Victor Stenger's Atomic Muddle

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"God is dead," wrote Friedrich Nietzsche in a widely misunderstood epitaph. In the next (rarely quoted) passage Nietzsche continues: "And we killed him -- you and I."

If Victor Stenger's new book God and the Atom is right, it was not "you and I," but atomism that drove the last nail into the divine coffin. In fact, the hammering allegedly began long ago with the ancient Greek atomists. Contemporary physics just finished the job.

Atomism is the theory that the world is composed of microscopic particles. Long before electrons, photons, and quarks came onto the scene, the ancient Greeks postulated that invisible atoms bounced around an infinite void. Stenger argues that, since its inception, atomism and atheism have gone hand in hand. To accept atomism, ancient or modern, is to accept atheism.

Such proclamations are familiar to those who worship at the altar of the "new atheism." If Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens are its high priests, Stenger is minor nobility. A physicist, Stenger's numerous books argue that modern science is, inexorably, shining light into the last crevices in which God has taken refuge. Anyone who disagrees is no "free thinker," but an anti-scientific slave to authority and superstition.

But God and the Atom fails to deliver on its promise. Instead, it exemplifies some careless historical scholarship and a philosophical confusion that plagues new atheism generally. Is science a purely empirical discipline? In that case it would be ill equipped to answer non-empirical (for example, theological) questions. Or is science itself somehow metaphysical, providing definitive answers to age-old questions?

Stenger, like all new atheists, wants it both ways: atomism is a good theory because it is purely empirical; but it nevertheless licenses sweeping non-empirical judgments: atoms and void are all that exist.

To make his case, Stenger relies on creative license to accommodate historical facts that contradict his central thesis.

For example, the fact that Greek atomists' believed in gods is dismissed by Stenger, without historical evidence, as stemming from fear of persecution. By contrast, the atomism of ancient India is not "comparable to that of the Greeks" because it coexisted with religious beliefs. Nevertheless, we are later given a long list of modern scientists -- Galileo, Newton, Gassendi, even Einstein -- who are also both atomists and theists. No explanation is given for how so many brilliant men could make this ostensible anti-scientific blunder.

Then the dark clouds of monotheism descend and atoms go subterranean until the Scientific Revolution. Except, of course, for the writings of St. Ambrose, St. Jerome, and the early medieval Jewish philosophers documented by Saadia and Maimonides, and the atomistic renaissance in fourteenth century Christendom.

To illustrate the intellectual despotism of the Catholic Church, Stenger makes some very puzzling claims.

In the preface, he writes: "no fact about the world has ever been discovered by pure thought alone" (p. 12). This may be a sound principle. But he asserts that "religious elements" denied it; that's why they rejected atomism. Unfortunately for Stenger, this was also a slogan of Catholic medieval philosophers: Nihil est in intellectu quod non antea fuerit in sensu. "Nothing is in the intellect that was not already in sensation."

Bizarrely, Stenger places Ptolemy, creator of the geocentric model of the solar system defended by the church and overthrown by Copernicus, on a list of Greek and Roman scientists who "are not recognized as well as they should be because the Church suppressed their writings due to their real or implied atheism."

Stenger makes the sweeping claim that in the "thousand-year period from 500 to 1500, when the Roman Catholic Church dominated...science not only failed to advance but was also set back." But he quickly undermines it by listing crucial scientific advances made by French and English Catholic philosophers during this very time period.

For the record, the so-called "Dark Ages" also saw the founding of Europe's first universities, enormous advances in logic, the humanist renaissance of the twelfth century, and the invention of modern poetic forms -- to say nothing of the gothic architecture of the high middle ages. (And that's ignoring the myriad contributions of the Arab world).

Stenger's account of the Scientific Revolution is also confused. Galileo allegedly puts science on empirical footing, even inventing the idea of verification by observation. "Here was perhaps Galileo's greatest contribution to the scientific revolution," he writes.

To support this idea, Stenger cites the historian Alexandre Koyré, who is in fact remembered for arguing just the opposite: that Galileo was more motivated by a Platonic belief in the mathematical character of reality than by his experiments (many of which he never carried out).

The myth of a purely empirical science in fact originates not with Galileo, but with Francis Bacon, who was more of a philosopher than a scientist. Similarly, Newton would later claim to "feign no hypotheses" -- whether or not he did, in fact, feign such.

Stenger concludes by undertaking a grand summation of the incompatibility of atomism and theism. Here we see the ambiguous, if not incoherent, philosophy of science he and many new atheists promote.

Stenger is explicit: "Note I am not saying that the 'true' objective reality is particles. I have already emphasized that we have no way of knowing what that true reality is." And: "all we know about is what we observe with our senses and instruments...we haven't the faintest idea what is 'really' out there."

This is a coherent view, one that philosophers of science call instrumentalism: science doesn't tell us what's true or real, it only provides precise ways to make predictions. But it presents two problems for Stenger.

The first is that his book purports to tell us what's "really" out there, "that atoms and the void indeed are all there is." Except, of course, if instrumentalism is true, science can't tell us all there is.

The second problem is more severe. Instrumentalism doesn't rule out that philosophy, art, religion, feeling, or whatever could tell us what's "really" out there. We are only told that science doesn't tell us. It remains possible that science and metaphysics are distinct but compatible ways of knowing the world.

So long as metaphysics (including theology) is not shown to be somehow impermissible, science and theology might simply be non-overlapping magisteria, to quote the great biologist and writer Stephen Jay Gould.

This is not, of course, what Stenger wants. Science and theology are supposed to be incompatible.

But all Stenger succeeds in proving is that allegedly non-metaphysical enterprises, like particle physics, lack the resources to verify metaphysical claims. This seems reasonable. If atomism just helps us make sense of empirical data, its exclusion of metaphysical entities is benign and expected.

However, Stenger's arguments do not preclude the existence of things that cannot be empirically verified, and lie outside the purview of atomistic physics so defined. This, of course, is what religious claims assert. Science can doubtless answer many questions that theology cannot. Theology, for example, will not tell you why photons scatter when a light beam is directed at a piece of aluminum.

But the Stengers of the world claim that modern scientific theories, by answering such experimental questions, can thereby provide definitive answers to metaphysical ones. When asked why scientific theories are well equipped to do so, however, we are told it is because science is empirical, experimental -- because it is not metaphysical.

The farther we see with our telescopes and microscopes the more we confirm that God is not there. The problem is not a deus absconditus, or "hidden God," but that we have strangely come to believe that the transcendent is the kind of thing we could capture with a telescope or a microscope. Most of the brilliant atomists Stenger admires were under no such illusions. This should not be surprising, however, since atomism is not atheism.

M. Anthony Mills is a PhD candidate in philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, specializing in philosophy of science.

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