Professor Victor Stenger spoke on his book “God: the Failed Hypothesis” this Wednesday. His topic is ambitious and usually considered to be out of bounds in academic physics. He broke the partition between physics and metaphysics. But even so, he finessed some of the fundamental questions, and did not want to debate questions off of his outline. Of course, I am willing to stray well away from the outline, and some other students of physics might not object.
So it is only on the implicit questions that I could criticize his talk, meaning of course that it explicitly presented a number of important insights.
He explained to an amateur audience that Newtonian physics has been superseded by a more recent doctrine that offers even less support for intervention by an activist or theist god.
(You might think that the Newtonian view also discourages animistic thinking, but Newton was very much the theist. He intensely believed that God was both a puppet master and a mathematical designer. So his empirical approach, that followed from his belief, to the mathematics of physics beat out the a-priori reasoning of the Enlightenment philosophers. A-priori mathematics was nowhere near ready for the task at that time, but it demands another look now.)
Unlike Newton, Stenger cited the absence of intervention by God in Newtonian affairs as empirical evidence for his nonexistence.
Then Stenger pointed out with clarity that the data supporting quantum mechanics destroys the notion of a watchmaker god. Whatever God would have done at the startup of the watch is actually a continuing activity. But he did not claim the highest level of persuasion against faith for this point.
He added the point of his original calculation of the hot chaos at the big bang. It concurs with the current assertion of Stephen Hawking on the absence of a singularity. Supposedly designed interventions by God at that point are lost in the randomness by definition of thermodynamics. Causal traces of a previous universe are lost in the indeterminacy of quantum tunneling. And he asserted that the thermodynamic reversal of time between two mirror universes anchored at the common locus of chaos would confuse theologians. But every type of event horizon marks off a disjuncture in the direction of time.
I do not recall that Stenger made a sufficiently big fuss about the point that a watchmaker god with ongoing activity would not be hiding behind the uncertainty principle. He leaves that for his book in press. The point is that there is no mechanism for hidden causes, such as a watchmaker, when the mechanism of causality has itself failed, due to exceeding the limits of its mathematical premises. (The major, independent and sufficient premise is the existence of a spacetime metric. Thermodynamics is another partially independent but sufficient premise.)
Stenger did not distinguish strongly between a watchmaker god and a cosmic designer and rule maker, and he mentioned but did not refute the purely metaphysical god of Plato and Spinoza. I argue in the spirit of Spinoza that design and rule making are necessarily causal activities, but that the necessary premises for causality can not be relied on in the context of general metaphysics. A cosmic designer is not a coherent hypothesis, even though it is implicit dogma that is embedded in the anti-intellectual empiricism that is fiercely enforced on many occasions, even in academic departments of physics.
Or alternatively, you can take Stenger’s implicit belief, which he did not mention and would have not discussed. But he writes in the summary for his book now in press that, “The laws of physics were not handed down from above but are human inventions.”. This also supports the conventional opposition to mathematical rigor and to the investigation of a-priori mathematics.
So I protest that the human brain is not a sufficient mechanism to impose mathematical order on the universe. There would be no theorem out there to even support the reliable and continued existence of a physics department. But there is a perspective on a-priori mathematics that seems capable of picking out the important theorems.
Michael J. Burns