July 6, 2014
Victor Stenger believes that we can prove scientifically that God doesn’t exist, a view he lays out in God: The Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist. Last week we looked at his introductory arguments in Books on Science and Religion #5: Victor Stenger’s God Hypothesis. This week, we look at Stenger’s arguments in more detail and present critiques of his approach.
Arguments For and Against God From Science
Nature – according to the Baha’i writings and to widely influential views in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – is God’s creation.
The Baha’i writings frequently refer to God’s role as the creator. For example:
A drop of the billowing ocean of His endless mercy hath adorned all creation with the ornament of existence, and a breath wafted from His peerless Paradise hath invested all beings with the robe of His sanctity and glory. A sprinkling from the unfathomed deep of His sovereign and all pervasive Will hath, out of utter nothingness, called into being a creation which is infinite in its range and deathless in its duration. The wonders of His bounty can never cease, and the stream of His merciful grace can never be arrested. The process of His creation hath had no beginning, and can have no end. (Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p.61.)
Further, according to these views, the “book of nature” as revealed by science provides powerful evidence for the existence of God. The Baha’i writings describe the gift of understanding that makes science so powerful as the “foremost” favor that allows us “to know and recognize the one true God”:
[The] first and foremost among these favors, which the Almighty hath conferred upon man, is the gift of understanding. His purpose in conferring such a gift is none other except to enable His creature to know and recognize the one true God‑‑exalted be His glory. This gift giveth man the power to discern the truth in all things, leadeth him to that which is right, and helpeth him to discover the secrets of creation. (Bahá’u’lláh, ibid, pp.194-195.)
Stenger approaches the question of the existence of God from a different angle. Rather than considering what underlies our unique ability to understand nature and the world around us or looking for evidence of God in the world or that understanding, he assumes that the methods of science can provide a direct scientific proof of the existence of God and that the existence of God can be taken as a scientific hypothesis.
Here is how he describes his approach:
The existence of a God will be taken as a scientific hypothesis and the consequences of that hypothesis searched for in objective observations of the world around us. (Stenger, Victor. God: The Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist, Prometheus, 2007, p.17.)
Such an approach – if carried out systematically with due consideration to the criteria that would constitute a valid proof or disproof of the existence of God – would be widely appreciated. It would also serve as an important contribution to an ongoing dialogue of nearly three hundred years duration that shows no signs of ending.
Stenger’s Analysis and Conclusions
How does Stenger proceed?
He does so by breaking his analysis into seven chapters, each with updates of arguments from his previous books:
- Ch 2: The Illusion of Design considers arguments that the world is designed by God, including those by William Paley and modern intelligent design theorists. His judgment is that they are wrong – he cites Dawkins as his main authority – and concludes that there is no evidence for a “designer God.”
- Ch 3: Searching for a World beyond Matter consider arguments about the existence of souls, ESP, the power of prayer, and immortality. Scientifically, the most interesting part of the chapter is the discussion of studies of intercessory powers of prayer. He reports these as concluding that no solid evidence of intercessory effects in blind trials, but ignores studies that show the power of individual (sometimes called “meditative”) prayer. With respect to minds and souls, he concludes that “a wealth of empirical data now strongly suggests that mind is in fact a ‘mere epiphenomenon of this matter.’ Matter alone appears to be able to carry out all the activities that have been traditionally associated with the soul.”
- Ch 4: Cosmic Evidence considers arguments about miracles, the origins of the universe, the origins of matter, cosmology, the origins of the laws of physics, and why there is something rather than nothing. The main thrust of his argument is that all phenomena proceed in a law-like manner, i.e., no miracles are in evidence or required.
- Ch 5: The Uncongenial Universe considers anthropic-principle arguments to the effect that the universe is fine-tuned for life. He denies the validity of such arguments, concentrating instead on the emptiness of interstellar space which he feels is proof that universe is not “created with a special, cosmic purpose for intelligent life of any kind.”
- Ch 6: The Failures of Revelation considers established religions, scripture, and prophecies, mainly treating them as prescientific myth.
- Ch 7: Do Our Values Come from God? considers arguments about religion as a source of morality. It isn’t, he concludes, citing violent stories in the Old Testament and religious conflict.
- Ch 8: The Argument from Evil argues that the existence of evil proves that God cannot exist.
In his summing up (in Ch: 9 Possible and Impossible Gods on pages 231-233), he concludes that God doesn’t exist because the evidence – and the lack of evidence – he has found in the seven previous chapters. There is, he says, no empirical data indicating miracles, mind is explained by material processes, the universe is mainly empty and therefore not structured for humans, revelation doesn’t accurately offer predictions, humans are the ones who define morality, and the existence of evil means that God cannot exist.
One of the most trenchant critics of God: The Failed Hypothesis – and of other similar writings by the New Atheists – is Massimo Pugliucci, a distinguished scientist, philosopher, and an outspoken atheist. He is a professor of philosophy at CUNY-City College and shares his critiques in two articles – New Atheism and The Scientistic Turn in the Atheism Movement and A Muddled Defense of New Atheism: On Stenger’s Response.
Addressing Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, he writes:
To recap, then, what is considered to be perhaps the quintessential text of the New Atheism is an odd mishmash of scientific speculation (on the origins of religion), historically badly informed polemic, and rehashing of philosophical arguments. Yet Dawkins and his followers present The God Delusion as a shining example of how science has dealt a fatal blow to the idea of gods.
About Stenger’s God: The Failed Hypothesis, he writes:
My treatment of Victor Stenger’s contributions will be shorter insofar as this author makes the same mistake as Dawkins, only in the realm of physics rather than biology. … Just like Dawkin’s volume, Stenger’s is an odd mix of standard arguments against the existence of god, comments on how morality is possible without gods, and actual treatment of the relevant scientific evidence for the alleged “hypothesis.”
Besides the obvious fact that one can genuinely be puzzled by what exactly qualifies Stenger (or Dawkins) to authoritatively comment on the straightforward philosophical matters that make up most of their books, the basic problem with Stenger is precisely the same as Dawkins: he treats the “god hypothesis” as if it were formulated precisely and coherently enough to qualify as a scientific hypothesis, which it manifestly isn’t …
He describes God: The Failed Hypothesis as scientistic
Stenger explicitly—in the very subtitle of his book—states that “Science shows that God does not exist” (my emphasis) … [which is a] standard example of scientism. Scientism here is defined as a totalizing attitude that regards science as the ultimate standard and arbiter of all interesting questions; or alternatively that seeks to expand the very definition and scope of science to encompass all aspects of human knowledge and understanding.
and as anti-intellectual:
I would actually go so far as to charge many of the leaders of the New Atheism movement (and, by implication, a good number of their followers) with anti-intellectualism, one mark of which is a lack of respect for the proper significance, value, and methods of another field of intellectual endeavor.
Scientism undermines the atheist project, according to Pugliucci. Much better would be a measured, humble intellectualism:
… all these worrisome issues ought to be approached in an intellectually measured way, drawing on the best resources that both science and philosophy have to offer, while admitting — as a matter of simple intellectual humility — the limits of one, the other, or both disciplines. To insist instead in overreaching does not serve any of our shared goals, and it undermines the credibility of both atheism and science.
Stenger, like so many naive interpreters of science, wants to impose metaphysical value-judgments on the findings of science that have no valid right to be there. And he blindly accepts the myths and just-so stories of centuries of atheism rather than analyzing them critically and logically.
Consider, for example, his characterization of the findings of evolution and of cosmology as proving – because they are the consequences of natural processes – that God doesn’t exist. But the thrust of much of natural theology is just the opposite – the evidences for processes of natural law behind what exists is proof of the existence of God. Stenger just assume that his metaphysical predilections allow him to rule out this hugely influential point of view – widely considered to be one of the root causes of the scientific revolutions – as a valid perspective.
And overall, the science just isn’t there. Rather than methodically and carefully going through the issues to consider what could or couldn’t be shown scientifically, he presents anecdotal stories and his own personal opinions.
Yes, it is good to have all these materials in one place, and Stenger is doing us a service by writing these books. But the picture he paints with his survey of atheist literature and arguments is so uncompelling – and so impoverished – that it undermines the whole atheistic enterprise.
I think that this is what Pugliucci sees and what he fears – that atheism lacks solid and reasonable arguments of support from science and that it is mainly a lot of hand-waving. And that is why he looks to philosophy, which has consistently trended away from support for religion in the last two hundred years, to get things back on track (atheistically speaking, of course).
And toward that end, he directs us to look at the work of the philosopher Anthony Grayling, which is what we will do next.
The next blog explores Anthony Grayling’s The God Argument: The Case against Religion and for Humanism.
This is the 6th in a series of blogs on the modern science and religion literature. The author, Stephen Friberg, is a Bahá’í living in Mountain View, California. A research physicist by training, he wrote Religion and Evolution Reconciled: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Comments on Evolution with Courosh Mehanian. He worked in Japan for 10 years before joining the semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley.