Most of you surely know of Victor Stenger, a physicist who has written several books on science and atheism, including God: The Failed Hypothesis and The New Atheism, both of which I liked. His main thrust is, like Dawkins, to regard the notion of God as a scientific hypothesis, and then apply the tools of science to show that the hypothesis is falsified. (Dawkins may be backing off on that view: lately he’s floated the idea that the notion of God is intrinsically incoherent). Stenger has also written eloquently, and at length, about the failure of the “fine tuning” argument for God from the nature of physical constants.
At any rate, I’ve just finished Victor’s new book, which you’ll see from the title has a particular interest for me: God and the Folly of Faith: The Incompatibility of Science and Religion (only $13.43 on Amazon). I can recommend this as well, particularly if you haven’t read many of Stenger’s books.
Despite its title, the book doesn’t deal at great length with the nature of the incompatibility of science and faith, although he mentions it tangentially. What he sees as the “incompatibility” is both the difference in methodology that the disciplines use to find out stuff, and the difference in outcomes: i.e., religion has made predictions that science has falsified. Most of the book is taken up with religious assertions that science has disproven, like the existence of ESP, intercessory prayer, divine fine-tuning, the existence of human morality as a proof of God, and so on. If you’ve read Stenger’s previous books, there’s some overlap between what he writes about here and what he covered in those earlier books (fine tuning, for instance), so the book is most appropriate for those who haven’t read a lot of Stenger.
But there is also much that is new, including his discussion of free will, whether determinism reigns on a macro scale in the universe, and especially about the history of science. Did Christianity, for example, have a hand in producing science? What contribution did non-European countries, or ancient Greece, make to our understanding of science, commonly thought to have really begun in 16th-century Europe? There’s also new stuff on the evolution of consciousness and morality that repays reading. And the references are extensive and up to date. Do buy it, especially for the discussion of fine-tuning if you’re not acquainted with Stenger’s rebuttals. Fine-tuning is probably the most superficially convincing of recent science-based arguments for God.
I want to briefly reprise two of Stenger’s ideas here.
1. Free will. Stenger is a compatibilist, and says this, which, I think, is similar to what Dennett said in Freedom Evolves:
While “conscious will may be an illusion, it can be argued that our material selves do still possess a kind of free will. Every decision we make is the result of a complex calculation made by our individual conscious and unconscious brains working together. That calculation relies on input from our immediate circumstances and our past experiences. So the decision is uniquely ours, based on our specific knowledge, experience, and abilities. That seems pretty free to me. While others can influence us, no one has access to all the data that went into the calculation except our unique selves. Another brain operating according to the same decision algorithms as ours would not necessarily come up with the same final decision, since the lifetime experiences leading up to that point would be different.(p. 269)
This is a common compatibilist argument, which of course applies not just to humans, but to nearly every evolved creature that can modify its behavior according to past experience. It also applies to computers that have different software. If you take a computer program that “learns” from experience, like one that plays chess, and then give it different “experiences,” it will produce a different output. Is that free will? What Stenger is saying here is that each individual’s behavior is determined by its genetic and developmental (hence molecular) constitution as well as by how its past experience has modified its wiring. Here Vic and I agree. But because each individual’s wiring is different—because our “algorithms” are “unique”—then different inputs will regard in different outputs among different individuals. Yes, of course that’s true. But where is the “freedom” in all this? What Stenger is doing is equating the complexity of input and processing to “free will”, even though the output is completely determined by the input. I submit that there is no “freedom” in that, even though I’m sure that others can wring a tortured notion of “freedom” out of that.
2. Determinism. Lou Jost and other readers on this site have argued that behavior (and evolution) might not be deterministic because they’re affected by quantum-mechanical considerations. When I used the word “determinism” in the past, I suppose I was a bit inaccurate: what I meant was that behavior is determined by physical processes, both deterministic and quantum-mechanical, i.e., that there is nothing to our behavior beyond physics. I should have used “materialism” rather than “determinism”!
Now I’m not quite convinced that quantum mechanics plays a real role in both our decision-making or in the course of evolution. Can our “choices” really be affected by nondeterministic motions of molecules? And is mutation, a crucial factor in setting the course of evolution, really affected by quantum mechanics? I remain agnostic on these issues and am doing some reading to get up to speed.
Stenger does some interesting calculations to show that neurotransmission in the brain cannot be affected by quantum-mechanical events, and so in that respect the operation of our brain is truly deterministic (he also takes up and rejects the “microtubule hypothesis for quantum effects in the brain). But he admits the possibility of another way the actions of the brain might not be physically determined:
However, quantum effects can still involve brain processes by another route. The brain is bathed in electrically charged particles from cosmic rays (muons) that reach Earth and beta-rays (electrons fro the radioactive potassium isotope K40 in our blood. These are energetic enough to break atomic and molecular bonds, unlike the radio waves from power lines and cell phones that people worry about so much. And they are ultimately quantum mechanical. . . . We can imagine someone’s brain carrying out a classical algorithm, like a computer, bit a high-energy muon or electron breaks up a bit or two in either the code or the data and changes the outcome. This would result in the person making a random decision. But it would give the appearance of free will. (p. 272).
Now if this is the case, then we would have free will under my own definition, which is “given that all the initial molecular conditions obtaining at the moment of a decision remain the same when rerunning the ‘tape of that decision,’ you could have decided otherwise.” If there are unpredictable and non-deterministic quantum effects of the sort Stenger decides, then, yes, one could get two different “decisions” in exactly the same situation, and I would have to call that free will. Of course, there is no dualism here, for the quantum indeterminacy has nothing to do with consciousness, but under my definition that doesn’t matter. In fact, if one could replay the tape of a decision and find a different outcome, I don’t see any way to distinguish quantum effects from real spooky free will, except that we know there’s nothing other than material effects in the brain.
The big question, of course, is this: do the kind of effects Stenger describes here really happen in our brains, and can they really affect our behavior? Note that he says “we can imagine” that scenario, but what we can imagine doesn’t necessarily happen.
I doubt, however, whether any compatibilist will agree with Stenger that quantum effects of this sort play a role in free will, for they assert that our will is free even if there were no such effects. What I still don’t get is what part of the “free will” is “free”?
Anyway, read Vic’s book.