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Physicist argues vs. existence of God

Tuesday, June 5, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 8:12 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

“Yesterday there were 400 talks in this town on the existence of God. Tonight we’re going to have one with the opposite point of view.”

With that, Kenny Duzan of the Show-me Skeptics welcomed between 50 and 60 people to a lecture by Victor Stenger at the Columbia Public Library on Monday night.

The retired professor of physics from the University of Hawaii came to Columbia at the invitation of the Show-me Skeptics and the MU Brights to discuss his new book, “God: The Failed Hypothesis.” The thrust of his argument is that the question whether God exists is one that can be answered by applying the scientific method.

“The point is that the God that most people worship plays such an important role in the universe that you should be able to use the scientific method to detect his presence,” Stenger said.

If the kind of God that most people in the West believe in existed, it would have effects that would violate the laws of physics and that would be empirically measurable. Otherwise, a universe with God would look exactly like a universe without God, and there would be no rational reason for assuming God’s existence.

Stenger said he was motivated to write the book by what he saw as the “misuse of science” by New Age mystics like Deepak Chopra or advocates of Intelligent Design. Asked whether he thought applying the scientific method to what many people believe to be a spiritual question would only contribute to the confusion, he said he felt the question of whether God exists was not outside the competence of science “as long as we handle it in a rational way.”

Not everyone was convinced.

“I do not disagree with his conclusion,” said Atish Sem, of Columbia, “but I find his arguments restrictive. His arguments are made based on his definition of God.”

John Marshall, a doctor of internal medicine at MU, said he also thought science could potentially answer the question whether God exists, but he came to the opposite conclusion of that reached by Stenger.

“I think it is much easier to prove God than to disprove God,” Marshall said. Marshall is a proponent of Intelligent Design, the idea that the universe and life are too complex to have arisen spontaneously by natural processes.

But many others gave favorable reviews.

“It’s nice to hear rational thoughts, rational arguments,” said Mike Ferro, a doctoral student in entomology. “The reason I appreciate this is because it is based on evidence and falsifiability.”

Is he afraid that his book will be viewed by some on the religious right as just another salvo in an ongoing assault on religion in contemporary culture?

“I find it amusing that they think they’re victims,” he said.

“Scientists don’t feel you have to go out and shove things down people’s throats,” Duzan said. “We just present the evidence. We don’t take a bunch of 6-year-olds and tell them they’re going to hell if they don’t believe what we tell them.”


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Comments

John Keys June 5, 2007 | 3:37 a.m.

Just as science will never be able to tell me the answer to important questions such as "why am I here?" and "why is it wrong to do xyz?" religion will never give us an adequate explaination as to why objects near the earth's surface accelerate the way they do and why graviton act in the way they do. Let the scientists be scientists and let the relitionist be the religionist with the common understanding that each discipline contributes something important; with that understanding there can be a modicum of respect that is often times missing in these types of discussions. BTW--I have a six year old, he knows who God is, who Jesus is, the further complexities of the religion are not necessary to teach as of yet, but thank you for your concern. Just as I wouldn't expect my discussion of an atom's structure to then lead to pictures of Hiroshima and Chernoblyl. There are things that six year olds shouldn't be exposed to.

(Report Comment)
Jim Driskill June 5, 2007 | 12:52 p.m.

Stenger said:
“The point is that the God that most people worship plays such an important role in the universe that you should be able to use the scientific method to detect his presence,”

This is one of the general points the Intelligent Design types are trying to make. From that foundation, they offer inference of design which is promptly attacked as being inherently unscientific. This looks like a stacked deck to me.

And Stenger said:
"If the kind of God that most people in the West believe in existed, it would have effects that would violate the laws of physics and that would be empirically measurable. Otherwise, a universe with God would look exactly like a universe without God, and there would be no rational reason for assuming God’s existence."

This is true of the grade school paper mache version of God. But the God I am familiar with does not routinely reveal Himself through magic shows in an effort to reveal Himself to be greater than His created order. Rather, as Paul observed, He is revealed -through- the created order. This conception of God is no secret. Stenger might profit by becoming familiar with it and its implications.

(Report Comment)
Duane Tiemann June 7, 2007 | 4:43 a.m.

>does not routinely reveal Himself

That's a bit of an understatement, with credible revelations at the zero level.

If we can't tell the difference between a do-nothing god and no god, one is left wondering why we think the do-nothing god exists. If He's not a do-nothing then you'd think his doings would be evident and subject to scrutiny. So far, reputed doings have not generally impressed those used to scientific rigor.

(Report Comment)
Dan O'Reilly June 7, 2007 | 10:38 a.m.

Hello Duane. Weren't we just discussing proving the non-existance of God? :) If someone walked into the room and said, I can prove the non-existance of God, the next words out of everyone's mouth should be "show me"..... especially in Missouri. :) I was not there, but what it appears Mr. Stenger attempts is to prove (or disprove) what various people claim about God. While faith and science intertwine on a regular basis in our every day lives, when it comes to the question of the existance of God? Faith weighs in heavier than science on this question. My two cents.
Dan

(Report Comment)
Duane Tiemann June 7, 2007 | 8:08 p.m.

Read up.

"Scientific proofs, unlike logical proofs, do not establish their conclusions beyond any possibility of doubt. But they are proofs nonetheless, for they establish their conclusions beyond a reasonable doubt and that is all that is needed to justify them."

Science always seems to leave a bit of wiggle room, but is still the most powerful mechanism we have for assessing truth claims.

Science can put God in the wiggle room. Pretty darned small room. It can't show that God absolutely doesn't exit, but it can show that such a belief is wildly unjustified.

(Report Comment)
Alan Doe June 8, 2007 | 7:27 a.m.

I rather dislike the idea of people trying to say they can prove that a god is non-existant. Having said that I also believe that anyone who says that a god exists because a particular human written document says so is something that doesn't go over well with me.

Anyone with writing skills and imagination could put together a similar piece of literature, tacking on "inspired by God", and then pass it out. What makes them not inspired and the writers of the Bible inspired?

Because that particular literature said it was "inspired by God"? Many other religions also make similar claims, some older than the christian religion, and yet christians ignore those religions as well.

To me, through my interpretations of the message from most religions, is that their goal is to lock your thoughts in a box where anything outside that box is of an abnormal nature.

So in conclusion (opinion) religion, if we don't destroy ourselves and planet first, will be the hardest primative concept to evolve past as a whole than any other challenges we have faced so far.

(Report Comment)
Andy VB June 11, 2007 | 11:23 p.m.

Most people in the West believe God created the Laws of Physics. Why on Earth would God's presence violate them? If anything, Western religion assumes that God's existence sustains the Laws of Physics.

This book gives us nothing new. It's just the same old accusation: "There is no rational reason to believe God exists." The only problem is that, if one is searching for God, it is rational to believe in God's existence. What you have to prove, therefore, is that it's irrational to search for something which could possibly exist. Given that God's existence, if true, is of such vital importance, I think you're going to have a hard time convincing people that God isn't worth looking for.

It's just too bad that perfectly good trees are being cut down for this crap.

(Report Comment)
Duane Tiemann June 12, 2007 | 4:43 a.m.

>The only problem is that, if one is searching for God, it is rational to believe in God's existence.

Say what?!

You can search for a pile of gold in the back yard.

Searching doesn't imply existence. Evidence implies existence. Belief in the object of a search without evidence of it IS irrational.

We're a bit more critical of those making claims of having found God than those who are just assessing the evidence.

(Report Comment)
Sean Laney June 21, 2007 | 3:08 p.m.

John Keys said "There are things that six year olds shouldn't be exposed to."

Religious indoctrination is one of these things, John. It is child abuse.

(Report Comment)

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