God: The Failed Hypothesis―How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist
By Victor J. Stenger, (Prometheus Books, Amherst, New York 2007). 294 pp. $28. ISBN 978-1-59102-481-1 (hardcover).
Over the past few years there has been a spate of publication on the relation between science and religion. Much of the work is by perceptive writers, and many of them are scientists. Over most of the twentieth century scientists, religious or not, felt little need to write on the subject. Perhaps the change is a reaction to the damage done to the body politic by the rise of the religious right. However that may be, dozens of books have received substantial public attention.
These books range over a spectrum that one can roughly characterize as follows, with a parenthetic example for each category:
-2: The purpose of science is to verify and expand upon the cosmological assertions made in a sacred text. (Members of the Institute For Creation Research, Radioisotopes and the Age of the Earth.)
-1: The disposition of the universe, as elucidated by scientific investigation, points definitively to the existence of a supernatural being, often one already characterized in an existing sacred text. (Frank Tipler, The Physics of Christianity).
0: Science and religion have little or nothing to do with each other. (Stephen Jay Gould, Rocks of Ages).
1: The disposition of the universe can be elucidated by purely natural scientific means but inspires awe of a supernatural being who, moreover, is the ultimate source of such important nonscientific domains as morality. (Francis S. Collins, The Language of God).
2a: The universe can be elucidated in a purely natural way without the need to assume supernatural intervention at any level. Belief in such a supernatural entity, moreover, is a “pernicious delusion.” (Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion).
2b: If a suitably defined supernatural being (God) existed, there would be evidence detectable by scientific means. But in fact, the universe presents evidence precisely to the contrary, firmly establishing that such a God does not exist. (Stenger, the work reviewed here.)
Stenger’s expertise as a physicist is clearly evident in this work. He begins by defining the God he is talking about, as distinguished from the unlimited possibilities of all the gods the human mind has cooked up (or might.) Specifically, God is the entity described in the sacred works of Jews, Christians, and Moslems, and expanded upon by various schools of believers. This still leaves plenty of scope, but the definition does impose limits on the possibilities and thus makes specific discussion possible.
Stenger then sets forth his program:
- Hypothesize a God who plays an important role in the universe.
- Assume that God has specific attributes that should provide objective evidence for his existence.
- Look for such evidence with an open mind.
- If such evidence is found, conclude that God may exist.
- If such objective evidence is not found, conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that a God with these properties does not exist. (p. 43)
In subsequent chapters the author applies this program. First he demolishes the argument from design. He uses examples drawn largely from the recent fuss made by the intelligent-design creationists. These are the people who argue that living things are so complicated they must have been created by an “intelligent designer”–their code word for the evangelical Christian God. Stenger’s description of self-organizing systems is particularly lucid. But he also points out (as others have as well) that the intelligent designer must be far more complex than his creation and thus merely compounds the problem. Next, he shows the inadequacy of a wide variety of claims for the existence of a soul distinct from the brain, of a life force (élan vital or qi), of material effects produced by prayer, and so forth.
The chapters Cosmic Evidence and The Uncongenial Universe are the strongest parts of the book. Stenger’s considerable expertise shows in his clear discussion of cosmological issues. He show that purely naturalistic arguments can be sufficient to account for the origin of matter, “beginnings,” the source of the laws of physics, and the indisputable fact that the universe indeed exists. While no firm or definitive answer yet exists to questions such as “What happened before the Big Bang?” he shows clearly that it is either possible to formulate scientific, naturalistic answers to such questions or to rephrase them so that such answers are possible. He demonstrates, moreover, that no logical benefit arises from hypothesizing divine intervention as a substitute for natural processes. He deftly deconstructs various forms of the anthropic principle and pointedly concludes, “Indeed, the universe looks very much like it was produced with no attention whatsoever paid to humanity.”
In the following three chapters, Stenger turns to familiar arguments of a theological or quasi-theological nature. Few of his arguments are original, though they are well organized. He discounts revelations, prophecies, profound religious experiences, and scriptural dicta arguing that they possess no properties that distinguish them from unfounded imaginings. He then turns to the familiar assertion that human values and morals require a divine origin. His argument to the contrary is far more convincing than the one Collins makes as the main foundation of his personal religious faith. He shows, moreover, that eschewing divine origins for morality opens an entire field to inquiry.
Stenger then addresses the intractable problem of theodicy: How can evil exist in a world governed by God? (I emphasize again that he is talking about God with a capital G.) It is perhaps unfair “piling on” to attack this problem, considering that hundreds of theologians over many centuries have made no apparent progress, but continue to chew endlessly over the same issues.
Does Stenger achieve his purpose, proving that God does not exist? In one sense, he does. He shows that the natural universe can be understood in increasing depth as scientific knowledge progresses, without recourse to supernatural explanations which, he argues, are really no explanations at all. But all this may be beside the point. For those who wish to believe in God, scientific explanation is after the fact. This is certainly clear for the arguments in the –2 category. But faith is by definition belief in something for which no evidence exists. Such faith poses a dilemma, so far as doing science is concerned. Either the answer to a scientific question is “God did it,” which closes further inquiry, or one ignores God for enough hours of the day to do science.
Whether the reader chooses to apply scientific reasoning to the existence of God or not, God: The Failed Hypothesis ought to be stimulating reading.
Lawrence S. Lerner
Department of Physics & Astronomy
California State University, Long Beach