God: The Failed Hypothesis

14 May 2007

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.


  1. I just finished reading that book.

    — Parvinder    May 29, 05:43 PM    #
  2. I really appreciate the existence of this blog. I have tangled with a number of atheists lately on YouTube after browsing and witnessing some of the out and out pathological hatred voiced by many of them. I could hold my tongue no longer and I have become quite intrigued and alamed by the “New Atheism” . I have read a few books lately and earlier tonight was perusing “God:The Failed Hypothesis”. I too saw a lot of shallowness and logical fallacy in Stenger’s work. I wanted to buy the book and bring it home to dissect- but I refuse to spend money that will beefit that fellow’s work. I will look for it second hand to dissect as I said. I was looking for some of Stenger’s work online and some rebuttal material to begin working with when I found your site here. Its a real service to everyone for you to have this here. I was thinking of building something similar. I might consider doing that after I am more studied up.

    I want to mention an outstanding work I just read that was written as a response to Dawkins’ “God Delusion”. Its called “The Dawkins Letters” and is a series of letters written as rebuttals to each chapter in Dawkins’ book. The author is David Robertson. Forgive me if you already know of this book or have it posted here. If you haven’t seen it or don’t have something about it posted here you definately ought to check it out.

    Take care- I’ll be doing a lot of reading here.

    p.s. my own blog is entitled Geotheology. Drop by for a visit sometime.

    Scott Starr    May 18, 07:37 PM    #
  3. This is a great review Kyle. I read Stenger’s book a few months ago. Although I would agree that it probably is the ‘best of the bunch’ as far as the new atheists go, I found it full of so many short comings. If you haven’t already read it I recommend reading Who made God? by Edgar Andrews. He is an internationally respected physicist and devotes alot of his book to exposing the fallicies in stengers book. Its quite fantastic I must say!

    One of the glaring problems I found was where he tries to show how the universe can come out of nothing by the idea of ‘Quantum Tunneling’-that another universe existed prior to ours tunneled through to become ours. This is in no way scientific as there isn’t a shred of evidence for it. It shows that he completely misunderstands the problem and in trying to show something coming from nothing, he merely shows how something can come from something.

    Soon I hope to write a full length critique of the book on my blog.

    Joshua    Jun 22, 03:46 AM    #
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