[extropy-chat] Putting God to Rest

Damien Broderick 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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