This is the second post in a series on Victor Stenger's book God: The failed hypothesis. In this post, I intend to review his preface. The preface very much sets the scene for the rest of the book, and contains the fundamental error that the work is built on. This error is by no means unique to Professor Stenger, and I have commented on it before, but there is no harm in doing so again. The three main themes in the preface are whether science can address the question of God; what science is and what God is; and where we might expect to find evidence for God if God existed.
As with my previous reviews, my purpose here is not just to review the work but also use it as an excuse to explain my own perspective on the questions addressed in the book. That I (mostly) disagree with Stenger's answers does not mean that I view the question he asks as unimportant. So as well as showing where I believe that he has gone wrong, I also want to look at what I think the right answer is.
Can science say anything about God.
There are people who have said that science has little to say about the question of religion, and, for that matter, religion has little to say on the subject of science. The most frequently cited advocate of this view is Stephen Gould, who coined the phrase of "non-overlapping magisteria." And it is, of course, understandable why people might think this. Go to your average church service, or synagogue, or mosque, and the preacher will discuss numerous issues, but rarely mention any physics. (Although I did recently have an accurate enough discourse on the theory of relativity in a recent sermon series on Genesis 1: my vicar, before he was ordained, worked as a physics teacher.) Nor does the scientist need to answer great theological questions as he completes his work. He is more likely to be worrying about the finer details of a mathematical calculation, or putting together a new experimental detector, and ultimate questions are far from his mind. The methods of science, mathematical modelling, careful experimentation and collating of results and error estimates, are not used in theological studies, while the tools of the theologian -- textual analysis, philosophical argumentation, and pastoring people -- are alien to the scientist, though no less logical and rigorous.
But does that mean that we should leave the God question to theologians and philosophers? No. Because the magesteria are not non-overlapping. The overlap might be small, but it is there. Both Stenger and I agree on that point.
As Stenger pointed out, religions do make pronouncements about nature. Science can evaluate these. "Religions make factual claims that have no special immunity from being examined under the cold light of reason and objective observation." Then there are artefacts such as the Shroud of Turin, which science can and has investigated (albeit with results which are still open to disputation -- it is not as simple as saying that the radiocarbon dating has proved it to be a medieval fake). Furthermore, the religious have tried to use the results of science to argue for the existence of God. Stenger cites Cicero, Paley, and various modern writers (he mentions no names -- perhaps he means those such as McGrath, Barr, Polkinhorne, Lennox, Collins and so on) and media articles (he cites a reference in newsweek). In my experience, the media is far more likely to take the opposite view, and publish articles which undermine traditional religious views, but maybe that's just the result of an imperfect memory and selection bias (on both of our sides). But otherwise, I can't dispute what Stenger is arguing here.
In fact, Stenger omits what I consider to be the most important link between science and religion: metaphysics. There is a philosophy of religion, and a philosophy of science. To what extent are these compatible with each other? Of course, both philosophies are very much disputed, so we have to be aware of that before we compare them, but this is where I have concentrated my own work.
Stenger includes a reference that I would leave out: scientific investigation of moral questions. But I will discuss that in more detail when I get to the appropriate chapter.
So science and religion are relevant to each other. On this, Stenger and I are in agreement.
So Stenger then announces the purpose of his book:
In the present book, I will go much further and argue that by this moment in time science has advanced sufficiently to be able to make a definitive statement on the existence or nonexistence of a God having the attributes that are traditionally associated with the Judaeo-Christian-Islamic God.
This is a rather bold claim. One could, of course, argue that I implicitly make the same claim in my own book (albeit with the opposite answer to the question of God's existence). And, if my work is correct, then I would certainty have made great strides along those lines. By I make no claims that my work is definitive: it is merely an opening gambit, open to commentary and correction. In treating his work as definitive, Stenger is getting rather ahead of himself.
Definition of Science.
The next thing we need in this grand project is a definition of science. This is the one that Professor Stenger provides:
I will take science to refer to the performing of objective observations by eye and by instrument and the building of models to describe those observations. These models are not simple snapshots of the observations, but they utilise elements and processes or mechanisms that attempt to be universal and general so that not only one set of observations is described but also all the observations that fit into as wide a class as possible. They need not always be mathematical.
In my view, this is a reasonably good definition, although one could argue that it is perhaps rather too broad. For example, one could say that Christian theology is built on observations of Jesus' resurrection, miracles and teaching, and then models are constructed to come to terms with those observations. From those models we come to general conclusions that go beyond the observed fact of the resurrection. Does that make theology a science? Of course, traditionally science means "knowledge" and was much broader than our modern definition. But our modern definition is narrower. I am sure that Professor Stenger would want to exclude theology, or this sort of theology, from his definition of science.
Science involves observation and model building, but many other fields of study which we don't usually classify as science. So in my view, we can take this definition as a starting point, but ought to narrow it down by limiting the object of study.
Professor Stenger excludes also repeatability from his definition. This might be intentional: there are some scientific observations, such as astronomical observations of a particular supernova, that can only be observed once (albeit that we could also observe other similar celestial events).
But this is Professor Stenger's book, not mine, so we will go with his definition.
Professor Stenger does, however, narrow the scope in some sense. He states that, "as far as we can tell from our current scientific knowledge, the universe we observe with our senses and scientific instruments can be described in terms of matter and material processes alone." Matter is defined as anything which kicks back when you kick it, an allusion to Newton's third law. He leaves open the question that there might also be processes which can't be explained in terms of matter and material processes alone. This is what he wants to investigate.
Another point that he makes is that scientific models describe rather than explain. I would agree with him to an extent here, but I am concerned that he is setting up something of a false dichotomy. The question is whether scientific models can both describe and explain. Scientific models do not and cannot provide us with an ultimate explanation. They can provide us with an explanation in terms of some more fundamental science, or even scientific law. But ultimately, you reach questions such as "why does matter obey this law? Why this law rather than another?" Here science can provide insight, but it cannot, since it seeks to explain in terms of those laws, provide complete answers. The sciences can move us part of the way towards that ultimate explanation; they are an intermediate step between the raw facts of observation and the fundamental truth. And they can help point us towards ultimate explanations. If you go along the lines that science only describes without any explanatory role, then you are starting to get too close to Humean empiricism, where scientific models are merely a classification of observation, and tell us nothing about the nature of the world. If that were true, they are pretty much useless, and we would have no guarantee of the truth of any scientific finding. There is still the question of why matter behaves in that way.
Stenger also makes note of the assumption of methodological naturalism, where science is limited to objective observations of the world, and generally, not necessarily always but generally, seeks natural (by which he means material) accounts of phenomena. He acknowledges that this is distinct from metaphysical naturalism, the assumption that there is only the material. Here we start to see the start of his main error. Are scientific explanations of the world solely material? In some sense, yes, because we are focusing on what used to be called secondary causation. Science focuses on the material causes. But there is another sense in which the accounts of phenomena need not be seen as material. Generally speaking, we describe the world in terms of laws of physics. But what are those laws of physics, and why is matter bound to them? The atheist will answer in one way, and the theist in another. To assert that such laws are purely natural strikes me as begging the question. So my concern is that in his precise definition of methodological naturalism, he is already starting to beg the question against the theist. But I will discuss this a bit more later.
Finally, he emphasises falsification. This is, of course, the main tool he is planning to use in this work. Again, I would make a few quibbles here. Falsification is unquestionably an important means to gain knowledge in science. I would be the last person to question that. But can everything in science be reduced to falsification? Here I am a bit less sure. There are, for example, certain cases where you just observe how certain parts are arranged. That observation feeds directly into your model. Falsification is important in choosing between rival models; but sometimes one doesn't need to falsify, but only observe.
So I think there are a few places where I think Professor Stenger needed a bit more nuance in his definition of science. Sometimes he used terms with an imprecise meaning (such as in his discussion on methodological naturalism), other times he emphasised something which is unquestionably important, but not necessarily the whole story. But on the whole, his approach is reasonable enough, and his definition is certainly usable. I can certainly live with this understanding of science. So I am onboard with Professor Stenger so far.
Professor Stenger has deliberately kept his definition of science broad enough that it is not only restricted to the material by definition. This is, of course, essential to his project. He needs to be able to say that supernatural influence on the world can be tested scientifically, in order that it can be falsified. He is free to do this. He can define his terms how he pleases. What matters is whether or not he is consistent in his application of those definitions.
Definition of God.
Professor Stenger states that he is particularly challenging the definition of God that is used in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. He will later particularly focus on Christianity. God is viewed as a supreme, transcendent being, beyond matter, space and time, and yet the foundation of everything composed of matter and which exists in space and time. He is a nanosecond-by-nanosecond participant in every event that takes place in every point in the universe at every scale. Moreover, God listens to prayers and has a particular interest in humanity.
There are three types of god Stenger specifically claims to be uninterested in. The first is the deistic god, who creates the world and then leaves it alone. The second is the pantheistic god, to be equated with all of existence. The third is a little less straight forward - he is opposed to the very abstract notion of God developed by sophisticated theologians, and which bears little resemblance to what your standard religious believer accepts. It is not quite clear to me what he is targeting here, since there are several possibilities. The first is the god of liberal theology. For example, there is Berkeley's notion of God as part of his philosophy that all that exists are immaterial minds. Then there is the sort of God that Kant discussed, defined in terms of the ontological argument. Or there is Schliemacher's god which is a unifying force. Or the gods of Tillich or Robinson, where god is "a ground of being" (but taking that in a different direction and meaning to the classical theists; denying all personal aspects to God), or Rahner's god of absolute mystery. I have no objection to laying aside any of these gods, or others like them.
But perhaps Stenger also has in mind the God of classical theism. After all, the neo-Platonic and Aristotelian conceptions of God are also thought of in abstract terms and highly sophisticated. My own view, though, is that these are precisely the conceptions of God that Stenger should be challenging. They are, after all, the Gods of orthodox Christianity. (Eastern Orthodoxy and perhaps the early Church favouring the neo-Platonic version; Roman Catholicism and Protestantism more the Aristotelian version; although the two conceptions are very closely related to each other.) Certainly what the theologians discuss goes beyond what the average guy in the pews believes. But that does not mean that they radically change it. Rather, the intent is place the same concept on a firmer intellectual foundation. It is a matter of carefully defining a concept which your average believer holds intuitively, from various bits and pieces gathered together from various Biblical hints. Thus the God of classical theism is the God of "simple Christianity," but more rigorously defined and understood. It is this God that I believe that atheists ought to be concentrating their attacks on. And it certainly fits Stenger's definition of a transcendent being active in everything in space time.
Would I personally use Professor Stenger's definition? I would probably put it in a slightly different way. He has failed to emphasise three aspects of God which I consider important. The first is that God is of his essence uncaused; that is to say the God cannot depend on anything outside Himself in any way. This is most evident when we consider the cosmological argument, and its definition of God as the termination of the causal series. The second aspect is that God is singular; that is there is nothing outside and independent of God which can have an influence on other things. There can be secondary causes, and other intermediate steps, but ultimately everything goes back to God. There are no rival powers directing things around the universe. There are no rival principles which are eternal in the same sense as God. Thirdly, the idea that God is personal, an immaterial mind, with the ability to reason abstractly and also with a will (albeit that the words 'reason' and 'will' are used analogically to human reason and a human will: they won't manifest themselves in precisely the same way that we are used to; but there will still be the same general effect and outcome). In my view, this third point follows from the definition of God as the uncausable cause, but that's perhaps not obvious so it is worth stating it explicitly.
I don't think that Stenger will object to the idea of the personal aspect of God, since although it is not part of his definition supplied in the premise, he seems to assume it elsewhere in the book. The idea of God being essentially uncaused again I think Stenger would, at least in the context of this book, be happy to concede. Unlike most of the New Atheists, he doesn't in this work rely on the "What caused God?" argument, which assumes a God which could be caused (and is just the same sort of being as everything else in the universe). The idea that God has no rivals is, I think, where he would have more problems. But more on that later.
But, apart from the omission that God is personal, Stenger's definition of God is again close enough to what I would accept that I can't really disagree with it.
So so far, Stenger and I are in close enough agreement.
Where to look for God.
Stenger's proposed methodology is to follow the scientific method of hypothesis testing. The existence of God will be taken as a working hypothesis. Various consequences, which are in principle verifiable from experiment, will be drawn from that hypothesis. If the consequences agree with the observation, then that counts as evidence for God, albeit not definitive. If the consequences are not observed, then God is ruled out.
This approach, in my view, is reasonable but incomplete. It is incomplete because firstly, one ought to repeat it for the rival understandings of the universe, such as atheism. Secondly, it ignores the positive arguments for God, which is problematic, because most people believe in God on account of positive arguments rather than a lack of negative ones. But that is perhaps an objection that Professor Stenger has anticipated. He has discussed the positive arguments for God in another work, Has Science Found God? I can't comment on that book because I haven't (yet) read it. His purpose in this book is to build up the case for atheism, and for that purpose his approach is perfectly reasonable. The goal of the theist would either be to deny that the idea of God leads to the conclusion that Professor Stenger draws out, or to deny that the observations contradict the conclusion, or perhaps a combination of the two.
But now, it is all about to go badly wrong. The following quote is at the heart of the problem.
My analysis will be based on the contention that God should be detectable by scientific means simply by virtue of the fact that he is supposed to play such a central role in the operation of the universe and the lives of humans. Existing scientific models contain no place where God is included as an ingredient in order to describe observations. Thus if God exists, he must appear somewhere in the gaps or errors of scientific models.
This is a problem because Professor Stenger makes one crucial assumption here: that science operates independently of God. This assumption is key to the mechanistic understanding of the universe, which underlies deism and many forms of atheism (the possible exception being those postmodern philosophies which deny the operation of science). It is also an assumption of empiricism. But no theist would, or ought to, agree with it. In theism, God is responsible for everything from making the grass grow (Psalm 104:14) to directing the planets in their orbits (Jeremiah 33:25). Obviously, these phenomena are also described by science. The way around this dilemma for the theist is to say that science is (at least in part) a description of how God sustains and upholds the universe. If this is true, then it is not necessary to look at the gaps in science to find evidence for God. The existence of science itself is evidence for God; at least if we take the approach of hypothesis building and falsification. If God exists, and is rational as Jews and Christians maintain, then we would expect to see regularities in how the universe is directed by God; regularities which we can categorise in terms of some sort of law. This law would describe everything except (possibly) the miraculous. This is the argument I make (in a lot more detail) in What is Physics. Thus the existence of scientific law is a positive prediction of the "God Hypothesis," a prediction which is very much borne out in reality.
Professor Stenger said at the outset that he was discussing the theistic rather that deist God. And yet, his argument relies on an understanding of God's relationship with science that is consistent with deism (which accepts a mechanistic understanding of science) but not theism (which doesn't). He sees science as a rival to God rather than something intimately dependent on God, not just as its creator, but because science is seen as describing God's interaction with the universe.
Thus it is quite possible for the theist to say "God created X" or "God designed X" and "X's origins and nature arise from scientific processes." For the deist or atheist (mechanist or empiricist) these are two contradictory propositions. For the theist (or indeed pantheist, but that's not the topic of discussion), they are two ways of saying the same thing. It all comes down to one's philosophy of science, and understanding of God's relationship to science. A large portion of Stenger's book is There is a scientific explanation for this phenomena, so therefore God isn't responsible. But this is dependent on the assumption that science operates independently of God, an assumption which theists don't accept. Stenger's approach is hypothesis building. He assumes (for the sake of the argument) that theism is true, works out the consequences of that assumption, and then tries to find evidence contradicting those consequences. But he has a clear problem. He doesn't understand theism; he is still stuck in an empiricist mindset. He has built into his model an assumption that theists reject. Thus all he is ever going to refute is his own model, which is not held by any informed theist. His work, at least as far as it depends on this assumption, thus will not suffice to refute the "God Hypothesis."
Stenger offers one sentence in his book defending this key assumption. "Existing scientific models contain no place where God is described as an ingredient in order to describe observations." Is this sufficient? Clearly not. Because as Professor Stenger also admits, "Notice that the main purpose of scientific models is to describe rather than explain." But the issue in question is why science operates as it does. For that, we need an explanation. For example, Newton's second law tells us that acceleration is force divided by mass. One can think of that in mechanistic terms, of course, but equally well one could say that God moves the being, but happens to do so in accordance with the force law (this is the occasionalist view, which is held by some schools of Islam). Or there is the third view (which is more consistent with classical Jewish and Christian theology), which takes both God and whatever field provides the force as separate causes, albeit using the word "cause" in different ways in each case. God is required to provide the movement, but He (usually) does so taking into account the nature of both the field and the being. Thus we can describe science in terms of the secondary causes, but it doesn't remove God's key role in activating the potential for movement.
If the world were Newtonian, this would still put a considerable constraint on God's activity. But in quantum physics, things are different. The indeterminate nature of quantum physics leaves more freedom for God to act. I have argued that it rules out the mechanistic explanation (where secondary causes are sufficient to explain the actualisation of the potential as well as the existence of the potential). When Professor Stenger writes,
The fundamental notion of matter and material processes has not changed since the time of Newton -- only embellished,
he is clearly mistaken. For he is discussing the philosophy of physics here, and I don't see how anyone can claim that the advent of quantum physics didn't require a major rewrite of the philosophy of physics.
So he has not adequately defended his statement that scientific explanations rule out a theological explanation rather than providing us with a theological explanation. The content of the scientific theory cannot tell us that; only the philosophy of science can do so.
Equally when he writes,
As far as we can tell from current scientific scientific knowledge, the universe we observe with our senses and scientific instruments can be described in terms of matter and material processes alone,
he is again begging the question, assuming an atheistic philosophy of science.
Professor Stenger is thus searching for gaps in science, and sees this as the only possible evidence for God. The burden on the theist, in his view, is to show that there is no possible scientific explanation for the phenomena. But recall that Stenger's claim is that he can refute the existence of God by showing that God does not sustain the universe. For the theist, having a scientific explanation is sufficient to demonstrate God's role in producing the phenomena. So Professor Stenger's approach of using scientific explanations of phenomena to demonstrate God's lack of involvement in the universe, and thus refute one leg of "The God Hypothesis" is doomed to failure. Every argument he makes along these lines will be interpreted by theists as an argument for God's involvement in that process.
In his preface, Professor Stenger sets out his main methodology. He argues, correctly, that there is a relationship between God and science. He gives a reasonable definition of a theistic God. He provides an acceptable description of scientific method. But then he makes a crucial mistake with regards to the philosophy of science, in that he assumes a philosophy of science in which science operates independently of God, consistent with either a mechanist or empiricist philosophy of science, but not a theist one. This is a problem, because his approach is falsification, in which he adopts the working assumption that theism is true, works out the consequences, and then finds contradictions either internally or against observation. But he has smuggled in an anti-theist assumption at the start. If he finds a contradiction, he thus cannot tell us that the issue is with theism itself or due to that smuggled in assumption.
But we are only twenty pages into the book. Plenty more to come, including some interesting topics.
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