God Failed

Victor Stenger: God The Failed Hypothesis – How Science Shows that God Does Not Exist (Prometheus Books, Amherst, 2007). I have to admit I’ve got something up my ass about how empirical scientists - who, in the confines of their discipline, are remarkably rigorous and careful about making assertions they haven’t tested and verified - are yet prone to make vapid and silly generalizations about nearly everything else, particularly culture and its history. Stenger’s otherwise admirable little popularizing polemic makes a couple of asides that can best be qualified as imbecilic.

On page 80 Stenger lets fly the egregious little comment that Descartes was “terrified” of the Inquisition. This opinion, I assume, got stuck in Stenger’s brain from some college course somewhere where he learned the pop philosophical opinion, largely inaugurated by the behaviorist Ryle, that a theory of mental ideas, more properly attributed to Malebranche and Locke, rendered Descartes the philosophical equivalent of Marshal Pétain. Assuming “terrified” is the proper qualifier in Descartes’ case, Giordano Bruno’s execution and Galileo’s house arrest were in fact living memories at the time. I assume that, if Stenger knew a hideous death would be his reward, he would have bravely gone ahead and published his little book anyway? More likely, if the minions of the Council of Trent were to set their caps against a hypothetical libertin érudit named Stenger, he'd be crappin' his pants with the best of 'em. It is a shame that Le Monde had to undergo initial suppression, but, given the burning of Gallileo’s Copernican texts, it probably would have suffered precisely the same fate had Descartes gone ahead and published it. His self-exile to the relatively (Relatively: At one point in his life Descartes had so much trouble with the Dutch universities that he looked to the University of Paris and even the French Jesuits for help) tolerant atmosphere of the Dutch countryside is an event that is actually worth thinking about when we reflect on the meaning of philosophizing in a person’s life. But “terrified” is the last way to describe this prickly and pugnacious former soldier who did everything he could to assure that his research and writing would continue undisturbed.

Moreover the implication that Descartes integrated a goddist metaphysics into his science simply to keep the peace with his church (once again, a strategy more properly attributed to Locke) does not withstand examination. Everything about his personal behavior and his writing (Look at all those Replies appended to the Meditationes) indicate that he was not only sincere about his proofs of the existence and the nature of god, he also felt that those proofs were novel and conclusive. Spinoza rightly viewed the Cartesian proofs as “geometric” since they employed a version of reductio reasoning such as drives any number of Euclid’s demonstrations. Truth to say, Descartes, roughly the contemporary of Bacon, Milton, Donne and Loyola, viewed with dismay the gap between the new scientific discoveries and established Xtianity, and he sought to fill this gap with the results of his new method. This was the spirit of the 17th century which only died a slow and mournful death with the advent of Lockean empiricism.

Stenger must have had wine spilled on his lap by some disobliging garçon de café, for he treats Voltaire in a way that suggests either studied deliberation or an ignorance of proper French that would do an Arkansas pig farmer proud. On p. 139 he refers to someone named François Marie Arouet de Voltaire. While technically admissible, this is a bit awkward. “Voltaire” is a pen name for Arouet, not an aristocratic title (Voltaire in fact was not aristocratic but haut bourgeois although he may have been the illegitimate child of a minor aristocrat). Many, including Voltaire himself, used “de Voltaire” for reasons perhaps best explained by de Balzac. But references to François Marie Arouet are in the end the proper domain of family members and legal documents. After all we don’t call Devon “Christie Lisa Devon.”

Later on p. 244 Stenger refers to Voltaire’s “usual cynical self.” This description of Voltaire might have some applicability if you were a defrocked French Jesuit. Otherwise it is perplexing and of course untrue. The real Voltaire (as even good old Ayer recognized) was a moral absolutist and one of the fiercest champions of that 18th century non-religion religion called deism. He spent much effort and precious treasure and risked his safety in defense of religious toleration in the famous Calas affair and wept openly in an exemplary rococo manner at the expression of self-sacrifice in the performances of his plays. Cynical? I don’t think so. Cynics usually find ways to avoid exile.

Stenger’s freedom fry loving peccadilloes aside, there is a deeper problem with his book – whose arguments despite my caviling I find truly admirable (although to some extent a rehash of material in Bolingbroke, Spinoza, Meslier, Ingersoll and so on). The problem is that the atheist moral world in his depiction is little different from the Xtian moral world. Take away the goddism and you still have the wife, the kids, the dog and the backyard barbecues. Now this is tightly bound with Stenger’s argument that we only recognize (some portion of) ethical injunctions supposedly dictated by god to be valid and “good” because we have concluded on non-religious grounds that these ethical injunctions are good. This is an argument that deserves to be made. And suburban life without religious delusions is, one must admit, an advance over suburban life with religious delusions. But for some of us bourgeois life (for lack of a better term) stinks (for lack of a better term). A strong case for a disapproval of Xtian culture and not just Xtian belief has been made by among others the Frankfurt School, the Freudian Left and a large part of the artistic avant-garde from the last century. There is not much talk about goddism in those circles (with the exception of Saint Sigmund) because presumably the question had been pretty much put to rest. They didn’t have to deal with the intellectual swine flu that would swirl out of the churches of American swamp country. So Stenger is stuck with (at least if I were in his position I would consider it being “stuck with”) the obligation of demonstrating that not all atheists are crazed Mansonites (On the contrary). Michel Onfray’s arguments against religion are much weaker than Stenger’s and much less well documented. But he does draw connections between disposing of goddism and changing the way we live. Take a look at his Traité d’athéologie.