Wednesday, December 31, 2008

God Under the Microscope

I have been reading through God: The Failed Hypothesis by Victor Stenger, whose title pretty clearly explains the purpose of the book. I thought I'd blog about it chapter by chapter because a) that will help me think more clearly about the book as I'm reading it and b) because the book deserves a response, even though I think it is based on a number of flawed assumptions.

The first chapter sets up the main argument of the book. Stenger's thesis is that God, in the traditional Judeo-Christian-Islamic understanding, ought to have some effect on nature that is measurable and inexplicable through any means other than the "God hypothesis." He makes it perfectly clear that he is not talking about any other sort of god, which may or may not have any real, continuing interaction with the world. In the preface Stenger writes that "this God is not the god of deism, who created the world and then left it alone, or the god of pantheism, who is equated with all of existence."

Thus, at the beginning of Chapter 1, Stenger writes,
The founders and leaders of major religions have always claimed that God can be seen in the world around us. In Romans 1:20, St. Paul says: "Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely his eternal power and deity, have been clearly perceived in the things that have been made." We will look for evidence of God in the things that have been made.

He then proceeds to talk about the scientific method of constructing models and testing them with experiments. I won't go into all that, since it's a lot of review (so much so that I wonder if he isn't belittling his audience) but you get the idea.

The main point that distinguishes Stenger from other scientists these days is that he believes that science can study the supernatural. I think he is very wise about this. "The thesis of this book," he says,"is that the supernatural hypothesis of God is testable, verifiable, and falsifiable by the established methods of science. We can imagine all sorts of phenomena that... would suggest the possibility of some reality that is highly unlikely to be consistent with metaphysical naturalism."

By "natural" he means stuff that can be broken down into pieces that bounce off of each other. It is rather easy to see what kinds of phenomena would imply that there is something supernatural in the universe. If ESP were real, for instance, then we might safely say there is more going on than just pieces of matter bouncing off each other.

The one nice thing about Stenger's thesis is that he defies the classic program of secular modernism. Since the Enlightenment, the modernist agenda has been to drive a wedge between the secular world "downstairs" and the religious world "upstairs." (I didn't make this up; if you read anyone like Francis Schaeffer or N. T. Wright you'll get the same idea.) Thus you can let religious pietists go on worshiping their God in private while running things in the public world with purely secular principles.

Stenger rejects such a division of the "upstairs" and "downstairs" spheres of our existence, or at least he finds it inexcusable to kick religions like Christianity upstairs. Let's keep it downstairs, he seems to be saying, and we'll fight it out to see whether this religion is worth anything. This is pretty much what I appreciate about Stenger.

However, with this view of his come what I think are misunderstandings about what the "God hypothesis" should imply about our natural world. He lays out eight properties of God that he thinks he can test scientifically, because he thinks he knows what kinds of things should result from such a God existing. For example, as I will discuss in detail when I get to chapter 3, he thinks the effects of prayer should be measurable in a particular way, and this allows him to interpret the data to mean that God doesn't exist.

As I read this book, I am not going to try to deny any of the empirical assessments that he is making. From evolution to studies on the effects of prayer to the Big Bang, I will more than likely accept his science as true and rigorous. This is only fair, since he is a very experienced and accomplished scientist.

The one point where I will consistently try to nail him is his distaste for, and hence rejection of, metaphysics. In his words,
Perhaps quarks and electrons are not real, although they are part of the highly successful model of particle physics. We cannot say. But we can say, with high likelihood, that some of the elements of older models... are not part of the real world. ... Furthermore, we can proceed to put our models to practical use without ever settling any metaphysical questions. Metaphysics has surprisingly little use and would not even be worth discussing if we did not have this great desire to understand ultimate reality as best as [sic] we can. (emphasis mine)

This statement is at the very foundation of his project, and it is, in my view, where his project collapses.

Traditional pursuits of knowledge, in every culture throughout history, have involved seeking not only a description of what is happening in the world around us, but also what this means for us. Civilizations gather under common ideas of what role humans have to play in this world. This is not terribly unique to Judeo-Christian-Islamic thought. It is a necessity for human beings to consider our purpose in relation to the world, and thus also the world's purpose in relation to us.

In my view, metaphysical questions ultimately boil down to questions about purpose. Just a model of what is happening in the universe won't do, because we need to know something more about what we are experiencing. We need to know, what is our role in it? If we are to make "practical" applications of our models, which applications are worthwhile?

As part of our quest for knowledge, we can't help but ask questions about what is truly good. This cannot be settled without asking metaphysical questions about objects that exist in the universe. If it is true that we, just like everything else, are made up of electrons and quarks, what does that mean? Do electrons and quarks have intrinsic value? Or do they have value only when they achieve certain configurations? These questions are inescapable. Science, which gives us mere descriptions of what is happening around us, is not enough to give us complete knowledge about the world.

The first chapter has some puzzling things in it, such as a section on "logical proofs" that God does not exist, all of which are highly dubious. Here's one rather bizarre example:
1. If any being is God, he must be a fitting object of worship.
2. No being could possibly be a fitting object of worship, since worship requires the abandonment of one's role as an autonomous moral agent.
3. Therefore, there cannot be any being who is God.

I find premise 2 very bizarre, although I think that it is an increasingly popular conception among secularists. For some reason, their view tends to be that worship devalues the self. Anyone who has actually experienced worship knows that the opposite is true. Also, it is highly questionable what is meant by this phrase "autonomous moral agent."

In any case, I don't want to dwell on that section of this first chapter. It really adds nothing to his argument, and distracts from the main thrust of his book, which is to provide empirical arguments against God's existence. All it does is tell me that Victor Stenger is a bad philosopher.

Also, I hate to see Stenger be so low as to simply make fun of his opponents:
Indeed, the gods of ancient mythology--including the Judeo-Christian-Islamic God--are clearly models contrived by humans in terms people could understand. What is amazing is that in this sophisticated modern age so many still cling to primitive, archaic images from the childhood of humanity.

Atheists are always saying that atheists are on average wonderful, moral people. I wonder if they view arrogance as immoral. In any case, I just wish Stenger hadn't included lines such as that one, because they don't help his argument at all.

The final point I want to mention in the first chapter of Stenger's book actually comes up at the very beginning:

"If God exists, where is he? Philosopher Theodore Drange has termed this the lack-of-evidence argument, which he states formally as follows:
  1. Probably, if God were to exist, then there would be good objective evidence for his existence.
  2. But there is no good objective evidence for his existence.
  3. Therefore, probably God does not exist."

I'd rather not approach this as a philosopher trying to point out the weakness in the logic of this argument. Instead, I just want to say, as a human being with hopes and fears and many questions about life, this argument is not powerful because it is logically sound, but because I have a deep-seated desire for all people to find the ultimate good. Yes, that's an emotional statement, coming from a human being who wonders a lot about things like, what's the point? Is there a happy ending?

Ultimately, to respond to the arguments of an atheist cannot be a mere intellectual exercise. To deal with this question, "Does God exist?" is to deal with the question, is there a happy ending? As a Christian, it is hard not to feel genuine concern for a man like Victor Stenger, who seems so proud and secure in his beliefs that he is willing to risk all of eternity for them. It is at the same time wonderful and tragic.

But as a Christian, I can also say that God's love is the only means by which any problems, whether moral or spiritual or even intellectual, can ultimately be resolved. I hope that my reading this book will be more than just an exercise for my brain. I hope to see God at work in it.

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