A Review of Victor J. Stenger’s book, God: The Failed Hypothesis

A review of Victor J. Stenger’s book, God: The Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist (Prometheus Books, 2007).

This is the first book ever published by the atheistic Prometheus Books press that ever made it to the New York Times best sellers list, and that’s newsworthy, especially since atheism is a minority viewpoint.

Stenger’s argument is that science has progressed to the point that it can now make “a definitive statement” on the existence of a God who has the attributes “traditionally associated with the Judeo-Christian-Islamic God.” (p. 11). His conclusion is that the existence of this God “is not only missing from but also is contradicted by the empirical data.” (p. 231).

In Stenger’s previous book, Has Science Found God? he argued that the evidence for God is “inadequate.” In this book he wants to say something more. Here he claims that the evidence is actually against the existence of God. (p. 17)

Stenger begins by basing his argument "on the contention that God should be detectable by scientific means simply by virtue of the fact that he is supposed to play a central role in the operation of the universe and the lives of humans." (p. 13) To those who disagree with this contention, he refers the reader to Theodore Drange's argument from non-belief, and to John L. Schellenberg's argument with regard to the problem of divine hiddenness. Drange has argued that since God wants people to believe and since he has the power to help them to believe, the reason why a majority of people don't believe in the Christian God is probably because God doesn't exist. Schellenberg has argued that since there are people who are open to believe in God who still don't believe, it means that a perfectly loving God probably doesn't exist.

Both Drange and Schellenberg’s philosophical arguments form the basis of Stenger’s whole argument, and I find them very persuasive. Stenger, however, seems to have a low view of philosophical arguments in general when it comes to solving the debate over the existence of God. He thinks science can step in where philosophical arguments only seem to lead to further debates, as both sides define and redefine the terms used in the arguments themselves. (p. 34). According to Stenger, “Arguments for and against God have been largely confined to philosophy and theology,” while “science has sat on the sidelines and quietly watched this game of words march up and down the field.” (p. 9)

The most charitable way to read Stenger is that scientific evidence is the way to tip the scales in favor of atheism, not that philosophy isn’t useful in doing so, since two philosophical arguments form the basis of his whole argument. But I’m not so sure such a charitable interpretation is justified, given what he said, and given that many scientific minded people eschew philosophical argumentation.

Stenger proceeds from here by arguing there is scientific evidence against the existence of God, in so far as “absence of evidence” is “evidence of absence.” (p. 18) “If we have no evidence or other reason for believing in God, then we can be pretty sure that God does not exist.” (p. 18). He claims that if there is a failure with the evidence, “the argument may be made that a hidden God still may exist,” but only if the believer can adequately deal with Drange and Schellenberg’s arguments.

After this introductory material Stenger argues that “design is an illusion,” simply because “earth and life look just as they can be expected to look if there is no God.” (p. 71). He argues that brain science shows us that “thought processes are accompanied by localized physical activity in the brain.” (p. 83) He argues there is no credible evidence for “out of body experiences,” for psychics who claim to contact the dead, for ESP, or for the efficacy of petitionary prayer.

In his most unique scientific argument he claims that since the existence of “nothing” is fundamentally unstable, “only by the constant action of an agent outside the universe, such as God, could a state of nothingness be maintained. The fact that we have something [rather than nothing at all] is just what we would expect if there is no God.” (p. 133).

Stenger moves on to the evidential failures with regard to religious experience, unfulfilled prophecies, Messianic and otherwise, and the lack of archaeological evidence for the Israelite Exodus. With regard to the Exodus, Stenger quotes former believer turned agnostic, William Dever, who said, “Absolutely no trace of Moses, or indeed of an Israelite presence in Egypt, has ever turned up.” (p. 186).

Stenger argues we don’t need the Bible for morality, and that at times the church has used it to justify horrendous things like Southern slavery. He argues: “the hypothesis of a God who provides moral knowledge is falsified by the observable fact that many of the moral teachings found in the scripture that are supposed revelations are not obeyed by even the most pious faithful.” (p. 173). And “the very fact that humans have a common moral conscience can be taken as evidence against the existence of God.” (p. 210).

Lastly Stenger argues that the amount and intensity of evil in this world is evidence against the existence of God. He concludes the book by arguing that religion has a negative impact upon society.

This is a very good book, scientifically speaking, as far as I understand the science that forms the background to his argument as a whole. He’s best when it comes to science, having authored a number of books on science. It should be read and discussed by everyone who is interested in the God question.

I find him lacking, as I do most scientifically minded people, when it comes to the areas of philosophy and theology, though. His arguments with regard to failed prophecies and the problem of evil are too brief, and too simple. There are several objections Christian believers can make against these arguments that he doesn’t show awareness of, or deal with, although, in the end I agree with his analysis. Stenger does provide further references for further reading which does what he doesn’t do, in many cases. Christians can claim there is historical evidence which shows Jesus arose from the dead, which may lead them to believe, despite the other problems Stenger finds with their belief. How does science dispute this claim of theirs? Christians can also argue God isn’t hidden in that the Holy Spirit reveals himself inwardly to everyone, even though I find these arguments unpersuasive.

This biggest problem I have with the book is that it isn’t just science that shows God probably doesn’t exist. It’s always the sciences taken together with philosophy that confirms or denies anything we believe. Without the philosophy, science can’t show much in the area of the existence of God. But in taking them both together this book presents a powerful case against the existence of God. I highly recommend it.


Lee Randolph said...

I heard an interview with him and I agreed with a lot of what he said. Thanks for the review John.

ReallyEvilCanine said...

Based on your review, I don't think I'll be rushing out for this one. You can't fight fallacious arguments with equally fallacious arguments. The common aphorism "Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence" (Marcello Truzzi, 1976; popularised by Carl Sagan) is the same fallacious logic used by those who believe in some deity. There's no difference between the following two versions of the Appeal to Ignorance:
* There's no evidence to disprove X, therefore X exists
* There's no evidence to prove X, therefore X doesn't exist

David Hume's quote (also popularised by Sagan) was "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence" and this is a more fitting basis for argument. The Skeptical Inquirer had a piece examining whether this phrase is actually true and without going into the full Bayesian explanation given, it's basically a complex explanation of what boils down to Occam's razor.

How is "the existence of 'nothing'... fundamentally unstable"? I don't see how you could possibly get any more stable than in a vacuum.

I appreciate the review and I'll keep looking for more books, but so many now do little more than rehash the same postulations and arguments already made by so many others.

Calvin said...

To say that nothing is unstable and the universe can somehow come into existence out of nothing violates the principle of cause and effect. This would undermine the entire foundation of all the sciences, mathematics, and logic. If absolute nothingness were unstable then our own realm would be disturbed. We should be observing spontanious creations within our own universe. We do not.

kbrown45@hotmail.com said...

reallyEvilCanine asks "... How is "the existence of 'nothing'... fundamentally unstable"? I don't see how you could possibly get any more stable than in a vacuum."

In answer to rEC's question, please check out:

"Why Steven Hawking's Cosmology Precludes a Creator"
by Quentin Smith


Calvin said...

The paper by Steven Hawking was published in 1983. To Hawking's credit, he later admitted in a Brief History of Time that the whole idea is just a proposal: it cannot be deduced from some other principle. Hawking also stated-"I thought I had left the question of the existence of a supreme being completely open ... it would be perfectly consistent with all we know to say that there was a being responsible for the laws of physics. Hawking, Letters to the editor: Time and the universe, American Scientist, 73, (1985), p. 12. The stronger the evidence becomes the more bizzare the hypotheses and attempts of scientist to get arround the beginning of the universe and the need for a Cause. It's on the same level as the young earth creationists who try to search for loopholes in the scientific evidence for an old earth. The evidence is clear.
By the way Steven Hawking is currently a Deist

calvin said...

The persistence of rejection of God's existence despte the build up of evidence suggests that the source of rejection is not intellectual. A great majority of free thinkers, agnostics, and humanists - call them what you will - are former Christians. They seem to be holding on to their past, holding on to bitterness over wrongs done to them by other Christians. The increasing absurdities in response to the evidence demonstrates how secure these evidences must be. Nothing in our experience can be proven absolutely. But when a conclusion is opposed by increasingly absurd alternative explanations, that indicates something about the stregnth of the conclusion. A good example of this is the flat earth society. The increasingly bizzare reasons presented by them show how strong the evidence is.

Benny said...


Enough with your BS about the "principle of cause and effect", which Shygetz has already refuted multiple times.

Here (Calvin posting as Houx and Anonymous)

Here (Calvin posting as Anonymous)

And here (Calvin, as Calvin)

I find it incredibly dishonest and disingenous of you to try peddling this once again. Did you think no one was paying attention or would remember when Shygetz proved you wrong? My suggestion to you: when an argument's been proven wrong, don't bother trotting it out again.

Benny said...

You also made a number of claims about Stephen Hawking.

The paper by Steven Hawking was published in 1983. To Hawking's credit, he later admitted in a Brief History of Time that the whole idea is just a proposal: it cannot be deduced from some other principle.

I would really like to see the exact quote, because I've personally seen you twist quotes and pretend they say something they didn't.

Hawking also stated-"I thought I had left the question of the existence of a supreme being completely open ... it would be perfectly consistent with all we know to say that there was a being responsible for the laws of physics.

Let's suppose, for the moment, that he did say this. All he has said is that the laws of physics leave open the logical possibility of a creator. He did *not* say there is any evidence of a creator, let alone a Christian God.

By the way Steven Hawking is currently a Deist

Do you have a quote of Hawking stating that he is a Deist? Is his Deism a personal belief or a theory rooted in evidence? Because what really matters is the evidence for an idea, not the name of the person who proposed it.

And supposing that Hawking really is a Deist, how does this show support for your Christian God? Deism merely posits a creator who got things started but does not interfere in the universe's operation. This idea stops well short of the Christian God.

Calvin said...

Well, he did say it. The law of causality that science operates on wasn't refuted. Without the law of Causality science is impossible. True knowledge is knowledge by causes. Science is a search for causes. If there is one thing we've observed about the universe is that things don't happen without a cause. When a man is driving down the street a car doesn't appear in front of him out of nowhere. If fact to deny the law of causality is to deny rationality. The very process of rational thought requires us to put together thoughts (causes) that results in conclusions (the effects). So if anyone ever says they don't believe in the Law of Causality simply ask that person, "What CAUSED you to come to that conclusion?" The Law of Causality is well established and undeniable. If the power of causal thought drives people to acknowledge a sufficient cause then what unregenerate person would want to embrace the fundamental principle of science? In essence, such people want to avoid acknowledging their creator, for as we learn from Romans 1, acknowledging God is tantamount to giving thanks to Him, and giving thanks to Him is tantamount to loving obligation and self-denial.

The madness deepens.

Calvin said...

With the evidence for the beginning of the universe so strong atheists try to destroy the fundamental principle of science. This is dangerous ground for atheists who typically pride themselves on being champions of science on logic. The Law of Causality is foundational to all science. Destroy the Law of Causality and you destroy science itself. Atheists try to cast doubt on causality by citing quantum physics. At the quantum level there is an inability to simultaneously predict the location and speed of subatomic particles. The atheist will say that causality at the subatomic realm isn't necessary. Fotunately for the precious discipline of science the atheist attempt to cast doubt on causality fails. It confuses causality with predictability. The movement of electrons isn't uncaused. It only describes our inability to predict their speed and location at any given time. The mere fact that we can't predict something doesn't mean that it doesn't have a cause. In fact quantum theorist acknowledge that we might not be able to predict the sinultaneous speed and location of electrons because our very attempts at observing them are the cause of their unpredictable movements. Like a beekeeper putting his head in a beehive, we must stir them up in order to observe them. Hence, the disturbance may be a case of the scientist looking at his own eyelashes in the microscope. Also, since scientists operate on causality then causality was used to discover quantum physics. If quantum physics causes causality to become unreliable then quantum physics becomes unreliable. This too is self-defeating. In the end the attempts of atheists to destroy the fundamental principle of science fails. The flaws in the philosophical aspects of the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics have produced a variety of alternatives. At last count ten independent philosophcal models have been seriously proposed.

Nick Herbert, Quantum Reality: Beyond the New Physics: An Excursion into Metaphysics and the Meaning of reality
James Jeans, A Universe of Pure Thought, Quantum Questions, ed. Ken Wilber
Paul Teller, "Relativity, Relational Holism, and the Bell Inequalities,"Philosophical Consequences of Quantum Theory:Reflections on Bell's Theorem, ed. James T. Cushing and Eman McMullin

Houx Calvin Anonymous said...

I've been exposed! Benny has exposed me! I'm so ashamed! No! And all this time Benny I thought you believed it was someone else.
How silly of me.

Calvin said...

When people go arround claiming that the evidence for design (fine tuning of the universe for physical life on earth) is an illusion it reminds me of the young earth creationists who claim that the age of the universe is an illusion.

The delusion grows stronger

Benny said...

My apologies to the readers. I forgot how long the comment threads got in the links I provided. Let me provide direct pointer instead to select quotes from Shygetz.

On "Law of Cause and Effect" and Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics:
Shygetz At 1:49 PM, February 12, 2007 HERE

More on Copenhagen interpretation and "Law of Cause and Effect":
Shygetz At 7:01 PM, February 15, 2007 HERE

On fine-tuning argument and now the "Principle of Cause and Effect":
Shygetz At 3:35 PM, March 28, 2007 HERE

Benny said...

A question for our hosts:

What is the policy on someone who deliberately and repeatedly spouts provably false claims, such as Calvin's non-existent Law of Cause and Effect?

Calvin said...

You can't prove my claims false. The Law of Cause and Effect is a fundamental principle of science. No cause and effect no science. Period. Get use to it. The universe had a beginning therefore it must have had a cause.

Most people believe that God allows the universe to evolve according to a set of laws and does not intervene in the universe to break those laws....but it would still be up to God to wind up the clockwork and choose how to start it off. So long as the universe had a beginning, we could suppose that it had a creator.

Steven Hawking

Calvin said...

That nothing comes from nothing is a foundational belief and self-evident truth. These statements are true by virtue of the meaning of the words in the sentence and also because they describe the way the world is. Refrain from believing it and you forfeit the right to believe anything else based on it, that whatever happens in the world has an explanation in terms of an efficient cause. This includes virtually everything that is known or knowable on the basis of scientific investigation and common sense reasoning. Consequently the principle of causality is philosophically sound and stands firm as the first principle of science. The very denial of causality implies a necessary causal connection in the thought process. Otherwise how can you know for sure that your conclusions are correct? Without assuming a necessary basis(cause), the denial is meaningless. It is also assumed that the argument against causality (the cause) can be used to convince those who believe in causal connections to become a skeptic like themselves(effect), or why bother making an argument or write books? For these reasons it is self-defeating.

Anonymous said...

Scientific data on the speed of light slowing down! This would make the earth some 14,000 years old at the most!

Sorry, but I laugh at the notion of the big bang theory.

Calvin said...

The planet is also flat and the sun revolves arround the earth