Victor Stenger replies to “Who made God?” June 23, 2011

Dr. Victor Stenger, physicist, atheist and author of “God, the failed hypothesis”, has responded to my critique of his book which forms Ch.5 of “Who made God?”. The response is published on his website at . I am a passionate believer in ‘the right to reply’ so I am reproducing his response here in full followed, paragraph by paragraph, by comment by myself.I appreciate Dr Stenger’s objective approach to this debate which is in distinct and welcome contrast to the fulminations of other ‘scientific atheists’.  I shall refer to Dr. Stenger as “VS”. He refers to my book as “Who” and to his own book as “God”. I refer to my book as “WMG””. I have numbered VS’s paragraphs and my replies are in bold italic.   Here we go!

Responses to Edgar Andrews, Who Made God: Searching for a Theory of Everything, (Darlington, UK: EP Books, 2009) referring to Victor J. Stenger, God: The Failed Hypothesis. How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist, (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 2007).

1. (Who p. 60): “Victor Stenger argues (God p. 125) that ‘[if] the universe had a cause, why could that cause itself not be natural?’ He seems to think it could, but then he would be obliged to explain the natural cause of the cause, followed by the cause of the cause, and so on ad infinitum.” At the point I had just got through showing that the universe need not have had a cause since many quantum events happen without cause. The point here is that even if it could be shown that everything must have a cause, that cause need not be God. Besides, the same argument would apply to God. Who caused God? The usual answer is that God is the first cause, uncaused. But if God can be uncaused, why can’t the universe?

[By claiming that “many quantum events happen without cause” VS is merely saying they happen spontaneously. But a spontaneous event is not an uncaused event. It is a double contingency depending on (a) the pre-existing state of the system involved and (b) the physical laws applicable to that system. In no way is it a failure or absence of causation.]

2. (Who p. 65): Andrew refers to a statement by the National Academy of Sciences (God p. 28), “’Science can say nothing about the supernatural. Whether God exists or not is a question about which science is neutral.’ Stenger obviously disagrees, but his disagreement here is with the scientific community at large rather than with those who believe in God.” The NAS is not the scientific community at large. In fact, I disprove the NAS’s disingenuous statement by listing the major scientific groups studying the effects of intercessory prayer, certainly bearing on the existence of God or the supernatural.

[The views expressed by the NAS are widely held by the scientific community at large, and this was my point. Whether a study of prayer can ever be truly scientific is a moot point. Suppose God decided on principle never to answer prayer that was the subject of ‘scientific’ study; where would that leave the science or its conclusions?]

3. (Who pp. 67-68): Andrews objects to my treating God as a hypothesis that can be tested. He says, without direct quotation, that I “imply God should be detectable: (1) by scientific ‘models’; (2) by ‘our senses and scientific instruments’; and (3) by scientific methods.” He the proceeds to dispute these claims. Since I never made such claims, I will not try to defend them. Anyone who has read any of my books knows I would never say that models detect anything. I simply say that God is not needed as part of any existing models but make clear that, if the evidence should require it, science should be ready to include supernatural causes. If anything, Andrews should appreciate that, unlike most scientists, I allow for the possibility that we may not always be able to explain everything purely naturally. Currently we can, but I cannot predict the future.

[Here and elsewhere VS says I give no direct quotations. In this case. in fact, I do, immediately above the words he quotes from WMG (pp. 66-67) But I then go on to examine the logical implications of what he writes — which implications, by their very nature, cannot be directly quoted. I accept that he doesn’t claim that models ‘detect’ the absence of God but I do use the word ‘imply’ in the sentence and I think my statement is a fair summary of his argument that models, by not requiring God, tend to imply God’s non-existence.]

4. As for God being detectable, I never said that we should be able to detect God directly with scientific instruments. My claim is that the Judeo-Christian-Islamic God has certain attributes that should lead to observable phenomena. I give specific examples of scientific results that would show God exists. These include convincing positive results of prayer studies and the corroboration of revelatory claims. The fact that we do not see these phenomena when we should is the basis for my conclusion that this particular God does not exist beyond a reasonable doubt.

[This response splits hairs. There is no practical difference between detecting God scientifically and detecting the works of God (observable phenomena) scientifically. The more basic problem, however, is that atheists refuse to accept the evidence of God’s creative work when they see it, e.g. the fact that life is based on information stored using an ingenious code and a genetic language].

5. (Who p. 69): Andrews says I claim “every hypothesis is ‘scientific.’” He gives no reference and I don’t recall ever making such a statement.

[Again this is something VS implies rather than states but it does follow logically from his stance. If he does indeed allow that there are hypotheses that cannot be tested scientifically, then he must also allow that the hypothesis of God’s existence may fall into that category and therefore be inaccessible to scientific proof or disproof. If this is the case, what are we to make of the subtitle of his book; “How science proves that God does not exist”?]

6. (Who p. 70): Andrews lists seven statements that he asserts summarize my chain of reasoning and then says why they are fallacious. There is no point in repeating them here. Again he gives no reference or direct quotation and I do not recall making such a chain of arguments.

[The chain of arguments derives from an analysis of what VS does write — as should be clear from my comments that precede the ‘chain’ on pp. 69-70.]

7. Andrews clearly does not understand my argument for the non-existence of God. He continually says I base it on the lack of evidence. He misses the point of my whole book. It is not just the absence of evidence alone, but the absence of evidence that should be there on which I base my case.

[I have already responded to this point; see my comment above  that begins ‘This response splits hairs’.]

8. (Who pp. 70-74): Here Andrews does quote me directly on some historical and biblical matters and, mixing metaphors, calls me “atheism’s Don Quixote, enthusiastically (and perhaps innocently) tilting at windmills and riding down straw men.” Maybe I am dreaming the impossible dream when I think a highly educated chemist should not take seriously a book of ancient myths except, at most, as literature.

[A gentle point appreciated as such. But the fact that many highly educated scientists do take the Bible seriously (not as ancient myths but as the vehicle of divine revelation) should give VS food for thought.]

9. (Who pp. 77): “Dr. Stenger asserts that the self-assembly of complex biological systems is common—and then ruins his case by citing as his only evidence the repetitive patterns often found in nature or generated by computers.” In God pp 63-64 I discuss how complexity arises from simplicity, not just in biology but in many physical systems. The example I discuss in detail is the formation of spiral patterns in nature. I have a photograph of a sunflower. Both a laboratory study with magnetic droplets and a computer simulation show how this observed pattern arises without being programmed in, that is, without an intelligent designer. Andrews claims a repetitive pattern isn’t a complex system. What does he, a chemist, call the repetitive patterns he sees in DNA?

[My argument throughout WMG is that information (which is the basis of life) cannot be conveyed by repetitive patterns. The regions of DNA that are transcribed to generate proteins, RNAs and control factors (see WMG p.236) are specifically not repetitive patterns—rather, they constitute a language in which specific arrangements of language elements (symbols and ‘words’) are arranged in semantically meaningful messages. I deal with this at length in Ch. 12 of WMG. No amount of repetitive pattern can form a language or communicate information.]

10. (Who p. 78): “Doesn’t Dr. Stenger’s idea that simplicity begets complexity [see above] totally contradict Richard Dawkins’ argument that God, having created an exceedingly complex universe, must be even more complex and thus highly improbable?” Here’s exactly what Dawkins said: “A designer God cannot be used to explain organized complexity because any God capable of designing anything would have to be complex enough to demand the same kind of explanation in his own right. God presents an infinite regress from which he cannot help us escape. This argument . . . demonstrates that God, though not technically disprovable, is very very improbably indeed (Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2006, p. 109.) The point Dawkins was making is that if, Dembski, Bethe, and their supporters are correct and that complexity can only arise from higher complexity, then God would be even more complex and an explanation would then have to be found for his complexity. But he does not believe for a moment that this is the case. I have personally checked with Dawkins and he agrees with my interpretation of his words. No one has been more eloquent than Richard Dawkins in describing how complexity arises from simplicity in biology, so it is ludicrous to say he supports the ID view. Note that when Dawkins says the existence of God is “technically unprovable, he is also not disagreeing with me. I concur that we cannot disprove the existence of all conceivable gods by logic alone. My argument is scientific, not philosophical, and refers specifically to a god with the attributes of the Abrahamic God.

[The problem here is that Dawkins, at different points in his book, argues both ways. I was referring to such passages as the following where he rejects arguments from the ‘fine tuning’ of the universe as described in the British Astronomer Royal’s book “Just six numbers”. Dawkins says: “A God capable of calculating the Goldilocks values for the six numbers would have to be at least as improbable as the finely tuned combination of numbers itself, and that is very improbable indeed. … It follows that the theists’ answer [that God is simple because He is a single essence] has utterly failed to make any headway towards solving the problem …” (Black Swan edition 2007 pp. 171-172)]

11. (Who p. 97): “Without making it clear which ‘nothing’ he [Stenger] is talking about, he claims (God p. 133) that ‘the transition from nothing to something is a natural one, not requiring any agent.” In fact I spend a lot of time trying to clarify the question that theists like Andrews always ask: How can something come from nothing? Since they are asking the question, they have the burden of defining what they mean by nothing. Assuming they can, then there are two states of existence: something and nothing. The theist then assumes nothing is the more natural state and so the transition nothing-to-something requires an agent, which is what we call God. Now, I ask, why should nothing be more natural than something?

[I don’t think VS has grasped my point here, which is as follows. He (and others like Stephen Hawking) claim that the original universe(s) arose from ‘nothing’ as a result of quantum fluctuations but this means that ‘nothing’ has physical properties — being a medium which supports certain laws of nature and in which fluctuations can occur. I call this kind of nothing “void-one” (WMG p.151).  By contrast I denote as ‘void-zero’ the ‘nothing’ that preceded the existence of the universe (including space, time and the laws of nature) and which by definition can have no physical properties because it exists in the absence of a physical universe. Unless the universe had no beginning (is eternal) it arose out of void-zero and therefore cannot be explained by any physical/material process. The ‘no-beginning’ argument is the atheist’s fall-back position, of course, but this position conflicts with the experimental evidence and leads to some amusing mental gymnastics by Hawking in “The grand design” where he says: ‘the realisation that time behaves like space … means that the beginning of the universe was governed by the laws of science and doesn’t need to be set in motion by some god’ (p.135). So apparently the universe did ‘begin’ after all, but not in time. Confused? Me too.]

12. [VS continues:] I give examples from physics where the natural state of a system is its simplest state. Furthermore, the transition from simple to complex is spontaneous, that is, not the result of any causal agent. An example is gas-to-liquid-to-solid. This is the natural sequence and an agent, namely an input of heat, is required to reverse the process. Assuming then that nothing, however we define it, is simpler than something, we expect that the natural state of existence to be something rather than nothing, not requiring God. It would take an agent such as God to maintain a state of nothing.

[VS really isn’t thinking here. He says (1) that “the natural state of a system is its simplest state “. He next says (2) that “nothing … is simpler than something”. He finally concludes (3) that “the natural state of existence [is] something rather than nothing”. Of course the correct deduction from (1) and (2) is the reverse of (3), that is, that nothing, being simpler than something, is the natural state. The example doesn’t work either because the conversion of gas-to-liquid-to-solid requires agency (the removal of heat) in exactly the same way as the reverse transitions require an agency (the addition of heat). ]

13. (Who p. 120-121): “Neither Dr. Stenger nor anyone else has a clue—exact or inexact—about how the universe originated by material causes.” Neither Dr. Andrews nor anyone else has a clue—exact or inexact—about how the universe originates, happens, or is affected by immaterial causes. In two books (Victor J. Stenger, The Comprehensible Cosmos: Where Do the Laws of Physics Come From?, Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2006, pp. 312-319; Victor J. Stenger, The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning: How the Universe is Not Designed for Us, Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2011, pp. 139-147), I work out with mathematics fully within the capability of a chemist a natural scenario for the origin of the universe based on a published model by James Hartle and Stephen Hawking (“Wave Function of the Universe,” Physical Review D28 (1983): 2960-75.) This is not the only published scenario for a natural origin based on known physics. I am not claiming the universe really happened the way I describe, just that the fact that such scenarios have been fully worked out quantitatively shows that science (currently) has no need for a creator.

[I’m sure the mathematics are fine though I haven’t checked. The problem is the model which (as I recall) assumes that the alleged multiverse has a wave functions with peaks and troughs just like those of wave-functions in quantum mechanics. For this to be true the multiverse must be a quantum particle and there isn’t the slightest evidence that this is the case (or even could be the case).]

14. (Who p. 122): Andrews quotes Sir Roget Penrose as saying “the standard big bang model is agreed.” Andrews misinterprets this as somehow conflicting with any natural scenarios such as the ones mentioned above. They do not. The big bang is part and parcel of any viable model for the natural origin if our universe.

[I quote Penrose’s statement that “the standard big bang model is agreed and everything else is embellishments and flights of fancy” simply as a warning of “the danger of being seduced by speculations masquerading as science” (WMG p.122).]

15. (Who pp. 150-151): Andrews tries to undermine my proposal about where the universe and the laws of nature come from, namely, that they came from nothing—from the void. He tries to distinguish between two kinds of void: Void-zero is “the eternally pre-existent, non-physical framework in which the physical universe began and must, by definition, lie beyond the reach and remit of science.” He says I confuse this with void-one, which “lies entirely within the material universe” and is “a constituent of the cosmos” that is composed of empty space. By whose definition? He further adds, “The laws of nature . . . are just part of the created physical order . . . . The symmetries of void-one (if they exist) do nothing to explain the origin of the laws of nature, being themselves simply an expression or manifestation of those laws.” Andrews is making a metaphysical assumption that this “void-zero” exists in reality. He cannot know that. He is basing that statement on faith, not science. He is also making a metaphysical assumption that the laws of nature are something inherent to the universe, part of the “created order” that we scientists discover. He also cannot know that by any scientific means. My position is purely scientific. I am merely countering the theological claim that science cannot describe the origin of the universe and its laws in purely natural terms. I show we can. What we call the laws of nature, specifically physics, are elements of the models devised by scientists to describe their observations. The quantities in these models, such as space, time, and mass, are defined operationally by how they are measured. No assumption is made, nor need be made, about their metaphysical reality.

[I may be confused but isn’t VS here making my point for me? He says: “What we call the laws of nature … are elements of the models devised by scientists to describe their observations. The quantities in these models, such as space, time, and mass, are defined operationally by how they are measured. No assumption is made, nor need be made, about their metaphysical reality.” My own point is that the laws of nature are simply our descriptions of the way the universe works and that therefore they have no existence apart from the universe. Therefore the laws of nature, being simply descriptions of the universe, cannot be the cause of the universe as VS and Hawking seem to maintain. Surely it is they who need the laws of nature to have a metaphysical existence so that these laws can operate in the absence of the universe to create the universe. (Hawking specifically invokes the laws of gravity and quantum mechanics to explain ‘creation’).]

16. I show that a model can be built in which you describe a system with no particles or energy (which can be done mathematically, consistent with all known physics), impose on it a set of coordinate axes for space, time, and any other variables you wish to add (all operationally defined), and then apply a simple criterion: You assume that the model you build cannot depend on the particular point-of-view of any observer. When you do that, almost all the basic laws of physics emerge. But you have to look at the mathematics, worked out in detail in The Comprehensible Cosmos, to believe it.

[I haven’t studied this model so can only comment briefly. If the model contains neither matter nor energy it is difficult to see how it can predict the behaviour of matter and energy or the natural laws that govern such behaviour. Yet “almost all the basic laws of physics“ are surely concerned with the behaviour of matter and energy.]