Tuesday, February 09, 2010

God: The Failed Hypothesis, A Review

“We now have considerable empirical data and highly successful scientific models that bear on the question of God’s existence. The time has come to examine what those data and models tell us about the validity of the God hypothesis.”

So claims Colorado professor Stenger.


Victor J. Stenger is an adjunct professor of philosophy at the University of Colorado. And he is emeritus professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Hawaii.

Of course, there are many and sundry professors in America with similar training. What makes this book any different than the other new atheist books out there?

First of all, it is a scientifically involved book. Although some science understanding is needed in parts of the book, it is well written and well researched.

Secondly, it is endorsed by Dawkins: "...Stenger drives a pack of energetic ferrets down the last major bolt hole...I learned an enormous amount from this splendid book." This puts it on the national radar.

The chapters cover various examinations of the physical universe that purportedly reinforce the central thesis. But my intention is not to examine each chapter let alone each argument. That would become a book in itself. Rather, I will focus on the foundational elements of the book while highlighting a few other points. If the foundation of this atheistic-scientific house is missing, then the entire superstructure falls.

Building the House

Professor Stenger understands the importance of a proper and solid foundation. Thus, he lays out the ground-work in the beginning of the book, explaining what scientific model he is using and the God he is analyzing. From here the house superstructure is further built in the remaining chapters.

The 'god' he wishes to scientifically analyze is the one in common with the "three monotheisms": "...a supreme, transcendent being--beyond matter, space, and time--and yet the foundation of all that meets our senses...[one who] is a nanosecond-by-nanosecond participant in each event that takes place in every cubic nanometer of the universe...[who] listens to every thought and participates in each action of his very special creation..." (11).

And how will he investigate this 'god'?

“My analysis will be based on the contentions that God should be detectable by scientific means simply by virtue of the fact that he is supposed to play such a central role in the operations of the universe and the lives of humans. Existing scientific models contain no place where God is included as an ingredient in order to describe observations. Thus, if God exists, he must appear somewhere within the gaps or errors of scientific models” (13)

He simply equates the natural and supernatural as material and non-material respectively (14). And the science he uses is the doorway of our senses, our instruments, and generalized models of explanation. Hypothetical test that may reveal a non-material origin are proposed because " [God's] presence would be signaled, beyond a reasonable doubt, by the empirical verification of such a phenomena.” (14)

He acknowledges that a clever theist may retort that his god is still hidden, forever beyond the reach of empirical investigation. History and common sense, he replies, ultimately shows that "absence of evidence became evidence of absence. Generally speaking, when we have no evidence or other reason for believing in some entity, then we can be pretty sure that entity does not exist" (18).

He specifies that he will use a particular criterion in this book, falsificationism--an approach popularized by Sir Karl Popper. In particular, any hypothesis "must be one that contains the seeds of its own destruction...a hypothesis that cannot be falsified is a hypothesis that has no value" (25). In other words, the falsification criterion is the claim that valid scientific models are ones that could conceivably be proven otherwise. Popper rejected inductive reasoning postulating the progress of science in terms of conjecture (hypothesis) and refutation (testing). Instead of seeking out confirmation (evidence) of a theory, falsificationism seeks counter-facts and test to disconfirm a theory.

Analyzing the Foundation

“No consensus exists among philosophers of science on what distinguishes science from pseudoscience or nonscience, although most scientists would say they know pseudoscience when they see it.” (12)

This amazing admission is reworded elsewhere:

"falsification...[was] a means for distinguishing legitimate scientific models from nonscientific conjectures. Since then, however, philosophers of science have found falsification insufficient for this purpose" (26).

If no consensus exists on what criterion differentiates science from nonscience, why write this book?

Professor Stenger attempts to bypass this impasse: 'god' can be so falsified as a hypothesis because such a Being is "supposed to be everywhere..." If everywhere and a participant in all places and actions (of which all places and actions are at bottom material), then, argues the professor, this 'god' ought to be empirically discovered in any given place or action.

This assumes that science is the definitive technique for determining observable truth and that observable truth has no unobservable components—a gratuitous assumption as best. Behind this epistemic assumption lies a corresponding metaphysical assumption: that only the material exists. And further: if their is a non-material realm (of any consequence) then it will interact with the material realm in a testable way (again, therefore, falsifiable by scientific models).

Furthermore, the use of models is a tricky business. The author admits:

"Whether the elements and the processes that make up a successful model are to be taken as intrinsic parts of reality is not a question that can be simply answered…” because the model might be falsified in the distant future. Yet "when a model is falsified, we can reasonably assume that those elements and processes that are unique to the model…are likely not intrinsic parts of reality.” (13)

If each hypothesis is not necessarily an accurate model of reality and able to be falsified and thus replaced in the future, then how can one determine that now is the time to answer this God-question? Upon what (uncriticized) criterion was this decided?

Destroying the Foundation

The first problem is the definition of 'god'. In brief, the classical Protestant (Reformed) doctrine of God, as summarized in the Westminster Confession of Faith, does not present Him as merely participating in all things. Rather, this Triune God does "uphold, direct, dispose and govern" all things while ordering all to "fall out according to the nature of secondary causes..." even as God makes use of means, whilst free to work "without, above, and against them" (WCF 5.1-3). Such a God cannot be reduced to crass materialism, because the material universe is dependent upon Him. Therefore, any and all tests (and observations) are evidences for the existence of such a God.

The problem is that such a God is unacceptable to Stenger. Near the end of the book, he winnows out other 'god' options ('hidden gods') except the "hideous hidden God of Evangelical Christianity". Or more specifically the version given by an Evangelical Christian who admits that God does hide himself (contrary to Romans 1:18ff.). Even so, Stenger's attitude toward this God who "cannot be totally ruled out" is to accuse Him of "cowardice" and of not being "perfectly loving" (239ff.).

What is "perfectly loving" in an all-material universe? Most people believe it to be more than animal coupling. Perhaps it is the combination of bio-chemical and bio-electric reactions in the body? This questions does not even begin to touch the perennial question of what perfection is. This unscientific response is a picture of the entire effort of the book: to bring an Infinite and Transcendent God to the bar of finite human reason.

Given that this review is from the virtuous circle of the worldview of Christianity, what do non-Christians think?

Popper himself acknowledges the limitations of his scientific method. Professor Stenger notes that Popper restricted falsification to empirical statements only: "philosophical theories, or metaphysical theories, will be irrefutable by definition" (26). The God of Christianity in general, and Protestantism in particular, is a metaphysical God, notwithstanding Stenger's attempted reductionism.

On the other hand, the scientific worldview of Popper and others include "metaphysical theories" of what is a fact and what is material. Popper even admitted that "Darwinism is...a metaphysical research programme".

Among the other critiques of falsification as the heart of science, Martin Gardner, at Skeptical Inquirer, (2001, reprinted) explained:

"There are many objections to this startling claim. One is that falsifications are much rarer in science than searches for confirming instances. Astronomers look for signs of water on Mars. They do not think they are making efforts to falsify the conjecture that Mars never had water."

Another detractor summarizes several internal inconsistencies and contradictions. Mr. Dykes's paper, Debunking Popper (here), includes other well-known philosophers who have pointed unconquerable problems with falsification (aka, critical rationalism). One should suffice:

"Blanshard noted that particular propositions such as 'some swans are white' can only be falsified by showing that 'no swans are white.' Since the latter would be self-evidently untrue, 'some swans are white' is a perfectly valid scientific statement which cannot be falsified."

The boundary between science and nonscience is fuzzy indeed. Stenger is correct: "philosophers of science have found falsification insufficient for this purpose."


One cannot simply abstract God out of the interconnected web of beliefs of Christianity. Falsifying a single proposition is not the same as falsifying an entire worldview. Since well-developed worldviews cannot be falsified piecemeal, the new atheists need to use other tools in their quest to demolish Christ's kingdom.

Certainly confirmation and falsification are both useful tools in the domain of science (and even elsewhere). And critical self-evaluation is needed in any endeavor in life. But the hypothesis of falsification is not up to the task of tearing down the foundation of Christianity. Its inbred limitations are admitted even by its major proponent. Instead of disproving the God-hypothesis, falsification itself turned out to be a failed hypothesis.

1 comment:

Glenn Borchardt said...

You might want to check out my book, “The Scientific Worldview.” It should answer a lot of your questions. See: www.scientificphilosophy.com
Glenn Borchardt