Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Review: Victor Stenger's God The failed Hypotesis

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In God The Failed Hypothesis, [1] Victor Stenger uses basically the same over all approach and the same objections disprove his argument, yet he makes more use of the fortress of facts concept. For him it’s not so much reduction of God to a big man in the sky as just the lack of hard tangible evidence of God’s DNA, smoking creation gun or other dead give-aways. His arguments are geared to a fundamentalist big man in the sky concept of God and he takes silence as proof, thus no evidence for God, in his mind, equals positive evidence of no God. He begins with a comparison of scientific method to what he takes to be “theological method.”[2] Of course his straw-man version of theological method has nothing to do with the way any modern theologian works. It’s clear from the outset that he is subjecting belief in God to scientific criteria but he’s expecting belief itself to transmute into a scientific hypothesis. After all if there’s only one form of knowledge, as the atheist ideology has it, then that’s what has to be done to have knowledge of something. What this tells us upfront is that we are dealing with the fortress of facts. We can’t allow religious people to have the belief they have. It has to be made over into the doppelganger of my scientific ideas, or it’s not worth considering. Of course that makes it into a straw-man argument because he’s doing nothing more than taking something beyond the domain of science and saying “hey look it’s not science.” He basically admits this when he says: “Objective evidence for an entity of Godlike attributes should be readily available. After all, God is supposed to play a deceive role in every happening in the world. Surely we should see some sign in objective observations made by our eyes…”[3] Should we? This is a theological question, not a question for science. Why should physicists decide what the parameters are for belief? Why should we expect God to be given in “objective” evidence when he’s not given in sense data? How can we expect that which is beyond our understanding, the basis of all that is, to be subject to empirical observations of beings in creation? What If God’s work consists primarily of holding the strong force together? How could we ever know that? We can’t know it by ordinary means, we might know it by intuitive or deductive or revelatory means. Why isn’t that extraordinary? When we do have objective evidence which we can see with our eyes and prove with medical science, such as the miracles at Lourdes, the atheists will merely evoke incredulity as though it’s a proof and refuse to believe the proof.[4]He clearly and unabashedly places God under the domain of science and makes a subject of scientific scrutiny. He proposes an approach that would cast belief in God as a scientific hypothesis. He proposes a “scientific God model.”[5]

Not content with just using scientific criteria he also evokes what is called ECREP (extraordinary claims requires extraordinary proof). Then he sets about listing conditions for extraordinary claims. One could easily argue that this is a false standard. In fact in my first book The Trace of God I do make this argument.[6] For the sake of argument I’ll accept it for now. These criteria include:

(1) Protocols of the study must be clear so that all possibilities of error can be evaluated…

(2) The hypothesis being tested must be established clearly and explicitly…

(3) People doing the study must have no pre judgment…

(4) The hypothesis being tested must contain seeds of its own destruction…

(5) Results must be independently replicated…[7]

No. 4 is vaguely reminiscent of Hegel or Marcuse, the thesis contains the seeds of its own negation.[8] What he’s really saying is it must be falsifiable. So he already has God starched out in the petri dish and is ready to dissect. He’s reduced God to the level of a scientific question. In evoking falsification, he’s saying under what conditions could this hypothesis be disproved? The unwary might think “it can’t be so it must be true.” No if it can’t be disproved under any conditions it can’t be proved either. The problem this only applies to empirical questions. The issue of falsification only applies to questions that are about things given in sense data.

God is not under the domain of science. The question of God is not a scientific one it’s an existential, ontological, or metaphysical question. The question of God is over and above anything about science, because science is about the empirical and God is not given in sense data. Indeed how could the basis of reality be subject to things in creation? Yet the reductionist tries to subject God to the mundane the material and it’s no wonder they don’t’ find anything. This is the ultimate bait and switch. This tendency to reduce God to the level of science is the result of the ideology that reduces all knowledge to scientific knowledge. Stenger knows that he’s coming up against the problem of overlapping magisteria (domains). He doesn’t like that God is off limits to science. He wants to subject the supernatural to the natural and assert its disproof, because he assumes that there’s one valid sort of knowledge; science. He argues with the national academy of sciences statement in chapter one about supernatural is beyond the study of science.

These scientists and science organizations that would limit science to the investigation of natural causes provide unwitting support for the assertion that science is dogmatically naturalistic…in many of the public discussions we hear today science is accused of dogmatically refusing to consider the possible role that other than natural processes may play in the universe…however, any type of dogmatism is the very antithesis of science.[9]

The problem is by limiting science they admit there maybe more and that they don’t posses the way to know things. In wanting to open everything up to science Stenger Is actually reducing everything to the natural level and implying that there be only one form of knowledge, which by default would have to be science. He’s really making a chatch 22 for religious thinkers, yet he also sows seeds of the negations of his own view. In trying to reduce everything to level of falsifiability he’s admitting that anything not reducible to that level is not under the domain of science. Of course he would probably assert that if it’s not testable by science it just can’t be. So the bait and switch in Stenger’s argument is clear. Reduce everything to the level of science, science doesn’t come up with evidence for God, then argue there must not be a God.

Stenger goes on to indulge in question begging by way of trying to justify stretching science over to fit the supernatural. He says that science can study the supernatural. Yet all he’s really saying is that there is no supernatural which will be proven if science attempts to stud it. All they could logically prove would be that they cant’ study the supernatural. Stenger of course will take the silence as proof because he predisposed to be incredulous about the supernatural. He never takes the dirth of data as an indication that it can’t be studied. It would have to be taken as proof that it’s not there and that’s what he wants.

The assertions that science does not study and that supernatural hypotheses are untestable are factually incorrect. Right under the noses of leaders of national science organizations who make these public statements, capable credentialed scientists are investigating the possibility of supernatural causes…reputable institutions such as the Mayo Clinic, Harvard University and Duke University are studying phenomena that, if verified, would provide would provide strong empirical support for the existence of some nonmaterial element in the universe. These experiments are designed to test the healing power of distant, blinded, intercessory prayer.[10]

It’s clear that Stenger’s purpose in bringing this up is to open up the supernatural to scientific critique so that absence of evidence can be constructed as the failure of empirical testing. The fact of question begging here should be obvious, he’s assuming that because some people study what he deems to be ‘supernatural’ therefore the whole of the supernatural (whatever that is) is opened up as a scientific question. Secondly, the studies he points to are about healing. Healing is only a small aspect of the spiritual and it’s debatable as to whether or not it’s supernatural at all. I would argue that modern concept of “supernatural” is misconstrued based upon concepts of the enlightenment. The term has come to mean anything not under the realm of science, anything form magic to a realm completely removed form the physical. I will deal with this at greater length latter.

Another problem with Stenger’s approach is that it’s a Grand Canyon leap in logic from healing (which is one manifestation if anything of the supernatural) to the conclusion that God’s very existence is a question for science. The question about the reality of God is much more basic and much harder to confront than the question of healing. Healing is an overlap, a point at which something spiritual touches the physical. Yet the reality of God is at the basis of all reality itself. Stenger is assuming that since the work is being done it must be possible to do it. That still doesn’t tell us anything. Suppose the study shows no significant findings proving any extra-naturalistic process. Does that really prove that there is no such process, or does it only mean that it’s out our epistemic reach? Stenger wants to beg the question and assert that because they did the work it be accurate and tell us all. Then he wants to extrapolate from that begged question to another: to extrapolate from the possibility of no demonstration of healing the assumption that there must not be a God.. Rather he wants to use this to establish the assumption that his cosmological opinions really prove something about God’s existence.

I will not belabor the points he makes about reasoning and logic in God arguments. He does deal with some of that on a certain level, in fact he spends a lot pages doing just that. I’m going pass over most of that because the real issue according his own exposition is what science itself has to offer in terms of the big disproof of God. Yet it is instructive to look one most unserious attempt:

(1) God is by definition a being that which no greater being can be thought

(2) Greatness includes the greatness of virtue

(3) God is a being then of which no being can be more virtuous.

(4) But virtue involves overcoming pain and danger.

(5) Indeed a being can only said to be properly virtuous if it can suffer pain or be destroyed


(6) A God that can suffer pain or is destructible is not one that which nothing greater than an be conceived.


(7) For you can think of a greater being one that is non suffering and indestructible


(8) Therefore, God does not exist.[11]

Notice that doesn’t provide any logical problem for the concept of God itself. It’s just one persons idea of God, not one any real theist believes in. Who says God is under the same constraints of virtue that humans are? The idea of virtue and suffering is not applicable to God. Can God even said to be virtuous? If virtue is something creatures of God develop thorugh obeidiecne to God then obviously God is beyond the aspect of virtue, that wouldn’t prevent God form being perfect morally; it would merely mean that virtue for humans an aspect of character we develop. God is source of moral perfection. Even if we assume the argument is right all it’s disproved in one argument, from perfection. It has not shown a logical contradiction in the idea of God per se.

Definition of VIRTUE

1

a : conformity to a standard of right : morality b : a particular moral excellence

2

plural : an order of angels — see celestial hierarchy

3

: a beneficial quality or power of a thing

4

: manly strength or courage : valor

5

: a commendable quality or trait : merit

6

: a capacity to act : potency

7

: chastity especially in a woman

vir·tue·less adjective

by virtue of or in virtue of [12]

None of these qualies would fit God except 1 or 3. Those don’t entail suffering. 4 entails courage that’s the virtue of valor but God is not said to have valor, he doesn’t need it. Of God is not going to have “a commendable trait” because that would degrade God, which all Stenger does. This just another example of demoting God ot the level of main and treating God like a human. Notice the one thing he does not do (he offers many many such misguided joke arguments, although he presents them seriously) he never deals with the tradition of theology or philosophy. He makes no effort to reflect what’s been said by the tradition. As though he thinks science is the only from of knowledge, therefore, scientists are the priesthood of knowledge. Therefore, philosopher’s ideas are not worth considering. This is the kind of vapid nonsense he churns out because he knows too much to consult the experts in a field of which he knows nothing.

He never does actually get around to a scientific smoking gun. He has no great insight or scientific facts that would actually disprove the experience of God. All he ever does is argue from silence by knocking down straw-man versions of arguments such as the fine tuning argument then assuming if these arguments are down there is no argument that proves God, thus absence of evidence is the same as disproof. All of these arguments turn on reducing God the proportions of humanity and then judging the Big man in the sky. He basically admits this modus operandi:

The scientific argument against the existence of God will be modified from the lack of evidence argument:

(1) Hypothesize a God who plays an important role in the universe.

(2) Assume that God has specific attributes that should provide objective evidence for his existence.

(3) Look for such evidence with an open mind

(4) If such evidence is found conclude that God may exist

(5) If such objective evidence is not found conclude that beyond a reasonable doubt that God with these properties does not exist.[13]

Most of the positive evidence he presents is just proof of evolution, which is only a problem for creationists, meaning only a problem for adherents to particular idea of God. Thus we see the atheist straw-God at work. The statement above not only conclusively proves that Stenger is reducing God to science, but that his arguments fail a prori. Premise one is granted, even if that role is merely creating the universe, or just savhing people. Number 2 is a straw-God claim. Why should there be objective evidence for God’s role? That would depend upon the nature of the role. What if the major evidence for God is subjective? That’s only a dirty word to atheists. There’s nothing particularly dirty about subjective proof and there’s nothing illogical about it. There’s no reason why the major evidence for God can’t be subjective. After all we are subjective creatures and every single thing we perceive comes to us form subjective experiences. There’s no logical reason why God is logically bound to produce objective evidence. Number 3 is a lost cause. Stenger has proved he do that because he wont even examine Lourdes miracles. Number 4 takes out Stenger’s thesis because we will present such evidence, the Lourdes miracle which he will not examine are such evidence. Number five takes out his thesis because strong enough evidence can be found to at least provide a reasonable doubt in favor of belief. In other words the strength of Stenger’s case doesn’t meet the stipulate of “beyond a reasonable doubt” even if you grant him his moves of the “scientific God hypothesis.” This will be seen in subsequent chapters.

He does actually try to show that cosmologically the universe looks like the kind of universe we would have without a God assuming naturalistic developments.[14] That’s misleading because he doesn’t deal the cosmological argument, or necessity and contingency. Of course he’s not dealing with the major modern issues in theology such as process theology. None of his arguments apply to modern liberal concepts of God. In fact they apply to orthodox concepts either. The whole new atheist movement is aimed at Christian fundamentalism. The notion of God that "disproves," If any, is that of the big man in the sky. He's applying the standards of biology to the basis of all reality as though we have a lock on understanding all there, when in reality, we don't know beans about the whys and wherefores, or what's out there.

This is why religious experience and religious life have to be approached as an existential journy not as a scientific hypothesis.





[1] Victor J. Stenger, God: The Failed Hypothesis:How Science Shows that God Does Not Exist. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2007.

[2] Ibid. 22-23

[3] ibid 22

[4] Lourdes find

[5] Stenger, ibid, 41

[6] Trace of God chapter 2 find.

[7] Stenger, ibid, 24-25

[8] Herbert Macruse, Negations

[9] Stenger, ibid, 28

[10] ibid, 29

[11] ibid, 31

[12] Merrain-Webser’s on line dictionary. URL: http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/virtue visited 6/26/12

[13] Stenger, ibid, 43

[14] ibid, 113

2 comments:

Kristen said...

"The whole new atheist movement is aimed at Christian fundamentalism."

It's really sad how fundamentalist conceptions of God have monopolized the conversation. But it's not surprising that this is the conception of God that atheists engage-- because fundamentalists have been vocal enough to set themselves up as the experts on God, and anyone who disagrees with their concepts is heretical. Most people I talk to seem to think that the fundamentalist version of Christianity is all there is.

That said-- I think your final paragraph jumps out of the scholarly tone of the rest of the post, as well as being unclear. I think societies often do allow, or even sometimes even consist of, masses or movements of people using little forethought regarding the implications of ideas they espouse. Nor do I think people like Stenger are actually trying to set up a totalitarian regime.

Metacrock said...

you are right about that last paragraph. That must be the Athiestwatch edition. I'm going to take that off in both places. I mean I'm going to change it here and in atheist watch.