The Quantum Thomist

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On Existential Intertia and Divine Conservation

Is God a failed Hypothesis? Part 1: Introduction
Last modified on Sun Jul 12 22:07:17 2020


I have had a look in the past at some literature from the New Atheists, claiming that their views are supported by modern science. I wanted to embark on another of these projects. This is the first in a series of posts on Victor Stenger's book God: The failed hypothesis. As before, my intention is to go through the book section by section, and highlight its flaws, and (more occasionally) commend it when it gets something right. I'm not intending to do a chapter by chapter review here, but will sometimes write a post (or maybe even more than one post) on a single section or argument. So it will take me some time to unpack everything.

Why choose this book to review? Firstly, why not? Secondly, I happen to have it on my bookshelf. Thirdly, while it is perhaps not the best argued book written on atheism, it does venture into a lot of topics and arguments which I haven't seen elsewhere in other science/religion books, even those written from a Christian perspective. It thus will give me an excuse to branch out into a few topics which interest me but I haven't yet written much about. Fourthly, Victor Stenger is perhaps unique among the New atheists. In the words of Christopher Hitchens (The Portable Atheist, Introduction to Chapter 37),

The majority view of the atheist school is that the existence of god can neither be proved nor disproved, and that therefore the theistic position must collapse because its adherents must claim to know more than anyone can possibly know (not just about the existence of a creator, but about his thoughts on sex, diet, war and other matters). Greatly daring, Professor Victor Stenger advances the argument that we now know enough to discard the god hypothesis altogether.

For example, if you asked Richard Dawkins or others if they are absolutely certain that there is no God, then they would say "No." (I pick on Dawkins because I have seen him explicitly write this.) However, they would say that the possibility of God's existence is extremely unlikely, that there is no good evidence for God's existence, and that advances in science have made the invocation of God in explaining the universe redundant. (These atheists might, of course, say that particular visions of God can and have been disproved, but not the concept of God in general.) It is like the idea of finding a teapot in orbit around some distant star. You can't prove that its not there, but you have no good reason to suppose that it is there, and even if it is, its presence has no obvious effect on how you order your own life. (Theists will respond to this by saying that God is very different from a teapot, and what applies to a teapot doesn't apply to God.)

But Stenger is different. He claims that he can prove the notion of God false. He focuses both on the notion of God in general, and secondly the God of Christianity in particular. That is ambitious, and possibly over-ambitious.

Stenger has written a number of books on the topic of science and religion. I must confess that I haven't read them all, but only this work and The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning (which Luke Barnes does a great job of opposing here; I notice that Stenger has a reply to Barnes, though in my view Barnes wins this debate). Other works by Stenger include The new Atheism, Quantum Gods, God and the Folly of Faith, The Comprehensible Cosmos and Has science found God. I haven't (at the time of writing) read any of these, which is a problem since Stenger does refer back to his earlier works. It is possible that some of my objections would be answered there. My review is just going to be focused on the material in "God: The failed hypothesis."

In this introduction, I just want to provide a brief overview of the scope of the book. I will go into details in later posts.

The scope of the book

  1. Stenger starts with a preface, where he defines what he means by God -- which is his understanding of the God of Judiasm, Christianity and Islam. In particular, he is not (he claims) arguing against the god of deism, who created the world and left it alone. He outlines that he believes that God should be detectable by scientific means because He is supposed to play such a central role in the operation of the universe. However, existing scientific models contain no place for God. Therefore, if we are to find God, it must be in the gaps in the scientific models. His aim in this book is not to respond to arguments made by theists that science supports God, but to present arguments from science (and other fields) against the existence of God.
  2. Chapter 1 discusses the nature of scientific evidence, and in particular how science considers extraordinary claims. The proposals of the study must be clear, with all sources of error investigated. The hypothesis must be established clearly before data taking begins. There must not be bias in analyzing the data. It must be possible to falsify the hypothesis. Results must be replicable. His plan in the book is to take a certain set of attributes universally held to belong to God, and to show that they imply some scientific statement which can and has been disproved.

    He begins by listing a number of philosophical objections taken from an anthology by Michael Martin and Rikki Monnier. However, he comments that ways out can always be made to such arguments. The scientific case, however, is stronger than the philosophical case because the empirical evidence is harder to dispute. He discusses the importance of models in science, and how we can construct a scientific model for God.

    His model of God is based on the God being the creator and sustainer of the universe; the architect of physical law; performs miracles, the creator and preserver of life; has endowed humans with eternal souls; is the source of morality; revealed truths in scriptures; and does not deliberately hide. During the course of this book, he intends to look at each of these points, and argue that they are false.

  3. Chapter 2 begins by looking at the design argument. It introduces the Paley design argument, and discusses Darwin's theory as a refutation of it. This falsifies the notion of a God who created humans as a distinct life-form. Evolution removes the need to invoke God at any step in the process of the development of life (although still leaves unexplained the origin of life). After a brief discussion of intelligent design and creationism, he comments on the presence of bad design in the universe as an argument against God. He claims that Earth and life look just as they can be expected if there is no designer God.
  4. Chapter three discusses the possibility of there being a world beyond matter. In particular he focuses on the question of the eternal soul. He argues that there is no evidence for Descartes notion of an immaterial soul. Everything can be reduced to brain activity. Nor is there evidence for a vital force, of physic power. He then goes on to discuss prayer, and scientific investigations of the efficacy of prayer. He concludes that there is no evidence of a soul, and therefore God couldn't have granted us one.
  5. In chapter four, he takes a look at the origin of the universe. He starts by referencing Hume on miracles. He concedes that the universe had an origin, but argues, as Krauss did, that the negative gravitational energy exactly cancels out the positive energy of matter, and thus there is no violation of the conservation of energy in a natural creation of the universe. He also discusses entropy, and argues against the argument from thermodynamics. Then he goes on to discuss the Kalaam cosmological argument, questioning the notion of cause and advocating the no boundary model of Hartle and Hawking as a way for the universe to lack an origin. The something rather than nothing question is discussed. He then considers where the laws of physics come from, and advocates something similar to a Humean understanding of law.
  6. Chapter five discusses fine tuning arguments, and repeats a few arguments from The fallacy of Fine Tuning about why he doesn't view this to be a problem.
  7. Chapter 6 moves on to religious revelation. It offers arguments against religious experiences, alleged contradictions between the early passages of the Bible and science, the issue of prophecy, and archaeology and the Old Testament.
  8. Chapter 7 discusses whether our values come from God. He does not want to describe how people ought to behave, but instead observe how they do behave. Thus he rejects the notion that science has nothing to say about morality. Since the majority of cultures have had similar moral views, he argues that they can't have all come from one particular revelation from one particular God. He also discusses Old Testament atrocities. He instead advocates an evolutionary model of the emergence of moral values.
  9. Chapter 8 discusses the argument from evil, defining evil as suffering. He discusses various attempts to circumvent the problem of evil.
  10. Chapter 9 summarizes how his previous work shows how each point of his model for God disagrees with the data. Then he discusses the hiddeness problem.
  11. Chapter 10 reveals how we can take comfort from the Godless universe.

So what comes next?

Obviously, I disagree with almost all of Victor Stenger's arguments, and certainly his conclusions. But his book is valuable in that it gives a wide overview of the case for atheism. He covers a lot ground. In doing so, his discussion of each point is relatively shallow, and far more could be written (and has been written) on each topic. In each point, he doesn't give the strongest atheist argument you are likely to find. His discussion is just too brief. Nor is every argument he makes scientific. But he gives an argument, and they need to be responded to. The value of the book is in its breadth.

So what I am planning to do is to go through each of his topics in turn, and offer a reply. Not necessarily the best reply that a theist could offer (again, you are not going to get that in a blog post quickly put together over a couple of Sunday afternoons); but something that would hopefully point people in the right direction. So I will begin next time with a discussion of his preface, and how he lays out the problem of how to treat God as a scientific hypothesis.

Is God a failed Hypothesis? Part 2: Setting the Scene

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