Victor Stenger Imposes a “Convention” on Science

Victor Stenger's book God Failed HypothesisHere is how our author defines the different versions of naturalism:

The self-imposed convention of science that limits inquiry to objective observations of the world and generally seeks natural accounts for all phenomena is called methodological naturalism.

We have also noted that methodological naturalism is often conflated with metaphysical naturalism, which assumes that reality itself is purely natural, that is, composed solely of material objects.

Methodological naturalism can still be applied without implying any dogmatic attachment to metaphysical naturalism. (God: The Failed Hypothesis, 29)

Stenger writes that he will “use the words natural and supernatural as synonymous with material and nonmaterial.” (14) This is rather confusing. If metaphysical naturalism is equivalent to materialism, then it suffers from all the problems identified with materialism. But if, say, substance dualism is true, are not animal souls entirely “natural”? Are human actions guided by intelligence supernatural? What of the ideal numbers and sets and propositions and possible worlds and so on? Must we delete them from our ontology simply because we are committed to materialism? Is every “special science” merely applied physics? Are praxeology and economics not legitimate sciences?

Clearly, materialism, apart from other unlovely things about it, strongly suggests scientism, that is, the view that the correct methodology of every science must imitate the methodology of physics. I don’t know why Stenger would want to import materialism, with all its liabilities, into his unsuccessful search for God.

Suppose now that metaphysical naturalism / materialism is false. Should we nonetheless still abide by methodological naturalism? But why? If there are immaterial entities both immanent and beyond this universe, why must we deny them all causal efficacy? Why listen to the bureaucrat Stenger instead of going where the evidence leads? If our investigation inclines us to postulate a designing intelligence, then shouldn’t we do just that?

Stenger agrees; his point is that the “hypothesis” of the existence of God is falsifiable and, in fact, is falsified. This is a welcome change from the views of those atheists who refuse to countenance the idea that nature can, at least in principle, yield insights about God.

Is There Conservation of Information?

Stenger argues that there is no such thing as William Dembski’s “law of conservation of information” which states that sans intelligent intervention chance and necessity cannot generate novel specified complexity (SC).

This law, according to Stenger, is equivalent to negative entropy. But since the Earth and the living beings are open systems, … (God: The Failed Hypothesis, 57)

First of all, SC is a more narrow concept than negative entropy. The latter applies to any order, be it complex or not or specified or not. SC is a very special kind of order and so is not the same as the more general negative entropy.

Second, I think Stenger’s idea here is that new SC can be created with the help of the energy of the sun and the earth. But this can’t be right. Information is not matter or energy, and energy is neither sufficient nor necessary to generate it. There is a reason for the distinction between “form” and “matter,” the formal and the material causes. As a physicist, Stenger should be the first to point out that energy applied indiscriminately will tend to erode the SC of a system. And novel information can be created with arbitrarily small amounts of energy. (An intelligence might choose between alternatives and actualize one while setting aside the others at the quantum level.)

It is certainly true that “a living organism is kept away from thermodynamic equilibrium by its use of sources of outside energy to maintain order.” (57) But the question is whether the organisms themselves and the order we see in them could have been generated by chance and necessity alone. Yet no matter how much light we shine on an amoeba, it will show no interest in replicating into Bill Gates.

No one denies that organisms stay alive and orderly by consuming sources of energy from the outside. (We can even say that organisms maintain order within themselves by creating disorder outside of themselves.) But where have the energy-finding, -consuming, and -transforming machines within organisms come from?

Natural processes can only either degrade SC or, at best, preserve it. Now the essence of a specified-complex system is the improbability of the event by which it was generated coupled with its conditionally independent and easily described pattern. In other words, in order to infer design, the event being analyzed must be both improbable and interesting.

If a natural process (such as Darwinian evolution) generates something from scratch, it will have to be either complex yet uninteresting or interesting yet simple. If it takes as input something that is already specified and complex, then it will output a system of no greater sophistication. This is a fundamental limitation of unaided nature which Dembski picked up on. And this limitation does not apply to an intelligent cause.

Does the Theory of Evolution Make Predictions?

The theory of evolution (TOE) makes no quantitative predictions. All comparisons of the strength of confirmation of the TOE with, say, quantum mechanics are completely out of place. Quantum mechanics is a highly precise branch of physics, and while the TOE does use math in things like game-theoretic models of evolution and stable equilibriums or in sequence comparisons, in general it is pretty easy on precise numerical predictions.

Second, the TOE is primarily an historical science. Therefore, it can only make “retrodictions,” i.e., it can be shown to be consistent with past events. It does not predict the way in which a species will evolve. With respect to the future it can only say that, when faced with unfavorable circumstances, a species will either evolve or die out which is not a prediction but a tautology that can be understood without any appeal to our theory.

Third, it is true that the TOE predicts that organisms will be adapted to their environment. But it says nothing about how they will be adapted or what features the organisms will or must have; it does not even say that there will exist the particular organisms under investigation. Nor is it qualified to predict changes in the environment.

Fourth, the predictions of the TOE, such as they are (e.g., that fossils are stratified in a particular way) are extremely general. For example, Stenger writes:

Darwin specifically predicted that recognizable human ancestors would be found in Africa. Many now have been.

Evolutionary theory predicted that the use of antiviral or antibacterial agents would result in the emergence of resistant strains. This principle is, of course, a mainstay in contemporary medicine.

Paleontologists correctly predicted that species showing the evolution from fish to amphibian would be found in Devonian strata. (God: The Failed Hypothesis, 50)

The trouble is that the TOE did not predict the shape of the fossils of the human ancestors or of what material they consisted.

It did not predict what kind of changes would occur in bacteria as a result of widespread use of antibiotics. (Wouldn’t that be useful to medical researchers! They would be able to create drugs to attack disease-causing germs long before they evolved into resistant strains.) I, too, could have made the same prediction: bacteria will either evolve or perish.

And as for transitional forms, some words from Behe will suffice to drive the point home:

Anatomy is, quite simply, irrelevant to the question of whether evolution could take place on the molecular level. So is the fossil record.

It no longer matters whether there are huge gaps in the fossil record or whether the record is as continuous as that of U.S. presidents. And if there are gaps, it does not matter whether they can be explained plausibly.

The fossil record has nothing to tell us about whether the interactions of 11-cis-retinal with rhodopsin, transducin, and phosphodiesterase could have developed step-by-step. (Darwin’s Black Box, 22)

I think that we should all agree that the fossil record is not a good piece of evidence either for intelligent design or against it.

It seems that the TOE fares quite poorly with respect to predictive power.

Victor Stenger’s Puzzle

After disputing the validity of the fine-tuning argument in a number of ways, Stenger presents us with an apparent difficulty:

It is rather amusing that theists make two contradictory arguments for life requiring a creator. …

In the fine-tuning argument, the universe is so congenial to life that the universe must have been created with life in mind. But if it is so congenial, then we should expect life to evolve by natural processes and a sustaining God is unnecessary.

In the second argument, the universe is so uncongenial to life that life could not have occurred by natural processes and so must have been created and be sustained by the constant actions of God. (God: The Failed Hypothesis, 163ff)

So, which is it? Well, both, when rightly understood.

There is an interplay of nature and grace that is so familiar to us in theology. Nature may well be very congenial to life, but even that may not be enough. The fine-tuning may be necessary for life but not sufficient. But given God’s grace (working with nature) and maybe an occasional miracle (working against it), life could have arisen and did, in fact, arise.

Equivalently, we can say that the universe is uncongenial to life without infusions of grace but would be much more so — so much that grace could not be given at all — if it were not fine-tuned.