Sunday, July 12, 2009

Stenger's Failed Hypothesis P. I

Victor J. Stenger is professor emeritus of physics and astronomy at the University of Hawaii. He has also written several respected books. One of which is his treatise on the non-existence of God, God: The Failed Hypothesis (How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist).

I am not able to write on the details of scientific research, so on that account, I can confess that Stenger definitely has an edge on me. However, his intended purpose -- to show from science that God does not exist -- runs headlong into an area I can makes heads-or-tails of: theology and philosophy.

Now, to be sure, Stenger has done an excellent job laying out his case. In short, Stenger reasons from physical data that the universe looks just as one would expect if God were non-existent. By way of Karl Popper's doctrine of falsifiability (essentially, an assertion can be shown to be false via physical tests/experimentation), Stenger moves to show God as an unverifiable assertion; that is, God cannot be shown to exist through the use of modern scientific methodologies and applications. To quote Stenger:

"The thesis of this book is that the supernatural hypothesis of God is testable, verifiable, and falsifiable by the established methods of science." [1]

Falsifiability seems to be a reasonable guideline at first glance. But when one really takes a good look at falsifiability, it is a principle, or assertion, which itself cannot be falsified. For example, (from the Wikipedia link above) "all men are mortal" is an assertion which cannot be falsified because no amount of physical data can deny that statement. By contrast, however, an experiment can be rigged to show that "all men are immortal" is definitely falsifiable; visit a morgue and the falsifiability of "all men are immortal" is self-evident.

The doctrine of falsifiability on the other hand, is a notion that cannot be tested and shown false because it is a strict, or pure existential statement. That is, untestable due to being non-empirical. This agrees with Popper's original intent for falsifiability: only empirical statements are subject to falsifiablity because philosophical and metaphysical assertions are irrefutable by definition.

To boil this down a bit:

1. Statements that imply, or assert anything to do with actual existence are empirical statements, and therefore testable.

2. The statement that "God exists" asserts the actual existence of a divine superpower, therefore God must be detectable by scientific method.

3. If God cannot be detected, he does not exist. If he can be detected, then we can enjoy the knowledge of his reality.

Stenger's use of falsifiability is commonplace amongst scientists. But my problem with it is simple: why are scientists drawing from the purely existential assertion of falsifiability to justify empiricism? And what happens if we consider assertion itself a form of data? How can you test the falsifiability of the data of the nature of assertion? To put it another way, what data shows assertion to be falsifiable?

Perhaps I'm playing a linguistic game. If I am, I'm not intending to. But I think I'm concerned about Stenger's premise of falsifiability. It is a self-referrential, self-confirming methodology. On that basis, it becomes a severely biased premise that ultimately affirms itself, and automatically excludes anything that does not fit within its pre-established parameters. In effect, it does the very thing that people say they don't like about the followers of the three monotheisms: reason itself to be right above all other ways of knowing.

Given the problematic use of falsifiability, Stenger launches into atheological arguments against the existence of God. He often accuses theists of having definitional problems within their premises and, while doing so, regularly misdefines the position of theists and the premises they use to comprise their arguments.

More, Stenger seems to think that science alone is rigorous in its demands for properly supported ideas, and not just blindly accepted assertions.

"What history shows is that science is very demanding and does not blindly accept any new idea that someone can come up with. New claims must be thoroughly supported by the data, especially when they may conflict with well-established knowledge." [2]

As with science, so with theology and philosophy. Any cursory reading in church history, or the history of philosophy will reveal the same ardent striving for reliable support that science demands in modern times. Methodologies may have changed in some ways, but the demand for supported ideas and reasoned conclusions has not changed at all. So Stenger's implied accusation that other disciplines do blindly accept new ideas is defied by the historical divides between orthodoxy and heterodoxy, Platonic and Aristotelian schools, Augustinianism and Thomism, Cartesian dualism and monism, pyrrhic skepticism and fideism, etc. Stenger has concluded too hastily that science stands out in history in any way when it comes to examining data to arrive at a conclusion.


[1] Stenger, Victor J. God: The Failed Hypothesis (How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist) Prometheus Books, NY, 2008, p. 29
[2] Ibid., p. 28


Tag-photos said...

Sorry if this does not directly address anything in your entry, but I still want to say it.

Why do these scientists think they are qualified to write books on theology and philosophy?

Christopher said...


I think your question is indirectly on-topic, actually. Afterall, I am examining the claims of a scientist using science in a philosophical manner to attempt to disprove the existence of God.

Why they think they are qualified to write books on theology and philosophy is, quite simply, because they deem themselves to be. Qualification to write about something of interest to you requires only that you be interested in writing about whatever that is. In the case of these scientists, they have (presumably) spent a good deal of time becoming not only experts in their chosen fields, but also in the area they're writing against.

Unfortunately for Stenger, he has glossed over entire swaths of history, biblical narratives, and theology. For example (and I will show this in a later article), he mentions the bible as saying such-and-such in such-and-such a passage. However, when I look it up in at least a dozen interpretations, it's not there. Why's that? Most likely because he's writing against something that he heard was in the bible instead of finding out what's actually in the bible.

Or, take Dawkins as another example. He's useless as a philosopher, or theologian. However, he has taken great pains to talk to people who actually know those fields, and therefore he seems to think he knows something about them. When I was reading through his monumentally stupid book The God Delusion, he attempted to explain the 'teleological argument', and in the midst of doing so got his summation wrong, then used it as a straw man to knock down. And his book is chalked full of that kind of fallacious reasoning; so-much-so, in fact, that I know of at least one professional philosopher that has named a logical fallacy after Dawkins.

More later...