on July 20, 2009
This is a review of Victor Stenger's "Has Science Found God?" Stenger is a retired physicist who has written numerous books in the debunker tradition against religion and parapsychological phenomenon. I have also reviewed Stenger's "God The Failed Hypothesis," which is more recent than this volume.
Reading these two books was interesting. In many ways I felt like I was reading the same book over again, but there is actually maybe only a fifth or less of each book which is repeated in the other. Mostly, the same themes are approached with somewhat different arguments.
The purpose Stenger had in writing "Has Science Found God" was to rebut a series of books written in the late 90s which claimed that physics was now showing God as more plausible than not. The book is therefore somewhat scatter-shot in its organization. It takes each of these claims, notes who claimed them, and attempts to rebut each of them. He had a more focused goal in "God the Failed Hypothesis", which was to refute the consequences of the Abrahamic God hypothesis, and therefore a tighter organization. The earlier book, "Has Science Found God", is still the far better of the two, since he only rarely commits the burden of proof fallacy which is central to most of his arguments in the later book. Most of his arguments are strong, and I found this book an interesting foil for consideration.
Stenger strongly disagrees with those who consider Science and Theology totally separate subjects. He notes that hypotheses about entities which interact with the world will in principle have observable and testable consequences in the world, and therefore are subject to scientific inquiry. He therefore concedes the principle of the books he is rebutting - that it is possible in principle that physics could reveal the presence of the spiritual.
His first target is Creationists, and the ID movement. The chapters rebutting these movements are pretty standard stuff, since these movements have no valid basis in science, and they really consist of no more than a series of attacks on evolution.
He did devote a separate chapter to ID theorist William Dembski, and Dembski's statistical methods for determining design. I found this chapter interesting, in that Stenger agrees with Dembski that entropy and the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics could be validly recast in terms of information content. My own understanding of information theory is incomplete, but I had always considered this claim by ID advocates to be just an argument from analogy, not a valid assertion. Despite conceding this point, Stenger shows that Dembski does not follow the valid IT definitions, therefore Demski's claim that the increased information content in life could not arise naturally is falsified, because the information loss formt he sun more than balances it out. As with entropy, localized regions can experience increases in information content so long as the system as a whole is neutral or decreases in information content.
After dealing with Creationists and ID, he moves on to more valid claims of evidence for God. He discusses in detail the concept of the creation of the universe, and whether it violates causation, the conservation laws, or the laws of thermodynamics. His assertion is that if it had, the violations would provide evidence for God interfering in the universe, but since it does not, the lack of necessity for God makes Him implausible. Among his assertions are that our universe could have formed as a quantum fluxuation in a background Void, so no creator or cause was necessary. Also that the negative energy of gravity and the expansion rate perfectly balance the positive energy of matter and the vacuum energy field so the appearance of all of matter and space was a zero-energy event, satisfying the conservation laws. And that our being in an expanding universe results in a continuous decrease in average entropy, even though total entropy keeps increasing, which is why our universe has been able to get more complex over time without violating the 2nd law of thermodynamics. This chapter provides some interesting arguments, but it has some flaws.
First, space is tied to mass in General Relativity, so postulating an empty Void pre-existing the universe contradicts that theory. In his later book, Stenger seems to have realized this, and changes to asserting Eternal Inflation, and an infinite set of universes, from one of which ours was spawned through "quantum tunneling" (and bizarrely claims this is a simpler assertion than that there is only one universe). While causation is not a verified assumption, it is a core assumption of science, and his proposal to abandon it is one he really does not accept himself since he continues to try to provide explanations of where the universe came from, so his first point is pretty well repudiated even by himself.
As for the entire Universe existing vs. nothing at all being equivalent per conservation laws - I think it is pretty obvious that he has left something out. Billions of galaxies may be in energy balance vs. their gravitational attraction, but there is MORE to billions than to one, or to just a single star system, and to declare all these equivalent is to miss the conservation of some important term.
The entropy discussion is very interesting - that an expanding universe creates the potential for evolving complexity. This point appears to actually support the Fine Tuning advocates, since it represents another constraint on a possible universe for life to evolve in.
Stenger discusses the Fine Tuning argument in much more detail in his second book, including his claim that stars and chemistry are possible in a fairly wide range of four constants he evaluated. I did not consider his rebuttal to be effective, since he failed to address more than a fraction of the fine-tuned aspects of the universe. He does point out correctly in this book that the universe is NOT fine-tuned for physical matter, or for planets to be a significant fraction of physical matter, so seems implausible to have been designed for physical planet-dwellers.
Stenger has a similar chapter on prayer, and its failure to show health benefits in controlled studies, as in the later book. Also, he has a similar chapter to the one in the later book on psionics, where he emphasizes the lack of a coherent theory, and the history of difficulty replicating statistically significant results. In a likewise similar chapter on Bible verses, he notes its failures to achieve its clearly stated predictions, and the obvious falsity of some of its assertions about the natural world. In each chapter the evidence he cites is different between books, but the points are virtually identical. For both prayer and psi, he cherry picks data, and studies, and sets a higher standard for consistency of results than is used in science. In both medicine and psychology, there are a lot of unidientified and uncontrolled variables, and identical studies often end up with opposite statitically significant results. hence both fields depend on meta analysis. Prayer and energy healing, and more than a half dozen separate psi phenomenon, have been shown to provide statistically signifincant effects through meta analysis, which Stenger fails to address. The one most notable difference is that he discusses "The Bible Code" in more detail here, and spells out the flaws in its methodology.
Stenger expresses some respect for one group of scientific theologians, who include Nancy Murphy, former physicist John Polkinghorne, the Platonist mathematician Roger Penrose, and physicist Paul Davies. All agree to evolution, do not try to assert "guided evolution". They agree that humanity could easily not have existed, but try to find ways for God or consciousness to interact with the universe through quantum effects, or taking advantage of the inherent instability of chaos theory. Stenger tries to rebut the chaos theory assertion by stating falsely that chaotic systems are repeatable and deterministic (by noting that their computer models are both - but this is an argument by analogy which fails because the things which make the models repeatable include knowing precise starting conditions, and its deterministic nature is due to the limited and characterized effects modeled - neither condition is applicable to chaotic systems in the universe). He also points out very validly that the God or Ideal of these theorists is incompatible with the classic Abrahamic view of God.
Stenger's concluding chapter includes a very useful reference list of the sorts of observations which have a bearing on the issue of spiritual dualism vs. materialism. he considers religious advocates to ahve failed to produce any of them, but I consider him to be wrong, for most. I will repeat it here, with my own summary of why I think the evidence for spiritual dualism is fairly strong.
* Observations that cannot be explained except by supernatural creation of the universe.
Here Stenger is implicitly asserting the Burden of Proof fallacy, by insisting on CANNOT BE EXPLAINED OTHERWISE instead of BETTER EXPLAINED BY SPIRITUAL DUALISM. In other parts of this book he correctly references Parsimony instead. A two-aspect spiritual-physical universe is both simpler, and more testable than his Infinite Inflation infinite universes, and wins on Parsimony on both the simplicity and testability/usefulness forks of Occam's razor.
*Events induced by prayer or other supernatural intervention.
The Catholic Church has done a good job documenting several miracles at Lourdes, and the vision in Portugal, which could qualify here.
* Extrasensory perception or the ability of the human mind to move matter in ways that cannot be explained by any known physical means.
Both Remote Viewing and the GAnsfeld experiments have produced statistically significant and repeatable results, and have withstood decades of criticism by skeptics who simply refuse to accept the data. See Chris Carter's Parapsychology and the Skeptics, and Damien Broderick's Outside the Gates of Science for further information on this subject.
* Examples in which faith healing or other forms of spiritual therapies cure the ill.
The placebo effect is explicitly a spiritual therapy. It IS "faith healing". The history of Shamanism worldwide is pretty substantial evidence for the effectiveness of spiritual healing, unless one denies that evolutionary selection processes act on human behavior.
* Mystical or religious experiences during which verifiable information was obtained that could not possibly be in the mystics brain circuits all along.
The book "The Siren Call of Hungry Ghosts" by Joe Fisher, contains close but ultimately flawed information cited by his channeled spirits. Since he rejected these spirits based on the flaws, the closeness is a credible report, and verifies channeleing as a means of getting information not accessible to oneself.
* Quotations from sacred scripture that contain facts that the people who wrote them could not have known.
I have not seen any such valid claims.
The examples I provided above show how the application of the scientific approach Stenger advocates actually DOES lead to verification of spiritual dualism. The very first of these points, in which Stenger engages in a logical fallacy, shows the level of rationalization that the debunkers engage in in order to reach their certitude. Stanger is a member of CSICOP, and a contributor to Skeptical Inquirer, and both the organization and the magazine have been demonstrated to engage in data fraud and lies to advance their skeptical views. Stenger's Burden of Proof fallacy is actually a lesser failing among his fellow professional skeptics.
Overall, this was an interesting and fairly strong book advocating atheist materialism over spiritual dualism, but I think I have disposed of Stenger's arguments here.