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Manny Rayner's book reviews

I love reviewing books - have been doing it at Goodreads, but considering moving here.

Currently reading

The Greatest Show On Earth: The Evidence For Evolution
Richard Dawkins
R in Action
Robert Kabacoff
Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies
Douglas R. Hofstadter
McGee on Food and Cooking: An Encyclopedia of Kitchen Science, History and Culture
Harold McGee
Epistemic Dimensions of Personhood
Simon Evnine
Pattern Recognition and Machine Learning (Information Science and Statistics)
Christopher M. Bishop
Relativity, Thermodynamics and Cosmology
Richard C. Tolman
The Cambridge Handbook of Second Language Acquisition
Julia Herschensohn, Martha Young-Scholten
God: The Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist - Victor J. Stenger I have become very interested in the faith/science debate, and over the last couple of years have read a fair number of books about it. This one felt a little like the atheist version of Collins's The Language of God. The title suggests that you're going to get a rant, but Stenger is no ignorant ranter. He comes across as a charming retired scientist who loves his grandchildren, reads widely, and is justifiably a little proud of his distinguished career in physics. He has written this book to convince you of something he thinks is no more than common sense: modern science has demonstrated that the story of the Jewish/Christian/Islamic God fails to hold water. Quite reasonably, he approaches the subject from the point of view of a scientist, and treats it as another scientific hypothesis. If God existed, what would we expect to find?

If you've read things like The God Delusion or God is not Great, a fair part of the book will sound rather familiar. We learn for example that there is no good evidence for miracles or for many key stories in the Bible, that prayer has no effect when tested in controlled studies, and that atheists are no more immoral than Christians on obvious metrics of what constitutes morality. (Fun fact: 80% of the US prison population describe themselves as Christian, only 0.2% as atheist). In all these cases, Stenger says, what we see is exactly what we'd expect to see if there were in fact no God. Hence, there probably isn't one; but, as already noted, we've been here before.

So I probably wouldn't have read the book, if it hadn't been for the intriguing foreword from the late Christopher Hitchens. Hitch says that, in his opinion, the only really serious argument for the existence of God is the claim of cosmological "fine-tuning": the fundamental constants of physics seem miraculously to be set to exactly the right values for life to be possible, suggesting that Someone was responsible for doing the tuning. He goes on to say that Stenger comprehensively refutes the argument. I have read rather a lot about the fine-tuning argument, for example in Martin Rees's Before the Beginning and Susskind's The Cosmic Landscape, and was interested to learn more; I was expecting some version of the "multiverse", and wondered how he was going to make it so unusually convincing.

Well: I must say that I was rather surprised. Stenger's line is that there is no fine-tuning, and hence no case to answer. He claims that a wide range of settings could have resulted in a universe where life was capable of arising. I am not technically qualified to refute his arguments, but I do note that they are completely at variance with those given by Susskind, who states categorically that the constants are extremely carefully tuned. It seems quite impossible that both Stenger and Susskind can simultaneously be right.

As already mentioned, Hitchens, one of the leaders of the New Atheism movement, warmly recommends Stenger; if you look at the relevant section of The God Delusion, you will find Dawkins, another central figure, equally enthusiastically endorsing Susskind. Maybe I am being unkind, but an examination of the passages in question does leave me wondering just how much Dawkins and Hitchens actually know about cosmology. Hitchens, for example, refers to "the universe exploding away from its Big Bang starting point" (the Big Bang didn't start at any point), and a little later talks about "red light" when he evidently means red-shifted light. It seems fair to adapt Stenger's reasoning. If the New Atheist case against the fine-tuning argument were based on genuine scientific knowledge, we would expect a coherent line to be taken. In fact, we are getting at least two different and incompatible counter-arguments. One might thus feel justified in concluding that the New Atheist position here is not based on genuine scientific knowledge, but rather on uninformed prejudice.

There are times when I feel extremely tired of the New Atheism, and nostalgically look back at the Old Atheism that preceded it. What a shame Bertrand Russell is no longer with us. He would only have needed a couple of trenchant sentences to put these people in their place.