In God: The Failed Hypothesis, Victor Stenger tries to demonstrate that, far from confirming theism as some (myself included) have claimed, science actually demonstrates positively that God does not exist. Although considered by many commentators to be part of the ‘new atheist movement,’ along with books from atheists Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, Stenger’s book is much better than those by Dawkins and Harris because he actually attempts to deal with the evidence for and against God’s existence rather than complain about the supposed social problems that religion creates. Stenger is straight to the point, for which he should be commended.
In the book, Stenger tries very hard to limit his discussion to issues of science, trying to leave out considerations of philosophy. However, while I understand his desire to approach the topic of God’s existence from a unique angle, I think that this decoupling of science from philosophy raises several problems.
For example, in chapter 3, Stenger discusses scientific evidence from the field of neuroscience. He contends that evidence linking conscious states with brain states demonstrates that there is no soul, or, as he puts it, ‘world beyond matter.’ Such a demonstration might be convincing if we are restricted to analyzing science alone. However, as many scientists have recognized, finding a link between brain states and conscious states is not the end of the game. Steven Pinker, a prominent psychologist, distinguishes between the ‘easy’ and ‘hard’ problem of consciousness. The easy problem is trying to identify the link between certain brain states and certain conscious experiences. As Stenger points out, science has made tremendous headway on this problem, and progress will likely continue. But, the hard problem will not go away, because the hard problem of consciousness deals with figuring out why there is a first-person, subjective experience of consciousness. This hard problem of consciousness will not go away no matter how much scientists work on the easy problem. So, in my view, the evidence Stenger raises does little or nothing to challenge the idea that there is a soul. The existence of a soul is necessary to solve the hard problem of consciousness. Thus, in this case, Stenger’s reliance on only science has led him, I think, to conclusions that are false and irrelevant.
Stenger runs into the same problem when he discusses morality. He attempts to use science to show that moral ideas come from our evolutionary history, and that religious believers are no better behaved then nonbelieving counterparts anyways. But these questions do not address the philosophical question “are moral values objective, and if so, then where do they come from?” Stenger can argue till he is blue in the face about the gradual development of moral instincts through evolution, but this is simply not relevant to the moral argument for God’s existence.
Stenger’s lack of philosophical reflection also allow him to reach absurd conclusions while trying to undermine theistic arguments. One particularly potent example in found on page 133, where he tries to answer the question, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” He says,
”...Many simple systems of particles are unstable, that is, have limited lifetimes as they undergo spontaneous phase transitions to more complex structures of lower energy. Since ‘nothing’ is as simple as it gets, we cannot expect it to be very stable. It would likely undergo a spontaneous phase transition to something more complicated, like a universe containing matter.”
This view, however, is clearly metaphysically absurd. True nothingness cannot have any properties whatsoever, including the property of instability.
Other than a lack of sound philosophical thinking, the other main problem with Stenger’s book is the lack of depth. Each chapter is very short and Stenger simply tries to cover too much material in the space he allots. Many of his arguments are left with no support except for a footnote directing the reader to another one of his books.
Unfortunately, it is this lack of depth that ultimately diminishes the value of the book greatly. Although Stenger, unlike some of his atheist comrades, does at least look at the evidence for and against the existence of God, the treatment of the different subjects is too shallow. Moreover, by overlooking a consideration of philosophy, Stenger makes several errors in thinking and overlooks some powerful evidences for God’s existence.