Yesterday I saw a video of the retired physicist, Victor J. Stenger. His host provided a detailed introduction that took almost 5 minutes to go through. Why was it so long, I wondered. It did not occur to me, at the time, that the inordinate length of the speaker’s accomplishments might have been given at the direction of the speaker himself. Then later, on another video, I heard an identical recitation of this long introduction of the speaker. Only then did I realize that it was Stenger who had supplied this copious biographical information to be recited before an interview or discussion of his books.
I found an entry on him on Wp at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Victor_J._Stenger and his webpage at http://www.colorado.edu/philosophy/vstenger/VWeb/Home.html.
The first YouTube video I watched was the one below. He does not begin speaking until after 5 minutes into the clip.
After this I looked up his book, “Quantum Gods: Creation, Chaos, and the Search for Cosmic Consciousness” on Amazon and went to the “one star” reviews.
The first of these was titled “Another Failure from the Reliable Stenger“, by Bradley Metzner
- “Victor Stenger has long thought that his training as a physicist (in which field his achievements have been slightly less than minor) somehow magically endows him with the ability to think philosophically, though he has no philosophical training and manifestly is unable to deal with even the most rudimentary logical issues. More to the point, he always gives the impression not only of not understanding the ideas he attacks, but of not actually having read the books in which those ideas appear. All he has going for him is his arrogance, his remarkable lack of critical self-awareness, and his stridently dogmatic metaphysical materialism. Oh, and of course, his curiously 19th century style of empirical verificationism.This is just the sort of book, though, for the audience he courts. It will fortify their prejudices and further dull their wits. And, in the end, not a single interesting advance will have been made on the central questions it deals with.”
The next review was a gem, called ” smoke and mirrors” by Dianelos Georgoudis
Quantum Gods: Creation, Chaos, and the Search for Cosmic Consciousness
- Since the discovery of Quantum Mechanics in early 20th century, physicists (including several of the founders of QM) were surprised about the ontological implications of it. In short, QM, which is by now the very pillar of our technological society, appears to imply that there is no objective reality that science studies, in the sense that the only way to make sense of the theory is by assuming that reality is contingent on consciousness. So, for example, Albert Einstein complained about QM implying that the moon is not there when nobody is looking. A comment attributed to Niehls Bohr is as follows: “There is no quantum world. There is only an abstract quantum description. It is wrong to think that the task of physics is to find out how nature is.”. Werner Heisenberg wrote: “One cannot go back to the idea of an objective real [material] world whose smallest parts exist objectively.” Pascual Jordan wrote: “Observations not only disturb what has to be measured, they produce it. […] We ourselves produce the results of measurement.” Eugene Wigner wrote: “It is not possible to formulate the laws of quantum mechanics in a fully consistent way without reference to consciousness […] It will remain remarkable in whatever way our future concepts may develop, that the very study of the external world led to the conclusion that the content of consciousness is an ultimate reality.” John Wheeler wrote: “No elementary phenomenon is a real phenomenon until it is an observed phenomenon.” And “Useful as it is under everyday circumstances o say that the world exists ‘out there’ independent of us, that view can no longer be upheld. There is strange sense in which this is a ‘participatory universe'”. Arthur Eddington: “To put the conclusion crudely – the stuff of the world is ‘mind stuff'”. Bernard d’Espagnat: “The doctrine that the world is made up of objects whose existence is independent of human consciousness turns out to be in conflict with quantum mechanics and with facts established by experiment.” David Mermin commenting on Einstein’s question: “We now know that the moon is demonstrably not there when nobody looks.” Sir James Jeans: “The universe begins to look more like a great thought than a great machine.” Martin Rees: “The universe exists because we are aware of it.” Euan Squires: “Every interpretation of quantum mechanics involves consciousness.” Nick Herbert published an entire book about the ontological implications of QM, “Quantum Reality”. As recently as 2004 Bruce Rosenblum and Fred Kuttner published “Quantum Enigma: Physics Encounters Consciousness”. Other excellent books are “The Ghost in the Atom” edited by Paul Davies, and “Quantum Phyisics – Illusion or Reality” by Alastair Rae. These are all no-nonsense physicists, and many of them are eminent ones. So QM represents a real problem for any materialistic understanding of reality. As philosopher Bertrand Russell put it: “It has begun to seem that matter, like the Cheshire Cat, is becoming gradually diaphanous and nothing is left but the grin, caused, presumably, by amusement at those who still think it is there”. So it was with some interest I started reading Stenger’s book to see how he dealt with this problem.I couldn’t be more disappointed. First of all he doesn’t make any serious effort to deal with it. Rather he concentrates on the various New Age gurus who publish pseudo-science, on various paranormal claims (telepathy and the like), on the sensationalist documentary “What the Bleep do We Know?”, as well as on physicists Fritjof Capra’s “The Tao of Physics” and Amit Goswami’s “The Self-Aware Universe”. The latter two books interpret the quantum problem from the point of view of Eastern mysticism, which may or may not be appropriate, but which is irrelevant to the seriousness of the question at hand. The whole book strikes me as an intent to use a lot of smoke to convince the reader that there isn’t really any serious problem to deal with in the first place.The book contains many errors and misleading statements in its discussion of science. So for example on page 95 it says “The organs of the human body, including the brain, run on Newtonian mechanics” – which must be news to biochemists and neuroscientists. On page 103 it says “[Stephen Jay] Gould also insisted that there was no guarantee evolution would always act to produce increasingly complex forms of life with ever-broadening capabilities. However this remains controversial.” In fact this isn’t controversial but a rather obvious property of Darwinism. On page 184 it says “There is no wave-particle duality. Photons are just particles”. Actually, that photons sometimes display particle-like behavior and sometimes wave-like behavior is an observational fact and one of the fundamental insights of QM. On page 207 he writes “No one has ever seen a particle moving faster than light nor transmitted information from one point to another superluminally.” In fact in 1995 Horst Aichmann and Gunter Nimtz have transmitted Mozart’s 40th Symphony as frequency modulated microwaves (i.e. photons) through an 11.4 cm length of barrier at a velocity of 4.7 times higher than light speed, receiving audibly recognizable music. On page 196 he claims that the “observer” in the Copenhagen interpretation of QM need not be a conscious being but may be any “passive measuring instrument”. In fact what constitutes a “measurement” is much debated about and Stenger’s claim above is very far from the concensus. Take for example the famous “Schrodinger’s cat” thought experiment: The paradox of having a cat in a quantum superposition of being both alive and dead at the same time would not disappear were one to put a video camera inside the cat’s box; rather both the cat and the camera would exist in a quantum superposition. On page 197 he criticizes Bohm’s interpretation of QM by pointing out that it offers “nothing new in calculational ability and producing no unique empirical results”. But the same goes for all interpretations of QM, so this is hardly grounds for criticizing one of them. On page 206 he writes “The only deterministic quantum theory is that of Bohm”. Actually there is only one quantum theory. Bohm’s is one out of several naturalistic interpretations of quantum theory, and his is not the only deterministic one, for Everett’s so-called “many worlds” interpretation is deterministic too. On page 228 he approvingly quotes Jacques Monod who wrote: “Chance alone is the source of every innovation, of all creation, in the biosphere. Pure chance, absolutely free but blind is at the very root of the stupendous edifice of evolution.” This may be the personal belief of Monod, but it’s not a belief based on science. For even though the theory of evolution allows for “pure chance” it does not require it. Indeed the Darwinian mechanism works just as well using not chance but a deterministic pseudo-random generator. That’s why the theory of evolution has not falsified determinism. Stenger continues by praising those scientists who wrongly hold that the theory of evolution implies Monod’s view: “This remains the view of most scientists, but only a few such as Monod, Steven Weinberg, and Richard Dawkins have the courage to say so publicly. And they are castigated for it.” I don’t know whether Weinberg and Dawkins share Monod’s unscientific view that the theory of evolution implies randomness. Actually I doubt it. Dawkins has only claimed, correctly, that the universe we observe is just as it would be if evolution was based on blind chance – not that evolution was based on blind chance. Certainly philosopher Daniel Dennett does not share Monod’s belief, as he has explicitly spoken against it.Where things get bizarre is when Stenger tries to do philosophy. On page 64 Stenger handwaves away a major view about reality called idealism by noting that when one kicks a rock the rock kicks back; of course that would also be the case if idealism is true, so it’s not like kicking a rock “refutes” idealism. On page 66 Stenger informs us that time exists only in the human mind and that time is really a human invention. On page 73 we are informed that space too is only a human invention. Humanity has “what masquerades as free will”, so free will too is presumably a human invention. Even the laws of physics are “human inventions” (page 262). Amazing how when one assumes that God is just a human invention, a lot of other basic things must follow suit. – On page 211 he claims that materialism is consistent with “commonplace experience”. In fact it’s very difficult to see how materialism could possibly be consistent with the very fact of experience; it appears Stenger has never heard of the hard problem of consciousness, or perhaps he tries to shove it under the rug too. – A major part in the end of the book is dedicated to the question of whether the claim that God acts specially in creation is compatible with science. He mentions in some detail the ideas of several theologians in this respect but then comments on their ideas with just a few words, such as “Good try.” (page 216), as if he wants to give the impression that such ideas are not worth discussing – but if so why describe them in the book in the first place? In this context Stenger quickly becomes self-contradictory: On page 241 he states that if God played such a special role in the universe then God “should leave observable physical evidence”. But on page 221 he describes how God could violate the laws of physics in a way that this violation would simply not be “detectable to humans”. Not to mention that if this manner of divine action is fundamentally not detectable to humans then it is incoherent to claim that it represents a violation of the laws of physics; after all we know about the laws of physics from what we can detect. On page 243 he again describes how God could act in the universe: “To have full control over all events God would have to manage the motion of every fundamental particle in the universe in a nanosecond-by nanosecond basis. I suppose, being omnipotent, he could do that.” So God could massively interfere with the universe without science detecting it after all. So what’s the problem? That he “gets the impression in his reading that most theologians would not be happy with that solution”. So there. – When confronted with one of the few philosophical premises everybody agrees with, namely that from nothing nothing comes, he redefines “nothing” as what has no structure (page 250), but clearly that’s not what “nothing” means. Argumentation by the redefinition of common concepts appears to be a fashionable trend in atheism. On page 263 we learn that we can view the Earth and humanity as “forms of frozen nothing”. As I said, bizarre.
Finally, the carelessness of the book is annoying. In the foreword written by the well-known Michael Shermer we read that physicist Amit Goswami had said “The material world around us is nothing but possible movements of consciousness. I am choosing moment by moment my experience.” Shermer then informs us that in his monthly column in Scientific American he publicly challenged Goswami to leap out of a twenty-story building and consciously choose the experience of surviving the experiment. Impressive, no? Only on page 38 of his book Stenger makes explicitly clear that when Goswami says “I” or “you”, as in “you make your own reality”, he means the “all-pervasive cosmic consciousness” and not some individual human. So what is one to make of Shermer’s huge equivocation in the foreword? Perhaps he did not read the book to which he wrote the foreword? But then again didn’t Stenger read Shermer’s foreword he put in his own book? Hardly likely. It’s far more likely that they just don’t care. It’s all about making an impression.
The book does have some merits. Its explanation of some modern scientific concepts, especially in relation with special relativity, is lucid. It very convincingly criticizes all claims of top-down causality noting that in all such cases computer simulations using only bottom-up causality produce the relevant effects one ascribes to top-down causality. But on the whole this is very superficial and misleading book. Any of the books I mention above does a much better job explaining quantum weirdness.”
I am currently reading and enjoying immensely one of the books DG mentions as being excellent in his opinion (Bruce Rosenblum and Fred Kuttner’s “Quantum Enigma: Physics Encounters Consciousness”. And thanks to DG’s review here, I now have his 3 other recommended books. Amazingly, I was able to place a “Hold” on all 3 of them at the Los Angeles Public Library.
Looking at DG’s brief biography on Wp it is difficult to see where he was able to acquire his fluid and nuanced command of English. We can understand the possibility of his being a native speaker of Portuguese, Spanish, Greek or German – – – – but English?
Were his parents academics?
- “Dianelos Georgoudis was born from Greek parents in Brazil in 1956. He went to school in Athens, Greece, and studied electrical engineering at ETH in Zurich. From 1981 to 2002 he lived in Costa Rica where he at first taught computer science at the University of Costa Rica. In 1985 he founded a software company, TecApro, and later an Internet technology company, Hermes Software. Since 2002 he lives in Volos, Greece with his wife and daughter.
His main interests (in no particular order) are information technology, painting, sculpture, philosophy, and religion. He has been contributing to wikipedia since 2005.
He can be reached at email@example.com”
I am now looking forward to reading more of DG’s reviews.