In 2007 Victor J. Stenger, an Emeritus Professor of Physics at the University of Hawaii and former particle physics researcher published the book ‘God: The Failed Hypothesis’. Not only did this book prove to be a hit with other scientific atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, but it quickly jumped into the list of New York Times’ bestsellers, proving successful with the public also.
The stated premise of the book is supposedly the rational, scientific (and therefore surely impartial?) analysis of the hypothesis of the existence of a higher power (i.e. God), by examining the information available. The title of the book somewhat gives away the conclusion. Stenger believes that a rational analysis of the universe leaves a person no choice other than atheism.
Here I am analysing one of the key arguments proposed by Stenger in support of his conclusion to see if it stands up to scrutiny. I would analyse more, but I don’t have the time. In any case, the principles that are applied here namely to break down each assumption and inference and analyse it impartially, can be applied to any argument. On page 162 of his book, in the section entitled ‘A Tiny Pocket of Complexity’, Stenger writes:
‘It is commonly thought that the universe is an intricately complex place. However, taking an overview we can see that this is a selection effect resulting from the fact that we and our planet are relatively complex. Most of the matter and energy of the universe exhibits little structure and shows no sign of design. We noted above that 96 percent of the mass of the universe appears to be composed of dark matter and dark energy whose exact natures are unknown but that are definitely not composed of familiar atomic matter. As far as we can tell, these components have little structure. The very low energy photons in the cosmic microwave background radiation are a billion times more plentiful than the atoms in galaxies. These particles are spread uniformly throughout the universe to one part in a hundred thousand. They move around almost completely randomly, as if they were a gas in thermal equilibrium having maximum entropy and at a temperature only three degrees above absolute zero on the Kelvin scale. The little structure that is seen is understood as the remnant of random fluctuations that took place in the early universe and helped trigger galaxy formation. Again, absence of design is evident.’
In essence, Stenger is attempting to refute the argument that our universe appears to have order and to be structured – thus indicating some kind of architect who designed it. He posits that in fact our universe is disordered and we simply happen to exist in a quiet corner of the cosmos, where order has randomly appeared out of chaos, thus making us think that everything else in the universe is ordered also – when it actually isn’t.
Unfortunately for Stenger, the evidence that he provides for his assertion is flimsy at best, ludicrous at worst. He writes:
‘most of the matter and energy of the universe exhibits little structure and shows no sign of design’.
It seems remarkable that a Professor of Physics can have overlooked (or maybe purposefully cast aside?) the extraordinary predictability with which the universal laws apply across the observable universe. We know for a fact that even at the other end of the universe gravity (for example) effects stars, star forming regions, planetary bodies, solar systems, galaxies, clusters of galaxies and pretty much anything else that we can observe in a way that is entirely predictable given what we have learnt about gravity here on Earth and from observing our immediate cosmic neighbours.
In and of itself this predictability is a sign of order, since a truly disordered system can never be predictable. If our immediate cosmic surroundings really were an exception to the random chaos of the rest of the universe, very little of what we observe here on Earth (an apple falling on your head from a tree – and doing so 100% of the time for that matter) would be predictably applicable anywhere else in the universe. But we know for a fact that it is. A galaxy at the other end of the universe will be affected by gravity the same as an apple here on Earth. The magnitude and violence of the forces may be much greater, but the actual law and the principles remain identical. Indeed it is this constancy across the universe that allows physicists, astrophysicists and cosmologists to study and understand objects that are very very far away, with any degree of certainty.
Furthermore, it seems remarkable that in proposing this particular argument, Stenger would focus on particulate matter and energy and yet avoid the laws that govern them. With this sly little move he writes:
’96 percent of the mass of the universe appears to be composed of dark matter and dark energy whose exact natures are unknown but that are definitely not composed of familiar atomic matter. As far as we can tell, these components have little structure.’
In actuality, dark matter accounts for around 85% of our universe’s mass. It does not in any way interact with light or electromagnetic radiation and so its existence and properties can so far only be determined by inference and observation on what it effects – we cannot experiment on nor analyse it directly. Thus it seems rather misleading to claim that it has no real structure – the truth is we know very little about it. Moreover, some physicists believe that it is an essential part of our universe existing in a pervasive state (ie not having collapsed into itself already).
It should be noted that even the smallest dose of random chance into an otherwise non-random system, makes that system random and therefore unpredictable. If dark matter truly was totally unstructured, bearing in mind that it constitutes the overwhelming majority of the universe’s substance, it would essentially make everything else highly unpredictable. The fact that it doesn’t would indicate that it has some structure that we do not yet understand and also that it too is subject to universal laws.
Moreover, if instead of focusing his argument on dark matter, something we know very little about , Stenger had focused on matter that is more familiar to us, a picture of predictability would have again appeared. We have no reason to believe that atoms, electrons, or any other particles behave differently in our part of the universe than in any other.
Ultimately, Stenger’s argument seems rather devious. He purposefully picks out those aspects of the universal landscape that are as yet not understood and does not draw our attention to the struts supporting the rest of the building (which we understand a lot better), nor the fine embroidery on the coving. Maybe its because he knows that few would believe such things happened simply by chance.
‘The eternal mystery of the world is its comprehensibility’ ~ Albert Einstein.
by Taha Nasser