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Has Science Found God? The Latest Results in the Search for Purpose in the UniverseBook review


by Victor J. Stenger
Prometheus Books 2003

One of my all-time favourite songs is "Positively Fourth Street" by Bob Dylan. One of the features of the song is that the words of the title have nothing to do with the lyrics of the song. I feel much the same about the title of this book, which doesn’t say much about scientists looking for God and probably should be something like "Have young-earth creationists, pseudoscientists talking about intelligent design or deluded scientists using apologetics to hammer the square peg of science into the round hole of the Bible proved the existence of God, or have real scientists proved not only the non-existence of God but also the impossibility of His existence, or have people misunderstood what Stephen Hawking wrote, and what the hell is Paul Davies on about, he’s a physicist?".

Put another way, I don’t think that the book answers the question posed in the title at all. But then, it is probably a question which can never have a simple "yes" or "no" answer.

Having said that, Professor Stenger does a good job of demolishing the more usual supposedly scientific arguments for the existence of God. He spends a bit too much time on the young-earth creationists because what they do hardly fits any definition of "science", but they are the noisiest of the ilk and the ones which most people would be familiar with. The proponents of "intelligent design" are a bit more slippery, but they are exposed as just more creationists with better disguises, relying mostly on retreaded versions of the ancient "Argument from Design" (if something was designed, there must have been a designer), the "Doctrine of First Cause" (if everything has a cause, something uncaused must have been the first thing to happen), and "The God of the Gaps" (if it can’t be explained, God did it).

People practising apologetics are much more difficult to deal with. Instead of adopting the creationist argument that the Bible tells the literal truth of what happened in the past, an argument open to scientific rebuttal, the apologists accept that science is correct and then, through a combination of semantics, sophistry and wishful thinking, try to explain how the words of the Bible accord with reality. Because apologists accept science the counterarguments descend to semantics and theology, although there can be some blatant torturing of the facts to make them fit the theory. Luckily for the skeptics, most of the apologists eventually end up using one of the three arguments above or the Anthropic Principle (the universe is like it is otherwise we would not exist).

There is a lot of useful information in this book. One example is the description of the overlap between entropy theory and information theory and how they work together to refute the old creationist argument that evolution (either biological, geological or cosmological) breaks the second law of thermodynamics. Professor Stenger shows how the expansion of the universe can provide the increase in entropy necessary to (more than) compensate for the increased order revealed in the organisation of matter to form stars, Galapagos finches and us. Another example is his thought experiment to show how something can come from nothing in the void without violating conservation of energy.

There are two things which concern me about this book, one major and one minor (and really just a personal irritant). The major problem is that Professor Stenger adopts some of the techniques which he rightly criticises his opponents of using. In his discussion of the Anthropic Principle, he brings up the idea of multiple universes. He rightly points out that according to Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle there is a sphere with the diameter of the Planck length (10-35 metres) around every point in the universe, and we cannot know anything about what is inside that sphere. As our own universe evolved from inside such a sphere it is possible that this is still going on and we live in a universe that is just one in a foam of millions or billions of other universes, all of which are undetectable from and cannot interact with any other than themselves. If the argument against a deist god is that such a god cannot possible be measured or detected, then the Multiverse has similar problems.

In another example, Professor Stenger counters the First Cause argument by positing that time is zero-sum symmetrical across both sides of the big bang. He says, correctly, that with almost no exceptions, all events and interactions in our universe could be run in reverse without violating any physical laws. Some of the backward transactions may be very unlikely, but very improbable is not impossible. A sticking point in arguing against First Cause has been that time has been described as starting at the big bang, with nothing that we can talk about inside our universe happening before that instant. This allows God to exist outside of time to kick-start time and our universe. Professor Stenger proposes the possibility of t=0 being a mid point, with a universe existing before the big bang where time ran in the opposite direction to ours. Beings in that universe would not see it contracting towards a point (as the oscillating universe theorists believe) but would see themselves in a universe with an infinite future and a limited past, just as we do. This would allow time to stretch to infinity in both directions, so there would be no "time before time" for God to exist in.

Hmmm. Multiple universes which we cannot know anything about, events which might not happen even once in infinity and places where maybe things work differently, all suggested to explain the unexplainable. I seem to hear the phrase "Physics of the Gaps".

The other personal matter which annoys me is one of Professor Stenger’s hobbyhorses. He really doesn’t like the idea that in medicine and the social sciences a relatively high level of possible error is acceptable. He points out that, for initial research at least, a doctor or psychologist is prepared to say that they have found an effect if there is less than a 5% chance of being wrong, but in physics it might have to be a thousandth of one percent or even less. He seems to suggest that this means that medical research is somehow less rigorous than physics. This is wrong on two counts. The first is what the accountants call materiality. Drug effects can be measured in time intervals from fractions of a second up to months or years. The variability in the results can be quite wide, unlike physical reactions which may have little or no variability within the equations which describe them (much of the variability can be an artefact of the measuring instrument anyway). Medicine does not have equations based on universal constants. The second count is that you can only measure things to the accuracy of the measuring instrument and the granularity of what is being measured. Physicists may be able to intelligibly talk about things like the Planck length and the charge on the electron and measuring the cosmic background temperature to within one twenty-millionth of a degree Kelvin, but human beings are not that precise. Professor Stenger should have left this discussion out of this book.

So, would I recommend this book? Yes, with the reservations above. The question posed in the title is not answered, but I didn’t expect it to be answered. If, as I suspect, there are aspects of the universe which are inherently hidden from ever being discovered then the question will never be answered to everyone’s satisfaction, but that doesn’t diminish the intellectual fun of the search.

The Skeptic

This review appeared in the June 2004 edition of
The Skeptic, the journal of the Australian Skeptics

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