Monday, August 13, 2007

Stenger's Failed Hypothesis

This weekend, I read God: The Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist by Victor J. Stenger (2007. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.). Any book that has two subtitles is obviously going to be worth commenting on…

Stenger's book is typical of the new breed of anti-theists (including folks like Dawkins, Harris, et al) insomuch as he relies on a lot of hand waving and rhetoric to overcome his horrendous logical and philosophical problems. Stenger begins by defining what he means by God (which, unlike many anti-theists, he at least capitalizes when he writes it, leaving the uncapitalized "god" for any other deity that might be invoked). Stenger's God is called the Judeo-Christian-Islamic God, which already presents us with a huge problem. There is no Judeo-Christian-Islamic God! Right off the bat, we could easily agree that this concept of God is a failed hypothesis because it is so poorly construed as to be irrelevant to any religion.

Indeed, Stenger's "God" only exists in the minds of atheists who use it as the strawman they can torch. But even ignoring that, Stenger still goes out of his way to define God as something that no one believes in:

Note…that the traditional attributes of omniscience, omnipotence, and omnibenevolence--the 3O characteristics usually associated with the Judeo-Christian-Islamic God--have been omitted. Such a God is already ruled out by the arguments of logical inconsistency summarized above (p. 42)
We will examine Stenger's "ruling out" of the 3Os later, but one is left wondering what Stenger thinks he will accomplish if he "disproves" a God that doesn't have "characteristics usually associated with" what people actually believe. Why does he spend so much time and effort into a project that on the one hand is completely irrelevant to any actual religion, and on the other hand ignores so many atheists who argue that science cannot look into matters of religion?

The problems only mount. Stenger treats evidence that rules out one form of theism as evidence that rules out all theism (thus engaging in a category error as well as the fallacy of composition). And indeed, sometimes what he argues against doesn't even have to deal with religion. Stenger treats disproving ESP and psychic fortune telling as evidence against God too (despite the fact that God condemns necromancers in the Old Testament—thus in at least two of the three representatives of his Judeo-Christian-Islamic mish mash—so why would we expect God to demonstrate Himself through these mediums?).

Most importantly of all, Stenger doesn't bother to acquaint himself with the basic beliefs of the religions he's criticizing. He argues, for instance:

The parts of the human body hardly resemble a watch. In an article in Scientific American titled "If Humans Were Built to Last," S. Jay Olshansky, Bruce Carnes, and Robert N. Butler have looked at flaws in the human body and shown how an engineer might have fixed them to enable us to live a hundred years or more in better health. They trace our physical defects to the Rube Goldberg way evolution cobbles together new features by tinkering with existing ones (p. 69)
Yet had Stenger simply acquainted himself with the concept of sin, he wouldn't make such a foolish mistake here. The human body is not "perfectly designed" in its present environment, because it has been corrupted by the noetic, physical, and spiritual effects of sin. Further, God has specifically limited the length of a person's life, according to Scripture. It would hardly seem logical to complain that the human body isn't able to live an extra 100 years when God has specifically limited the ability of people to live that long.

In any case, lest anyone be swayed by Stenger's words, let us now dismantle them systematically.

The Hypothesis

For his argument, Stenger gives us his following definition of God:

A supreme being is hypothesized to exist having the following attributes:

1. God is the creator and preserver of the universe.

2. God is the architect of the structure of the universe and the author of the laws of nature.

3. God steps in whenever he wishes to change the course of events, which may include violating his own laws as, for example, in response to human entreaties.

4. God is the creator and preserver of life and humanity where human beings are special in relation to other life-forms.

5. God has endowed humans with immaterial eternal souls that exist independent of their bodies and carry the essence of a person's character and selfhood.

6. God is the source of morality and other human values such as freedom, justice, and democracy.

7. God has revealed truths in scriptures and by communicating directly to select individuals throughout history.

8. God does not deliberately hide from any human being who is open to finding evidence for his presence (p. 41-42).
Given this definition, he provides his hypothesis:

1. Hypothesize a God who plays an important role in the universe.

2. Assume that God has specific attributes that should provide objective evidence for his existence.

3. Look for such evidence with an open mind.

4. If such evidence is found, conclude that God may exist.

5. If such objective evidence is not found, conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that a God with these properties does not exist (p. 43, italics his).

Now we've already noted how his definition of God doesn't match very many people's actual beliefs, lacking the 3O (as he calls it). To that we can add the errors of definition step 6—for instance, simply trying to define "freedom" and "democracy" before trying to attribute the source of them to God is no trivial task (although Stenger treats them that way); "justice" is only less trivial because we can link it to "morality" earlier in the definition. Further, definition step 8 is based on a naïve understanding of the relationship sinners in rebellion against God have with an "open" mind. As written, I completely agree with step 8, but have to point out it is completely trivial—there is no one who is "open" or "neutral" in their approach to God, but God would indeed not hide from such a mythical person. We could just as easily add a step 9: "God does not deliberately hide from unicorns, leprechauns, or honest politicians" too.

Furthermore, we have Stenger's appeal to "objective evidence in hypothesis step 5. This is by no means the only place he uses the term "objective", for we also read:

In this book, I will take science to refer to the performing of objective observations by eye and by instrument and the building of models to describe those observations (p. 12).

True that science generally makes the assumption called methodological naturalism, which refers to the self-imposed convention that limits inquiry to objective observations of the world and generally (but, as we will see, not necessarily) seeks natural accounts of all phenomena (p. 15, italics his)
Notice that all these quotes rely heavily on the word "objective"—yet nowhere does Stenger provide a way for us to know what is meant by "objective." Given how heavily objectivity weighs on his claims, the fact that he has not even bothered to define the term for us is a huge black mark on his methodology. His lack of precision means that it is possible to "escape" from every single one of his arguments, which renders them all useless (regardless of whether you believe in God or not).

Indeed, baring some form of transcendent philosophy, how could science give us any concept of "objective evidence"? Usually this is done by asserting that multiple people have to observe the same event (yet when that occurs in the case of, say, multiple observations of miracles, skeptics label it as "mass hallucination"); or that it has to be predictive (yet when this occurs in Bible prophecy, for instance, skeptics label it as "self-fulfilling prophecy"), etc. But the fact is, even if we ignore the skeptics, there is still no scientific way to have objectivity, because science is based on observation, and observation is a subjective experience for all involved. It cannot make the leap to objectivity without a controling philosophy governing science—and which one is a point that is much in dispute.

The scientist believes that he has the capability to make a neutral observation. Yet theology teaches us a sinner in rebellion against God cannot have an open mind to weigh evidence. But even aside from the Scriptural claims, basic science demonstrates the myth of "neutral observation." Stenger himself admits to the theory-laden nature of observation (p. 35). But he apparently doesn't understand the philosophical consequences of this. Moti Ben-Ari, in Just A Theory: Exploring the Nature of Science (2005. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.)—note that it is also published by Prometheus; you know, that right-wing, biased, theistic organization—notes:

Galileo was the first to "observe" the moons of Jupiter and the mountains on the Moon through his telescope. If other people looking through the telescope did not make these observations, it was not because Galileo had better eyesight or because they were being unreasonably obstinate. When you look up into the sky, there are no legends (like the balloons containing conversation in cartoons) that tell you what you see: "Hi! I'm Europa, a moon of Jupiter!" To identify these points of light as stars or planets, you have to know what you are looking for. If this sounds somewhat circular, it is, and it can help explain why scientific advance is difficult (p. 7)

Clearly, science must start with observation, but once some initial observations have been made, a circular process takes place. Observations lead to theories, which guide further observations, which influence the theories. The presentation of the process of science as initially and primarily inductive is so oversimplified as to be useless. There are serendipitous discoveries in science, in which observations truly instigate the development of theories, but they inevitably occur to those who have the necessary framework within which to understand the importance of what they are observing (p. 8)
Theory-laden observation means that it is impossible for scientists to have objectivity, and therefore they cannot have an open mind. They will always rely on previous theories that will frame the issue. This is, indeed, the very reason why scientists must hold all their view provisionally. If they actually had objective truth, they wouldn't need to qualify their statements by admitting their provisional status.

"Objective" is not the only undefined word that causes Stenger problems. A further problem lies in his non-defining of the term "plausible." For instance, Stenger writes:

If we can find plausible ways in which all the existing gaps in scientific knowledge one day may be filled, then the scientific arguments for the existence of God fail. We could then conclude that God need not be included in the models we build to describe phenomena currently observable to humans. Of course, this leaves open the possibility that a god exists that is needed to account for phenomena outside the realm of current human observation. He might show up in some future space expedition, or in some experiment at a giant particle accelerator. However, that god would not be a god who plays an important role in human life. It is not God (p. 17).
Of course this all hinges on what you accept as "plausible." In reality, Stenger's argument is about as meaningful as if I said, "If we can find plausible ways in which this book could have been written without Stenger, then the scientific arguments for the existence of Stenger fail. We could then conclude that Stenger need not be included in the models we build to describe books currently observable to readers. Of course, this leaves open the possibility that a stenger exists that is needed to account for books outside the realm of current libraries. He might show up in some future space periodical, or in some text through a giant Galactic inter-library loan. However, that stenger would not be a stenger who plays an important role in the production of this book. It is not Stenger."

Indeed, I could continue this quite some way. Since there are millions of books in the world written by non-Stengers, Stenger is obviously not a required being for the production of this book. In fact, it is more plausible that Stenger does not exist than that he does (after all, there are nearly 7 billion non-Stengers compared to only one proposed Stenger, who's actions could be done by any number of those 7 billion non-Stengers). Etc. But we can already see how absurd the structure of Stenger's argument is.

So in a very real sense, Stenger is setting up an experiment that violates the rules of science, logic, and philosophy, and doesn't even match the religious views of any great number of people. This calls into question the validity of the premise of his book already, but we shall examine his arguments anyway. Before we do so, let us first look at Stenger's dismissal of "the 3O": omniscience, omnipresence, and omnibenevolence.

Sadly, Stenger doesn't give us much to work with here. Instead, he says: "For the details, see the individual essays in the compilation by Martin and Monnier" (p. 31); which is nothing more than an argument from authority presented as if it was valid. Stenger then lists out the philosophical arguments without providing any definitions of the terms or anything useful to work with before concluding: "The reader will undoubtedly see much in these bare formal statements that needs clarification; again I address you to the original essays for details and additional disproofs of this kind" (p. 33). Since Stenger is using these arguments to deal away with what he has said constitutes the majority view of God, it would have behooved him to actually have done his work here. Instead, we are left with a slip-shod sleight of hand to replace actual thought—how very scientific.

In any case, here are the arguments.

An All-Virtuous Being Cannot Exist

1. God is (by definition) a being that which no greater being can be thought.

2. Greatness includes the greatness of virtue.

3. Therefore, God is a being that which no being could be more virtuous.

4. But virtue involves overcoming pains and danger.

5. Indeed, a being can only be properly said to be virtuous if it can suffer pain or be destroyed.

6. A God that can suffer pain or is destructible is not one than which no greater being can be thought.

7. For you can think of a greater being, one that is nonsuffering and indestructible.

8. Therefore, God does not exist.
Of course it is not at all clear that "virtue involves overcoming pains and danger" as 4 stipulates, nor is it all together clear that "a being can only be properly said to be virtuous if it can suffer pain or be destroyed." These definitions of virtue seem to be specifically written for this "disproof." Further, we can think of someone who overcomes pains and dangers who is not virtuous—for instance, a robber who risks the dangers of prison, who sprains his ankle and injects himself with heroin to kill the pain, is not virtuous in anyone's book despite having overcome danger and pain. In any case, even if we accept this definition of virtue, it is by no means the case that this is the virtue that is referred to in 3.

Additionally we can throw in the fact that this definition of virtue makes it impossible to ever have a "greatness of virtue", for greatness of virtue would require infinite pain and infinite danger—if it ever ceased at time T1, then a being that went through pain and danger for a time (T2) that was more than T1 would be more virtuous. Therefore, the overcoming of pain and danger must be eternal; but if it is eternal, then it is never "overcome" and thus a being that would suffer an eternity of pain or danger cannot be said to be virtuous for it has overcome no pain or danger. Therefore, eternal pain and suffering does not yield eternal virtue, and the term virtue as it is being used in the above argument is irrational, for there can be no such thing as "greatness of virtue" as defined by this argument. This means 2 is false; the argument is refuted.

The next argument is:

Worship and Moral Agency

1. If any being is God, he must be a fitting object of worship.

2. No being could possibly be a fitting object of worship, since worship requires the abandonment of one's role as an autonomous moral agent.

3. Therefore, there cannot be any being who is God.
To which I respond: Huh? Who defines worship as "abandonment of one's role as an autonomous moral agent"? Further, why would that definition render it impossible for another being to be a "fitting object of worship"?

Stenger then gives us the problem of evil, which has already been beaten into the dust. There's no need to rehash that, so we'll move on to the next argument:

A Perfect Creator Cannot Exist

1. If God exists, then he is perfect.

2. If God exists, then he is the creator of the universe.

3. If a being is perfect, then whatever he creates must be perfect.

4. But the universe is not perfect.

5. Therefore, it is impossible for a perfect being to be the creator of the universe.

6. Hence, it is impossible for God to exist.
This argument actually relies on the ambiguity of the term "perfect." What does it mean to say that the universe is (or is not) perfect? There are two different ways we can take this: we can compare the universe to an ideal universe, in which case the ideal would be defined as perfect. (Of course, this leads to all sorts of questions, such as How would we know what an ideal universe would look like in the first place? and Isn't our assumption of a perfect universe rather heavily anthropomorphically biased? etc.) But the secondary definition of perfect is that the universe is behaving as it was intended to behave. That is, if I design a box with a hinge that will open and close, and it accomplishes what I want it to accomplish, then I have a perfect box with a hinge; I do not need to design a box that can also give me the time or play music for me. That is not the intent of my creating the box. (Of course, this leads to all sorts of questions, such as How would we know what the designer of the universe intended to make?)

A Transcendent Being Cannot Be Omnipresent

1. If God exists, then he is transcendent (i.e., outside space and time).

2. If God exists, he is omnipresent.

3. To be transcendent, a being cannot exist anywhere in space.

4. To be omnipresent, a being must exist everywhere in space.

5. Hence, it is impossible for a transcendent being to be omnipresent.

6. Therefore, it is impossible for God to exist.
This does not follow, however. Imagine, for a moment, a being that exists in the fourth dimension. Actually, before we do that, let's simplify it. Imagine a two-dimensional world that consists of a 1 x 1 square on a flat surface (such as a sheet of paper). Imagine that there is a cube one millimeter above the square in the third dimension, a dimension that the square is unaware of. This cube is 2 x 2 x 2 (for ease of thought, we will just make it twice as big on each surface as the original square). This cube transcends the square's universe, for it exists in a different dimension. Now put the cube against the paper such that the square is covered and the distance between the plane and the cube's face is 0. The cube is now touching every single point on the square, by virtue of the third dimension, as is therefore omnipresent to all points. Yet the cube is touching every point on the square in the third dimension—a dimension the square does not know exists! Thus, the cube is still transcendent. It exists at every point in the square's universe and fully permeates it—there is no space between the point on the flat surface of the paper and the point just above it where the square is being touched. Yet, the square remains ignorant of how this process can work, for the square can never leave the two dimensions.

Now expand that out. A fourth dimensional object that is sufficiently large to touch every point in the universe can be omnipresent and yet still transcendent. The same would be true of any object with higher dimensions than that. Currently, M theory proposes that the universe consists of eleven dimensions. A twelve dimensional object that was larger than the universe can be both transcendent and omnipresent quite easily. But we do not need to go that far in reality, for theologians would only be dealing with the three dimensions of perception anyway, so a four dimensional object would be sufficient.

In any case, existence "outside" of space and time is not what theologians mean by the term transcendent anyway. They simply mean that God exists fully as God at every point of existence. Thus, God transcends because He is not localized—He is universal. Omnipresence means God is everywhere; transcendence means that God is fully God wherever He is (there is not "more of God" in a church building than in a pub, for instance).

A Personal Being Cannot Be Nonphysical

1. If God exists, then he is nonphysical.

2. If God exists, then he is a person (or a personal being).

3. A person (or personal being) needs to be physical.

4. Hence, it is impossible for God to exist.
Of course, no argument is given as to why a person (or personal being) needs to be physical. This is simply asserted. I would, in fact, reverse this argument: personhood is nonphysical. That is, what makes us persons is not merely a physical body, but the immaterial spirit as well. Thus, I would reverse this argument to state that if humans beings are persons, then they have an immaterial aspect to their existence (i.e. a soul). At this point, we see that the basic disagreement as to 3 renders this argument moot.

The final argument is:

The Paradox of Omnipotence

1. Either God can create a stone that he cannot life, or he cannot create a stone that he cannot life.

2. If God can create a stone that he cannot life, then he is not omnipotent.

3. If God cannot create a stone that he cannot life, then he is not omnipotent.

4. Therefore, God is not omnipotent.
This is such a trivial argument, it has been countered countless times already. Omnipotence does not mean the ability to do that which is logically impossible (and in God's case, it also excludes the ability of God to sin). God is not omnipotent in that sense. Instead, we say that God can do all things that are possible, so long as they are consistent with His moral standards. As such, Stenger's reproduction of this argument is an example of his engaging in the fallacy of the irrelevant thesis.

Since these "disproofs" took all of two and a half pages out of the book, it is obvious that they had very little to do with the content of the rest of the book. So let us now turn our attention to that.


Stenger begins his attack against his strawman deity by launching an attack on the concept of design. There is nothing original in his attack. Further, he consistently misidentifies the Intelligent Design (ID) movement as being religious in nature, but such is erroneous as we have already demonstrated on this site numerous times. The fact that Stenger treats the ID movement as religious causes him to make some very elementary errors.

For instance, he writes on "bad design":
Some evolutionists have tried to counter the Paley claim [i.e., the watch analogy] with what might be called the argument from bad design, pointing out all of the ways that a competent engineer could improve upon what nature has given us (p. 68-69, italics his).
Yet this argument is not attacking either the ID movement or more traditional Creationism at all. Let me give you a specific example: Microsoft Windows Me. The version of this OS has got to be the worst OS ever programmed. When I had it on my old system, it was a rare day that went by when I did not get the infamous BsoD ("Blue Screen of Death"), but only because it was a rare day that I didn't use my computer. But despite all its flaws, it would be downright stupid of me to say, "Microsoft Windows Me was not designed." Thus, actual poor design does not rule out a designer at all (therefore, ID does not suffer by this argument since ID doesn't require a perfect designer).

Or let us give another more recent illustration: the bridge that collapsed into the Mississippi River. The structure of the bridge failed, but in this instance that may not be indicative of bad design at all. Instead, it appears more likely the culprit was poor maintenance of a good design. Since Creationists believe that Adam sinned and that we are no longer in our perfect state, this is analogous to a perfect design being defaced by "poor maintenance."

So evidence of "poor design" is both not evidence against a designer and not evidence that the design itself was poor in the first place—perhaps the design was perfectly fine, yet it was not maintained correctly. Poor design is therefore a fallacious response to the design argument.


Stenger then moves on to the immaterial world. Here, he treats experiments against ESP and telekinesis as if they have bearing on religious claims. While such is rather humorous under other circumstances, it is only annoying here.

Stenger moves to the question of prayer after that. He states:
One of the defining characteristic of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic God is that he is believed to respond to entreaties from the faithful and steps in to change the natural course of events when he is sufficiently moved by the intensity and piety of the petitioner (or, whenever he wishes) (p. 94).
This quote gives us such horrendous theology that there is no question as to why the experiments Stenger looks at would fail. Firstly, Stenger ignores the rather basic point that Jews, Christians, and Muslims by-and-large all believe that members of the other religions are not saved and that God is under no obligation to listen to the prayers of the heathen. Lumping all the religions together like this makes it impossible for Stenger to validate prayer. Indeed, Stenger ironically misses the fact that the greatest disproof of the real Judeo-Christian-Islamic Gods as a group would be if the prayer support did work.

Stenger moves from prayer to immortality, which he rejects by examining…near death experiences. That's right, NDE is supposed to provide evidence against immortality because NDE can be explained by physical processes. How this escapes non sequitur is never explained, and makes it a typical argument from this book.


Stenger moves into cosmology, which is a very frustrating chapter if you've recently read Brian Green's two excellent books The Elegant Universe and The Fabric of the Cosmos, as I have. Stenger engages in gross simplification and horrendous one-sided reporting of the theories of cosmology to "prove":

The Creator, if he existed, left no imprint. Thus he might as well have been nonexistent (p. 121).
Since the science involved is so long, I will take time at a later date in a separate post (if I feel like it) to examine the cosmological claims more fully. For now, it is sufficient to point out another thing Stenger said:
I also need to respond here to an objection that has been raised by physicists who have heard me make this statement. They point out, correctly, that we currently do not have a theory of quantum gravity that we can apply to describe physics earlier than the Planck time. I have adopted Einstein's operational definition of time as what you read on a clock. In order to measure a time interval smaller than the Planck time, you would need to make that measurement in a region smaller than the plank length, which equals the Planck time multiplied by the speed of light. According to the Heisenberg uncertainty principle of quantum mechanics, such a region would be a black hole, from which no information can escape. This implies that no time interval can be defined that is smaller than the Planck time (p. 120)
Aside from the fact that Stephen Hawking has demonstrated that black holes do radiate at a very low level, it is important to note that Stenger is arguing that we can push the Big Bang back only to the point in time that is equivalent to Planck time after the big bang occurred. We can never probe earlier than that. As such, science cannot give a reason for why the Big Bang happened. As such, Stenger cannot say that the Creator left no imprint—for the very existence of the universe itself can be that imprint. To say that the existence of the universe itself is not that imprint, or that it can be explained by natural means, is to go beyond science, as Stenger himself admits. Therefore, his conclusion that God might as well be nonexistent is assuming too much even if we grant him everything.

When Stenger moves on to the laws of physics, he claims that these arose out of nothing. In this instance, he at least admits:
My views on this particular issue are not recognized by a consensus of physicists, although I insist that the science I have used is well established and conventional (p. 131).
But Stenger then plays his shell game:
Once again, I do not have the burden of proving this scenario. The believer who wishes to argue that God is the source of physical law has the burden of proving (1) that my account is wrong, (2) that no other natural account is possible, and (3) that God did it (p. 132).
Note that Stenger is violating all kinds of rules of logic here. Not only is he requiring someone to disprove his theory (i.e., he is begging the question), but he requires that in the process the theist must prove a universal negative—that no other natural account is possible. Such is absurd and an irrational requirement. Stenger seeks to win by definition, but he can only do so if he abandons reason.

The Anthropic Principle

Stenger then turns to the way that Earth appears to be designed for humans. Unfortunately, he demonstrates his bias very quickly by asserting:

Let us take a look at the scientific facts about life in the universe hopefully unbiased by theological considerations (p. 141)
He apparently has no problem with atheological considerations though.

In any case, one striking comment by Stenger is:
Of course, one might wonder why a perfect God would build a universe that was so delicately balanced. If he really designed it for life, you would think he could have made it a lot easier for life to evolve (p. 145, emphasis added).
What makes this quote so interesting is that the previous page, he said:
Clearly we are not yet in a position to determine whether complex life is common or rare in the universe. However, the fact is that complex life exists on one planet, Earth. And that existence is not implausible, given the conditions we know exist in the universe (p. 144, emphasis added).
So which is it? Is it "not implausible" for life to evolve or is it difficult? (Note: to avoid confusion, we are not talking about Darwinian evolution here; we are talking about the ability of life to come from nonlife, as the context of the quotes should still make clear.) Stenger wants to play both sides of the fence here because he is not dealing with science, but with his presuppositions. Indeed, Stenger displays them here:
The anthropic argument for the existence of God can be turned on its head to provide an argument against the existence of God. If God created a universe with at least one major purpose being the development of human life, then it is reasonable to expect that the universe should be congenial to human life. Now, you might say that God may have had other purposes besides humanity. As has been noted several times in this book, apologists can always invent a god who is consistent with the data (p. 154)
And in response, I can note that atheists can always invent a god who is inconsistent with the data and then pretend that that god is the God theists actually worship…

In any case, continuing with the above, Stenger then notes:
If the universe were congenial to human life, then you would expect it to be easy for humanlike life to develop and survive throughout the universe (p. 154)
But this doesn't at all follow. If God's purpose was primarily human oriented, it is also human oriented in a specific place. Perhaps God never intended humans to go into the vastness of space. Maybe God wanted humans in a little corner of the universe for His own purposes. Just because you would do things differently is no argument that God had to do it your way.

But we should not expect Stenger to concern himself with considering what God thinks anyway. After all, he cannot even state the issue correctly:
Earth is not the flat immovable circle at the center of a firmament or a vault of fixed stars, circled by the sun, moon, and planets pictured in Genesis (p. 155)
Except of course that it is not pictured that way in Genesis. It was pictured that way by Aristotle. Stenger is then reading Aristotelian physics into the Biblical text and eisegeting it to mean whatever he needs it to mean.

Further, he errs when he says:
In fact, when you think of it, why would an infinitely powerful God even need six days? Wouldn't he have the ability to create everything in an instant? And, why would he have to rest when he was all done? (p. 157)
A) Why is Stenger concerned with omnipotence after he dismissed it from the start? B) Stenger, as is typical of anti-theists, doesn't even have a Sunday school level grasp of Creationism, yet he deigns to criticize it. The six-day creation period has nothing to do with God's power, nor did God "need" to rest. The six-day pattern followed by one-day rest is just that—a pattern. It was for man's sake that we have this pattern. The Sabbath was made for man, as Christ Himself pointed out. So you ask why God did as He did: for our sake.

But accepting this would refute Stenger's claims, so he doesn't even bother to acquaint himself with the issue.

Amazingly, just after this, Stenger goes on to complain: "Let us also ponder the enormous waste of matter" (p. 157). But how is it a waste for an omnipotent God to create lots of matter? If it is a mark against God's power that it took Him six days instead of an instant, then surely the excess of matter would be a mark for God's power, wouldn't it?

Of course there is a bigger issue. Does this not presume that Stenger knows the purpose for why God does what He does (and as shown above, Stenger cannot grasp even the most obvious purposes of God as spelled out explicitly in Scripture)? Does this not also presume that God's creation of extra matter somehow diminishes the power of God, such that He is less for having created it? Else how could it be considered a waste?


Stenger moves on to revelation, wherein he shows yet again that he is incapable of interpreting Scripture as it was written. (Interestingly, we should note that despite his calling God the Judeo-Christian-Islamic God, he never looks at Islam in this chapter…) This isn't much of a shock by now; indeed, one wonders how much of the Bible Stenger has actually read and how much of it he has "read" by looking at essays by Bertrand Russell or by reading the Skeptic's Annotated Bible and such. Therefore, there isn't anything new in this chapter either.

One thing that I will point out is Stenger's flawed understanding of what revelation is supposed to accomplish. He states:
If a person undergoes a religious experience that truly places her in communication with some reality from beyond the material world, then we may reasonably expect that person to have gained some deep, new knowledge about the world that can be checked against the empirical facts (p. 171).
This is not at all a reasonable assumption, however. A) Revelation wasn't designed to give people super-knowledge about the universe; it was to give people information about God. B) If information given in revelation can be seen empirically, then revelation is unnecessary here.

Thus, Stenger doesn't appreciate the point of revelation. It is no difficult task for science to disprove something no one believes in. Further, Stenger ignores the sin issue (again), stating: "But [skeptic's] eyes are open and we see no convincing evidence for phenomena that under the God hypothesis would be expected to hit us all square in the face. If the religious experience were as deeply significant as the monotheistic religions have taught, then data would exist that even the most die-hard skeptic could not ignore (p. 173)." Yet when the issue of sin is examined, we see that there is indeed data that even the least die-hard skeptic would be able to ignore quite easily. And this ought not be that difficult for Stenger to grasp, for he basically considers the reverse to be the case already (that is, he basically already affirms that no matter how obvious science is, there will still be believers who are deluded into not accepting it). Why does this road only run one way in Stenger's mind?


Stenger moves into questions of morality, where he is on even worse philosophical footing. Again, there is nothing new here. In fact, this section reads as if Stenger was John Loftus.

That Stenger doesn't comprehend the nature of Scripture's moral precepts is evident when he claims: "The theist may respond that the above quotation is not a law but merely the report of an event, but the stories of the Bible are supposed to provide guides to proper behavior (p. 204)." No, the stories are the telling of historical events. When the Scripture details events that occurs, it is not telling us "This is how you ought to behave" any more than reading a history textbook is a moral guide. It is the Law that gives the moral precepts.

Naturally, Stenger disagrees with large portions of the Law itself. Yet his disagreement has more to do with personal taste than anything else; and until he can give a reason why his view is right and the Bible's view is wrong, then he has no argument against the morality of God.

One ironic part of Stenger's chapter is that after accusing the Bible (and the Qur'an—at least this time he included that!) of promoting atrocities throughout history, he lists three religious fanatics (Yigal Amir, a Jew who assassinated Yitzhak Rabin; Paul Hill, who murdered an abortion doctor in 1994; and Mohammed Bouyeri, who murdered Theo van Gogh in 2004) and concludes:
But, thankfully, they are the exception. Furthermore, each of these fanatics would be hard-pressed to demonstrate where exactly in their scriptures were they commanded to commit their dreadful acts (p. 206).
This leads me to ask: which is it? Do these Scriptures promote atrocity or is the one who commits evil in the name of the Scriptures "hard-pressed to demonstrate where" they got these view from "their scriptures"?

After this, Stenger gives the argument from the problem of evil yet again. Since we have dealt with it numerous times already, I will skip this section, only providing one quote which illustrates Stenger's fallacy:
We are once again confronted with the undeniable fact that our instincts about good and evil take precedence over supposed divine commands, when those commands offend both the common sense and the reason that has been cultivated over the centuries as humankind has gradually and incompletely evolved from brutish predecessors (p. 224).
In other words, our morality is right and God's is wrong; therefore God is evil (if He exists). But of course this begs the question that our morality is right. And if our morality is simply what has evolved from "brutish predecessors" then we know that our morality is likely to be biased toward brutality.

Possible and Impossible Gods

The penultimate chapter of the book deals with various possible types of gods. It is interesting to note Stenger's over-all position here:

The exact relationship between the elements of scientific models and whatever true reality lies out there is not of major concern. When scientists have a model that describes the data, that is consistent with other established models, and that can be put to practical use, what else do they need? (p. 228-229)
Such an admission gives us more of Stenger's control philosophy, which in this case is basically pragmatism. Ultimately, he doesn't care about which God is possible to exist; he only cares about his models. (This is somewhat contradicted by the fact that he argues against the existence of God…but let's overlook that for now.)

Stenger's entire position is an anthropocentric position. Virtually every "disproof" he brings forth about God is a disproof only if one assumes the primacy of human (specifically Stenger's) thought. Thus we see conclusions like:
A God who fine-tuned the laws and constants of physics for life, in particular human life, fails to agree with the fact that the universe is not congenial to human life, being tremendously wasteful of time, space, and matter from the human perspective (p. 230, emphasis mine).
In the end, Stenger is not interested in what is real, but in what he wants to think is real. He has his version of reality, and thus he will always read the evidence to match that version. He is not seeking outside evidence to form his idea—his idea is already formed, and the outside evidence is pasted in in an ad hoc fashion.

Further, he continues to ignore the sin problem, stating:
In short, a perfectly-loving God would not deny knowledge of his existence to any human who is not resistant to that knowledge. The empirical fact that many humans are open to knowledge of God and still do not believe demonstrates that such a God does not exist (p. 238).
Yet the noetic effects of sin on the human mind and will negate this claim. It is not the case that "many humans are open to knowledge of God and still do not believe" for humans are depraved individuals. And in fact, this is evidenced by the conclusion of the chapter:
The existence of the Catholic, evangelical, extreme Muslim, extreme Judaic God who hides himself from all but a selected elite cannot be totally ruled out. All I can say is that we have not one iota of evidence that he exists, and, if he does exist, I personally want nothing to do with him. This is a possible god, but a hideous one (p. 240, emphasis added).
In short, if Christianity is correct, then Stenger merely adds to its correctness by pointing out that he does not want anything to do with it; which is exactly the point made by me above. He is not looking at this from an objective position, for he considers this possibility to be hideous, and one he wants nothing to do with. We can hardly consider him to fairly evaluate the evidence with this kind of attitude toward what is not only the actual belief of the majority of theists, but where the fair reading of the text of Scripture leads us to go.

A Godless Universe

Stenger closes the book by dealing with the question of the usefulness of religion. As would be expected, he doesn't think religion does any good, only evil (of course he hasn't provided any philosophical reasoning as to what good or evil is in order to make this judgment).

To make his case, Stenger talks about the various wars that have occurred due to religion (forgetting the various wars that occurred apart from religious motives) and the like. Again, fairly typical stuff. He argues that the good that people of religion do is something they would have done anyway (p. 249) because they were basically good people to begin with, thus they don't need God.

One must wonder how basically good people could have created such a horrific institution as religion, if Stenger's views are all correct. But he doesn't concern himself much with consistency at this point. Instead, the book ends with emotive appeals not based in logic or science at all.
Now, you might say this has nothing to do with the existence or nonexistence of God. However, the concept of a beneficent, loving God held by most people would reasonably be expected to lead to a better world when God is widely worshipped. Well, God is widely worshipped and we do not have a better world because of it. On the contrary, the world seems worse off as a result of faith (p. 250)
Again, I wonder how Stenger could possibly know what the world would have become like apart from religion. Does he have access to special knowledge that no one else does? Can he read parallel universes?

No. He's making this up because he wants it to be true. This isn't science, this is a just-so story.

So, to wrap it up, we see that Stenger's examination of the God hypothesis is too flawed to be useful. The hypothesis he uses gives a God that no one believes in. The problems that confront this fictional God are easily thwarted by simple understanding of Christian theism. Finally, Stenger has nothing better to offer than his own personal relativistic concepts. On the whole, the book was not very useful at all. There's nothing in it that you couldn't already find at Debunking Christianity.


  1. Good article, and thorough too

    1) as far as omnipresence is concerned, I always thought that it simply mens that God can enact His will wherever He chooses. Since God is immaterial (a "timeless mind", as Steve once put it), it's hard to conceive of Him taking up any kind of space, regardless of dimension

    2) since the watch analogy was brought up, what do you think of the counterpoint that this is simply an argument from incredulity? (i.e., "I can't imagine that something so complex could have evolved")

  2. Hey Mathetes!

    As far as omnipresence goes, I was answering the argument on it's own grounds rather than putting forth the correct theological meaning. It is indeed the case that God's omnipresence doesn't have to do with physical presence. God is spirit, so when presenting a positive argument that cannot be ignored.

    However, since Stenger was trying to posit a logical problem, it is useful to give the rebuttal that does not have to presuppose the existence of the spiritual. In this case, the logical argument is defused on its own grounds.

    As for the watch analogy, I've never been a huge fan of it myself. Better, IMO, is Behe's treatment, which deals not merely with things that "look" designed but with things that are irreducibly complex. After all, given fundamental laws that give us complexity out of simplicity (yes, that begs the question about why these laws exist, which is another point of contention with the atheist), there will be some things that "look" designed that are really products of "simple" laws.

    The strength of the irreducibly complex argument is that "simple" laws cannot account for these systems.

    And, as aluded to in my parenthetical above, I would argue that the existence of the "simple" laws themselves point to a designer.

  3. Steve,

    Thanks for the review.

    Ever since Bertrand Russel, atheists have had this self-reinforced ignorance that proves that they truly aren't "free-thinkers".

  4. Saint and Sinner said:

    "Steve, Thanks for the review."

    Actually, Peter Pike wrote this review, which is why it's such a vast improvement over my own book reviews! :-)

  5. "Steve Hays" and "Peter Pike" are just interchangeable names given to a Cray supercomputer in James White's basement to offload some of his apologetics work. But already, I've said too much...

  6. “Indeed, barring some form of transcendent philosophy, how could science give us any concept of "objective evidence"? Usually this is done by asserting that multiple people have to observe the same event (yet when that occurs in the case of, say, multiple observations of miracles, skeptics label it as ‘mass hallucination’); or that it has to be predictive (yet when this occurs in Bible prophecy, for instance, skeptics label it as ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’), etc. But the fact is, even if we ignore the skeptics, there is still no scientific way to have objectivity, because science is based on observation, and observation is a subjective experience for all involved. It cannot make the leap to objectivity without a controlling philosophy governing science—and which one is a point that is much in dispute.

    I’d like to briefly expand on Peter’s statement here.

    i) If we define experience as the psychological process by which we experience the world, then two observers can never share the same experience for the simple reason that you’re not me. We are numerically distinct individuals with numerically distinct experiences. I can’t get inside your experience.

    ii) Even if there were some scanning technology that allowed me to patch into your experience, I would still lack direct access to your experience since my knowledge would be filtered through my personal experience of the scan.

    iii) But someone might say that even though we can’t have the same experience, we can experience the same object.

    The problem is not with the possibility of a common experience, in this sense (i.e. a common object of experience), but with proving it. And that brings us back to (i).

    Since I can never experience your experience, I can never prove that you are experiencing the same object that I am experiencing—at least I can’t prove it directly.

    iv) By the same token, I can’t tell if my experience of the object corresponds to the object, for my only access to the object is filtered through my experience.

    vi) The only way for science to justify objective knowledge is to go beyond the empirical evidence to the metascientific (and metaphysical) presupposition of a preestablished harmony between the experience of one percipient and another, as well as a preestablished harmony between experience and the object of experience.

    And it would be difficult to justify that presupposition without bringing God into the picture, as the agent who coordinates observers and observables.

  7. Mathetes said:

    "Steve Hays" and "Peter Pike" are just interchangeable names given to a Cray supercomputer in James White's basement to offload some of his apologetics work. But already, I've said too much...


    I refuse to confirm this malicious rumor since White might unplug me if I...

    [Due to technical difficulties, we just lost the uplink to this transmission.]

  8. Steve,

    And it would be difficult to justify that presupposition without bringing God into the picture, as the agent who coordinates observers and observables.

    This is a classic case of why you and Peter do a better job of discrediting Christianity than Stenger could, as you're working the damage from the inside.

    How do you suppose your skepticism of objectivity as a concept and the solipsistic subjectivism you resort to instead help your cause, apologetically or otherwise? If I'm Stenger reading this, I'm grinning ear-to-ear with the stupid little box you've put Christianity in. Specifically:

    iv) By the same token, I can’t tell if my experience of the object corresponds to the object, for my only access to the object is filtered through my experience.

    So your God, like everything else, by your "same token", is so much figment, for all we know.

    The way you have it, God would solve *nothing* here, as God is just another "experience", and we know from your comments here just how reliable you think "experience" is.

    Sheesh. With "friends" in Christendom like Hays, who needs "enemies"?

    Peter, and Patrick, please remember this comment from Steve here when you want to go off on my skepticism. I'm the realist around here, it seems. Our experience *is* reliable, we are experiencing *real* objects in the *real* world, and by coordinating and calibrating our experiences with those of other minds, we can achieve significant levels of objectivity, and effectively suppress individual biases, agenda, and subjective distortions about a great many things. God can't underwrite any such "metaphysical harmony" as Steve says, in any way that's not immediately cut down by his own expressed skepticism about experience. It's only through affirming the objective reality of the world around us, affirmed by our collective, shared experiences, that "reality" is even a meaningful concept. "God" isn't a useful concept in Steve's cartesian vat. It takes a real world, with real people and real objects to give *meaning* to the *objective* reality of God, and the reality He created.

    You guys go so far to soothe your dissonance with science, that you destroy the very epistemic foundations you stand on yourselves. Truly, you cut off your spiritual nose to spite your spiritual face.

    Please don't do that.


  9. Clearly White is "God," and Steve and Pete Pike are members of the Final Five.

    They look just like us.

    They evolved.

    They have a plan...

  10. "The only way for science to justify objective knowledge is to go beyond the empirical evidence to the metascientific (and metaphysical) presupposition of a preestablished harmony between the experience of one percipient and another, as well as a preestablished harmony between experience and the object of experience."

    Does this, essentially, relate to the problem of the one and the many? Because it seems as though if the metascientific/metaphysical is taken away, then the percipient is just left with a series of disconnected brute facts.

  11. I'm shocked!

    T-Stone taking the side of an atheist? Who woulda seen that one comin'?!

  12. Touchstone confuses belief that “Our experience *is* reliable, we are experiencing *real* objects in the *real* world” with a proof that this is the case. Supposedly a transcendental solution leads to solipsism and utter skepticism. Yet, besides t-stone’s assertion, we are given no reason as to why this is the case.

    “by coordinating and calibrating our experiences with those of other minds, we can achieve significant levels of objectivity”

    This misses the point entirely. “significant levels” of objectivity?!?

  13. Caleb,

    Yes, didn't you know: agreement is objectivity. If ten color-blind people view a red ball as black, the ball is objectively black.

    It's so simple, it's amazing philosopher's have never considered this before!


    “So your God, like everything else, by your ‘same token’, is so much figment, for all we know.”

    No, it wouldn’t be” by the same token” since God was never an “observable” to begin with.

    Not all knowledge comes through the senses. There is innate knowledge, including our natural knowledge of God (not all of which is innate). And there are a priori arguments for the existence of God.

    Moreover, the empirical evidence for God does not depend on your being a color realist (e.g. Is grass is really green?). It isn’t based on the resemblance between my mental impression of a tree and what the tree is really like. The empirical evidence for God operates at a very different level.

    “Our experience *is* reliable.”


    “We are experiencing *real* objects.”


    “In the *real* world.”


    BTW, I don’t deny these statements, but you can’t justify any of those statements on the basis of science alone, much his naturalistically fumigated version of science.

    “By coordinating and calibrating our experiences with those of other minds, we can achieve significant levels of objectivity, and effectively suppress individual biases, agenda, and subjective distortions about a great many things.”

    So if one color-blind observer perceives a rose as a gray flower, that’s subjective—but if a hundred color-blind observers perceive a rose as a gray flower, that’s objective.

    It’s obvious that tpebble has never studied the intricate philosophical debates over inverted qualia.

    “It's only through affirming the objective reality of the world around us, affirmed by our collective, shared experiences, that ‘reality’ is even a meaningful concept.”

    “Reality” is bigger than the sensible world.

    “’God" isn't a useful concept in Steve's cartesian vat.”

    Several problems:

    i) Brain-in-vat scenarios are very easy to make fun of, and very difficult to disprove. That’s why there’s a vast philosophical literature on this topic.

    ii) Does anyone believe in brain-in-vat scenarios? Not unless you’re addicted to the Matrix.

    But that’s not the function of this thought-experiment. It’s an imaginative way to test the limits of what we can prove about our belief in the external world.

    iii) You can retool the theistic proofs and apply them to the brain-in-vat scenario, for you must still account for the existence of the brain, and the vat, and the alien laboratory, &c.

    By contrast, tpebble issues God a day-pass to perform his perfunctory religious duties. God is a vestigial organ in tpebble’s belief-system.

    If he could do so, tpebble would dispense with God altogether. He doesn’t want God—he wants a cosmic machine: Newton’s clockwork universe. Everything running right on time.

    But God performs an ancillary service by conferring eternal life. So tpebble tolerates God as long as God keeps his nose out of mundane affairs, except for funerals.

    iv) And let’s consider tpebble’s alternative for a moment. He regards methodological naturalism as presupposition of science.

    So the only version of evolution he can defend is naturalistic evolution. Therefore, he must act as if the human mind is the incidental byproduct of a mindless process. Indeed, eliminative materialism denies the very existence of mental states.

    That’s a recipe for global scepticism. Natural selection doesn’t select for true beliefs. True beliefs confer no survival advantage. Lower animals and other organisms survive and thrive without any beliefs whatsoever.

  15. Peter,

    I would revise this statement:

    "Natural selection doesn’t select for true beliefs. True beliefs confer no survival advantage."

    Natural selection does not *necessarily* select for true belief, only phenotypic fitness.

    The argument still shows that naturalistic evolution destroys human epistemology, and as a result, is self-refuting as a belief.

  16. Perhaps my last sentence should say, "...and as a result, is *stultifying* as a belief," since it only disproves the epistemology of the naturalistic worldview and not the entire worldview itself.

    "If you don't believe in God, then you can logically believe in nothing else." -Cornelius Van Til

  17. Saint,

    Actually Steve said that, not me.

    (See what happens when Paul Manata shakes up the vats containing our brains???)

  18. Mathetes said:
    "The only way for science to justify objective knowledge is to go beyond the empirical evidence to the metascientific (and metaphysical) presupposition of a preestablished harmony between the experience of one percipient and another, as well as a preestablished harmony between experience and the object of experience."

    Does this, essentially, relate to the problem of the one and the many? Because it seems as though if the metascientific/metaphysical is taken away, then the percipient is just left with a series of disconnected brute facts.


    Good point. Ironically, you can't have sense knowledge if all you have is sense knowledge.

  19. Hugh Ross and Victor Stenger went at it recently on The Things that Matter Most. Here is the audio.

  20. Thanks for the link, Jeff. It's actually quite good for the limits of a radio show (which is unfortunately never the best place to examine ideas).