Victor Stenger Visit

Readers of the blog will know that Victor Stenger visited Jackson last week, to give a speech on his book (and the topic)The New Atheism.

Dr. Stenger was here at Millsaps, where an interesting lecture will be taking place on November 3rd, by Andrew Chaikin on space exploration. I’ll be out of town, but I do hope some of you attend.

The lecture was informative and entertaining – the only thing I disliked was the fact that Dr. Stenger only had 30 minutes.

What I had hoped would be the bulk of the lecture was but a sidenote; the physics. Stenger pointed out how something like the neutron, which is near impossible to detect, is still found with evidence – evidence that won one man a Nobel prize in an experiment that Dr. Stenger took part in.

This was a lead in to one of Stenger’s big points: The absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence. I’d like to add that this is probably the only quote ever to issue forth from the mouths of Carl Sagan, Donald Rumsfeld, Victor Stenger, and Sam Jackson.

However, if something should or could provide evidence, and yet it does not – then what is the reasonable point at which the continued absence of evidence becomes actual evidence of absence? It is an interesting question in logic, one deftly handled by Carl Sagan in the Demon Haunted World via The Dragon In My Garage thought experiment.

Stenger also pointed out an interesting difference between doing science the hard way and doing science the easy way – also known as “pseudoscience.”

Science: When the evidence disagrees with the proposition, the proposition is discarded.

Faith: When the evidence disagrees with the proposition, the evidence is discarded.

So what kind of evidence might show up? More than a few studies on the effectiveness of prayer have been done – those that turn up positive results seem to have a few problems. And then there are plenty that show no effect at all. After all, as Stenger pointed out, should it turn out that Catholic prayers are more effective than Buddhist prayers, or Muslim prayers are more effective than Protestant prayers, then – there is some proof, and I suspect you’d see more than a few new atheists running for the churches.

Or, say, some prophets or divine revelations ever turned out to be demonstrably true?

Of course, none of these things ever turn up, even though many a scientist would love it to be true: In a community as large as the scientific community, which is pretty far from monolithic, there are bound to be a range of views. According to Stenger, a majority of the National Academy of Sciences disagree with New Atheist positions, yet only 7% of them believe in a personal, bible-style god.

I would imagine that the reason the NAS is fairly atheistic (if not enthusiastic about getting out there and publicly announcing it) is that scientists have to take a materialistic view – after all, what is the difference between something that cannot be detected in any conceivable way and nothing at all? Scientists like Stenger seek the plausible natural explanations for phenomena; and are successful in finding them. As Carl Sagan once pointed out: Science works. (Get the T-shirt here.)

this was not the image Dr. Stenger used in his slideshow.

this was not the image Dr. Stenger used in his slideshow.

And in the evidence department, one of the arguments hauled out by the Cosmology Department of Intelligent Design is the “fine tuning” argument – that the chemical, physical, and natural laws did not have to be the way that they are, and the fact that life exists is a testament to some intelligent design at the big bang.

I would have loved Stenger to go more into the topic, but since he’s got a a book coming out on the subject I will have to be patient. Suffice it to say, the universe is quite large and not particularly fine tuned at all – most of it is pretty brutally incompatible with any sort of life. And Stenger noted that, while more hostile universes are possible, much more amenable universes are also possible. The book preview offers this hint (I am pretty excited about the book, if you can’t tell):

In this book I look at the important laws and parameters that have been suggested as being fine-tuned and show that from a physicist’s perspective they have simple, often trivial natural explanations. I will show that some of the fine-tuning arguments are based on lack of understanding of fundamental physics and cosmology or on the incorrect analysis of the data.

Harsh. And finally, Stenger finished up with one of the arguments an atheist often hears: “well where do you get morality?”

As though morality did not exist before the concept of religion. Morality is a function of civilization, this is why different societies have differing moral standards – if it was all the same, then that would be pretty powerful evidence of some morality imposed from an outside force. But the picture that arises is not that way.

Afterwards, Stenger was given a response by Dr. Steven Smith. As one of those who attended pointed out afterwards, “it’s not like every time they have a Christian speaker, we get to have an atheist response.” However, I’ve got tremendous respect for the man for getting up and delivering a response after the tremendous beating to his profession that Stenger handed out.

Unfortunately, it was a little weak. Smith was trying to construct religion in a way that was not supernatural-dependent, and focusing on very liberal theologians and even metaphysics. He did ascribe a bit to the “Nonoverlapping Magisteria” of Stephen Jay Gould – leave it to Gould to use such a phrase – arguing that theology was the the study of how to position and understand yourself in the interest of time and the universe, insisting that there is some basis of things that is non-spatial and beyond time, some origin of time-space that is the undetectable, invisible dragon.

Dr. Smith also did not buy into Stenger’s definition of faith, a definition that many new atheists use that seems a bit single-minded; Faith being believing without evidence, or even despite the evidence. I imagine that is a more literal interpretation of the phenomenon itself, a science-suitable working of the word. Rather, he seemed more inclined to the capital F Faith, the sum total of attitudes taken by a body of the faithful, regarding the world, towards the consideration of the problems of suffering and evil.

Stenger got time to respond to the response – plugging his new book “Quantum Gods” – those gods not personal and physical that the new age gurus speak so fluently of, the type of thinking that gets you killed with magic.

He said that this is the sort of god Smith is endorsing – the god espoused by the “premise keepers:” theologians who try and fit theology into a scientific universe. Stenger pointed out that these theologians arrive at the deist god, or even weaker, a deism with a dice throwing god, of whom no memory exists.

Maybe my idea of the Church of the Million Sided Die is better than I thought.

After the counter-response, the fun began: Question time! Of course, some of the questions were merely requests for clarification of information. Some of the questions were less than informed, which does not bode well for those poor students. (especially the poor young man who informed Dr. Stenger that when he had proof of god it would be “too late,” as in “hellfire”) Also, the mere idea that scientists could go about daily life not being sure about things seemed incredibly mind-blowing to some people. Also dragged up was the oft-heard “well science is just a matter of faith,” argument (an interesting variation on the argument from ignorance, combined with the equivocation error). According to a humanist from New Orleans, Stenger said that he enjoyed the questions; usually his audience is much more receptive – ruffling feathers is a vital part of the academic enterprise.

My personal favorite was a question by a clearly upset young woman (I don’t know if she was upset by disruption of her beliefs, or by speaking in public, a terrifying proposition to most) who wanted to know why we were looking for god (who would be “beyond” time and space) in physical phenomenon? Well, Stenger replied – we’re not looking for god, we’re looking for something god has done – and not finding anything.

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