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The demon-haunted world: A book review

Updated July 27, 2013

Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.

-Carl Sagan

You know when something is so good it starts to burst out of your skin? You just want everyone around you to be a part of it in some compassionately fascistic manner? ‘Read it read it read it read it read it read it’ just starts to churn in your head over and over again and only society with its tight social norms stops you from physically slamming the book into your colleagues face? No? Well, maybe you should read this book and then you may be able to empathise.

The Demon-Haunted World is a collection of essays by Carl Sagan. You can read it in a linear fashion, ‘episode by episode’ if you will, or you can jump around sporadically if you, like the rest of the multiple-tab generation, suffer from some mild forms of Attention Deficit Disorder. Perhaps, had I not been in Pakistan, my urge to make this book known would not be so prevalent. However, seeing as our world is rife with pirs, palmists, tarot and parrot card readers, psychics, voodoo medicine men, faith healers and hakeems, this book comes as a walking stick; simply because as a global society we have become too crippled to fend for ourselves. It has become too arduous to seek answers for ourselves because we are, as Sagan points out empathetically, ‘repeatedly given the message that you are too stupid to learn (or, the functional equivalent, too cool to learn), and if no one is there to contradict it, you might as well buy this pernicious advice.’ Despite the mind gagging at the term ‘self-help’, take my word for it that this book will help. The self. It will force you to calm down, as much of an oxymoron as that is, but you will breathe deep because it doesn’t insult your intelligence, it empowers it.

Each chapter begins with a reflection upon Sagan's own susceptibility to the environment, the culture, the conditionings, the nature and nurture of his surroundings. Each chapter begins with the acknowledgement that he too, like us, feels the pull of the unknown, the unseemly and the unnatural. It progresses into examples and case studies of people, not necessarily American, that cement his concern in regards to say, exorcisms or psychic healing.

Following this, there are numerous breakdowns into rational ways of knowing and experimenting with these beliefs. He poses questions that help amplify where our irrationalities might stem from. ‘Every civilization in human history has devoted some of its resources to investigating deep questions about the Universe, and it’s hard to think of a deeper one than whether we are alone.’ This loneliness manifests itself in a myriad of ways for us, some resign themselves to finding all the answers after death and some try and find them during their lifetimes. This can, sometimes result in people asking no questions at all, simply because religious, political, scientific, medical, technological and psychological authorities exist to do all the hard work for us.

Sagan’s Demon-Haunted World is a manual in the sense that it tells you, compassionately, unapologetically and poetically how to ask questions for yourself. This is in order to give priority to experimental evidence before succumbing to reassurances at the hands of expert con men. This includes astrology, palmistry, numerology, being possessed and the like.

Most importantly, to me, the tone of the text is in no way accusatory or ridiculing. It is in fact the exact opposite as not only does he empathise with the human condition to find answers; he legitimises it as a need. However, the need to find answers, to find most answers in any case, can be satisfied with a sound mind resolved to finding logical answers. We are conditioned by society, all too often, to not take charge of our life’s narrative. In the preface, titled ‘My Teachers’, he begins by outlining the most integral part of human development, learning. At the very base of education, we are not taught to ask questions, we are shown what the conclusion is and what to do to arrive at the correct one but there is no mention of why that particular method is used and not another. We are a result oriented society, obsessed with grades and wrongly perceiving what achievement is. We have demolished generation after generation of learners and thinkers simply because of this flaw in the education system.

At the heart of it all, the book advocates finding a sense of wonder in real life. Trying to logically understand what nature is, what the mind is capable of, what our reactions are to trauma, ignorance, desperation, loneliness, awe, difference and the unknown. It reads like a pocket-sized story of the world, with examples from all over, describing the consequences of particular reactions, some of them are quite harrowing, while some leave you with a sense of admiration at just how much the mind can dictate. It shows us the devastating path a society will take should it shy away from education, or should it refuse education to its citizens. While reading this book it is hard to remember that it was not written in 2013 and not meant for us in particular.