Tuesday, June 5, 2012

God - The Failed Hypothesis

Title: God: The Failed Hypothesis – How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist
Author: Victor J Stenger
Publisher:  Prometheus, 2007 (First)
ISBN: 978-1-59102-481-1
Pages: 258

A delightful work with utmost conviction and clarity from a renowned author. Stenger is emeritus professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Hawaii and adjunct professor of philosophy at the University of Colorado. He has authored many books on popular science and atheist topics. This bold new initiative is a commendable one in taking the bull by its horns. Many scientists and scientific establishments keep the refrain that science is not fit for commenting on spiritual or theistic citing incompatibility. Repeated assertions like this impart the fallacious argument with necessary weight to carry it into established wisdom. This is far from the truth, as exemplified many times in this text. What scientists fear most is the drying up of funds for their work and it would be a good idea for most of them to dance to the tune of superstitious sensibilities of the society. Stenger establishes that the concept of God and other mystical ideas can be tested by scientific methodology and pronounce judgement on them. However, simply by reading the title, we get a hint of the outcome.

Science separates chaff from wheat by hypothesis testing. Nonetheless, not every claim can be tested. There are a few conditions which must be satisfied for considering extraordinary claims. They are,  1) The protocols of the study must be clear and impeccable so that all possibilities of error can be evaluated 2) The hypothesis being tested must be established clearly and explicitly before data taking begins, and not changed midway through the process or after looking at the data 3) The people performing the study must do so without any prejudgment of how the results should come out 4) The hypothesis being tested must be one that contains the seeds of its own destruction and 5) Even after passing the above criteria, reported results must be of such a nature that they can be independently replicated (p.24-25). Proponents of creation theory, which can also be tested, do not command the respect of admirers as they once did. Even a schoolboy attending Sunday school probably knows that the mechanism of creation described in the Bible (or any other religious work) does not exist. Intelligent Design (ID) is an alternate theory suggested by creationists when their former theory fell short of teaching in U.S. schools. This developed into a major movement in the 1980s and two judicial rulings in U.S declared teaching ID in schools unconstitutional as it observed that ID is nothing better than creation by God, which ran against the country’s secular credentials. Opposition to this wolf in sheep’s skin is rampant, with a group of scientists claiming that design is too poor to expect from an omnipotent, omniscient being. They cite examples, such as “our bones lose minerals after age thirty, making them susceptible to fracture and osteoporosis. Our rib cage does not fully enclose and protect most internal organs. Our muscles atrophy. Our leg veins become enlarged and twisted, leading to varicose veins. Our joints wear out as their lubricants thin. Our retinas are prone to detachment. The male prostate enlarges, squeezing and obstructing urine flow” (p.69). One would hardly expect such design flaws from an all powerful God.

In the author’s incessant tirade on superstition, good explanatory work of world beyond matter is produced. Effectiveness of intercessory prayer on patients is examined in some detail. Very few experiments were done in the scientific way and those don’t prove positive effects. Mind and soul are the results of electrical interactions in human brain and there is no reason to believe that they continue after death. So a God who endows manking with immortal, immaterial souls can’t exist. The argument that since the universe exists, there should exist a creator too, is erroneous. Author argues philosophically that to maintain ‘nothing’ requires outside intervention and presence of ‘something’ indicates there is no creator.

Another popular misconception is that since the universe appears to be finetuned for life, probably it was made so by a creator or designer, but this argument is fundamentally flawed. If the physical constants and parameters are so optimized for life, why is that life is tied to this blue speck of Earth in the vast universe? Probably such blue specks or similar planets may exist  somewhere in the universe, but human travel to such far off places is restricted by life-threatening radiation permeating outer space like gamma rays or cosmic rays. The only conclusion we can infer from this is that, whatever the universe is designed for, it is just not fit for life. In the trillions of galaxies, stars and planets, just one – a single entity – became the abode of life is the result of pure chance. The author also examines the truthness of biblical prophesies in some detail and concludes that they have not been fulfilled and merely represents the state of knowledge at the time of writing. However, this chapter seems to be not doing justice to the title.

Another common argument for creationists is that our moral values come from God and if we reject him, we stoop to debased morals. A clear and deserved thrashing is meted out to this flimsy point. Men, born and brought up in a social milieu develops moral precepts which naturally take root in any society. The Golden Rule summarizes the nature of human interactions in society, ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’. This is construed as a teaching of Christ in the sermon on the mount. However, this maxim is present in other ancient texts too, some of them not religious, like 1) In the Doctrine of the Mean 13, written about 500 BCE, Confucius says, “What you do not want others to do to you, do not do to others.” 2) Isocrates (c.375 BCE) said, “Do not do to others what would anger you if done to you by others” 3) The Hindu Mahabharata, written around 150 BCE, teaches, “This is the sum of all true righteousness: deal with others as thou wouldst thyself be dealt by” (p.198). To the consternation of people who regard Bible as the fountainhead of virtue, it allows and regulates slavery as shown in these lines, “When you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years, and in the seventh, he shall go out free, for nothing (Exodus 21:2 Revised Standard Version)” and “If his master gives him a wife and she bears him sons or daughters, the wife and her children shall be her master’s and he shall go out alone (Exodus 21:4, RSV)” (p.202). The Church condemned slavery in 1888, when all Christian nations had abolished it. The U.S. civil war was caused by the insistence of southerners to continue slavery claiming that it is not immoral, showing the Bible as evidence. Likewise, morals also did not originate in religion. Protomorality is seen among animals too, like sharing of food and helping injured members as sometimes displayed by dolphins, apes, monkeys and elephants. This trait is innate in humans and provide good survival value in a society. This is further accentuated by cultural evolution and social harmony which provides the basis for our sense of right and wrong. Religion has absolutely no place here.

The book is extensively well referenced and the rich source material is a good starting point for many a journey to the depths of superstition and how to wipe them out. The book is outstanding in its frontal attack on religious baggage and facing it at full throttle. What many scientists had feared to do, Stenger had achieved in a masterful stroke. It is easy to read and is a good page turner.

The book is highly recommended.

Rating: 4 Star

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