on June 9, 2003
Of all the skeptical literature I have encountered dealing with the question of the existence of God and the supernatural, the books and essays of Physics Professor Victor Stenger have been among the most influential in steering me towards the philosophical position of atheistic naturalism. Dr. Stenger's compelling analysis, insight, and experience in dealing with issues lying at the interface between science and religion are admirably displayed in his well-balanced yet cogent new book, "Has Science Found God?" The book is rather unique in the skeptical literature in that it approaches the question of God from an empirical perspective (rather than just on the basis of philosophical arguments), persuasively arguing that God is an empirically confirmable hypothesis: If God exists, we should be able to find unambiguous evidence for his existence (for example, in evaluating the efficacy of prayer).
The central question Stenger addresses in the book is: Does our current scientific understanding of the world provide support for the existence of God or the supernatural? Has, indeed, science found God, as claimed by many religionists, including some theistically-minded scientists? Stenger concludes that current scientific data offer little support for the existence of God or for a supernatural realm beyond the natural world. However, Stenger correctly points out that science is non-dogmatic with regard to existence claims. Should phenomena or observations appear in the future which cannot be explained naturalistically, and which point to none other than a supernatural explanation, science should and will examine them. Thus, contrary to the claims of many religionists, science is not committed to metaphysical naturalism, and supernatural explanations do indeed have consequences that in principle should be empirically verifiable. All science asks for is evidence, as evidence and consistency with current knowledge is the only way to distinguish claims which are false from those which might have some basis in reality. Religionists cannot have it both ways, arguing that God is both undetectable and unfalsifiable, yet causally interacts with the world and intervenes in human affairs.
Stenger provides wholly naturalistic explanations consistent with current physics for the existence of the universe and its apparent "fine-tuning" for the emergence of (our form of) life, thus refuting the claim that a supernatural explanation is required. Stenger shows that no violation of the great conservation laws of physics, (e.g., the first and second laws of thermodynamics) necessarily occurred during the big bang and in the emergence of life: Current physics allows a zero-energy symmetric void to produce a non-empty universe with a total net energy of zero, thereby fulfilling energy conservation. An expanding universe allows local pockets of order to spontaneously form as the total allowable entropy of the universe increases. Current physical cosmological theories imply that our universe may be but a small bubble of an eternally inflating "multiverse" comprised of a potentially infinite number of universes characterized by different physical constants, thus providing a naturalistic explanation for the apparent "bio-friendly" conditions of our universe. Thus, Stenger argues, the universe is not tuned to us, but rather we are tuned to the universe. He also indicates how the great conservation laws of physics are simply consequences of the space and time symmetries of the void.
Stenger skillfully dismantles Dembski's information-theoretic argument for intelligent design and shows claims for the existence of paranormal phenomena and for the efficacy of prayer to be without scientific merit. Stenger persuasively argues that studies of ESP and other "psi" phenomena conducted over the past century have been flawed both experimentally and in their statistical analysis of data, and at best show results that are questionable or inconclusive.
Ultimately, the power of Stenger's book lies in its honest and objective appraisal of the facts that are currently available. While science cannot prove the non-existence of any entity, whether it be God or the soul, there is no reason why the existence of such extraordinary and presumably influential entities should not be compellingly revealed through scientific inquiry. Stenger concludes that the empirical facts support a Godless universe described by natural laws and in no need of supernatural explanation. Thus, God is a superfluous, non-parsimonious hypothesis that should be sliced away by Occam's razor. Besides, even if a God were introduced as an explanation, what would that really solve? We would then have to explain where God came from, thus leading to infinite regress. As the philosophical argument goes, If the universe has to be created and designed then so does God- and if God does not need to be created and designed, then neither does the universe. In fact, Stenger points out that current physics implies an eternal, time-symmetric universe that was not created, thereby rendering a supernatural explanation for the universe irrelevant. In conclusion, I cannot recommend this important book enough to those interested in the interface between science and religion, and especially to those who are "on the fence" in deciding between theism and naturalism. This is the kind of book that can persuade agnostics and even some open-minded theists to embrace atheistic naturalism as the only intellectually responsible and parsimonious philosophical position to adopt in light of our current scientific understanding of the world.