Quantum Gods, by Victor J. Stenger (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 2009, ISBN 978-1-59-02-713-3) 264 pp. Cloth $26.98.
One of the enduring debates between atheists and theologians concerns the presence or absence of scientific evidence for the existence of a deity. While the vast majority of the scientific community would probably assert there is no reliable evidence for a God, the debate goes on. In this book, astrophysicist Victor Stenger argues from contemporary physics and cosmology that there can be no God who participates in worldly affairs without violating the premises of standard Christian, Jewish, and Islamic theology. He further argues that the only deity not completely ruled out by modern science would be a God of deism, who can also be viewed as unethical by reasonable ethical standards.
Stenger shows that God becomes unnecessary to explain the cosmos and that the God concept is filled with many contradictions. This argument is presented well, and the author has the right background to make it. Stenger has been at the forefront of several experiments in modern physics that have greatly strengthened the case for atheism. To a fellow scientist, albeit one who has worked on problems of a less fundamental nature, I found the book to be an excellent review of some of the best physics that has been developed over the last half-century.
Ironically, that leads to my only criticism. If the purpose of the book is to convince the intelligent reader who is not a trained scientist that any substantive God concept no longer makes sense, grasping the arguments that Stenger presents will require considerable effort. His treatment will convince most physicists and many other scientists. However, laypersons who have limited backgrounds in modern physics will be entering unfamiliar territory. These readers are likely to be impressed by the breadth of the arguments but may find some of them difficult to follow. That is not the author’s problem, but it is a serious one in society as a whole if we want people to grasp the reasons God is becoming an increasingly diffuse and often vacuous concept, even among (one might argue especially among) some of the better-educated modern theologians.
That said, the author does an outstanding job of showing why the confirmed conclusions of modern physics make a strong case for atheism. Many of these arguments also show why so-called New Age spiritualism is nonsense, and Stenger makes a strong case for this as well.
At the center of Stenger’s arguments is modern quantum mechanics. He casts a wide net in his review of modern physics, and there is no room here to touch on all the interesting subjects he treats. However, I would have found his argument for atheism better focused, though less complete, if the author had restricted himself more to the fundamentals of modern quantum theory (confirmed by thousands of experiments) and had offered fewer complete chapters on subjects like the standard model for elementary particles and chaos and complexity theory, subjects related to the main argument and fascinating in themselves but which might have been more succinctly summarized in their relevance to the God question.
In my opinion, the best chapters for explaining the nature of quantum theory, which one must grasp if the relevance of the subject to the God question is to be understood, are Chapters 8 (“The Spooky Quantum”) and 13 (“Ghost Busting the Quantum”), followed by Chapter 14 (“Quantum Philosophy”). I found all of these chapters to be excellent and essential for getting the author’s main points on the probabilistic nature of physical reality and its consequences for explaining why, as in the last chapter, “something” is a more likely state than “nothing” and why we should realize that God is not only a very unlikely hypothesis for explaining anything we can measure but is also an entirely unnecessary one for explaining why there is something rather than nothing. Thus physics in its present form, while still failing to yield a final theory of everything, really does have a lot to say about the biggest questions of all! This itself is worth knowing, in light of frequently heard claims to the contrary.
The main question always facing a reviewer is, “Would I recommend the book?” My answer depends on the intended reader. To a scientist in any field and the thoughtful reader who is willing to work through many concepts that may be initially unfamiliar (even though they are frequently tossed about in the popular media), I would highly recommend the book.
To the skeptic who wishes a less-demanding regime and still wants a strong argument for atheism, I think there are simpler arguments that, while less rigorous, remain highly suggestive. For example, after at least two millennia during which thousands of brilliant thinkers, some in a desperate state of mind, sought one shred of reliable evidence that God exists and found nothing (or it would be the universally recognized most important bit of knowledge ever uncovered, and most scientists would probably also be ministers, priests, rabbis, etc.), one can say that the probability that God exists is exceedingly small, or at least that the supposed “hidden” God is not very ethical. One does not need to know quantum mechanics to grasp that argument or to remember it and use it if challenged.
In sum, I think this is an excellent book for scientists and careful thinkers. Thoughtful, patient nonphysicists will also enjoy it and can learn from it. These are the likely readers in any event. However, beyond a certain point there is no way of making modern physics simple. And as Victor Stenger notes near the end of his book, “That is just the way things are.” We remain faced with the challenge of bringing the more important abstract phenomena of our world to the understanding of more people, or the appeal of religion will no doubt continue for some time. This book is a noble attempt to address that issue but probably cannot offer a satisfactory answer for everyone. But then who can?