Friday, April 20, 2007

God, the Failed Hypothesis

Stenger, Victor J. God: The Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows that God Does Not Exist. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2007.

Written 16 Mar 2007:

I gave Victor J. Stenger's book God: The Failed Hypothesis a quick read yesterday. It is far superior to Dawkins's latest book and I'm hoping it will ride the wave of the alleged "new atheism" to gain a wider readership than such books would likely have garnered in the past. I have some philosophical nits to pick with the book, but it is an excellent springboard, or baseline, to work from, and then work out some of the more esoteric philosophical issues as a follow-up.

The book focuses on scientific arguments pertaining to all aspects of the God hypothesis, and while not attempting to "prove" a case for atheism, it trashes the basis for any belief in a god exhibiting the standard divine attributes. Thus, while some God could conceivably survive such a treatment, its alleged properties would be constrained. For Stenger, what would be left would be nothing more than a weak deism with no real explanatory consequences.

Fortunately, Stenger does understand the difference between science and philosophy for the most part, and he supplements his science-based approach with some strictly philosophical considerations as to the coherence of certain god concepts on purely conceptual (rather than empirical, i.e. scientific) grounds. This is an improvement over Dawkins.

The most important thing to understand here is the demolishing of a scientific, empirical basis for belief in gods, paranormal phenomena, and nonmaterial self-subsistent entities. Or to put it any other way, God as an explanatory device for scientifically investigated phenomena. The other philosophical arguments are icing on the cake, and they take us a good part of the way to demolishing a rational case for any kind of God 99% of humanity including intellectuals would lay claim to. As I say, there are more refined philosophical issues remaining to be treated, but this is a good basis to work from for general public purposes.

Stenger references two books unfamiliar to me which seem to be central to addressing these purely philosophical issues: The Non-Existence of God, ed. Nicholas Everitt; The Impossibility of God, ed. Michael Martin & Ricki Monnier. I think such approaches are indispensable, as the basic conceptual problems with the god concept are as central as those involving empirical proof of such an entity.

I made pages and pages of notes and outlined a detailed review which I should publish online or perhaps better yet in print. In it I would also address what I consider to be the unfinished business of this genre.

Postscript, 26 March 2007:

There are two ways to conceive of the existence of god: (1) as an empirical entity like any other, (2) as a concept, bearing various definitions and attributes. The "proofs" of the impossibility of God do not pertain to (1), as such proofs are impossible. Rather, the philosophical proofs of God's non-existence would be based on the incoherence, self-contradiction, vacuousness, etc. of the concept. I presume such proofs would have to do with the alleged attributes of God's perfection.

The Dawkins approach, I would say, is rather simple-minded, but since it is addressed to a nation of simpletons who don't understand the nature of scientific explanation, I guess I shouldn't complain. In my view, though, (2) is as important, fundamentally even more important than (1).

The existence of a god as an empirical entity is the anthropological god, of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Muhammed, yo mama. But the other god is the god of the philosophers, an abstract concept, the god the theologians attempt to hang on to, craftily shifting back and forth from the anthropological to the metaphysical god.

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