[extropy-chat] Putting God to Rest
thespike at satx.rr.com
Mon Apr 23 18:38:30 UTC 2007
Here's a recent newspaper review of two books on putting God to rest
(apologies if I've posted this previously):
God: The Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist
By Victor J. Stenger
Prometheus Books, 294pp.
The Comprehensible Universe: Where Do the Laws of Physics Come From?
By Victor J. Stenger
Prometheus Books, 340pp.
Reviewed by Damien Broderick
Do we live in an age of resurgent belief, as the rise of
fundamentalist Christianity in the United States, and of Islam
elsewhere, suggests? Or is the "faith of our fathers" getting
corroded, as many believers suspect with dismay, by an unholy blend
of sceptical science and consumerist self-indulgence? The popularity
of The Da Vinci Code and Philip Pullman's death-of-god His Dark
Materials trilogy for young readers is certainly striking. Famous
film stars enthusiastically endorse a cult claiming that a galactic
overlord named Xenu stranded us all here 75 million years ago.
Meanwhile, defiantly atheistic books have been bestsellers:
evolutionist Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion, philosopher Dan
Dennett's Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, and
Sam Harris's brilliantly incisive little tract Letter to a Christian
Nation. Not to mention claims by filmmaker James Cameron that the
tomb of Jesus has been found at last. What in heaven's name is going on?
I have a sneaking suspicion that doubts about faiths are fuelled less
by the shock of Darwinian insight, say, than by a deep, unconscious
revulsion after 19 ardent true believers murdered 2973 people on
September 11, 2001. Detesting militant Islam required no great
intellectual courage on the part of Westerners, but a side effect has
been a dawning sense that if one major faith could propel such
brutality--could constitute, indeed, the new post-Communist
threat--then perhaps religious conviction in general might be questionable.
Traditionally, brand-name religion is instilled from infancy, often
with ferocious warnings against heretics and infidels, making it hard
to doubt the precepts one has grown up with. When I was a kid in a
Catholic school run by nuns, I parroted a catechism that explained
vacuously "We cannot see God because he is a Spirit, and cannot be
seen by us in this life." Later, I learned such classic proofs for
God's existence as the argument from design (the world is complex,
and so must have a watchmaker), which the proven process of evolution
had long ago dispelled. Other arguments seemed, eventually, equally
frail. The First Mover gambit was amusingly parodied by a friend's
phrase: "If there's no God, who pulls up the next Kleenex?" One last
resort argument for the necessity of the divine was a real puzzler,
though: Why is there Something, rather than Nothing? Who put the bang
in the Big Bang?
Veteran particle physicist Victor Stenger offers an answer to that
deep question in his two new books, arguing a materialist, god-free
account of the cosmos, equally antagonistic to superstition, the
paranormal, and religions archetypal and newfangled alike. He refuses
to accept the polite accommodation urged by the late agnostic Stephen
Jay Gould, that science and religion can never be in conflict as they
are non-overlapping "magisteria". Faith, for Gould, dealt with
morals, science with testable fact.
This bid for mutual tolerance gained little traction in either camp.
Evolutionary psychology pressed hard against the territorial
prerogatives of religion, showing how traditional ethical codes had
developed on the basis of templates selected--for good and ill--by a
million years of human prehistory. But aren't the central dogmas of
Christian civilisation, indeed of all the Abrahamic societies
including Judaism and Islam, derived from the infallible word of God
delivered in Scripture? Stenger offers a familiar corrective: the
moral guidance of the Bible is confused and often reprehensible,
supporting slavery and other atrocities. We interpret its words
according to today's superior moral insight and sensitivity, so the
interpretations given by Christians "must depend on ideals that they
have already developed from some other source."
Unlike some cautious critics of faith, Stenger takes the tough line
that deity is not just an unnecessary hypothesis, nor one where an
honest thinker can choose to accept or reject it. No, it is "the
failed hypothesis". This is a bold claim indeed, and certain to meet
scornful rejection from prelates and pious alike. Nothing daunted,
Stenger trots briskly through all the obvious claims and his
objections to them, concluding in each case that the evidence for the
traditional God is too weak to accept or can be dismissed as
mistaken. For example, while human life is well-suited to this planet
(inevitably, since we evolved here), the universe as a whole is an
uncongenial place, vast, empty and hostile. Far from being carefully
designed and calibrated for humankind, the cosmos looks precisely the
sort of place one would expect had it emerged unplanned from the void.
That assertion still seems to most non-scientists merely a conjuring
trick. How can something burst into existence from nothing?
Philosophers debated this for centuries but the question assumes that
"nothing" has a clear meaning. Actually, we never see nothing, only
the change of one thing into another, the slow dispersal of energy
into exhaustion. As Stenger points out in his remarkable book The
Comprehensible Cosmos, all the matter and energy in the universe,
including the newly discovered dark matter and dark energy that
comprise most of the cosmos, balances out to zero. "`Nothing'," as
physics Nobelist Frank Wilczek put it, "is unstable." The void cannot
be conceived as ultimately empty. The astonishing random event that
led to an explosion of matter and energy and expanding spacetime--to
the creation of a local universe--seems finally within our mental grasp.
Stenger does not stint in his treatment of these remarkable ideas.
The first half of his book sets out for any reader with a basic
scientific training the way in which symmetry gives rise to the "laws
of nature"--conservation of energy and momentum, the quantum rules
that rewrote physics in the 20th century, special and general
relativity. His lucid if demanding treatment offers a somewhat
controversial account of the way in which everything we see about us
takes the form it does due to one simple demand: that no physical
standpoint is privileged over another. This does not mean, as he
takes pains to stress, that "anything goes" in the postmodern vein.
Readers prepared to follow his argument into elementary calculus and
quantum theory will find it spelled out in detail in the second half
of the book. The tragedy of the 21st century is that so few people
have been equipped by the education system to take that journey into
hard-won insight. Which is probably one reason why, when the pain and
confusion of life becomes too great to bear, so many of us turn to
Xenu or God, and abandon the struggle to understand.
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