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Imagine our pre-civilization ancestors trying to cope with the difficulties of survival. They would have had to discover that there is some sort of causal relationship between actions and events. They would have paid attention to their surroundings and would have begun early on to perceive a relationship between temporal events. They would have wondered about the life-giving sun, wondered why on certain days it was covered with thick clouds that on occasion provided life-giving rain to drop from the sky. Injuries, sickness, hunger, dangers of all sorts were about.
One can easily imagine the response was to try to assign some agency to the causal pattern observed, and then to try to influence that agent in one's own interests. That seems to me to describe a rudimentary human approach to gathering information and for trying to predict and influence future events. Survival is the mother of science. Observation, hypothesis, prediction, verifiability and falsifiability become the best way we humans have of explaining our selves and our world. With limited knowledge and limited senses we would have been hard pressed to understand molecular processes let alone atomic and sub-atomic actions. What caused the death of my seemingly healthy children? Why did we get no rain this season? How did our enemies find us?
Hypothesis: some invisible agent is at work. And so forth ... one can see how easily and naturally we developed a scientific method, at first quite rudimentary, but the beginnings of a way of knowing about the world that worked from time to time. We posited agents, named them, placed them as hypotheticals in an imaginary world that soon became populated with these gods. As we learned more and more about the way the natural world works we started to depopulate the other world. Many spirits became a regimented set of kings and princes. But still it seemed even they were subject to a higher power. Maybe there was only one all powerful spirit who controlled the thousands of things that are: a hypothesis that seemed beyond testing.
Descartes hypothesized that there were two basic kinds of stuff: spirit and matter. The Church could look after the spiritual world if they would in return leave him alone to work in the world of matter. Later thinkers would argue that we humans have two fundamentally different ways of knowing: empiricism and faith. We have learned the power of the scientific, empirical approach. It has turned out to be our best way of knowing about the world and ourselves. On the way to the present we have shed many of the gods we had projected into the world as the need for them disappeared and the hypotheses they were created to answer were found to be false. Stenger offers evidence that we should cast off the last God, the last of a series of failed hypotheses.
In Science, Evolution, and Creationism (2008) published by the National Academy of Sciences the committee concludes their useful and available booklet with this observation: "Science can neither prove nor disprove religion. Scientific advances have called some religious beliefs into question, such as the ideas that the Earth was created very recently, that the Sun goes around the Earth, and that mental illness is due to possession by spirits or demons. But many religious beliefs involve entities or ideas that currently are not within the domain of science. Thus, it would be false to assume that all religious beliefs can be challenged by scientific findings."
As Professor Stenger's title indicates he is going to argue that in fact science has a lot to say about religious propositions. The other so-called new atheists have usually claimed that it is only highly unlikely that God exists, but Stenger's book presents a series of arguments intended to show that there is no evidence in the universe that even hints at the existence of an Omnipotent, Omniscient, Omnibenevolent being who resides in some supernatural environs and is revealed to humans from time to time through words and deeds.
A new paperback edition of the book has been released with a foreword by Christopher Hitchens endorsing Victor Stenger's work. Stressing the importance of the book's overall contribution, Hitchens says, "with the arrival on the scene of Victor Stenger's book, the already revived and extended argument for unbelief has undergone a sort of quantitative and qualitative acceleration. One side in this dispute is going to have to yield." Hitchens also calls God: The Failed Hypothesis "extremely tough and impressive...a great book...a huge addition to the arsenal of argument." It is a carefully argued book, but I do not think we need revert to military metaphor to describe it.
In God: The Failed Hypothesis Stenger contends that, if God exists, some evidence for this existence should be detectable by scientific means, especially considering the central role that God is alleged to play in the operation of the universe and the lives of humans. Treating the traditional Judeo-Christian and Islamic God concept like any other scientific hypothesis, Stenger examines all of the claims made for God's existence. After evaluating all the scientific evidence, Stenger concludes that beyond a reasonable doubt the universe and life appear exactly as we might expect if there were no God. What does he mean by "God"? For most of the book he is dealing with the 3O God; that is, the God whose attributes comprise omniscience, omnibenevolence, and omnipotence; in other words the God of the three desert religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
Stenger argues that it is a mistake to exclude the Intelligent Design proponents from science by continuing to say of their position that it is not science because its claims are not falsifiable. He states that their claims are testable, have been tested, and are indeed not only falisfiable but falsified. It seems to me that any criticism of the ID religious movement should start with the observation that ID makes no positive predictions about what we should find in nature. This is mostly due to the fact that ID says nothing about the designer - the alleged top-down designer of ID who has unlimited power and could design nature to look any way she liked. Therefore anything we observe in nature is compatible with design and therefore ID makes no predictions about what we must find in nature. ID is therefore not science. Similarly, of course, the thrust of the argument in the book is that God as a hypothesis can be tested by science and shown to be a failed hypothesis.
Many of the ten chapters in the book address specifically and in ways that are accessible to the non-scientist the evidence that modern science has amassed to test the God hypothesis. Based on that evidence Stenger argues that the God hypothesis is not supported by the facts and should be shed.
In a recent interview Stenger said, "When people start using science to argue for their specific beliefs and delusions, to try to claim that they're supported by science, then scientists at least have to speak up and say, "You're welcome to your delusions, but don't say that they're supported by science. That's been my main theme, just looking at the scientific end of it (that's been my expertise), and seeing what arguments hold water, and if they don't, saying so."
Stenger's book is readable, interesting, and convincing without being condescending or strident.
© 2008 Bob Lane
Bob Lane is an Honorary Research Associate in philosophy and religious studies at Malaspina University-College in British Columbia, Canada.
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