God: The Failed Hypothesis

I like messing around with God, or gods, or Cosmic Muffins, but that doesn’t mean I believe in any sort of god. So I was interested in seeing how God: The Failed Hypothesis, by Victor J. Stenger would apply the methods of science to the hypothesis that God exists. Like The Fabric of Reality, it sparked a lot of response in me, so much I’m going to write another two-parter. First, let’s see the broad shape of the book’s disproof of God.

In chapter one, the book defines which it means by God. First off, logic rules out a god who is omnibenevolent, omnipotent, and omnipresent. There cannot be a 3O god. That was easy. So the book focuses on a particular kind of god, by setting out eight attributes, commonly ascribed to the Judeo-Christian-Islamic God, which ought to create evidence that such a god exists. The attributes (much condensed) are:

  1. God created the universe.
  2. God is the author of the laws of nature.
  3. God works miracles and answers prayers.
  4. God created all life and human beings.
  5. God gave human beings souls.
  6. God is the source of morality.
  7. God has revealed truths in scriptures and revelations.
  8. God does not deliberately hide from anyone who seeks him.

Chapter two fights the evolution battle and concludes that a god with attribute #4 doesn’t exist.

I didn’t understand why chapter three takes a detour into the paranormal, such as qi and ESP, since I thought people who believed in this stuff used to be called witches. Anyway, it goes on to discuss the lack of evidence that prayer as petition works or that the soul has a separate existence from the body or that there is an afterlife. Thus it concludes that a god with attributes #3 and #5 doesn’t exist.

Chapter four shows that neither a god with attributes #1 nor #2 is necessary to explain the origin of the universe or the laws of physics. Chapter five further attacks these attributes by addressing the anthropic principle, that the structure of the universe is fine-tuned for life. It argues that the “fine-tuning” of the cosmological constants isn’t nearly as precarious that they are made out to be, and that there are other sets of constants that could create other universes with life in them.

To be honest, at first I thought chapter six, which proves the scriptures are wrong when they make testable statements about the world, took on too easy a target in attribute #7. I mean, you get into all sorts of trouble with literal interpretation. But it turns out there is no archaelogical evidence for even the parts that sound plausible, like the kings and judges. It leaves you wondering if there’s anything historical in the Bible.

Chapter seven shows there is no need for a god with attribute #6 to give us our sense of right and wrong. We have a common set of moral standards that goes back into all history, prehistorical myths, and even into the evolution of social animals.

Are you starting to see a pattern here? None of the attributes are in order. And then, instead of attacking attribute #8, chapter eight discusses the problem of evil, brings the 3O god back into the argument, and dismisses him again. This is interesting, but it has nothing to do with science.

In chapter ten, the book recaps what it actually proved (again, much condensed):

  1. The complex structure of the world can be understood to arise from simple natural processes, not God.
  2. There is no evidence for a soul or an afterlife, let alone a God who bestowed them.
  3. There is no evidence for miracles, including some of the most important biblical narratives.
  4. No violations of physical law–or interventions by God–were required to produce the universe.
  5. The universe is not congenial to human life, which is inconsistent with a God who fine-tuned it.
  6. There is no empirical confirmation of a God who communicates with humans by direct revelation.
  7. The evidence shows that humans define morals and values for themselves, without God.
  8. The existence of evil is inconsistent with an omniscient, omnibenevolent, omnipotent God.

As theologians are confronted with the physical evidence, they are retreating to the possibility that god hides himself. This verges into the problem of evil, since a loving god would not hide from believers who seek him. There is a variant where god hides himself from all but his selected elite. The book concludes that god with attribute #8 could exist, but he would be evil.

There’s so much that fascinates me here, but it drives me crazy when I have to outline a book to figure out its structure, only to find that the structure is inconsistent. But for all its inconsistencies, I learned from it, including some good advice about life without God.

More to come next week.

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9 responses to “God: The Failed Hypothesis

  1. “Calculating God” by Robert Sawyer was a Hugo nominee for 2001.

    I gotta tell you, if this’d been the first novel by Sawyer I’d read, it would have been the last too. Contrived situations, and an ending with a deus ex machina… makes me think 2001 must have been a real bad year for science fiction if this one got a nomination.

    Anyways, you’ll want to read “Darwin’s Black Box” by Michael Behe, and “The God Delusion” by Richard Dawkins.

    I loved the Behe book*. He’s wrong, but the book made me think. Nothing wrong with thinking, I think, eh?

    * Hey, it was near “Campbell & Reece Biology,” and “The Dinosaur Heresies,” at the library. I love the biology section of the library. Weeks of entertainment, all within an arm’s reach.

  2. Science and religion (or philosophy in general) use different methodologies. Science is based on the notion of experimental falsicability. Philosophy (at least scientific philosophy – materialism) tries to generalize scientific findings to general axioms that apply to philosophical categories.
    So science can neither prove nor disprove the existence of God or any other spiritual entity.

  3. @Spyros:
    The Dawkins book discusses the “non-overlapping magisteria” which assigns science and religion to different domains. I recommend reading the book.

    Good luck finding a copy, though. At my local library, the wait time for reserving it is estimated to be a year. I lucked out. Sometimes a copy gets shelved by accident, and sometimes the person working the checkout counter forgets to check the “hold” status.

    P.S. I have invisible fairies in my garden. Prove it ain’t so. Something eats my tomatoes when I’m not looking.

  4. @emucompboy,

    Calculating God was my first (and sadly not my last) Sawyer book. I really liked the first third, but as you say, it got pretty heavy-handed. The ending was infuriating.

    As for Dawkins, I find him grating, but The Selfish Gene is on my list.

  5. @Spyros,

    It all depends on what you mean by god. SchwartzStenger* was addressing specific attributes that you would expect to have material consequences–which could then be evaluated by a materialistic philosophy like science. And science has not found evidence of phenomena that need a god to explain it.

    On the spiritual side, I’m not aware that any religious philosophers, after millennia of trying, have had any better luck proving or disproving the existence of god. Like George Carlin said, it’s a mystery.

    *(Corrected on 10/11/08)My stupid mistake. I was reading a book by Schwartz at the time.

  6. @ pam phillips

    You wrote “materialistic philosophy like physics”. Physics is not philosophy, it is science. Science and philosophy are not the same thing. Philosophy does not make calculations.
    I was not referring to any god in specific. I was referring to the existence of spiritual (or more generally non-material) beings. And yes, science has not found and will never find evidence of phenomena that are non-material (and hence non experimentally falsificable).

    Idealists (or religious philosophers) do not need proof for the existence of god. For idealism it is an axiom that spirit is the primary essence. Hence it is natural to assume that God (or any spirit) is eternal and thus primary to material beings.

  7. If “science has never found and never will find evidence of evidence of phenomena that are non-material” then they’re not really phenomena, eh?

    Invisible fairies in my garden are one explanation for the disappearance of my tomatoes. But they may not be the only explanation, and may not even be the best explanation. You can set up a hidden camera on my garden, and when it catches the people across the street coming over and stealing my tomatoes, I’ll tell you that you have no evidence that before the camera was set up, it wasn’t the invisible fairies doing it.

    How silly do I seem? At what point do you dismiss my claim of invisible fairies as worthless? At what point do you dismiss me as being a nutcase?

    *You hear Emu singing*
    Living in a material world, living in a material world…

    Disclosure: I am a Pascalian Protestant. “Pascalian” referring to Pascal’s Wager, and “Protestant” because the cost of entry is low.

  8. My turn for disclosure: Atheist with mystic leanings.

    My spiritual hero is Stephen “I do not believe in a personal god” Hawking. I used to meditate semi-regularly, and I have received the occasional taste of feeling the borders dissolve and briefly experiencing a sense of being part of the All-One. That being the sort of experience that is cited as proof of godhead, I am most interested in that conception of god.

  9. Of course, invisible fairies may be an explanation for the tomato robbery, though not a scientific one. Scientific explanations must be experimentally falsificable. Your point on fairies is well put, however not on scientific ground. So as a scientist i dismiss it for the above reason.
    Now i must call your attention to this point. As a physicist, i cannot prove nor disprove that fairies exist (the same applies to God or any other spirit). For science, it makes no sense talking about fairies. Any proof (on axiomatic grounds) must be sought in the philosophical domain.
    There, for example, materialists would say that fairies do not exist. Idealists would say that they do exist. As simple as that.

    I may have misinterpreted your 1st comment, emucomboy, but it makes no sense. In fact science only treats material phenomena, as i wrote above.

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