Stenger on Science and Religion

Stenger on Science and Religion

Atheist Physicist Dr. Victor Stenger offers his thoughts on Science and Religion in a recent interview. Dr. Craig corrects several of Stenger's misconceptions!


Transcript Stenger on Science and Religion

Kevin Harris: Dr. Craig, there's an article on the Huffington Post on Victor Stenger[1], who you have debated from time to time, and it's an interview of him from a forthcoming book. I'll just tell you the interviewer is not very neutral on this particular thing, but he does address some questions about science and religion that we thought that we'd look at. He also mentions you. And – what have you got? – two debates with him?

Dr. Craig: Yes, we had a debate at the University of Hawaii several years ago, and then more recently at the University of Oregon.[2]

Kevin Harris: He is a physicist with his PhD and had a best seller there: God and the Folly of Faith.

Dr. Craig: He's been writing quite a number of popular level books for the freethought community since retiring.

Kevin Harris: When asked in this interview, “What is the fundamental conflict between science and religion? Is it one that will never be resolved?” he says that science and religion have “opposing views on what constitutes reality.” He goes on to say, “The religious believe that we have an inner faculty of some sort that enables us to learn about the world, the universe, and reality without such observation. It is hard to see the two ever resolving this conflict.”

Dr. Craig: I don't see that there's any conflict here between science and religion. Contrary to what Vic Stenger says, science doesn't take any sort of metaphysical view about what constitutes reality. Science is a human project to explore the natural world and to seek natural causes for the events occurring there. But it says absolutely nothing at all about whether or not, for example, the ethical realm exists or the aesthetic realm exists, or whether or not there are beings beyond the natural world such as gods and angels and so forth. These are simply not within the purview of science. Science has a limited methodology and a limited province, and it doesn't come into conflict with religion unless religion enters into that province and begins to make various assertions, for example, about the occurrence of miracles or something of that sort. But it's simply false that science and religion have different views on what constitutes reality. And in terms of having different faculties, again, science doesn't make any claim that science is itself the only avenue to knowledge. That would be a non-scientific claim. That would be a philosophical claim that would be self-refuting. So science would be quite open to saying there are other avenues to truth such a rational intuition, or divine revelation, or other sources of knowledge. But science is interested in exploring what we can learn about this universe through logic and observation.

Kevin Harris: The interviewer says,

One of your more recent books, The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning, is certainly a timely one based on how common that argument is currently proving. What is your summary on what is wrong with the fine-tuning arguments?

And he says, “As I have said before, the universe is not fine-tuned for us – we are fine-tuned to the universe.”

Dr. Craig: Well, I think he must not understand what fine-tuning means, otherwise that statement wouldn't make sense. Fine-tuning does not mean designed, otherwise the argument would be circular. To say the best explanation of fine-tuning is design, that would be to say the best explanation of design is design. Rather fine-tuning simply means that human life, such as we are, embodied intelligent life, can only exist in a universe that has very, very, narrowly specified parameters. The constants of nature and the arbitrary initial conditions have to specified to almost an infinitesimal degree of accuracy in order for us to exist. So, exactly, when he says, “We are fine-tuned to the universe,” that is exactly the point. How is it that the universe is characterized by this constellation of constants and quantities that allow us to exist and are such that if they were to be altered in the tiniest measure then, in fact, no intelligent embodied life of any sort could exist.[3]

Kevin Harris: Is the fine-tuning argument part of a family of design arguments?

Dr. Craig: Sure.

Kevin Harris: How are you to make distinctions?

Dr. Craig: Well, many people talk about intelligent design today with regard to biological complexity. But the fine-tuning goes right back to the very initial conditions of the universe and asks, “how do you explain the fact that the initial conditions of the universe are fine-tuned for the existence of intelligent interactive life to a complexity and delicacy that is literally humanly incomprehensible?” And so when Victor Stenger says that while “our form of life is certainly sensitive to these parameters” such that if they were different we wouldn't exist – he agrees with that – but he says, “our form of life is not the only form of life one can imagine.” When he says that he underestimates the truly catastrophic effects of changing these parameters. If you were to fiddle with these finely tuned constants and quantities, it's not just that maybe a different life form might have evolved somewhere in the cosmos. The point is that you wouldn't even have stars, you wouldn't have planets on which life might evolve and exist; in many cases you wouldn't even have chemistry, you wouldn't have matter, so that there could be no life forms of any sort whatsoever in a universe that didn't exhibit the fine-tuning that we're talking about.

Kevin Harris: Bill, I heard somebody argue last week that the fact that these aspects, initial constants, are so fine-tuned seems to mitigate against there being a God or an intelligent designer because if there were then these parameters would be wider to give us more wiggle room, I guess?

Dr. Craig: I don't think that makes sense because if the universe is governed by the same laws of nature but with different values of the constants and quantities then life couldn't exist, it would be physically impossible. So what this person would have to be talking about would be a universe that is operating according to different laws of nature. And certainly God could have made a universe that has different laws of nature, but that doesn’t come into play in the fine-tuning argument. What you do in the fine-tuning argument is consider this local group of universes, so to speak, that are governed by our laws of nature, but in which the constants and quantities take different values. And what you discover is that almost all of them are life-prohibiting. There wouldn't be any intelligent interactive life in these universes. So that a randomly thrown dart at this local group of universes would have no meaningful chance of striking a life-permitting universe. And it doesn't matter what happens outside that local cluster in universes governed by different law of nature – nobody knows about that.

Kevin Harris: The interviewer asked Dr. Stenger: “Two rather traditional arguments still persevere amongst theists today, firstly that ‘something’ could not come from ‘nothing.’” Dr. Stenger says,

When tackling this question in the past, I was often forced into a philosophical discussion on defining what one means by nothing. Once you define it, give it some property, then it becomes "something." So, I don't really know how you define "nothing," when you start talking philosophically. The way I handle that question now, which is consistent with all existing knowledge of cosmology and physics, is that the universe is eternal. It didn't come from nothing, or something for that matter, because it always existed and it always will.

Dr. Craig: Well, here I think he's confusing a couple of arguments. The argument from contingency, which is prompted by Leibniz's question “why is there something rather than nothing?” doesn't presuppose that the universe began to exist. Leibniz was very explicit that his argument is quite consistent with a universe that is eternal in the past, and has always existed. And in that case Leibniz wants to know, why does an eternal universe exist, rather than nothing? And that question isn't answered by simply saying, “well, the universe is eternal.” The point is it's logically contingent, it doesn't have to exist. And so Leibniz asks quite properly why is there something, why is there an eternal universe, rather than nothing? So Stenger doesn’t really come to grips with that version of the argument. Instead what he does is he's switching to a different argument – which is the kalam cosmological argument – that says the universe cannot be infinite in the past, and therefore had to have a cause since it began to exist.[4] And what he does in that case is he simply says that the universe is infinite in the past, the universe has always existed, it's beginningless, but then he's got to come to grips with the philosophical arguments against the infinitude of the past, and the scientific evidence for the finitude of the past, and to my knowledge he hasn't done either one of those.

On a side note, in terms of defining what is meant by nothing, that's very easy – it means not anything. As I've mentioned in past podcasts, the term nothing here shouldn't be attributed some sort of property in order to define it; it's a term of universal negation. It simply means not anything. So when we say that the universe was preceded by nothing what you mean is it was not preceded by anything. And that's a perfectly philosophically coherent notion, and in fact it is the view that is supported by contemporary cosmological evidence.

Kevin Harris: He was asked then, “how can ‘order’ come from ‘disorder?’” – which is allegedly a theistic argument, order coming from disorder. And his answer, in short, seems to be comparing the order and complexity of the coming about of the universe with crystals. You can find order in a snow flake when it crystallizes, but these are completely explicable by natural means.

Dr. Craig: Well I agree that order can come from disorder through natural law. For example, gravitation produces order in a featureless universe as it makes matter clump into groups and this will then form stars, stars can form planets about them. So gravity through clumping can produce order from disorder. But the question is in the case of the universe: how do you explain the fine-tuning of the universe, which isn't the result of that sort of evolutionary development, but is in the beginning as initial conditions? And then with regard to the biological arguments you would have to show that biological complexity is comparable to something like the structure in ice when water crystallizes. Is that something that is in fact the inevitable byproduct of random mutation and natural selection? And it seems to me that that's a very controversial question that has yet to be answered.

Kevin Harris: I'm trying to drudge up from my memory some of the thoughts on how you can't compare something crystallizing and having a pattern, a crystal, in specified complexity.

Dr. Craig: Right, that is a point that intelligent design theorists have made, is that the kind of order exhibited in a crystal isn't complexity because it is just a repetitive pattern that is the same, and therefore it takes very little information to specify the order in a crystal. But when you have complexity, such as we have exhibited in the biological world, then it takes an enormous amount of information in order to specify that, and so that would suggest that the analogy is quite flawed.

Kevin Harris: Well guess who the interviewer brings up next? Dr. William Lane Craig. He brings you up here. He says,

Much is made of Christian apologist William Lane Craig today, yet your debate in Hawaii seemed to set him straight on several of his arguments, in particular his first cause argument. What do you make of his challenge?

Well, I'm going to have to challenge that question, first, that he set you straight.

Dr. Craig: Yeah, that wasn't my recollection of the event, to tell you the truth. [laughter] And I'm glad it's on tape so that folks can watch the DVD and make up their own mind as to which side prevailed.[5]

Kevin Harris: Okay, he says,

I've debated William Lane Craig a couple of times. I've written about his views, he has reviewed one of my books, and I have also spoken to him personally a number of times. So, we have had a fair amount of interaction. He is basically a very evangelically minded Christian theologian and philosopher. He uses a lot of cosmological arguments, but they don't hold water. They are already ruled out by existing science.

Dr. Craig: I appreciate those kind words but I submit that, in fact, the cosmological arguments I use, far from being ruling out by existing science, are supported by existing science. In our debate at the University of Hawaii, it was Stenger who had to appeal to a model of the universe which is not part of existing science but was a, I think, self-contradictory model of time before time where he interpreted events occurring before the Big Bang as another arrow of time,[6] which in order to be before the Big Bang would have to be both earlier than the Big Bang and yet also later in time than the Big Bang. In fact what he was really describing was a universe in which you have two arrows of time that both have a common origin at the Bing Bang and therefore doesn't escape the origin of the universe after all. So I think the existing science supports the view that I've defended very well.

Kevin Harris: Now, I've just made a connection, Bill, in this interview. I've wondered where this phrase comes from: science flies you to the moon; religion flies you into buildings (in reference to 9/11). I didn’t know that Stenger said that or wrote that, but he did. And he sent it to Richard Dawkins when Dawkins was trying to come up with slogans to go on the sides of buses in the atheist bus campaign. He liked it, and he said it was the best one he received. A lot of “people have picked up on it since, and so it has worked out pretty well. It is one of those sound bites which people have made use of.”

Dr. Craig: Yes. It's a great sound bite, I think. I mean, it really conveys what the atheist wants to say. But of course it's not the true characterization of religion. Religion also founds universities, hospitals, and leper colonies, and cares for the poor, and builds magnificent architecture, produces the world's greatest literature; so it's a clever sound bite but it's a misrepresentation of what religion does. You know, you might also say, too, science invents atomic bombs and mustard gas, and things of that sort. Science has been misused for evil ends just as religion has been misused for evil ends.

Kevin Harris: The interviewer says, “What do you define as what is new about the New Atheism? ” Stenger wrote a book called The New Atheism: Taking a Stand for Science and Religion, which came out in 2009. Stenger says,

I took a lot of flak from old-time atheists who resented that all the work they had done promoting atheism, secularism, and humanism was not fully recognized. But there was a difference. When, starting in 2006, a whole series of bestsellers appeared by Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, and myself, these all got a lot of attention. In The New Atheism, I was focusing on those works and asking what it was about these bestsellers that were different from the old atheism, which I did acknowledge.

The difference was that we are far more uncompromising towards religion. The term "accommodationists" is used for the people who were saying that they wanted to promote atheism, humanism, and science--but at the same time, we should respect the opinions of believers and, in particular, we shouldn't get into fights with them since we need their support for, say, the teaching of evolution in public schools. Moderate Christians tell us that they believe in evolution. But surveys show they really don't, since they claim evolution is God-guided, which isn't Darwinian evolution. In Darwinian evolution, humanity is an accident and that is unacceptable to Christians. They sure as heck don't want that taught in school.

Dr. Craig: Well, it's interesting that he says that the difference between the old and the new atheists is that the new atheists are more uncompromising and they don't think that they should respect the opinions of believers. So that they advocate being disrespectful and uncompromising. I think, as I've reflected on this, the difference between the old and the new atheism is that the old atheism wanted to eliminate religion from the public square. They wanted to have a secular public square. But they were quite content to allow believers to exercise religion in their private lives. I think the difference is that the New Atheists, like Dawkins and the others, want to exterminate religion even from the private lives of society's citizens. Richard Dawkins thinks that children being taught religious beliefs or going to Catholic parochial school is a form of child abuse, and that the state therefore needs to step in. They want to eliminate religious belief entirely from Western society because they think it's effects are so harmful. So that's where I see the difference between the old and the new atheism.

Now I want to say just as an aside, Kevin, I am always amazed when I hear these statements by scientists that misrepresent scientific theories. And here Victor Stenger has done this again. It is no claim that Darwinian evolution is not God-guided, or that human life is an accident, as he claims. As Alvin Plantinga has, I think, explained very well in his new book Where the Conflict Really Lies,[7] that claim is a philosophical add-on, a metaphysical thesis that's not scientific. That's not part of the theory. What this theory says is that the mutations that occur are random in the sense that they don't occur with a view toward the benefit of the host organism in which they happen. Mutations don't occur for the benefit of the host organism. But it is no part of the theory to claim that these mutations are without purpose or are not God-guided or do not occur for some reason. And it's obvious why that's the case. Science could never be in a position to make, justifiably, such a claim. So that is a philosophical claim, not a scientific claim, and therefore I think it simply shows that Stenger doesn't understand Darwinian biological evolutionary theory.

Kevin Harris: Bill, I have to keep saying so much of this goes back to 9/11. I mean, that's when Sam Harris said the days of just letting religion slide are over.

Dr. Craig: But, you know, I am totally in sympathy with the New Atheists about religion not being exempt from criticism. I am fully in agreement that anybody's religious views ought to be open to criticism and examination.

Kevin Harris: In a respectful way.

Dr. Craig: Sure, that's where I would disagree with them about we shouldn't respect the opinions of others. That's just discourtesy. That's just uncivil behavior to act like that. That’s more a personal reflection of the kind of individual you are if you think you have to treat people with disrespect because you disagree with them. But I think that we want to respectfully examine the merits and demerits of any worldview, religious or otherwise, that someone puts forward as the truth.[8]



[1] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/victor-stenger/questions-on-science-and-_b_1585151.html (accessed February 20, 2014).

[2] To view the Oregon debate, see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EjOs62PJciI ; to listen to Dr. Craig’s Reasonable Faith podcast discussing this debate, see http://www.reasonablefaith.org/victor-stenger-debate-at-oregon-state-university (accessed February 20, 2014).

[3] 5:05

[4] 10:00

[5] A copy of the DVD can be purchased at http://apps.biola.edu/apologetics-store/products/videos/item/craig-vs-stenger-is-there-a-god_DVD (accessed February 20, 2014). The video of this 2003 debate can also be found on the internet on various sites.

[6] 15:00

[7] 20:02

[8] Total Running Time: 22:24 (Copyright © 2012 William Lane Craig)