This book is exasperating, because Stenger sets up a meta-analysis that games the entire discussion. Having built for himself the restrictive form in which his reasoning is to be poured, he ends up with exactly the structure he set out to build. The trouble is that it defies reason, not to mention, in many instances, common sense.
As usual for the New Atheists, Stenger places the burden of proof with theists, without ever explaining why. But then he tries to upgrade this burden of proof even further, thus stacking the deck for materialism even more. He designates theism (but not atheism) an “extraordinary claim,” and further says that the extraordinariness of this claim requires “extraordinary proof.”
Why is theism an extraordinary claim, and atheism is not? It is theism which is intuitive and implied by the most obvious elements: our existence, consciousness, and the existence of other things. Why does the extraordinariness of this claim require extraordinary proof? What constitutes an “extraordinary” claim, and “extraordinary” proof? No satisfactory answer in this book.
Stenger gives five conditions for evaluation of “empirical evidence for extraordinary empirical claims in science.” But theism isn’t an empirical claim at all. It is not a claim “in science.” There’s no telling what criteria might be employed for “extraordinariness” of a claim, or of evidence in support of it. It would be interesting to see someone like Stenger apply this criteria to his own “claim.” For example, what is the extraordinary evidence for the extraordinary claim that the universe blinked into existence ex nihilo? He skirts such issues by employing his steroidal burden of proof.
When scientists require extraordinary evidence for the “extraordinary claim” of, for example, intelligent design in the universe, this is not ideological, it’s just science, Stenger says. But it’s not. Intelligent design of the universe best explains what we observe all around us. It’s not an “extraordinary” claim, and if it were, what “extraordinary” evidence could it possibly require other than what is evident all around us?
Stenger is not, in this volume, advocating for a big bang or for infinite existence or any other particular theory for the origin of the universe. He is saying, however, that if any of these naturalistic theories of origins without God is plausible, then we must reject God as a cause. Why? Because of the weird construct he’s made for burdens of proof, which so games the inquiry that atheism wins no matter what. The origin of the universe is a gap in scientific knowledge, as he admits. Nonetheless, we must reject God because there is (he says) a “plausible” materialist alternative.
Stenger’s thesis is that the supernatural hypothesis of God is testable by the established methods of science. He doesn’t just mean opening one’s eyes and looking at the fact of existence. He’s talking about a material test for a non-material hypothesis.
Stenger makes a distinction between methodological materialism and metaphysical materialism, so that he can try to argue that proceeding with the assumption of materialism does not “imply any dogmatic attachment” to actual materialism. It’s true that science progresses by looking for natural causes and effects, and by devising materialist models to test. So this approach works for questions about the material world; about substance and time, even for theists. But the question before us is not about the material world. The question before us, by definition, is the existence or non-existence of an entity outside of the province of science.
Stenger purports to be approaching the question of God “scientifically,” so he approaches the question with the assumption that there is no God. How is that good science? Or rational thinking?
Stenger discusses developments in neurology, citing experiments that identify locations in the brain at which one might treat various maladies. From this, he deduces this surprising non-sequitur: that it “strongly implies that our thoughts, memories, and subjective experiences may be entirely based upon physical processes in the brain.” At least it would be a non-sequitur for most people. Here’s why it apparently makes sense to Stenger. He further supposes that humans’ deep thoughts about, for example, moral judgments, are not supposed to involve the brain, if theism is true! It would be interesting to meet such a theist, who thinks the brain is entirely uninvolved in “deep thoughts.” There’s much yet to know about the interaction of consciousness and the functioning of the brain, but there is no basis for saying that brain involvement in some conscious acts rules out a consciousness of mind distinct from that of the brain.
Stenger presents alternative theories of the big bang, or of an infinite universe, and makes no attempt to reconcile those inconsistent claims. That’s ok, that’s not a criticism, by itself. Stenger’s purpose here is not really to reconcile them. He’s really only saying that it’s possible that God is part of neither. With regard to the big bang, he writes: “The Creator, if he existed, left no imprint. Thus he might as well have been nonexistent.”
If creation itself won’t do for an “imprint,” then nothing will. It would be tempting to write, once again, the now-tedious observation that one doesn’t test for non-material phenomena using the tools for measuring material phenomena. But this statement of Stenger’s tells us something else, too. It tells us that materialists aren’t really interested in whether God is. It is not really a subject of scientific inquiry, even if it could be. Stenger is saying it is irrelevant whether there is a God or not, if He is not measurable like material things which are the subject of science. This shows the prejudice. It reveals the tendency to close off the inquiry at the edge of material boundaries. No peeking behind the curtain.
The laws of physics
If there is no supernatural agency, then why does material reality follow the dictates of natural laws for material things, such as gravity and conservation of energy? Stenger’s answer: the closed system of the universe created its own laws. He doesn’t say how. Stenger acknowledges that the origins of the laws of physics represent a gap in scientific knowledge. He nonetheless develops another of his “plausible” scenarios: that the laws of physics come from “nothing.”
Stenger then applies his own odd idea of what quantum of evidence is sufficient to overcome a theistic explanation for the origins of those laws. He says that atheists do not have the burden of proving the correctness of this theory. Instead, it is theists who have the burden of proving (1) that his “plausible scenario” is wrong; (2) that no other natural account is possible; and (3) that God did it.
Well, why? It’s much more rational to conclude that the laws of physics came from a supernatural source outside of the universe which displays those laws, than that they came from “nothing.” But we’re not to follow the evidence to where it rationally leads. Instead, we’re to force the whole question into a formula which games the debate, and all but guarantees the result Stenger prefers. What kind of science is that?
Something from nothing
Why is there something from nothing? Stenger correctly poses the key questions, rhetorically, including the questions “How do we define ‘nothing?’ What are its properties? If it has properties, doesn’t that make it something?” One would think from this that he’s on the right track to a rational consideration of the questions.
But no. He goes on to make the classic mistake of New Atheists on this question. He confuses “nothing” with “something.” Here’s how he gets there.
First, he questions whether “nothing” is a more natural state of affairs than something. It’s his first step on the way to saying that something is a more expected state of affairs. At this stage, we might suppose that he’s going to explain how it is that there could be nothing in the first place, but he doesn’t.
Instead, Stenger goes on to describe how simple systems can become complex naturally, like snowflake crystals, and then says that “nothing” is as simple as it gets. But we’re not talking here about simplicity and complexity. Those are concepts relevant only to something. “Nothing” is not simplicity in somethings. Nothing is nothing.
But for Stenger, that simple something can be unstable, so “It would likely undergo a spontaneous phase transition to something more complicated, like a universe containing matter.” So going from nothing to something is a “phase transition,” he suggests. That is obviously not true, however. Something can go through a phase transition and be something else, as when water freezes, or hydrogen and oxygen combine to form water. But a phase transition is a transition from something to something. Like we routinely see from New Atheists, Stenger simply abandons the very concept of “nothing.” He turns it into “something,” so that he can put the existence of the entire universe down to a transition from one something to another something, thereby completely dodging the conundrum that materialists continue to leave us with: Why is there something rather than nothing?
Empiricism seeking God
Much of Stenger’s project in this book is to argue the absence of empirical evidence for the existence of God. This would seem a questionable undertaking, given that empirical evidence is, by definition, evidence from within the natural world, and evidence of the supernatural within the natural world takes the form of notoriously un-measurable phenomena such as the fact of existence of anything, and of human consciousness to apprehend it, and the existence and commonality of non-material transcendent values. But Stenger carries on. Prove a miracle, he says. Show by empirical evidence that, for example, prayer causes this or that event, using double-blind studies.
That such a project is undertaken ought to make Christians sigh and shake their heads. What a misapprehension of all that goes on in understanding God. What a closed-minded, rigorously dogmatic fallacy. Let’s speak to prayer, as understood down through the ages, by any reasonably mature understanding of what prayer is, and isn’t. In other words, let’s have a correct understanding of the thing Stenger rejects, before agreeing with him to reject it.
Stenger’s approach presupposes that when religious believers ask for something in prayer (like healing a serious health condition) that the prayer is successful if God grants the prayer on the terms the petitioner asks. Then, we can measure that success rate, to decide if God really is.
God is not to be trifled with in this way. He is not a trained circus animal. He doesn’t work for us. We work for him. When we pray, it is perfectly acceptable to Him that we ask Him for such things as miraculous healings. But we acknowledge His sovereignty in any genuine prayer. He alone decides what it is that should happen. Here is Thomas Aquinas’ reasoning on the subject: we pray not to have God satisfy those desires we held before approaching God. We pray as an exercise in bending our desires to receive in gratitude what God wishes us to have.
Unquestionably, God can and does intervene in our lives, and He may, as He chooses, proceed in the way His petitioner asks. But it is doubtful that His ways will ever be measurable by double-blind praying experiments. We should picture God laughing at such nonsense, if He is not instead angry at it.
One more example of the difficulty of getting through Stenger’s reasoning. He argues against the existence of God because of the presence of evil. Stenger approaches his discussion of this topic somewhat diffidently, suggesting that it is perhaps not amenable to empirical study. He wades into it anyway.
In this discussion as in so many others, Stenger attacks Christianity, but because of the absurd burden of proof rules that he sets for himself, he never defends the atheist position. The presence of evil, he believes, means there is no God.
Before we get to that question, let’s reverse it (something Stenger would never do). Does the presence of evil argue against atheism? Well, you could attempt to explain the presence of what we call evil by the imperatives of evolution, but then how would you explain the acts of good? Not the self-preserving or group-preserving acts that superficially appear to be selfless, but rather the unquestionably altruistic and anonymous generosity toward unrelated others, in sometimes lavish measure, that we occasionally witness among people? Even one such instance would seem to undermine the entire construct of evolutionary explanation for everything that people do. Aside from that, why would we call something evil in the first place, if everything that people are is a product of unguided natural selection for fitness?
Stenger is confusing about what he considers evil. A hurricane is the same thing as murder, in his imagining. Might as well say “bad things,” instead of “evil.” But let that pass. Stenger makes the same mistake that all the New Atheists do. They point to the presence of bad things and say therefore there is no God. But they miss the biggie. It’s worse than he thinks. Forget about hurricanes and tsunamis and cancer. How about the giant, looming, ultimate disaster: We are all literally dying. Every day we live, we’re a day closer to our own death. And yet, we somehow don’t see that entering into the discussion. It’s our normal.
The typical atheist argument from evil turns things upside down. Evil and pain and death surround us. Many of us will die painfully, slowly, in agony, and with a sense of futility and hopelessness and despair. Children starve and disease decimates families. People live in grinding poverty and ignorance and perpetual want. This is going on all around us, all the time, and has been since man was created and made himself out to be a god. Pain and death do not mean there is no God.
Goodness, mercy, and hope mean He is.