures which examined the “religious sentiment,” both personal and institutional, in which he introduced the useful division of mankind into those people who are “once-born” and those who are “twice-born.” The former accept things as simple; the latter regard things as complex. He considered sickness and health with respect to optimism and pessimism of the spirit, the notion of conversion, the ideal of saintliness and its uses, the nature of mysticism, the roles played with respect to religion by philosophy and theology, the characteristics of subconsciousness and higher consciousness … I could go on.

In the twentieth lecture, as well as in the unexpectedly personal Postscript, James offered the reader, if not a “summing up,” then a “personal take” on the subject. For instance, he wrote about the scale of the natural world and the universe:

“What we think of may be enormous – the cosmic times and spaces, for example – whereas the inner state may be the most fugitive and paltry activity of mind. Yet the cosmic objects, so far as the experience yields them, are but ideal pictures of something whose existence we do not inwardly possess but only point at outwardly, while the inner state is our very experience itself; its reality and that of our experience are one.”

In another instance, he wrote about consciously mediating thought and experience:

“A conscious field PLUS its object as felt or thought of PLUS an attitude towards the object PLUS the sense of a self to whom the attitude belongs – such a concrete bit of personal experience may be a small bit, but it is solid bit as long as it lasts; not hollow, not a mere abstract element of experience, such as the “object” is when taken all alone. It is a FULL fact, even though it be an insignificant fact …. “

James concluded with a distinction between “under-belief” and “over-belief,” whereby thoughtful people either minimized or maximized the relevance and importance of their own opinions and sentiments. He then shared with the reader his own “over-belief”:

“The whole drift of my education goes to persuade me that the world of our present consciousness is only one out of many worlds of consciousness that exist, and that those other worlds must contain experiences which have a meaning for our lives also; and that although in the main their experiences and those of this world keep discrete, yet the two become continuous at certain points, and higher energies filter in. By being faithful in my own poor measure to this over-belief, I seem to myself to keep more sane and true.”

James justified his optimism and his “over-belief” on the basis that it kept him “more sane and true.” He even named it “the faith-state.” I found myself wondering if Carl Sagan would recognize the claim. After reading “Varieties of Scientific Experience,” I came to the conclusion that Sagan would never have embrace the notion of “over-belief” or “the faith-state.” Instead, he would have espoused the spirit of sceptical, rational, and scientific inquiry. He was assuredly responsive to the spell of mystery and the allure of the unknown, but he staked his claim on the scientific endeavour which is self-correcting and self-affirming.

In his eyes, the sciences and especially the exploration of interplanetary and intergalactic space are stepping-stones towards the goal of the “deprovincializing” of the world’s population through sharing the insights of the biologist into changes over time and the visions of the astronomer across the immensity of space. He does not discuss “worlds of consciousness” but he does find other worlds – in our solar system, our galaxy, and our cosmos. Civilizations vastly in advance of our own may offer mankind precious knowledge, “god-like” levels of knowledge. If such civilizations do not exist (we the living are unlikely ever to know) the human race is all the more precious for its uniqueness. Sagan’s universe is humbling and ennobling: Earth may be a “pale blue dot,” but it is one of “billions and billions” of such dots in the cosmos – an astonishing vision to contrast with James’s probing but humbling question, “What is human life’s chief concern?” If Sagan asked a question it would be, “What is the point of the cosmos?”

To bring to an end this comparison and contrast of the twin approaches to religion and science, disciplines that share so much because both have a human origin, I assumed I would seek out and quote parallel passages from each speaker’s lecture. But the passages did not come so readily to hand. Instead, I will conclude with a recollection of the insightful words of Sigmund Freud. The words comprise the last two sentences of the psychoanalyst’s provocative study of religion called “The Future of an Illusion.” Here are those sentences:

“No, our science is no illusion. But an illusion it would be to suppose that what science cannot give us we can get elsewhere.”

John Robert Colombo, based in Toronto, is a recipient of the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal. He is currently compiling “The Canadian Adventures of Jules Verne” (texts of the seven extraordinary-adventure novels that the French writer set amid the forests and tundra of Canada) and is busy introducing “The Crime Magnet” (sixteen hitherto uncollected short mystery stories written by Sax Rohmer, the creator of Dr. Fu Manchu). < >

Note: more of John Robert Colombo’s insightful posts can be found at  a site which looks at the teaching of G. I. Gurdjieff and Gurdjieff-related studies with reference to both practitioners and scholars.

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