Stenger Should Stick To Physics


Victor Stenger, atheist physicist, emeritus professor at the University of Hawaii, writes in New Scientist of why scientists ought to stick to their own competencies. Well, no, he doesn’t say that in so many words, in fact he tries to say the opposite, that science can judge against the existence of God. He tries, but he fails so miserably, the real lesson is what I have just said: stick to what you know, please, so you don’t embarrass yourself.

The article is The God Issue: God is a Testable Hypothesis.” (It is unfortunately behind a paywall. If I’ve taken anything illegitimately out of context I’m sure someone will let me know anyway, and I’ll be glad to adjust as appropriate.)

I could say there are multiple problems in Stenger’s approach, but that would be too great an understatement. Stenger is irrationally biased. He reveals this from near the beginning, where he is talking about how we might discover evidence for God through science:

If a properly controlled experiment were to come up with an observation that cannot be explained by natural means, then science would have to take seriously the possibility of a world beyond matter.

Three problems come to mind here:

  1. Knowing other things Stenger has had to say, he likely means that if science doesn’t have to take that possibility seriously, then no discipline (and no person) has to take it seriously, for science comprises the only knowledge anyone has to take seriously. Scientism of that sort is self-defeating (self-contradictory) and empirically wrong. We have discussed that often enough on these pages, so I will not repeat it here.
  2. For science to take seriously the possibility of a world beyond matter would require “science” to take seriously that in which it has absolutely no competence. What could that possibly achieve for us? It’s as valid as saying the discipline of ancient history should take seriously the Grand Unified Theory problem in physics. Suppose the historians of the world decided they should do that. Who else but those historians could possibly even care?
  3. “Properly controlled experiments” involving God are impossible. Shall we set up a double-blind protocol, where neither the experimenter (some scientist) and the subject (God) knows what’s going on?

Wrap these three together, and here’s what you get: “Only science is competent to judge whether to take the question of God seriously, but science could never come up with a positive answer to that unless it did something which in the nature of the case is strictly impossible, and besides which, this matter in which we should regard as having the sole competence is one in which science is incompetent.”

And that leads directly to the conclusion, “Don’t take the question of God seriously;” and it gets there without the bother of having to check whether there’s any evidence to support it. Even Victor Stenger should have noticed how overly convenient that is for atheism.

But Stenger does talk about evidences, doesn’t he? He writes, for example,

In fact scientists have empirically tested the efficacy of intercessory prayer – prayers said on behalf of others. These studies, in principle, could have shown scientifically that some god exists…. They did not.

In this he is both right and wrong. He is wrong (for reasons already stated) if he thinks a properly controlled test has ever been conducted. He is right to say that these studies could have, in principle, shown that some god exists. He is wrong to conclude from them that no God exists.

But isn’t that rather too convenient now for theists? Isn’t that too easy of an out? Not so. What these studies are looking for are miracles. Suppose there is a God who wants to reveal himself to humans but not to be controlled by them like a lab rat. Suppose this God decided to perform miracles, but not in scientifically “controlled”[1. We have just seen that a truly controlled experiment of this sort is impossible; hence the quotation marks.] circumstances, with the result that all such “controlled” experiments come up negative. And then suppose such a God performed a miracle elsewhere: raising someone from the dead after three days, for instance, in circumstances where there was good reason to believe it happened by the hand of God. No scientifically “controlled” experiments, no matter how negative and no matter how many, could show that God did not perform that miracle; and if God performed it, then there is a God.

It only takes one decisive act of God for there to be decisive evidence for God, after all.

But we have more to hear of from Stenger. He claims that life is exactly the way we would expect it to be on the basis of natural selection. I don’t think so: the fossil record is not what it was expected to be, for one thing. He says,

Most religions claim that humans possess immaterial souls that control much of our mental processing. If that were true, we should be able to observe mentally induced phenomena that are independent of brain chemistry. We do not.

Stenger is outside his range of competence when he writes,

If God is the source of morality, then we should find evidence for a supernatural origin in human behaviour. We do not. People of faith behave on average no better, and in some cases behave worse, than people of no faith.

I know of one or two studies that support that conclusion. I know of many that support the opposite. (Here are a couple of them.) And I know that history reveals the opposite as well. Not to be too blunt about it, but what he says here displays either culpable ignorance or rank dishonesty, for there is considerable evidence that people of faith behave better than people of no faith.

Here, too, he is speaking beyond his competence:

Again, if God answers prayers, we should see miraculous effects of prayer. With millions of prayers having been said every day for thousands of years, we would expect some to have been answered by now in a verifiable way. They have not.

He’s just wrong about that. Millions of people all over the world are coming to faith in Jesus Christ every year because of miracles they have seen in answer to prayer. Stenger is falling victim to the oldest of scientific errors: thinking that the sample he can see is representative of the whole. He’s never seen a miracle, no one he knows will admit to having seen a miracle, therefore there are no miracles. He needs to get out more. Miracles are exceptional, otherwise they wouldn’t be miracles, but on a global scale they are hardly uncommon.

Moving on, he gets this wrong in a big way:

If humans are a special creation of God, then the universe should be congenial to human life. It is not.

I’ve addressed that issue quite recently. Stenger thinks too small. He’s terribly anthropocentric—either that, or he has way too little appreciation for glory and beauty.

He closes with this:

Finally, I would like to comment on the folly of faith. When faith rules over facts, magical thinking becomes deeply ingrained and warps all areas of life. It produces a frame of mind in which concepts are formulated with deep passion but without the slightest attention paid to the evidence.

My reaction to that is, Well, if that’s what you were talking about, why didn’t you say so from the beginning? I thought you were talking about some actual religion! He wasn’t, you see. The whole article is instead his impassioned complaint about how bad religion is, when religion is what he think religion is!” If there is some religion that fits Stenger’s description, where faith “rules over” facts “without the slightest attention paid to the evidence,” then I too would consider that a warping influence, too. It’s just that I’ve never run across that kind of religion. He’s attacking a straw man.

Stenger should stick to physics.

(And New Scientist should stick to new science.)

Want evidence to back this up?


10 Responses

  1. AgeOfReasonXXI says:

    “Stenger should stick to physics.”

    Really? So when the religious make pronouncements in areas outside their areas of expertise, such as cosmology, biology, etc. (just like you do concerning the fossil record or “physics and the conscious mind”) it’s OK, yet when a physicist comments on God and religion, it’s suddenly “beyond his competence”. Or are you a biologist, physicist and a neuroscientist?

    If not, you might want to ponder over just how ignorant a layman like yourself appears when he chooses to champion beliefs, say with regards to consciousness and immortal souls, that are rejected outright by virtually all experts in this area, both neuoroscientists and philosophers of mind?

    I mean, can you get any more hypocritical, pathetic–and considering your ignorant and silly comments on Stenger’s article(if only..)–stupid?

  2. Tom Gilson says:


    The reason Stenger should stick to physics is not because there’s some rule that says “stay in your field!” It’s because in wandering outside of his field, he made same very basic and fundamental errors, spoke what was false, embarrassed himself, and misled his readers.

    So if I am wrong about the fossil record, or about physics and the conscious mind then it would be appropriate for you to tell me I should stay out of those fields. It’s the being wrong that’s the real problem. But you would need actually to show that I am wrong. Merely taking up the name “reason” in your nom de blog, and pronouncing me “hypocritical, pathetic, ignorant, and stupid” will not do the job for you. Name-calling is a skill we all learned in grade school.

    Arguments from authority (“rejected by virtually all experts…”) don’t cut it, either. I have read the authorities, I have written in response to them in the past, I will do so again in the future, and I have reason to believe that the ones you refer to here are mistaken. So again, if you think I’m wrong, I suggest that rather then flinging labels at me, you actually try to explain yourself. Otherwise, well, the names don’t bother me, and they don’t interest me much, either. Yawn.

  3. Stenger writes:

    “Finally, I would like to comment on the folly of faith. When faith rules over facts, magical thinking becomes deeply ingrained and warps all areas of life. It produces a frame of mind in which concepts are formulated with deep passion but without the slightest attention paid to the evidence.”

    I love that part about “magical thinking”. Wow……

    Who, exactly is conjuring up the power of “magical” alchemy here? According to the neo-darwinist, “nothing-becomes-everything” cosmological paradigm, the macro-evolutionary tree of life is a veritable magic wand of wishful thinking:

    ““The Tree” spins an amazing Macro-Evolutinary tale, a truly mesmerizing “Just-So-Story” of magical import and implication. “The Tree” informs us in no uncertain terms that all of life, every domain, every kingdom, phylum, family and species that has ever existed, was somehow kick-started when… (Prest-O! Change-O!)… a microbial life entity suddenly appeared out of utterly lifeless matter, presumably pre-historic mud.”

    Son, this Tree is Flawless Science!
    Modern Man’s most Holy Grail!
    If you’re smart, boy, you’ll embrace
    this Magic mesmerizing tale!.

    See, down there… Way at the bottom?
    Where the Trunk meets Mother Earth;
    Hi-Q Priests call that “Ground Zero”,
    Where by Chance The Zoo was birthed.

    There! An Itsy-Bitsy Microbe,
    Look!! A tiny Protoplast!
    Just appearing, son, like magik!
    From its Mama….Natural Gas.

    We’re not sure just how it happened,
    But we’re ALL convinced it’s true!
    Maybe lightning struck a puddle,
    Then turned into me and you!….


  4. BillT says:

    And the reasoned and reasonable response from “AgeOfReasonXXI”….? Just what we would expect.

  5. Robert O'Brien says:

    I haven’t seen much evidence of Victor Stenger’s competency in physics, so I’m not sure he should even stick to that. Certainly, Stenger makes nonsensical claims re: theism/Christianity and physics. David Bartholomew, a statistician (a better one than me) and past president of the Royal Statistical Society exposed Stenger’s ineptitude in their exchange:{40BBFD62-5387-4EE8-87C2-CA0D5A9D2DCB}

  6. Melissa says:

    New scientist should rename themselves New Scietism. The shame is that being a popular magazine a lot of it’s readership have no idea that a good portion of what fills the pages is not science but science plus opinion, speculation or, often, bad philosophy.

  7. Alex Dawson says:

    Hello everyone, hope you’re all doing well.

    I wouldn’t naturally be tempted to take much heed of the New Scientist article; I haven’t read anything near as much science as I ought to have lately, but the bits of New Scientist I have read in the recent past (on all manner of topics) often seem to be sensationalist rather than scientifically or critically rigorous. They are trying to sell issues, after all.

    However I was primarily commenting about something Tom mentioned in the post. I entirely agree that in and of itself the truth/falsilty of present-day miracles has no direct bearing on judging past miracles (such as Jesus’ resurrection). However from what I do know and understand of them, I’m pretty strongly convinced that present-day miracles do not take place. Could someone give me a quick lowdown why I should give such claims credence, or point me in direction of good resources on this matter? Thanks very much.

  8. Tom Gilson says:

    Hi, Alex,

    This is way more answer than you were asking for, but Craig Keener has just published a two-volume answer to that question, drawing information from all around the world.

  9. John says:

    THE FUNNY THING is is these atheists always claim they use reason and are true “thinking” men yet they seem so devoid of it it’s almost a psychology case.

    1.Is it not obvious that God is not on TV right now?

    2.So if He exists isnt it certainly his will to allow doubt?

    3.Yet they want to summon him like a demon, who has no control over himself, to respond to their experiment?

    How can you reconcile the 3 statements above and move forward with a prayer test and think that in any way it would work?

    So God, in his wisdom has chosen that allowing doubt and Not setting up a castle in New York is in His plans best interests—BUT because some atheist puts on a lab coat God scraps the whole plan and hands out wishes a Genie?

    This is the mind of the Champions of Reason.
    The entire movement is a lie. Like they think its Not obvious to us Christians that even if absolute proof was provided that they would still reject God. The idea of worshiping Christ would make these guys throw up. Its yucky, mushy, and not worthy of their overwhelming superiority.