Book review: Victor J. Stenger ‘God and the Atom’

by Paul Braterman, originally published in Humanitie magazine.

Victor Stenger, as physics professor at the University of Hawaii was personally involved in the experiments that helped establish the current standard model of the fundamental particles of matter.

He is now formally retired, but holds an adjunct professorship of philosophy at the University of Colorado. This is the latest in a series of books in which he combines his areas of expertise to argue that belief in God as generally understood, is not only unnecessary but mistaken.

The present volume begins, as the title promises, with a description of the ancient atomic theory, in which reality consisted of atoms and the void. This atomism was by design atheistic, one of its purposes being to liberate humanity from superstitious terrors.

It continues with a highly readable account of how our ideas of fundamental particles have advanced since then, together with changing concepts of the nature of space and time. Thus we have chapters on the Scientific Revolution, the atomic theory in chemistry, how the statistics of large numbers of atoms leads to thermodynamics, light and the aether, quantum mechanics, the composition of nuclei, the discovery of the inner structure of what had once been regarded as fundamental particles, the significance of the Higgs boson, cosmology, and the implications of our present viewpoint.

All of this is described in highly readable language, with minimal use of equations, and well-chosen diagrams. The overall conclusion is that the ancient atomists had it right.

I particularly liked the description of emergent properties as consequences of the way in which more fundamental units interact. For example, water is wet, not because of the properties of each single water molecule, but because of the way these properties make separate water molecules interact with each other.

And yet I have a number of serious reservations. There are major errors in the description of Dalton’s atomic theory, a topic that I happen to have studied closely, which inevitably raises the question of accuracy regarding historical matters that I do not know much about. More seriously. I found the physics at times confusing. For example Maxwell’s theory of electromagnetism was described as a consequence of laws discovered earlier, and these are listed by name, but we are never told what these laws actually stated.

We are told that entropy is maximised when bodies come to the same temperature, but we are never told what entropy is (a very general description, such as “degree of spread- out-ness would have sufficed).

We are given two different resolutions of the twins paradox as it arises in special relativity, but one of these does and the other one does not discuss the role of acceleration in general relativity, and I confess to being as confused about this as ever.

We are also told, in different chapters, that mass is independent of frame of reference, and that it will appear to increase as measured from a frame of reference in relative motion (the latter is what I had always understood, as a consequence of the mass associated with the kinetic energy of a body regarded as moving). There are other examples.

As for the philosophy, although I like most readers of this magazine, find the conclusion congenial, I am not convinced that it follows as claimed from the arguments presented. The book is built around a simple syllogism: Atomism is correct, and atomism is atheistic, therefore atheism is correct.

I fear that this argument depends on ignoring the differences between the atoms of the pre-Socratic philosophers and the much subtler objects that confront us today. True to the tradition of Dcmoeritus, Stenger chooses to consider particles (including photons, particles of light) as moving in a void, but as he himself tells us he could equally well have chosen to regard them as quanta of space-filling fields. In any case we are told that most of the material in the universe is in the form of dark matter, and dark energy; of whose structure we know nothing.

Stenger sees no room for divine intervention because he is a determinist, and copes with the uncertainties of quantum mechanics by saying, quite correctly, that quantum mechanical processes are, statistically speaking, determined.

However, individual quantum fluctuations can have quite dramatic effects. The precise moment of decay of a radioactive nucleus might give rise to a mutation that changes the fate of a dynasty, as in the final years of Imperial Russia. This does make room, as the philosopher Alvin Plantinga points out for direct divine intervention without violation of the laws of physics.

The arguments against such intervention seem to me. as they will to most readers, overwhelming, but this conclusion follows from common experience, rather than from the arguments presented here.

In conclusion, reading this book took me on an exciting intellectual journey, but there were numerous points where I felt the need for more, or better, explanation, and I do not think that it succeeds in its ambitious philosophical objective.

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