Stenger’s “God and the Atom”

Richard Feynman once opined on the most important sentence in science:

If, in some cataclysm, all of scientific knowledge were to be destroyed, and only one sentence passed on to the next generation of creatures, what statement would contain the most information in the fewest words? I believe it is the atomic hypothesis that all things are made of atoms — little particles that move around in perpetual motion, attracting each other when they are a little distance apart, but repelling upon being squeezed into one another. In that one sentence, you will see, there is an enormous amount of information about the world, if just a little imagination and thinking are applied. [ Six Easy Pieces, p 4]

If the idea that everything we see and interact with can be broken down to particles and void – in short, to atomism – could be the foundation of a reborn science, then it makes sense to use atomism as the starting point for a discussion of a science-based world view. That’s what Victor Stenger is attempting to do in his latest book God and the Atom. By showing how universe rests on a foundation of particle physics, Stenger can show that there is no place for – or at least no need for – God and the supernatural.

It’s an ambitious goal, one made more complicated by Stenger’s decision to include a history of the idea of atomism from ancient Athens through the Renaissance, and carry the thread through his discussion of particle physics. However, Stenger’s forty year career as a particle physicist make him qualified to make the attempt.

And it’s a solid attempt but, sadly, not a very successful one. Stenger needs to cram history, a whole field of science and an entire worldview into 300 pages, with end notes. The results are predictable: the early history is choppy, the arguments are scant and little space is given to counterarguments. Not surprisingly the physics are handled well, if perhaps a bit speedily for some readers. His use of the history from Newton onward is smooth and helpful in connecting the development of particle physics. But Stenger’s central argument needs more space to develop than he’s allowed himself.

To pick one problem, there’s Stenger’s approach to reductionism. While it may be accurate to say that particles and void are the foundation of our universe, we do not live in that foundation. We live in a house constructed on that foundation, and it is not easy to see how the foundation gives rise to the house.

How do atomic interactions “scale up” into the world we experience? That’s an important question to deal with if you’re going to be appealing to a popular audience. You have to connect the world they live in with the world Stenger is describing.

One way to deal with this a discussion of emergence. Stenger spends only a few paragraphs on the issue (pp. 270-271), and he seems to view the topic with suspicion. Perhaps this is because so many philosophers and liberal theologians like Philip Clayton are claiming the word emergence and taking it farther than scientists would go, but leaving out the discussion creates a massive gap.

Obviously, I am in complete sympathy with the goal of describing a bottom-up universe. But such a worldview is counter-intuitive, and learning to think in terms of complex systems giving rise to phenomena – of chaos leading to order – takes careful teaching. Saying in essence “here are the atoms, there is no God” doesn’t really address the problem.

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