The Atheists’ Benchwarmer

To be perfectly frank, Victor J. Stenger is not on the first string of the atheist team. His writing is lackluster, his reasoning is often quite shallow, and he regularly dismisses the most complex points with a self-congratulatory wave. He knows a lot about science (and well he should, since he is emeritus professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Hawaii), and a little about philosophy (he is an adjunct professor of philosophy at the University of Colorado). And that is exactly how his entire, tiresome argument reads. Better to read Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins, the atheist first-stringers. At least they are engaging.
 
But the problem is that the atheist first-stringers are selling books hand-over-fist so that even the mediocre of the genre (which would normally sell like lukewarm cakes) are selling like hotcakes.

 

 

 

God: The Failed Hypothesis. How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist

Victor J. Stenger, Prometheus Books, $28, 287 pages
 
To be perfectly frank, Victor J. Stenger is not on the first string of the atheist team. His writing is lackluster, his reasoning is often quite shallow, and he regularly dismisses the most complex points with a self-congratulatory wave. He knows a lot about science (and well he should, since he is emeritus professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Hawaii), and a little about philosophy (he is an adjunct professor of philosophy at the University of Colorado). And that is exactly how his entire, tiresome argument reads. Better to read Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins, the atheist first-stringers. At least they are engaging.
 
But the problem is that the atheist first-stringers are selling books hand-over-fist so that even the mediocre of the genre (which would normally sell like lukewarm cakes) are selling like hotcakes.
 
Well, enough of that. What is Stenger up to? The title God: The Failed Hypothesis. How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist is meant to fit in with the recent take-no-prisoners approach of atheists like Dawkins. Gone are the days—thank goodness!—when atheists pretended to be nice in public while they guffawed up each other’s sleeves in private.
 
Stenger’s had enough of that patronizing nonsense, by not-god! He aims to roll up his thoroughly laughed-up sleeves and show that at “this moment in time science has advanced sufficiently to make a definitive statement on the existence or nonexistence of a God having the attributes that
are traditionally associated with the Judeo-Christian-Islamic God.”
 
And so God is put through the testing. In about 250 breathy pages, it’s all over. The God hypothesis has been thoroughly tested, and guess what?
 
Generally, Stenger’s arguments read like a collage of standard atheists’ quips, the kind that they trade as well-worn, common coins at conventions. I will not waste the reader’s time with these. Better to go straight to what meat there is, or at least to what Stenger thinks is decisive.
 
Stenger’s argument is this: We do know enough to disprove the existence of God (big G) because we can define the attributes or effects big G would have in His interaction with the world; and since we can define them, then we can test the particular big-G model against the evidence that would either vindicate or annihilate it. Thus, he isn’t actually arguing that no god exists, but that the big G (“a God having the attributes that are traditionally associated with the Judeo-Christian-Islamic God”) does not exist.
 
Now that might have made an interesting book, a really engaging book. But the way that Stenger goes about the demonstration makes it a closed case before it is ever opened. The problem is the way he places the burden of proof.
 
Stenger argues that any claim of evidence put forth by a theist—be it an actual miracle or some scientific fact that seems to point to the existence of God—cannot count as real evidence “if a plausible scientific model consistent with all existing knowledge can be found” that makes God’s existence unnecessary. For if such a model can be imagined, “then the [theistic] claim fails.” And now hold your breath, because this is a direct quote of the very next line: “The [scientific] model need not be proven to be correct, just not proven to be incorrect.”{mospagebreak}
 
Chew on that one awhile.
 
What Stenger is actually putting forth is a kind of twofold absurdity. First, that it is possible to come up with “a plausible scientific model consistent with all existing knowledge.” All knowledge? Surely he doesn’t mean all knowledge.
 
He really does. Stenger thinks it is really rather easy precisely because as a physicist, he’s a reductionist. That is, he truly believes that physics explains everything—and already has, according to its latest models—and therefore all knowledge can be reduced to physics.
 
But there’s an interesting wrinkle. Because physicists work with models as models, Stenger is not really concerned with whether they are true or false, but whether they are self-consistent and fit the data. Since the universe is both big and highly complex (to make a double understatement), physicists proceed with a model as true, as long as it is “not proven to
be incorrect.”
 
Since this mode of procedure works so well in physics, why not just have a battle of the models, the physics model against the God model? The only problem is that the God model’s burden of proof is not just too difficult to satisfy; it is, as Stenger himself cheerfully admits, impossible.
 
Here’s just one example, in regard to what is called fine-tuning. For about a quarter of a century, scientists have been collecting more and more data that demonstrate that the universe seems to be so finely calibrated in its laws, parameters, and conditions that such fine-tuning must have an intelligent, purposeful cause, especially when we take into account the delicate balances that allow for the extremely complex biology found on Earth. What is Stenger’s riposte?
 
Theists who argue that the universe is fine-tuned to earthly life have the burden of proving that no other form of life is possible, not just on other planets in our universe but in every conceivable universe that has different physical parameters. They have provided no such proof and it would seem that such a proof
is impossible.
 
So, as long as Stenger can imagine another universe entirely different from ours, then nothing in our universe counts as evidence. That is the kind of reasoning that runs throughout God: The Failed Hypothesis, page after page.
 
But not only does Stenger set up impossible standards for theism (just for the pleasure of watching them fail), he undermines his own argument about scientific models.
 
He purports to use the models to demonstrate that God is not real, but then tells us, “The exact relationship between the elements of scientific models and whatever true reality lies out there is not of major concern. When scientists have a model that describes the data, that is consistent with other established models, and that can be put to practical use, what else do they need? . . . It makes absolutely no difference whether or not an electron is ‘real’ when we apply the model of electrons flowing in an electronic circuit to design some high-tech device. Whatever the intrinsic reality, the model describes what we observe, and those observations are real enough.”
 
As the history of science should make evident, since such models regularly replace one another, relying on consistency and practical use to define a scientific model only tells you that, as far as you know, this is the best way to describe such and such. It does not make a demonstrably definitive statement about all reality and hence all possible knowledge. No scientific model—on Stenger’s own definition—could demonstrate what it would have to demonstrate either to prove the existence of what it describes or to prove the non-existence of what doesn’t fit the model. Therefore, Stenger’s entire argument proves nothing at all.
 


Benjamin D. Wiker’s latest book, co-authored with Jonathan Witt, is A Meaningful World: How the Arts and Sciences Reveal the Genius of Nature. Visit the Web site at www.ameaningfulworld.com.

 

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