Victor Stenger – God: The Failed Hypothesis

March 02, 2007

Victor Stenger is Emeritus Professor of Physics at the University of Hawaii and Adjunct Professor of Philosophy at the University of Colorado. He is also founder and president of Colorado Citizens for Science. He’s held visiting faculty positions at the University of Heidelberg in Germany, and at Oxford in the United Kingdom, and has been a visiting researcher at Rutherford Laboratory in England, the National Nuclear Physics Laboratory in Frascati, Italy, and the University of Florence in Italy. Stenger’s search career has spanned the period of great progress in elementary particle physics that ultimately led to the current standard model. He participated in experiments that helped establish the properties of strange particles, quarks, gluons, and neutrinos and has also helped pioneer the emerging fields of very high energy gamma ray and neutrino astronomy. In his last project before retiring, Vic collaborated on the experiment in Japan which showed for the first time that the neutrino has mass. He is the author of many books, including Comprehensible Cosmos, The Unconscious Quantum, Not by Design, Has Science Found God, and the recent New York times best-seller God: The Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows that God Does Not Exist.

In this talk with D.J. Grothe, Stenger explores many of the topics treated in his book, including the scientific evidence against the belief in God, where the laws of physics come from if not from a divine lawgiver, what E.S.P. research may imply about God’s existence, the morality of atheism, and whether science should even be treating the topic of God in the first place.

Also in this episode, Austin Dacey, director of the Center for Inquiry in New York City details the upcoming Secular Islam Summit in Florida, and the growing grassroots movement of secular muslims working to advance rationalism, science, and the separation of mosque and state in the Islamic world.

This is point of inquiry for Friday, March 2nd, 2007. 

Welcome to Point of inquiry, I’m DJ Grothe a point of inquiry is the radio show, the podcast of the Center for Inquiry, which is a think tank collaborating with the State University of New York at Buffalo on the new science and the public master’s degree. CFI also has branches in New York City, Tampa, Hollywood, Washington, D.C. and Toronto, Ontario, Canada. In addition to 14 other cities around the world. Every week on this show, we examine some of the basic assumptions of our society through the lens of scientific naturalism, focusing mostly on pseudoscience and the paranormal, alternative medicine or secularism in religion. We look at these three areas by drawing on CFD relationship with the leading minds of the day, including Nobel Prize winning scientists, public intellectuals, social critics and thinkers and renowned entertainers. Before we get to my discussion with Vic Stanger and his book, God The Failed Hypothesis, I want to bring on the phone. Austin Dacey, an old friend of mine who’s now heading up CFI as New York City branch. We’re putting on in St. Petersburg this weekend. He’s one of the conference organizers, an event called the Secular Islam Summit. I want to bring him on the phone so we can talk about that, because I think listeners to point of inquiry will be especially interested in this event. Austin, welcome to Point of Inquiry again. 

Hi, D.J.. 

Good to be with you, Austin. This week in Point of inquiry is going to be covering the secular Islam summit. Let’s begin by you telling me what it’s all about. Why is there all this brouhaha about this conference? We’ve put on conferences everywhere and we never receive this kind of controversy. 

This conference is something that’s never happened before. Secular Islam Summit is a first of its kind international gathering of secular Muslims to discuss the history and future of reason and freedom of conscience and separation, mosque and state in Islamic societies. And it will culminate with a reading of a declaration by the delegates at a press conference on Monday afternoon at 2:00 p.m.. 

Austin Secular Islam. Isn’t that kind of a contradiction in terms? 

Well, no. By a secular Muslim, we mean someone who is either a an unbeliever or an agnostic, but of a Muslim heritage or someone who is a practicing Muslim, but affirms the separation of mosque and state and freedom of conscience and human rights. 

I want to talk to you about the agenda of the conference. You’re along with many of these apostate Muslims, these dissident Muslims around the world, some of the leading thinkers in this kind of fringe part of the Islamic world. You’re putting on this conference along with them. I want to talk to you about your agenda. Aren’t these people who are with you at this conference necessarily a little Islamophobic? They’re anti-Muslim because they’re formally Muslim. Isn’t this just a bunch of Islamophobic scholars getting together to talk about why they have problems with Islam? 

Well, first of all, the conference is being sponsored by the Center for Inquiry, not me. And there are many people involved and many outstanding delegates. As you mentioned, people like your shot Manji, the feminist author of The Trouble with Islam Today, Wolf, a full turn, the Syrian American psychiatrist who became an international sensation last year when she engaged in a televised debate on Al Jazeera with the sheikh about secularism and human rights, which has been downloaded over a million times on the Internet. Right. 

That is breathtaking. And we’ll have a clip of that on point of inquiry dot org. 

It’s poetry. Nani Darwish, Egyptian born woman who started an organization called Arabs for Israel, a man named Tofiq Hameed who narrowly escaped being drawn into a life of terrorism with an al-Qaida affiliate organization and who now preaches a tolerant version of Islam. We have a distinguished member of the Iraqi parliament who will be giving an address and of course, then for inquiry’s own in the war. So people are coming from Iran, Iraq, Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia and elsewhere, many of whom are Muslims themselves. So it would it would be absurd to say that they are Islam phobic. But on the whole idea of Islamophobia. Let me just quote from the draft of the declaration that the delegates are preparing. They say we see no colonialism, racism or so-called Islamophobia in submitting Islamic practices to criticism or condemnation when they violate human reason or rights. The condescension and contempt shown by those who regard Muslims as beneath the ethical and intellectual stand. Applied to others. That’s what they have to say about the charge of Islamophobia. 

So no Islamophobia, but definite criticism of Islam as it’s practiced by many in the world today. 

Absolutely. Absolutely. And unabashed, they they stand for the absolute right of freedom, of rational scientific inquiry into their origins and sources of Islam and the moral foundations of the faith. Respect for belief does not mean immunity from criticism. I would argue it. It entails criticism when when serious claims made in public affairs, you know, infringe on other people. 

Austin, I want to talk about something that I find kind of puzzling on this subject of Islamophobia. Many progressive thinkers on the American political left, they seem very pro Muslim and they accuse any who criticize Islam and even politically extremist Islam as being Islamophobic. Many of these people on the left see the current political religious problems coming from extremist Islam as a direct result of not Islam itself, but of failed American foreign policy, conservative foreign policy. In some sense, they kind of blame America for this hatred of the West that’s so rampant in parts of the Muslim world. Am I reading that right? Is there kind of this apology for Islam on the American political left? 

Yes, there is a there there’s a strange and I think very, very unfortunate alliance between just American, but also the European left and and Islamism. And I can tell you that as a proud liberal and the son of new left civil rights activists, it’s deeply troubling to me personally that opposing Islamism has come to be seen as a neo conservative issue. Maybe this is do as Paul Berman and Peter Beinart have argued to a kind of Western liberal fixation on partizan domestic policy struggles or a reflexive aversion to the exercise of American hard power abroad, or maybe as if new work is shed. Monti and others contend it’s a kind of misplaced multicultural sympathy. And all I can tell you is that it’s it’s not shared by these. Second, the Muslims freedom of conscience is a bipartisan issue. 

Women’s rights are a bipartisan issue, even if these issues you are addressing at the conference are bipartisan. You have to admit that many of the conference attendees, or at least some people on the dais are conservatives, part of the new conservative movement. What do you say to those who charge you and the other conference organizers, even the Center for Inquiry, for just being part of the hidden agenda of the far right? 

First of all, I’d say it is true that some of the people involved in in the secular Islam summit would be considered conservative or neo conservative by the categories of American domestic politics. But we make no apology for that. And if if we’re saddened at all that they’re not joined by equally notable and and informed liberals, where are the liberals on this issue? Where is the National Organization for Women on this issue? I would ask my liberal friends, which world do you prefer? One in which Western political, military and intelligence leaders are more ignorant about secular Muslims or more informed. That’s why we think they should be at the table. The participants in the Secular Islam summit, many of whom have bravely resisted Islam’s totalitarian expressions in Iran, Iraq, Egypt, Pakistan and elsewhere. They have nothing to apologize for. The shame is on those Western liberals who do not stand with them, who allow their hatred of Bush to strangle their solidarity with freedom, yearning people around the world. 

Well, you’ve convinced me, even if you and I have stayed up late at night, many times arguing over politics, you’re on the far left, kind of a social Democrat, maybe a Democratic socialist. I’m a little right of center still. You’re arguing that people of all political persuasions can come together in their criticism and critical examination of totalitarian, mystic Islam around the world. You’re saying that this issue should be one that we’re all interested in, but no one should take my word for it or the center for increased or. 

This is really a grassroots effort. It began in conversations that started at the Council for Secular Humanism conference towards a new enlightenment in upstate New York. Couple of years ago, and and there’s a Web site people can go to if they want to get. 

More information about the secular Islam Outreach CFI is investigation of of these topics. 

Yes, it’s secular Islam dot org. 

Austin, thanks for joining me on Point of inquiry Will. We’ll devote next week’s show to the conference that we’re covering this weekend. And you helped introduce it were before you go, just touch on how much media attention is being given this conference. You’re out. You actually had to build a media booth because a couple news networks are actually going to be broadcasting from this event. 

Yeah, that’s right. There’s a crew from CNN Headline News who will be broadcasting live from the event on Monday. We have journalists coming from the Associated Press, from U.S. World and News Report. I just read a story online from Al Arabiya in Arabic. Well, I can read it in Arabic, but I’m told it’s very favorable. We had a story come out yesterday by Kuwait News Agency that was favorite, very favorable. 

Austin, thanks for joining me on Point of Inquiry. 

Thank you, DJ Grothe. 

The world is under assault today by religious extremists to invoke their particular notion of God to try and control what others think can do. One magazine is dedicated to keeping you up to date with analysis that cuts through the noise and the surprising courage to pair politically incorrect. That magazine is Free Inquiry, the world’s leading journal of secular humanist opinion and commentary. Regular contributors include Richard Dawkins, Wendy Kaminer, Christopher Hitchens, Peter Singer and Sam Harris. Their views are reasoned, thought provoking and to some, unpardonable, infuriating. Subscribe to free inquiry today. One year, six controversial issues for 1995. Call one 800 four five eight one three six six or visit us on the Web at Secular Humanism, Dawg. 

I’m pleased to have this week’s guest on Point of Inquiry, Victor Stanger. He’s Emeritus Professor of physics at the University of Hawaii and adjunct professor of philosophy at the University of Colorado. He’s also founder and president of the Colorado Citizens for Science. He’s held visiting faculty positions at University of Heidelberg in Germany and at Oxford University and has been a visiting researcher at the Rutherford Laboratory in England. Also the National in Nuclear Physics Laboratory in Frascati, Italy, and also at the University of Florence in Italy. Stinger’s research career has spanned this period of great progress in elementary particle physics. This period that ultimately led to the current standard model of elementary particle physics. If you are a physicist, you might know what I’m talking about because I’m not sure that I do. Stanger has participated in the experiments that helped establish the properties of strange particles of quarks, gluons and neutrinos. And he’s also helped pioneer the emerging fields of very high energy gamma ray and neutrino astronomy. In his last project before he retired, Vic collaborated on the experiment in Japan, which showed for the first time that the neutrino has mass. He’s the author of many books, including The Comprehensible Cosmos, The Unconscious Quantum Not By Design and Has Science Found God. He joins me on point of inquiry today to talk about his recent bestseller, which is this week on The New York Times Best Sellers List God, The Failed Hypothesis How Science Shows That God does not exist. Welcome to Point of Inquiry, Victor Stanger. 

Well, I’m happy to be here. 

Vic, you’ve been around the humanist the skeptics movement for a while, and it’s been my pleasure. Bump into you couple cities out there as we travel. You’ve written mostly on science issues, but this book is different. This book is, for lack of another way of describing it. It’s an A.I. God book. It’s created this big stir. It’s being published kind of on the heels of these other big atheist books by Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. Let’s start our back and forth by exploring how your book is different than these other titles. 

OK. I would say, first of all, that all my books are science oriented. I mean, even in this book is perhaps the only one out there that questions the existence of God from a proper scientific basis. Right off the bat, I think that’s the unique thing about it. 

It’s not just the polemic. I hope it’s not a polemic at all against religion. It’s somewhat of criticism of religious people thinking, which I think these are the books also are primarily concerned with. But it’s an attempt to just look at the evidence and see what it has to say about the question of God. 

So you’re telling me you’re exploring this from a dispassionate perspective. But how can you defend that? How can you say this isn’t a polemic when you’re going against the central belief of most people on the planet? It seems like you, even as a reputable scientist, you’re spending your energy sticking it to all these God fearing people out there. 

Well, look, I’m just interested in what the data has to say, and believe me, I tried to say this several times throughout the book that I’m not dogmatic about this and I think most scientists are. And of course, you occasionally run into a dogmatic scientist. 

But if the data were there, I would have to believe it. Let me give you an example right off the top, because there’s people who often say that science can say nothing about God. 

So you’re not being polemical, but a lot of scientists agree with you, at least the position they’re atheist or agnostic. The majority of the members of the National Academy of Sciences, the leading scientists in America, are atheistic, but they’re not out there writing books against this cherished belief, even if they lack of belief in God, even if they’re atheist or agnostic. They argue that scientists shouldn’t be addressing these questions because the reasoning goes that we don’t know everything. So we certainly can’t definitively claim there is no God. But contrary to that line of thinking. You’ve written a book about how science shows that God does not exist. Aren’t you making science do more than what many other scientists say science can do? 

Well, I’m doing well. I think science can do. 

Namely, it can examine the empirical evidence for hypotheses. And the God hypothesis is every bit as much a scientific hypothesis because it has bearing on what we observe in the world. It’s every bit as much as some hypotheses concerning elementary particles, which was going to fuel the research. So that’s the approach. And I don’t claim that every conceivable kind of God can be ruled out. 

But the God they work with, which I called the God with a capital G, the God that really most people worship the God of Judaism, Christianity and Islam is a God that plays such an important role in the universe, in the life of humans, affecting everything that goes on every thought, every every atom that moves from here in a molecule on earth or out in some far-off galaxy. 

God is there having something to do with all of that. And that that makes an eminently detectable one, they claim, is that I go through in the book a number of kinds of observations that could lead to the discovery of God. And as I said, if they were to come out positive, then I would have to believe. I think most branches would become believers. We’re not opposing God out of any refusal to look at all the possibilities. Quite the contrary. We’re looking at all possibilities. And this is what we’re concluding still on this point. 

Veck, before we get into the book, specifically religious claims, faith claims about God, aren’t they by definition talking about things that science cannot measure, their claims about the immaterial world, not the material world. And science has to put on its blinders and talk only about the material world. Again, it seems like you’re making science tread on religion’s turf. And many great thinkers, Stephen Jay Gould, others say that science and religion for this reason have different domains and that one necessarily cannot address the other. You are making science get into that territory nonetheless. 

Well, it’s a get a question of the two kinds of naturalism that are defined by philosopher anthers methodological naturalism, which is basically just assuming natural explanations for everything. You’re going through the observational process with material objects, with material instruments and so on. And the other thing is metaphysical naturalism. And I think this is the notion that the universes matter and nothing else and the two are not necessarily the same thing. I think you can use methodological naturalism to study not only material, but a physics metaphysics of of material systems, but even the metaphysics of the immaterial, because despite what Stephen Jay Gould said, there is a lot of people who have criticized what Goulding’s had to say because he basically has tried to redefine religion is moral philosophy for good purposes. 

His heart was in the right place. He was just trying to do that to end the conflict between religion. His religion takes care of this and science takes care that we have these two non overlapping magisterium. 

But in fact, that’s what religion is. Religion isn’t just moral philosophy. Religion bears on everything that we we do in the physical universe. And so, therefore, science has a role to play at that point where it interacts with the physical world. I’m not claiming that we can observe the unobservable, just that we can observe the observable and then interpret that in terms of of various theories. And there’s nothing that precludes the supernatural as a plausible explanation for certain material events. 

So if science should get involved in looking at these claims, do you think that other scientists should become as vocal, as outspoken as you are when it comes to the God hypothesis? 

Yes. As you started to allude to these other books that are out there. This book is actually coming out fortuitously at a time when enthusiasm is kind of coming out of the closet a bit and asserting itself big, a little bit more aggressive in its criticism of religion, not only religious beliefs, but some of the actions that religion is taking of the religious right in this country gains more and more influence. The Bush administration demonstrates its contempt with science using faith based policymaking, which a lot of us see is very dangerous to the future of society and harmful to individuals affecting human lives, which is the sum of their stands on stem cell research and abortion, sex education and thought. Now, a book is not about that. I allude to it a little bit, but my book attempts to go to the heart of the matter, which is really does not exist. Is there any reason to believe that God exists? Is there any evidence one way or the other? 

And if there isn’t, then some of these these arguments that atheists are making now are that much stronger. That morality, for example, does not come from God. It comes from humans on evolution and society. So these are issues that are coming out now in my book is kind of a unique part of that whole. 

Will you Richard Dawkins said that he learned an enormous amount from your splendid book. I want to talk about some of the arguments that you use in the book. Well, you talk about earlier in the book what you called the illusion of design. The universe looks like it’s designed, but that’s an illusion. You find absolutely no evidence for a designer. 

Well. It looks like it’s designed only to the untutored viewer, someone who is not aware of the details of biological France, for example, will naturally tend to think that things look too, too complicated to possibly be explained. 

In fact, the argument from design is probably the single most common scientific argument, let’s call it, that’s given by people for or their belief in God. They look at the world around them and they say, how could this possibly have happened naturally? Well, that was once a good argument. I mean, you remember an 18 oh two. There was a British clergyman named William Paley who wrote a couple of books that were very effective. I remember reading that Darwin was extremely influenced by paisleys writing. In fact, when he went to Cambridge, he occupied the same room that Paley had occupied. And Paley’s writings, especially the book Natural Theology, were part of the syllabus at Cambridge at that time. And he said he was very delighted with it. He was delighted with his arguments as he was with with Euclid. They seemed to be so solid that it was a darker starlet himself that showed way Paley was was wrong, where there was a way that you could explain the complexity of life. And that, of course, was was evolution by natural selection. And so, you know, I think to go back again with Paley’s argument, he he talks about walking out in the heat and finding both Iraq and watch. And he says, well, your rock is obviously a natural object. But look at his watch. You could see that artifact. Now you look at the human body and you see all these complex systems like the I like the brain, like the are. 

And these are to him artifacts as well. And they said that that argument of Darwin came along with the evolutionary theory. And now what we know and we look more closely at things like the heart, things like the eye, and they look very much like a Rube Goldberg cobbled together devices that evolution explains much better than in any kind of notion of an intelligent designer. 

So if you look at the universe, in other words, if you look at living things, it doesn’t look Disneyland. In fact, if you look closely enough, it looks it looks exactly as it should look if it wasn’t designed. 

So even if evolution is a compelling explanation for the complexity of life, it doesn’t mean that God didn’t wind everything up and let it go, that God isn’t using evolution. What I’m getting at is even if there’s no evidence for a designer, it doesn’t mean that he does not exist. Absence of evidence isn’t the same thing as evidence of absence. 

Right. That’s why I don’t use that argument. Absence of evidence is evidence for absence. This is not an absence of evidence or argument. It’s an evidence argument. It’s an evidence against argument. 

Namely, you look at the data in the light of the hypothesis of God. And I claim that, sure, you can always argue your way out of these things. But the arguments pile up one after one, and not just intelligent design, but everything else. You say you hypothesize a God that has this attribute that he design the universe. Well, there should be evidence for design to design the universe. It should be evidence for it. We get into the question of whether he’s hiding it from us. That’s another issue. I talk about the very end of the book. Hiddenness of God argument. 

But but the God that both people worship, the God that certainly people think there’s evidence for and they use the argument to to design for that purpose. If you look more closely, you find the evidence that points the opposite way at points against the existence of a God that that created. 

The universe, we were talking about this before, it’s still throwing me for a loop, how science can even talk about a world beyond matter. Shouldn’t science just be sticking to things that there’s evidence for rather than concluding there is no God just because evolution is a great explanation for the complexity of life? 

Yeah. Well, let me give you. A simple example example shows that the science is perfectly capable of detecting something supernatural. Here’s the example. Suppose that you did very carefully controlled experiments, good experiments and having some good experiments, incidentally, on this. Looking at the evidence that prayer can through the thick. And you do some very good experiments, double blind, and so when you meet all all the standards of good science and you find those, you would define hypothetically. Now, this is not the case. This is a hypothetical example. Suppose you were to find that Catholic prayers, really? They really helped heal people, whereas all other prayers didn’t work. Jewish prayers didn’t work. Muslim peers and we’re Protestant prayers Hindu. Some of these old ones were only Catholic. Prayers were. But how could you even conceive of a possible natural explanation for that? I can’t think of any natural explanation for it. Only Catholic prayers working with it would be strong evidence for the existence of God and specifically the one that the Catholic worship. They had it right. They after all. I was raised Catholic and I saw this. 

I go to the first Catholic Church I could find. Go to confession to make. I’m ready. I’m ready for that. I’m willing to do this. But of course, the facts are that there have been some good experiments recently which I talked about in the book, experiments done by reputable scientists in reputable institutions like Duke University, like Harvard, like Mayo Clinic, and these scientists who offer the most part believers. 

I know a few of them and I know what they wanted to see. 

And they wanted to see prayers healing the sick. But there are good scientists. And they took the evidence as it was presented to them and they concluded that they could see no evidence that prayer of any help. So I interpret that. 

You see, I turned that around, I assure you. And apologists can now say, wow, God didn’t want to be tested in this way. 

So he could have just could have ignored that. Sure. But the simplest explanation and an infidelity. 

I mean, I don’t claim that. 

I’m proving that God doesn’t exist in the sense of a logical or a mathematical proof. 

I’m using proof that I can’t avoid the word proof. But generally, it would be more like proof in a courtroom beyond a reasonable doubt. 

So I claim that beyond a reasonable doubt, this data would see that a God that answers prayers doesn’t exist. There would be evidence if God answered prayers, there would be evidence for it in any important way. There would be evidence for it. 

You treat not only the efficacy of prayer in your book, but also talk about some of these other historic debates, the mind body problem, how discoveries about the brain have diminished our view of the soul. You also explore research into the paranormal and how this might inform this debate about God’s existence from a scientific point of view. Talk to me about E.S.P research and what it has to say about the search for God. And, you know, even if there’s no evidence whatsoever for E.S.P, it doesn’t follow that then God doesn’t exist. You know, God’s not something that you can measure in in a laboratory like you can as someone’s precognitive abilities with a rine deck of cards. 

Yeah, I mean, I’ve I’ve written on this subject in other books. This is actually my seventh book that addresses the these kinds of issues, the issues of science at the interface between the paranormal and religion and so on. And the point here is that one of the attributes of the God, the capital G that I’m talking about here, the traditional God of Judeo Christian, Islamic, religious, but maybe others as well. One of the attributes of that God would be that he is given humans special powers, a soul, some some supernatural element. And one way that that would manifest itself would be in these kinds of phenomena, such as you said, through perception. Now, I know the people that work in the field say, well, maybe it’s physical, it doesn’t have to be spiritual, OK? There’s all these caveats you have to draw. But certainly it would be one of the ways that one might observe evidence for for God would be to see some kind of phenomena that defy all natural explanations. And these phenomena be associated with humans. But in their in their thinking processes, mind over matter, reading of their minds and so on. And this, of course, has been a belief, long standing. And 150 years ago now, scientists began to take a look at the so-called psychic phenomena in the laboratory, tried to do controlled experiments. Well, it turned out the early experiments were very poor. And what they got better and better was the experiments done by Joseph Ryan and Duke University of Thirty’s that really made an honest attempt to find these phenomena. Now, he thought he had. He had, but none of the evidence stood up. One 150 years later. We have a still being made about these phenomena. But in any other field that I could imagine, if you had that many negative results for that many years and nothing really convincing, you’d have to conclude that the phenomenon didn’t exist. 

People are really beating a dead horse and they keep claiming that there’s something there when they certainly haven’t convinced the consensus of the scientific community that there’s there’s any kind of psychic phenomena out there. 

I always find it interesting that J.B. Ryan, this, you know, the father of VSP research at Duke, you mentioned that he started out at University of Chicago studying theology, started out in the seminary and talk about motivation to prove that life lasts after death. Then he went into this research. 

And that was characteristic of a lot of the people who preceded him. 

Some very good scientists back in the 19th century who thought they had discovered the so-called psychic force. But know, I don’t ever get psychological. But you look at them, they also had very strong religious feelings and they seemed like that was what they were. Their motivation was to try to find evidence. After all, if you go back a hundred years. When people were first looking at things like what they called wireless telegraphy, why was it wireless telepathy possible? Is it seemed reasonable? And let me say again that at one time, a lot of these arguments for God forces spiritual world. Well, good arguments. I mentioned Paley’s argument with a good argument one time until until Darwin came along and some of the arguments that we haven’t gotten into yet concerning cosmology were good arguments up until early in the 20th century. And these arguments on E.S.P were good arguments at one point because it seemed like people did have these powers and turned out that they were mostly being tricked by magicians and other charlatans. 

And that, of course, has a long history of that. 

You just mentioned cosmology. Some of the scientific lines of evidence for God that you refute in the book where you talk about miracles. We already talked about design. What are some of these lines of evidence that you are gunning for? 

Well, let’s go back again to the 19th century. And what level of physics knowledge was at that time? Well, we looked at the universe. Do you ever seem to be a firmament, as it is described in the Bible firmament, of more or less fixed stars? They knew that the earth was moving when the sun and all and so on. But there seemed to be justice to the firmament out there. And the question was, where did it come from and where did all this matter come from? Where did the at that time? It was a law of conservation of matter matter couldn’t be created or destroyed. Well, then we had in the 20th century with Einstein’s is equal to M.C. Squared. We find that matter can be created and destroyed by energy. But we still had energy conservation. So that didn’t really solve a theological problem because you see, where did the energy come from? Because you needed the energy to create the matter. Well, it turns out that modern cosmology has discovered that the total energy of the universe is zero. That there is a balance sheet, an exact balance. Very accurately measured. No exact balance between the positive energy, those associated with matter, the rest mass and the kinetic energy. Negative energy that is associated with gravity. That these exactly balance. It will be like tossing an object up in the air. It just the escape velocity of the earth. And that object would have zero energy. That’s how you calculate the escape velocity. Calculate the velocity for which the energy is zero, where the kinetic energy and the gravitational potential energy. Exactly. Cancel in the universe just seems to be that way, that there was no. Energy needed to create the universe. So that gets rid of that argument, that argument that the violation of energy conservation was necessary. Well, it wasn’t. So that’s that’s one argument. 

Veck, you just kind of blew my mind when you said no. And I’m not a physicist. Like, you’re kind of talking above my head right now. But what if there needed to be no energy for the creation of the universe? Did you just say, yeah, because. 

Because energy has both positive and negative components. And these exactly. Kinsel. So that when the universe appeared, it appeared with zero energy within some small quantum area. 

We were all get off the quantum mechanics from quantum mechanics. 

Small ball fluctuation. So that can get pretty technical. And in fact, in my previous book that I wrote, it just came out last year, comprehensible, caused those that go into these sorts of issues in quantitative detail and mathematical appendices and so on that are not readable by the general public, maybe, but certainly readable by anybody with sufficient math background, which is the undergraduate level. 

So I’d like to let our listeners know that you can purchase a copy of the comprehensible Cosmos and has science found God and also God, the failed hypothesis through our website point of inquiry dot org. I don’t ordinarily do this, but I do want to commend this book, God, The Failed Hypothesis to our listeners. If there’s one book you get this year on this topic, you need to pick up this book by a few, pass it around, do some proselytizing of your own, maybe. Vic, you’re just talking about all these laws of the universe. You’re talking physics. Where do these laws of physics come from? There are these laws, don’t they demand that there be a law giver? 

Yes, you see, that is what motivated me to write the comprehensible cause is because the subtitle of that book is Where Do the Laws of Physics Come From? Exactly that question. And there’s a related question to all this is how could something come from nothing? And I attempt to answer that as well. In the new book, you don’t have to read the previous book to get the basic idea. I try to make all my books a complete and self-contained, but you can get the basic idea from from what I’ve written in this book. And that is this is something that most physicists don’t really think about. And so if I say that it’s a kind of a new idea, it doesn’t mean that it’s new physics. 

It’s just another way of looking at the physics that has come along in the last century and what we’ve discovered from a lifetime and really began all this again, although it goes back to Computer Case and Galileo and Newton, there’s a steady thread here, and that is that the law is the thing that we call the laws of physics are not. Some commandments handed down from above that control the behavior of matter. What they are or mathematical rules and models that physicists have invented to describe the data. 

And the first rule that they’ve discovered over the years, Jim Underdown discovered or invented, discovered, they’ve discovered a rule that works. Let me put it this way, and that is that if you’re going to describe observations. You can’t have those your descriptions pinned on any particular point of view, because then they become subjective. They have to be objective. And I call this point of view and variance, namely when you write down your mathematical equations, they can’t depend on any particular time and a particular space station position or direction and any number of other things that we we put into the models. And there was a people, a mathematician in Emmy Nursa who back in 1916 discovered a very important theorem. And that was that if you had any theory. That did not depend on. Spatial position. Spatial direction or particular point in time. Then that theory would automatically have the laws. The thing that we call the laws of conservation, of energy, of momentum and angular momentum. Most fundamental, most important laws of physics are just natural. They just come out of the fact that the universe has no special position, has no special with no special point in the universe. A full time. And this principle was generalize further in the 20th century to something called the Gaige principle and was behind almost all of the major developments this way. A century physics and the Gaige principle is essentially also this kind of principle. It’s a principle in which you can’t write down your equations in a way that single out a particular point of view. And then when you do that, it turns out that practically every law of physics just falls out. 

There are a few that don’t quite. And you can understand those as being sort of random fluctuations in the current by means of random fluctuations in the early universe. This is pretty deep. I realize that and pretty pretty fast moving. 

But let me just say that we have no reason. To think that the laws of physics came from any external source. In fact, using the same language I use over and over again in this book, the universe looks just as it could be expected to look. If it came from nothing. 

The laws of physics, of the laws of the void and laws of emptiness, we would all have these symmetries that would lead to these laws. 

So these laws do not demand a law giver, right. 

In fact, they look as they should should. Look, if there wasn’t a law giver. If you had a law giver, you would expect some violations of these laws. But you don’t have to give that. That’s what a miracle is, a violation of the law. 

One of my favorite sections of your book is the one you titled The Uncongenial Universe, that it just doesn’t seem too hospitable to us. 

Yeah, I mean, it’s it’s incredible that people think that the universe is somehow so special and specially designed for humans. When you look at it again, it doesn’t look that way at all. Look, we can only live on this little planet. We can’t live any place else. The chances of us ever moving off this planet and living on other planets, as they do in the space epic is absolutely remote. 

But that line of argument is used to say how unique and specially designed our planet is. It’s fits us perfectly. We can’t conceive of living anywhere else in the universe because this is our home made specially tailored for us. 

Why would God just put us off in the far corner if we were so important? Why would he even make the universe that required a finely tuned earth for us live? And why couldn’t we leave every place? Why couldn’t we live in a vacuum? 

Well, see, you got me there. But I don’t need to know why God did what he did, just that he did it. And, you know, the line of argument goes that this universe is and especially this planet is perfectly made for us. If if the globe were rotating any faster, there’d be an inhospitable weather system any slower and there’d be drought and famine. Life wouldn’t have taken off in the first place. But you’re arguing against this fine tuned universe. 

So it’s it’s a question of which came first, the chicken or the egg. Let me give you an example. Suppose that you know that the reason that our eyes are sensitive to a certain band of light and this is a very narrow band of light. We’re basically blind. We are blind. We can’t see ultraviolet. We can’t see infrared. We can see x rays. We can see the vast amount of the electromagnetic spectrum is invisible to us. We have this little narrow region we call the visible region that are either sensitive to and it happens to be the region. That’s right at the center of the sun spectrum. And how also happens to be the region where there’s good atmosphere transmission. So the kind of reasoning that you’re talking about would say that that the sun was made in the Earth’s atmosphere was designed so there would be light, a light in the spectral region. 

That happens to be that of our eyes, that our eyes. In other words, were created to be sensitive to the spectral region. And then God created the sun and the earth to be sensitive. Well, that’s obviously silly reasoning. 

Her eyes are sensitive to that region because we evolved on this planet with the sun providing light. This particular narrow region of the electromagnetic spectrum. In other words, it’s thought that the universe is fine tuned. To humanity. Humanity is fine tuned to the universe. 

We evolved under the conditions that were here. And if the conditions were different, as they might be on some other planets someplace. I’m not saying that life is impossible or even complex. Why? It was I think that primitive life is probably very widely spread throughout the universe and complex life is probably less widely spread. But still, there could be billions and billions of planets out there with some kind of complex life on. But it would be could be totally different from ours. And then we can imagine all the possibilities of all the universe. This is examples of people give. They say that the constants of physics are fine tuned for life. And I have examined these in detail in a number of books. Other things I’ve written and shown that this is not the case at all, that you can you can vary the constants of their other authors. Incidentally, I wanna say I’m the only one who’s right written on this. I give references to other detailed work by physicists who have conjured up other kinds of universes with different constants and shown that in most cases you still can get conditions for some kind of complexity to evolve. And that’s the other thing about this whole design argument is a belief that. In order to get complexity, you have to start with complexity in a lot of people just don’t realize that complexity can evolve very naturally out of simplicity. There are many examples of that computer simulations as well as our observations of chemistry laboratory. So you can get complex molecules forming out of simpler molecules naturally without without any chemist going in there and making it happen. It just happens spontaneously. There are many examples of this in science, how a complex system can evolve quite naturally from a more simpler one. 

There are a lot of other things I want to talk to you about, Veck. I want to talk about religious experience. I want to talk about values, the meaning of life. But we’re running short on time, so we’ll have to have you back on the show. I want to finish up talking about religion and its usefulness. Religion works for so many people on the planet. It gives them meaning, gives them reason to get out of bed in the morning, a reason to be nice to others when when they don’t feel like being nice. Isn’t there a risk that if a ton of people read your book and are persuaded by it, that the world’s going to be even more messed up? I mean, aren’t we going to be worse off if you convince the masses that there’s no reason to believe in a divine law giver who will punish them if they’re bad or reward them if you’re good? If there is no God and there is no ultimate purpose to life, doesn’t that kind of undercut some of the stuff we’re trying to get done in society? 

Well, you know, that’s that’s kind of a widespread belief. But all we have to do is look at the facts. 

If you look at questions such as family abuse. 

If God was the source of morality and atheists had no morals, then there would be more family abuse among atheists than among Christians. In fact, the opposite is the case. In fact, the connection, the more fundamentalist the family, the more likely there is to be child abuse, wife abuse. 

Divorces is higher among these these groups. And there are examples like this all over the place. I certainly don’t think that the comfort of Islam. Did the. The 9/11 hijackers much good. Frankly, I don’t think they got their 72 virgins and these other books that we’ve been talking about. I don’t get into this much. In my book. But I do end up with a chapter called The Godless Universe. Where where am I going to guess? I call it the life of a God. 

We are living in the God listening to that, that there’s a great relief when you’re no longer attached to these strings. 

When you have freedom to do what you want to do. And the mistake that people make is they think that you then therefore are going to behave poorly and become anti-social a member of society. But the data don’t indicate that the people who are who are without religion are some of the best people in society. 

It sounds like you’re living pretty well on the godless universe. Victor Stanger, thank you very much for joining me on. Thank you. 

Thank you for allowing me to be on this wonderful program. 

I have used your program to help pass the time among long plane trips by downloading it to the iPod. So you do you do a pretty good job. And I like listening to it. 

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Thank you for listening to this episode of Point of Inquiry. Join us next week for in-depth coverage and clips of historic speeches of this weekend’s Secular Islam Summit. If you’d like to get involved with an online conversation about today’s episode with Vic Stanger, go to W w w dot CFI dash forums dot org. This is an online community of rationalist and humanist skeptics and free thinkers, NOLA Finian’s and nonbelievers, people who tend to like point of inquiry. I want you to go to the forums, get involved in these conversations. People are having a lot of fun. Their views expressed on point of inquiry aren’t necessarily the views of the Center for Inquiry. Questions and comments on today’s show can be sent to feedback at point of inquiry dawg or by visiting our Web site. Point of inquiry dot org. 

This show is produced by Thomas Donnelly and recorded at the Center for Inquiry in Amherst, New York. Executive producer Paul Kurtz Point of Inquiries Music is composed first by Emmy Award winning Michael Dwalin, contributors to today’s show, including Sarah Jordan and Debbie Goddard. I’m your host DJ Grothe. 

DJ Grothe

D.J. Grothe is on the Board of Directors for the Institute for Science and Human Values, and is a speaker on various topics that touch on the intersection of education, science and belief. He was once the president of the James Randi Educational Foundation and was former Director of Outreach Programs for the Center for Inquiry and associate editor of Free Inquiry magazine. He previously hosted the weekly radio show and podcast Point of Inquiry, exploring the implications of the scientific outlook with leading thinkers.