This is the third post in a series on Victor Stenger's book God: The failed hypothesis. In this post, I intend to partially review his first chapter. The chapter contains a few "logical disproofs" of God, summaries of various arguments from other writers, which I want to spend a bit more time over, so I will move my discussion of them into another post. Here, I will just discuss those parts of this chapter which were original to Professor Stenger.
This chapter has the following structure:
- There is a reference to argument from divine hiddenness. Stenger also takes up this theme again in chapter 9, so I will discuss it in full when I review that section. Here he calls it the "lack of evidence" argument.
- The nature of scientific evidence, and how to evaluate an extraordinary claim.
- Logical "disproofs" of God. As mentioned, I will defer my discussion of these to the next post and maybe the one after that as well.
- A discussion of scientific models.
- The presentation of the model of God, and some of its intended consequences, which Professor Stenger intends to discuss in the rest of his work.
Evaluating extraordinary claims
Professor Stenger outlines five basic criteria which any scientist must take when evaluating an extraordinary claim.
- The study must be clearly defined, with all sources of error identified.
- The hypothesis must be established clearly before data taking starts, and not changed when things start going badly.
- The people analysing the data must do so without prejudice,
- The hypothesis must be falsifiable; that is there is the possibility of some experimental results proving it false.
- Results should independently replicated.
These are, of course, all good and reasonable. I am not quite sure why Professor Stenger restricts it to just extraordinary hypotheses through. This is just good practice for any scientific investigation. Indeed, I would almost say that it is good practice for any investigation of any area of study.
The reason I write "almost" is because of the falsifiable criteria. I agree that this is useful in science; I would be the last person to dispute that. But the problem is that some claims aren't really falsifiable, but are nonetheless true. For example, the statement that something can not both be and not be at the same time. Mathematical proofs are another example; or proofs of logical deduction. Then there are things like causality. Even if we observe something appear out of nothing, how would we know that it was uncaused, rather than just beamed in, Blake's 7 style, from the Liberator? And yet causality remains a key concept. Or the hypothesis that there are stars in the sky. We might think that we can falsify it by simply looking up at the night sky and not observing any stars, but that isn't enough. We could be surrounded by a giant dust cloud, as in Douglas Adam's planet Krikkit. Or a planet bathed in perpetual sunlight (near enough) as in Asimov's Nightfall? The old maxim that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence is important and relevant. On the other hand, it is easy to falsify the statement that there are no stars.
So falsification is not as simple as it seems. Negative propositions are much easier to falsify than positive ones. One can often, perhaps not always but often, come up with some weird excuse for why you didn't observe the expected result. So something might both be true and not falsifiable. But the issue at stake isn't truth in general, but scientific truth.
Is falsification a sufficient condition for scientific research? Stenger himself answers that it isn't, using the example of astrology which has been falsified and isn't considered scientific.
So is falsification a necessary condition for a scientific investigation? Perhaps; but if so, we are seriously restricting the questions which science can answer. And this is something which Professor Stenger needs to address (and does indeed address), because he wants to provide the scientific method to question the idea that God exists. This at first glance seems to be similar to trying to falsify the statement that stars exist: whatever evidence he finds, the defender of God can almost invariably invent something similar to the dust cloud to explain why the evidence wasn't found in that study.
Popper himself restricted the scope of falsification to exclude strict or pure existential statements. Professor Stenger quotes the example of finding a pearl ten times larger than any other pearl. If the scope of the investigation were unbounded, to the whole universe, then the statement can't be falsified. If it were restricted to a small region, then we can falsify the statement.
Professor Stenger takes this to apply to God. Since God is meant to be everywhere, then He would be in every small box in the universe. So if we search inside this small box, and don't find evidence for God, then we refute His existence.
So can science investigate the supernatural? Most people say no, but Professor Stenger thinks it can. New claims must be supported by the data, and get through the piercing eye of peer review. It isn't easy. And that is why intelligent design is (for example) rejected: its proponents simply haven't put up the required evidence to convince its opponents.
They are simply applying the same standard they would for any other extraordinary claim and demanding extraordinary evidence.
Besides, why would any scientist object to the notion of intelligent design or other supernatural phenomena, should the data warrant that they deserve attention? Most scientists would be delighted at the opening up of a new field of study that would undoubtedly receive generous funding.
Furthermore, Stenger notes, there have been scientific studies of the supernatural, such as on the efficacy of prayer. Stenger also notes that the methodological naturalism doesn't necessarily imply metaphysical naturalism. He thus concludes that the supernatural hypothesis of God is testable, verifiable and falsifiable. He then backs up this conclusion by listing a few examples which would falsify atheism and prove the existence of God.
So what should we make of all of this? I find myself broadly nodding in agreement for most of it. There are two criticisms I might make. Firstly, as noted above, trying to falsify the existence of something is difficult. It's easy to come up with excuses about why something could have prevented it from being observed. And this is particularly true for a notion like God, which is (at least as Stenger sees it) slightly ill-defined. Even if you restrict yourself to Christianity, there are numerous different beliefs, all with their minor but important variations. It is all very well saying that we can look in a small box and expect to see God there because God is everywhere, but theists will point out that God's omnipresence doesn't quite mean the same thing as you will find God in every small box. Especially if you don't know what to look for. A theist will claim that every physical process is the result of God's handiwork, and thus evidence for God, but Professor Stenger will deny this. As pointed out in the previous post, it all comes down to one's philosophy of science. This is where Professor Stenger's point about the researchers need to be unbiased is particularly pertinent. They need to start by keeping an open mind about the philosophy of science. Since Professor Stenger doesn't even seem to be aware of the theist understanding of science, I am not hopeful that he will give the question this unbiased look. But you could say that once you come down to a particular religious view, then you might find examples where it is disproved.
The second caveat I have with this section is Professor Stenger's point about extraordinary claims requiring a greater burden of proof. How do we judge which claims are extraordinary? For example, to the theist, the idea that the laws of physics operate independently of God, or there can be no miracles, is extraordinary to the highest degree. For the atheist the opposite is true. What counts as extraordinary depends on one's presuppositions. We should note Professor Stenger's point that we should not be prejudiced: we should not let our presuppositions cloud our judgement when interpreting observational data. Unfortunately, that's not possible: every interpretation of data is to a certain extent model dependent. Fortunately, the difficulty of evaluating which claims are extraordinary doesn't affect Professor Stenger's approach, since his method is good practice for ordinary claims just as much as for extraordinary ones.
Professor Stenger discusses how science proceeds my constructing theories and models. These models are key; any observation we make, especially today when we don't observe things directly but have to rely on very complex detectors and instruments, is dependent on a theory.
In this section, Professor Stenger makes several good points which I fully agree with, and a few which I would perhaps question or say that the discussion ought to be a bit more nuanced.
Among the good points he mentions are that the scientific models need to start with certain definitions and assumptions about the universe. They are primarily parametrised in terms of numerical quantities that correspond to the results of experimental measurement. That might be troubling for the philosopher, because of the emphasis that it puts on measurement, but for the scientist it is natural. The goal of scientific theory is to predict the results of experiments. There is in principle a certain heirarchy used in the names, going from a model, to a hypothesis, to a theory, to a law, but in practice these names don't mean very much. Newton's law of gravity is known to be wrong, having been experimentally disproved. The standard model of particle physics is also wrong (because it excludes gravity), but it its predictions work to a far greater accuracy than for Newton's laws. These models are, however, no matter how successful, still human construction and subject to change and correction. The construction of models is often based on mathematical premises, such as symmetry, but they still need to be tested against observation. Postmodernism is false: science is not just a cultural narrative.
So far, so good, and I have written similar things myself. The only comment I have to make is on the idea that scientific models are of human construction. This is true from a certain point of view, but it misses the important point that we believe that there is a theory that perfectly describes how the universe operates, and the goal of scientific models is to successfully approach that theory. This is the reason why scientific models aren't completely arbitrary. They are human constructions which attempt to be a copy of a non-human construction (as it were). So there is a clear sense in which they are constrained by something outside and greater than humanity. I don't think that this is a point which Professor Stenger would disagree with (aside from my way of phrasing it), but one he would have done better to emphasise.
Another paragraph, which I think I ought to quote in full, is this one
For example, despite a common misunderstanding, the models of Newtonian mechanics were hardly rendered useless by the twin twentieth century developments of relativity and quantum mechanics. Newtonian physics continues to find major applications in contemporary science and technology. It is still what most students learn in physics classes, and what most engineers and others use when they apply physics in their professions.
I am frequently on record for emphasising that Newtonian physics is wrong. But, on the other hand, Professor Stenger is correct here. Newtonian physics is an incredibly good approximation of how the world works. In almost all circumstances (there are a few exceptions where quantum effects are important on the macroscopic scale), as long as you don't consider speeds approaching the speed of light, or objects of the size of molecules and atoms, or care about the fundamental nature of reality, there is no reason why you shouldn't use Newtonian physics. And plenty of reasons why you should; it is somewhat easier, for a start.
So why do I keep saying that Newtonian physics is wrong? There is a difference between being useful and being right. Something wrong can still be useful, if it is a close enough approximation to the truth and easier to perform calculations than the full theory. But my own area of focus tends to be on either very small scales, or questions about the fundamental nature of reality. Both of those go beyond the range of validity of Newtonian physics. But Professor Stenger makes a point here that I would perhaps do better to emphasise more myself. We should still study Newton. We should still use his work where it is appropriate. But we shouldn't use him to answer fundamental questions.
And that brings me to the point where I disagree with Professor Stenger in this section.
We model the sun as an orb rising in the East and setting in the West. Travellers heading to the West can point themselves each day in the direction of the setting sun and, correcting for some Northward or Southward drift, arrive safely at their destination. No additional elements to the model are needed - in particular no metaphysics. The ancient Greeks viewed the sun as the gold-helmeted Apollo, driving a golden chariot across the sky. The ancient Chinese thought it was a golden bird. Neither metaphysical model offers any additional aid to our travellers in their navigation. And that lack of necessity in the absence of any other evidence testifies strongly for the non-existence of such a god or golden bird.
A few things to say here. I will leave aside any historical criticism, since the extent of the truth about his claims concerning the ancient Greeks and Chinese isn't relevant to his point.
Firstly, Professor Stenger doesn't seem to understand what metaphysics is. Metaphysics is traditionally defined as the study of being in itself, as opposed to the study of particular beings. The sun is a particular being. Thus questions about the nature of the sun are physical rather than metaphysical models.
Secondly, Professor Stenger's final sentence can be turned on its head. Suppose, alongside the golden helmet and bird, we offer a third hypothesis. Namely that the sun is a massive ball of gas, mostly hydrogen but with some other elements, such that the hydrogen (and other elements) are undergoing nuclear fusion, and held together by the gravitational force. This model of the sun is equally irrelevant to the needs of the traveller. So just as much as the golden helmet, if Stenger's reasoning was correct, we ought to conclude that such a burning ball of gas doesn't exist.
Of course, Professor Stenger did add that qualification "in the absence of other evidence". And we do have other evidence. But the traveller he discusses didn't. The modern hypothesis is just as irrelevant to his model, and just as useless for him, as any other. So why is it correct for him to rule that the modern understanding of the sun is wrong simply because he lacks evidence? The correct position in the absence of evidence is agnosticism.
It is certainly true that the traveller using the sun for navigation doesn't need to know what it is for his work. But the Helioseismologist does need to understand that for his work. So the question of how sophisticated we need our model to be depends on what we intend to use it for, and whether those details matter for that purpose. Metaphysics is the bridge between physics, and science in general, and other areas of knowledge. So when you are asking the question, for example, of what science says about the existence of God, it is essential to have your metaphysics in order first.
Professor Stenger correctly realises that experimental science is theory laden, in that you need theory to interpret the observations. What he fails to realise is that theoretical science is equally dependent on a metaphysical system in order to correctly interpret it. Can scientists proceed without knowledge of metaphysics? One answer to this would be, "Yes, because most of them do." But, in my view, that's not quite correct, because the scientists have absorbed various assumptions about the nature of reality before they even begin working. So they do have a metaphysical view, but they just don't consciously realise it.
For everyday science, that's not so much of a problem, as long as this metaphysical view is close enough to the truth that they can continue with their work (just as the traveller's model is close enough to the truth to guide him on his journey). But when you come to more fundamental issues, you can't just let that naive picture stand unexamined.
I mentioned in my previous post that Professor Stenger's primary problem is that he assumes that the laws of physics operate independently of God, while the theist would disagree with this statement. Thus whatever Professer Stenger sees as evidence against God, the theist would regard as evidence for God. He does not even seem to be aware that there is a controversy here. And his primary reason for making this mistake is his refusal to consider metaphysics, or, in particular, the different proposals about the philosophy of science.
He takes this up again later.
Physicists generally speak as if the unobserved elements of their models, such as quarks are "real" particles. However, this is a metaphysical assumption that they have no way of verifying and indeed have no real need (or desire) to do so. The models of physics and their unobserved elements are human inventions and represent the best we can do in describing objective reality. When a model successfully describes a wide range of observations, we can be confident that the elements of those models have something to do with whatever reality is out there, but less confident that they constitute reality itself.
So, here we find all the mistakes come together. Firstly, the question of the reality of quarks is a physical rather than metaphysical question. Secondly, he again emphasises that the models of physics are human inventions, which, as I stated above, is only a half truth. Thirdly, our models are representations of reality, rather than reality itself. But, if the models are true (and the phenomenal success of the standard model suggests that it is at least close to being true) there should be a one-to-one mapping between the elements of the model and elements within reality itself. There is the question of why the model gives accurate predictions, and that the elements in the model do correspond to something in reality is the only explanation I'm aware of which satisfactory answers this question. Plus there is the inductive argument that everything in the past that was hypothesised to exist in such a model that has been found to actually exist. It is possible to get direct evidence for quarks. Above a certain temperature, there is a breaking of quark confinement, which is what binds the quarks together into protons, neutrons, pions and so on. Above that temperature, we might be able to observe free quarks (there would, of course, be technical difficulties I'm glossing over, but it is never wise to underestimate the ingenuity of experimental physicists). So unless we get strong evidence to the contrary, we are justified to assume and perhaps ought to assume the reality of quarks. Is there certainty? No, the only way to be certain about the reality of quarks is if and when we directly observe them. Professor Stenger is right about that. But the indirect evidence is stacking up so much that the level of doubt is exceptionally small.
Obviously, whether or not quarks are real is pretty much irrelevant for the topic of this book. But it is an example of how Professor Stenger's empiricism thus blinds him to how a theist, who rejects his metaphysical assumptions, might think. And this means that when he constructs a model for God and tries to find evidence against it, we cannot be confident that he is not just going to erect a straw man.
A model for God
If Professor Stenger is going to use hypothesis testing to investigate the question of God, then he is going to need a model describing God which he can test. God is assumed to have certain attributes. There, in this method, is no need to understand the fundamental nature of God underlying those attributes.
The plan is, then, to construct a model, and make predictions based on that model. If those predictions are successful, particularly if those results can't be accounted for by other means, then we have good reason for believing in such a God. If unsuccessful, then we have good reasons for rejecting such a God.
So what should we make of this approach? The general strategy seems reasonable enough. However, there are a few concerns I have. Firstly, it treats theology as though it were an empirical science. That is to say as though the main goal of theology was to explain empirical or experimental observations. There are two different strands to theology. The first is natural theology, which investigates the nature of God based on philosophical principles, derived from general premises which underlie physical science. The second is revealed theology, which takes as its foundation some special revelation and figures out the consequences of it. In neither case is Professor's Stenger's method applicable. Both branches of theology work by deduction from known facts. Professor Stenger proposes working the other way round; going from an understanding of God to try to figure out natural consequences. But those same natural consequences went into building the model of God used by the theologians. There is a degree of circularity here which is troubling. It is not clear that the empirical method is the right one to use in answering questions about God.
The second concern is related: if you find contradictions between your projections from the model of God and reality, how do you know that you are using the correct model of God, or the correct means to make the projections?
Thirdly, you cannot ignore philosophy. Professor Stenger agrees that all experimental data is theory-laden; that is to say that you need theory to interpret it. But the same idea holds here. All models of God, and in particular the process of drawing out predictions from those models, are dependent on your philosophy, including your philosophy of physics and your understanding of divine action. It is impossible to achieve Professor Stenger's task while ignoring the philosophy. You will require philosophical assumptions as you try to figure out where to look for the evidence, and unless you state and think about these, you are going to be presuming something which might well be incorrect. At best, your conclusions would only be relevant if the philosophical assumptions built into your model are correct. If those assumptions are those that no theist would actually hold, then your work is worthless.
In particular, Professor Stenger is an empiricist in his epistemology and a materialist in his metaphysics. Both of those shape his underlying philosophy; they are what he unconsciously uses when having to make some sort of argument. Theists tend to reject both empiricism and materialism. Thus Professor Stenger is almost certainly going to build in some empiricist or materialist assumptions into his model or its interpretation. The theist will then point to those assumptions and say that is why he has failed.
So let's look at his model for God in detail. This list sort of shapes the rest of his work, although in a few places he doesn't adequately specify which particular assumption he is testing or how he moves from it to his conclusion.
- God is the creator and preserver of the universe. Of course, one has to specify what precisely is meant by creator and preserver here. In particular, this brings in questions concerning the philosophy of divine action, or the way that God interacts with the natural world. We will find that Professor Stenger here assumes a more deistic model of divine action.
- God is the architect of the structure of the universe, and the author of the laws of nature. Again, there are questions which Professor Stenger glosses over of what is meant by the laws of nature, or even if "author" or "architect" are appropriate metaphors for them.
- God steps in whenever he wishes to change events, which may include violating His own laws. Again, this builds in assumptions regarding the nature of divine action and the nature of scientific law.
- God is the creator and preserver of life and humanity, and humanity is special compared to other life forms.For the first part of this, the comments I made above apply. For the second part, he is setting up something of a straw man. The theist claim would be that rational animals are special compared to mere animals. And the reason that rational animals are special is contained within the definition. Our own race is the only example of rational animals we know of. If there were others (either on this planet because we have not discovered them or misidentified them, or on different planets), then our race would not be special in comparison to them. God would equally be looking to set up a relationship with those creatures.
- God has endowed humans with immaterial, eternal souls. Again, this statement is useless, unless one previously defines precisely what is meant by a soul. Professor Stenger takes one particular definition, but not one that many classical theists would agree to.
- God is the source of morality and human values. He wants to speak about ethics while claiming not to make any philosophical assumptions, but just on empirical grounds? Has he never read David Hume?
- God has revealed truths in scriptures and by communicating directly to select individuals throughout history. For once, I can't critique his phrasing of this premise. However, in evaluating the evidence for this, he is going to rely on various scholars who do also bring in materialist assumptions. The historical reliability of the Bible (or Qu'ran for that matter) is an important topic. It ought to be discussed more by Christians, since big questions have been raised here. I have not yet had the chance to express my thoughts on the subject either here or in my book. But it is something which I have wanted to address.
- God does not deliberately hide from any human being who is open to finding evidence for his presence. Again, this brings in certain assumptions about what it means for God to be hidden.
So Professor Stenger's approach, despite his claims, is not going to be neutral. Even to define his model there is a whole set of assumptions and definitions which (to give a few spoilers for the rest of the book) he is not going to adequately defend, nor will he address alternative perspectives. He is not even going to state that he is making those assumptions. It is difficult to judge if he is even aware of the contention. Perhaps he would defend his approach by saying (as he did in the preface) that he is not interested in attacking the sophisticated theological perception of God, but what the average man or woman in the street who believes in God understands by it. There are several problems with this. Firstly, one should attack the strongest construction of an idea, but not the weakest. If, for example, a creationist were to claim to be able to refute evolution by natural selection by picking on a particular popular representation of it, rather than the arguments and evidence put forward by a trained biologist, then I am sure that Professor Stenger would object (and rightly so). But how then can he justify doing the same thing in his discussion of God? Secondly, Professor Stenger is not a Christian or Church-goer. He doesn't encounter regular Christians on a weekly basis, nor has questioned them on their understanding of God. How does he know that the lay Christian with no particular interest in theology at an academic level would agree with his characterisation of God? Indeed, how would he be able to demonstrate that there is a single understanding of God believed by lay Christians (there certainly isn't). So there is no certainty that the various unstated assumptions that Professor Stenger will make are those held by the unsophisticated theist.
But there are certainly several interesting topics here, which is why this book is worth reviewing.
Next time: Logical arguments against God.
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