Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Review: God, The Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows that God Does Not Exist, by Victor J. Stenger

Review: Tour de Force by Tom Flynn


God, The Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows that God Does Not Exist, by Victor J. Stenger - £5.29 (from HASSERS Amazon Bookstore)

Are science and religion bitter opponents? Or are they at best complementary, at worst mutually aloof? The late Stephen Jay Gould argued that science and religion occupied “non-overlapping magisteria” and so had nothing foundational to say to each other. Eager to rebut the idea that Darwinism might promote atheism, evolution campaigner Eugenie Scott has distinguished the scientist’s methodological naturalism from the atheist’s philosophical naturalism; for Scott, the one need not imply the other.

Victor Stenger is having none of this.

Since 1988 this prolific physicist-astronomer has penned a stack of books that share a single, hard-nosed assumption, one which he makes explicit in this volume, seventh of the series:

“[T]he supernatural hypothesis of God is testable, verifiable, and falsifiable by the established methods of science.”

Starting with Not by Design: The Origin of the Universe (1988), Stenger trained his encyclopedic knowledge and bracing clarity of thought upon various fashionable strategies by which sophisticated theists have sought to use “boundary issues” in science to defend their metaphysical preferences. In Not by Design Stenger demolished the best anthropic and fine-tuning arguments for a cosmic designer then extant. In 1995’s The Unconscious Quantum he refuted claims that the indeterminacy of quantum physics offers a supra-natural substrate for such metaphysical entities as an immaterial human soul. In 2003’s Has Science Found God? he sifted the evidence of cosmology and physics for – or as it turned out, against – the existence of God as traditionally defined.

For Stenger in these and other works, science can – and must – address the question whether the supernatural can exist. When it does so, in one domain after another, it says “No” in a bell-clear voice: “[B]y 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 … traditionally associated with the Judaic-Christian-Islamic God.”

This is a controversial stance, but Stenger is far from alone in it. Intellectual historian David Berman noted that genuine, self-avowed atheism (as opposed to charges of atheism hurled at one’s opponents) was almost unknown until about the time of Darwin. Prior to that time, questions of how the universe came to be or of how living things came to inhabit it were patently insoluble.

Scientifically rigorous skeptics felt compelled toward deism because they had no alternative to positing a God who had, if nothing else, started the cosmic clockwork ticking. Darwin provided a model of how life might have emerged from nonlife through an authorless process.

At about the same time, advances in astronomy and physics made the idea of an authorless universe more conceivable. Overt, informed atheism was finally possible, and spread rapidly through the educated classes. (Closer to our own day, Richard Dawkins has famously written that it was only after he came to a deep understanding of Darwinian theory that his personal “spiritual” quest was able to conclude with a final attainment of atheism.)

The present work, God, the Failed Hypothesis (GTFH), caps Stenger’s nearly twenty years’ exploration of these issues. Where each of his six prior works focused on a particular domain of inquiry, GTFH covers a sweeping expanse of contemporary science, “science” being liberally defined. Stenger’s book encompasses quantum physics, astronomy, the biosciences, and even such social-scientific domains as history and ethics. Also, where his previous works sometimes waxed technical or mathematical, particularly in their appendices, GTFH is written throughout in a voice that any thoughtful reader should find both accessible and compelling.

Following on the heels of Daniel C. Dennett’s Breaking the Spell and Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion, Stenger’s book fills a niche that, in all likelihood, no one but Stenger could have filled.
Rather than writing another brief for atheism, Stenger demonstrates how uniformly the findings of contemporary science support the brief for atheism.
“Existing scientific models contain no place where God is included as an ingredient in order to explain observations,”
he notes dryly. Frequently citing his earlier works, Stenger sometimes gives GTFH
the feel of an introductory or “gateway” volume. But this hard-hitting book stands on its own.

GTFH comprises two principal sections, the first strictly scientific, the second more exhortative. The initial section begins with a bracing preface in which Stenger sets forth the terms of debate and argues crisply that science can and does disprove the existence of God. The opening chapter sets ground rules, arguing in particular that

classical theism is rich with claims amendable to scientific testing.
The next four chapters offer a whirlwind tour of the sciences. Chapter Two, “The Illusion of Design,” may be the most powerful refutation of Intelligent Design creationism ever compressed into twenty-nine pages. Chapter Three, “Searching for a World beyond Matter,” demonstrates that the preponderance of scientific findings neither need, nor leave any room for, action by immaterial entities. Chapter Four, “Cosmic Evidence,” tackles believers’ claims that the universe must have had an origin and could not have arisen naturally. Exactly the contrary, Stenger shows with bold authority.
Not even the ancient riddle “Why is there something rather than nothing?” offers theists comfort: recent findings indicate that “nothingness” is unstable.

Brute probability thus favors the existence of something rather than nothing, making God superfluous even here.
Chapter Five, “The Uncongenial Universe,” targets fine-tuning arguments advanced in defense of everything from classical theism to New Age vitalism – running them all to ground in a mere thirty-one pages.

That concludes the first and most valuable section of the book. Stenger now turns his attention to what we might call softer sciences. Chapter Six, “The Failures of Revelation,” treats history, surveying the vacuities of so-called religious experience and the failures of Biblical prophecy. This may be the book’s weakest chapter –secular humanists have heard all this before, while believers will likely dismiss it as atheist chest-beating – but it remains an impressive feat of distillation. Turning to ethics, in Chapter Seven, “Do Our Values Come from God?”, Stenger surveys the weak historical links between religion and the evolution of human values, while in Chapter Eight treats he “The Argument from Evil” with the concision readers will by now expect. The final chapters contrast the kinds of gods that might exist (if only the evidence did not disprove them) with the contradictory, sometimes loathsome notions of God to which some contemporary faith traditions have resorted. He is particularly, and justly, hard on the courant doctrine of “divine Hiddenness.” Stenger concludes by weighing the social utility of religion: far from being worthwhile though untrue, Stenger finds that religion in the abstract has done much more harm than good.

“By ridding the world of God, science helps us to control our own lives rather than submitting them to the arbitrary authority of priests and kings who justify their acts by divine will”
(p. 254).

In God, the Failed Hypothesis, Victor J. Stenger makes a comprehensive and almost overwhelmingly powerful case that if the sort of God most Jews, Christians, and Muslims believe in existed, the resulting physical consequences would be easily measurable by modern science.
Those measurements have been performed, and in every field surveyed the existence of the classical God is flatly refuted. Stenger’s new book is a tour de force of scope, brevity, and rhetorical power. One after another he defeats each of the recently popular, seemingly scientific arguments that believers wield in frantic efforts to defend– let’s face it – their impossible and ungrounded belief systems.

Highly recommended.

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