Book Review- God: The Failed Hypothesis by Victor Stenger

As a qualified academician, Victor Stenger presents in this book what is perhaps the scientists’ best foot forward in defending an atheistic and purely material explanation for the world around us. Holding post both as a professor in physics and astronomy and as an adjunct professor in philosophy, Stenger has bridged a gap few have attempted. He makes a comprehensive effort to influence minds at a popular level in promoting an atheistic worldview by broadening out from his base of physics into philosophy and religion. Originally a research scientist who was involved with pioneering work on subatomic particles, Stenger is more noted as an author of many popular books. God: The Failed Hypothesis, How Science Does Not Prove The Existence of God, covers a wide variety of areas from cosmology to philosophy and religion.

                                                                     Thesis

His purpose in writing is to challenge anyone who has a religious or supernatural aspect to their worldview, with the “facts” of science. He propounds that the scientific account is complete for the most fundamental mysteries of the universe, and that God can be disproven by logic and evidence. If God exists, then there should be some empirically viable means of detecting his existence. Since we have none, so he doesn’t. As he says, “a God who plays a sufficiently active role to produce miraculous events in the cosmos has not been even glimpsed at by our best astronomical instruments to date…[things] look just as they can be expected to look if there is no God.”

Strengths and Persuasions

Stenger seems to maneuver with great dexterity between a broad array of subjects that people of faith present, and he tackles almost every objection to an atheistic worldview. He does this as well as anyone to his credit. His tone is winsome and disarming, and in many cases tries to present a balanced view, his lack of hostility almost indicating a security of belief. On occasion he even admits that if such and such an assumption where successfully challenged, he would be open to God.

He begins his book with models of logic as proofs against the existence of God, much in the way theorems are proven in geometry. For example, in using the problem of evil as a disproof of God‘s existence, he says, “If God exists, then the attributes of God are consistent with the existence of evil. The attributes of God are not consistent with the existence of evil. Therefore, God does not and cannot exist.”

He leans into the Intelligent Design movement and irreducible complexity it’s chief point for design. It’s here that Stenger presents one of his strongest points for chemical evolution as to our origins with a concept called “self-organization”. Self-organization stems from reductionist physics and reveals pattern formation in nature at the smallest level, much like a snowflake assembles into complex design patterns in the right environment. Ultimately complex entities, living or nonliving, have at their root simple processes in the world of locally interacting particles. So origin of life on a chemical level can be explained purely by pre-biological processes such as self-organization.

Another of Stenger’s strong points for scientific atheism is the concept of randomness of the universe. A classic line, though extremely speculative, is that since life is random, given another chance, the molecules of life as we know them would assemble differently than today. The premise of support of randomness is seen at the molecular level in terms of quantum mechanics. But even here Stenger admits “probable causality”, and that quantum mechanics can be used to predict statistical distributions of outcomes, unwillingly adding more of a deterministic flavor to the argument and away from chance. That said, philosophically, it’s seems to be a contradiction of having both self organization and randomness at the smallest of particle levels. Randomness is 180 degrees from order.

It’s possible that quantum mechanics maybe the closest interface of the material/spiritual realm. The appearance of chaos could be so complex, that the molecules are manipulated by a higher reality. Patternlessness to us at this point doesn’t mean without pattern ultimately, and randomness can be complexity on an order not yet understood. In commenting on why we haven’t found life on other planets, Stenger admits, “this failure may be simply a matter of inadequate detector technology”. The inadequance of detector technology in outer space could also apply to the mystery of particles as well, since space is composed of particles.

Weaknesses and Objections

As a reviewer of this book, to discount my perspective as a believer would be both disingenuous and impossible because I hold the position that Stenger is trying to refute. I’m not impartial nor unknowledgeable to his arguments because I believe the atheistic interpretation of science is a weaker position. Therefore, Stenger’s points are not without some fatal errors.

1.) Lets begin with his assumptions. The first is the empirical assumption; that is, God doesn’t exist because he is not empirically verifiable. But if He is God, by definition He is bigger and different. And if he is different, he can choose to hide himself. Stenger nobly tries to address the hiddenness problem. But he unsuccessfully relates God’s hiddenness with nonexistence, two different things. He’s assuming in the argument only one characteristic of God such as His benevolence. But God has other traits such as holiness that beckon a certain separation and boundary.

Stenger’s second great assumption is humanistic. Man is the final arbiter of truth, fact, and reality. Stenger’s praxis is existential and has to be understood as one weaves his way through this book. But man as the highest purveyor of meaning is not the only option, especially if he is not self-existent. Sometimes Stenger’s statements appear contradictory, such as the following: “The empirical fact that many humans are open to knowledge of God and still do not believe demonstrates that such a God does not exist”(p.238). How can you be open and not believe at the same time? There is plenty of evidence for belief and it depends on what one wants to see. This gets into the element of interpretation which we’ll address in a moment.

2.) Stenger repeatedly says that evidence for the supernatural cause of phenomena “should be there but it is not” (p.262). As he says on page 236, “a God with no observable effect is indistinguishable from one who is nonexistent”. But the counter replies are numerous “If man is a physical being, what would evidence for God look like if not physically manifested? By definition, supernatural events would have to have material manifestations for man to detect them. Maybe we are the evidence? Dembski comments: “Specified complexity can be a point of contact between the known universe, which is finite, and an intelligence behind it…Nature thus becomes a derivative aspect of ultimate reality-an aspect of God’s creation.” We can’t rule out that physical phenomenon don’t have spiritual transactions behind them. Tangible properties may be just the means of carrying out divine dictation. Stenger’s uncertainty doesn’t mean disproof. As one philosopher said, “objects that are distinct from God and yet upheld by him are physically undetectable.” Geilser clarifies it this way:

     “if there are some events caused from beyond the world, they will nevertheless have to occur in the world for us to experience them…There is no reason God cannot use some natural processes in producing a supernatural event…in the case of Biblical miracles there is usually…a natural process employed as part of the miraculous event…It is more scientific to recognize the limits of the scientific domain. Scientific methodology as such should not make metaphysical claims.”

So the scientific explanation is just one take on a phenomena and not necessarily the only take or the highest explanation. Science should stick to what science does and remain metaphysically nuetral.

Stenger repeatedly uses the phrase throughout the book, “observations look just as they can be expected if there in no God”. That is a conclusion based on his assumption as much as data. What are his expectations if he is not biased going into it? He is assuming everything in the natural world is explainable by the natural world. But this is committing a modo hoc (“just this”) fallacy that says basically the scientific explanation is not the only explanation. It cannot be assumed that the characteristics inherent in the elements and physical reactions of an entity make up in entirety the characteristics of that entity. For example, a cow which is alive and well and a cow which has been chopped up into meat are the same matter, but there are other dynamics that give a live cow meaning.

3.) Stenger delves into the issue of the brain, which has been seen as a difficulty for evolutionary scientists. The issue is how can thought, reflection, conscience, temptation, vision, and conceptualization be mere products of chemical reactions? He believes that that thought, spiritual experiences, emotional states, even out-of body experiences are caused by electrical stimulation of a specific region of the brain. In other words, “matter alone appears to carry out all of the activities that have been traditionally associated with the soul. No ‘spiritual’ element is required by the data” (p. 84).

But how can you measure the strength of one’s will? You can’t put love in a test tube. Brain activity is not the same thing as thinking and choosing; it’s the vehicle of thinking and choosing. Natural processes are not enough to explain where the ability to reason comes from. Even Neo Darwinist Haldane admitted, “If my mental processes are determined wholly by the motions of atoms in my brain, I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true. They may be sound chemically, but that does not make them sound logically. And hence I have no reason for supposing my brain to be composed of atoms.” How does Stenger know his beliefs are true? It’s one thing to have data, quite another to intepret and process. Where does he get the ability to process, discern and make judgments? As a skeptic, Stenger presumes to make distinctions by a standard that does not exist apart from God.

4.) What I found ostensibly missing from Stenger’s thorough treatment of the topics is the mystery of DNA and the classic chicken or the egg scenario. DNA makes proteins, yet proteins are required to make DNA. If DNA carries a message, then the message cannot be the product of the chemicals that make up the DNA.  The issue can only be solved if DNA is the product of design. Theologians use the Latin tern “ex-nihlo” or “out of nothing” to describe God creating the world in Genesis. When we observe DNA, something from nothing is mysteriously created everyday. Stenger’s inferior counter-hypothesis makes me think Tozer was right all the more, “the spiritual realm is of such a fine grade and high frequency so as to be scarcely detectable with human apperatus”.

5.) Another area where Stenger is trying to wear too many hats is in the biblical studies arena. He says on page 179 that “the authors of the Gospels formulated the life and death of Jesus to conform to their conception of the Messiah of the Old Testament”. That is really uninitiated. By the time of Christ, the Jews were expecting a powerful political figure of a Messiah who would kick some Roman butt and reestablish Israel as a world force. There was no place in their theology at the time for a humble Messiah figure who was easily killed. There was no precedent in Jewish or Greek thought of a God who came in humility to offer himself as a sacrifice for sin. This is especially so of one put to death by crucifixion. The details are too integrated to make up. Furthermore, the concept of a resurrection was not developed; the Pharisees believed in a general, ambiguous resurrection of judgment at some remote time in the future. But not a specific one based on a humble God/man. With such a spurious treatment of the well established history of Judaism and Christianity, it makes one wonder about Stenger’s intellectual integrity in other matters that he addresses.

6.) Also Stenger’s treatment of Old Testament archaeology is cherry picked. Of the numerous figures in Scripture, he only gives detailed mention to David and Moses. Basically, he says that with such towering figures of Jewish ancestry, we should have more evidence. As for Moses he writes that “Absolutely no trace of Moses has ever turned up”. But skeptics are forgetting one major piece of evidence: the Bible itself. The Bible is to be treated an artifact as well, a historical document that has been vindicated archaeologically. What about Hezekiah’s tunnel, the seal of Baruch (Jeremiah’s scribe), Sennacherib’s cylinder, the Nebu-Sarsekim tablet (validating Nebuchadnezzar and Jeremiah) and a host of others that validate the historicity of the Old Testament. His subtitle “Unearthing Nothing” is not credible. He is overstepping himself when he gets into the area of biblical scholarship and should stay with what he thinks he knows.

7.) Stenger reapplies the “wasteful” argument in trying to refute the “anthropic principle”. That is, if God created a fine tuned universe for complex life such as ours, why did He do it with so much waste in the universe as the thought goes? This protest had been refuted and is unoriginal. The Christian worldview has the perfect answer which is, “that earth is perfectly positioned in such an obscure place in the universe is testimony to design overcoming the odds.” Stenger’s argument seems to backfire when he says, “life is not the universes’ agenda”. But this then makes it all the more profound and amazing that life exists at all, and points to a designer. Does Stenger exist? If he says yes, he’s refuting himself against the odds. A biblical worldview long before the advent of science gives the perfect balance of an intricate earth placed in an obscure part of the universe, a blend of significance and humility with the existence of life at the same time.

This is perhaps Stenger’s weakest point and I’m surprised it’s in the book. Notice how he gets away from science and into egocentric judgments when he says, “If God really designed the universe for life, you would think he could have made it easier for life to evolve…why would God send his only son to die an agonizing death to redeem an insignificant bit of carbon?” (p.145, 155). All of these make it more amazing that it did happen. Chance, even with the supposed qualities of self-organization in properties, couldn’t overcome the odds. Atheists forget that random chance is merely a descriptive term from statistics describing probabilities. Chance has no causal powers of its own, and it’s interesting Stenger fell into this trap.

The tone has a ring of complaint to it, baiting God to do better, which is strange since he doesn‘t believe in God. And it seems to drip with arrogance. I would ask him, “what would perfection look like? Would being the center planet in the center of some center galaxy gain us anything? So what? What is center? And, who are we comparing with?” This is a position based on pure arrogance. How does any one man in his arrogance think he is bigger than the obscurity of the planet he lives on?

8.) On the philosophical side, we need to address his logic in his “disproof” of God. In relation to the existence of evil, he assumes that “If God exists, then the attributes of God are consistent with the presence of evil.” If Stenger purports to get into the theological side of things, he needs to do better homework and understand what evil really is. Evil is a twist on good and wouldn’t exist without good. Therefore, good is predecessory to evil and stands alone. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to say that the “attributes of God are consistent with the presence of evil” especially if they disparate are opposites.

Did Stenger Support His Thesis?

Of the big three, Stenger, Dawkins, and Hitchens, I think Stenger is the most adept at presenting the case for scientific atheism. Dawkins is more cynical and not as thought through, and the bitterness of Hitchens overshadows his arguments. (One question for atheists is, “if God doesn’t exist and He is a non-entity, why get so hostile when He is mentioned?) On that level, Stenger hit some points and covered areas the others hadn’t. But unfortunately, no matter how well spoken, one is only as good as the bigger realities he assents to. If Stenger is his own greatest entity, as is anyone who doesn’t believe in God, then he who is all wrapped up in himself is a small package. The problem Stenger has is on a larger scope, that atheism is refutable and the weight of circumstantial evidence leads an objective observer to the case for a designer.

Furthermore, there is an interpretation issue, which he didn’t address much. He is coming at the data from a lens of naturalism. But the data better fit a supernatural explanation. He did say occasionally that his viewpoint was “subjective”. But he didn’t emphasize the bias of the observer. Science is not just observing pure data and cause/effect from a neutral position. Science is all about interpretation. Many, just as easily, assign the physical evidence of science as circumstantial evidence for a Creator. And circumstantial evidence has been enough to decide many cases in courts of law.

Stenger hasn’t disproven the case for God because, at best, his arguments are from silence. He is downright dogmatic that God doesn’t exist, yet he says in many places, “sufficient data is lacking…”, or “we are not yet in a position to determine…” or, “we simply do not have the knowledge to say…”. If he were to conclude, “the best we can say is that we don’t know about God”, he would be more credible from a logic perspective.

 After admitting a gap still exists in our knowledge, he favors atheism with cleverly worded statements like, “we have no reason to conclude that life itself could not have had a purely material origin”. But such is an argument from silence. It could just as easily be worded, “we have no reason to conclude that life itself could not have arisen from purely supernatural origin” as well. It could go both ways. Everything we see takes on the law of design, so why not life itself? It’s a matter of philosophy of science and interpretation.

Recommendation

This book I would recommend for any mature believer in Christ who wants to know the cutting edge presentation points of the modern scientific atheist. But I only recommend it for the mature, as guys like Stenger are pros at creating doubts. Like bankers who are exposed to authentic money and can detect a counterfeit when it happens, the same with this book. It’s only for the mature who are well grounded in a biblical worldview who can detect the subtleties and twists. It is powerful enough to throw the average Christian from the horse of his faith if he’s not careful. But as maturity develops, these arguments might be read by a believer because, as C.S. Lewis wrote one time, “good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered.”

The weight of the evidence is against atheism which is one of the advantages of reading a book like Stenger’s. Despite his outright dogmatic statements refuting God, seeing some of the holes of atheism actually strengthened my confidence in the supernatural. And I guarantee that wasn’t his objective. If one can still stand after taking the best shots atheism has to offer, it eliminates that option when doubt about God enters the mind. If one can see through the contradictions in the carefully worded sentences and slick transitions of an able apologist like Stenger, the believer doesn’t fear the naturalistic interpretations of science.

But buyer beware, this can be dangerous stuff and is nothing to mess around with. Evolution is one of the greatest lies Satan ever created; it’s at the top of the food chain. An interesting phenomena took place for me; there were a couple of times after I put the book down I was really negative and pessimistic all day. I had just a bad and hopeless attitude and I couldn’t figure out why until I traced it to this book. This was just another piece of evidence that atheism really doesn’t work and is not in tune with higher levels of reality.

This is a worthy read, knowing full well that where his case seems persuasive, there may be some evidence he is holding back as I have tried to deliver a few examples of. The book will stimulate thought and cause us to go deeper into our bastions of resources to better counter the arguments for scientific atheism.

                          Copyright by Scott Chandler. All Rights Reserved.

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About Scott Chandler

As a trained academician, Scott speaks to the issues of our culture with an emphasis on apologetics.
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