Sunday, June 23, 2013

The Atom (and God)

Book Review: God and the Atom. Victor J. Stenger. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books (2013).
We’re into books with blue
covers around here.

Dr. Stenger was kind enough to look over a book I co-authored with our mutual friend Robert M. Price, and he wound up writing a nice blurb for it. So, full disclosure: I owe him one, and admire his work. Though my reviewing the work of this accomplished particle physicist and prolific author is a bit like a sign painter sizing up the brush strokes on the Mona Lisa, I will say right up front that I like this book, too.

God and the Atom is not overbearing on either of its headline topics. It is more about atoms than God, really, and I would readily recommend it to my Christian friends who are interested in science. Stenger expresses his atheistic views clearly and without apology in other works such as God: The Failed Hypothesis and Quantum Gods. But in this particular book, atheism is an undercurrent, almost something to be taken for granted as he takes the reader on a tour through the history of thought about elementary particles and the material substance of everything around us.

Stenger’s story begins with the Greek philosophers Leucippus and Democritus. As he points out, these guys had some amazingly accurate ideas about particle physics. They correctly understood that vision, hearing, smell, and touch are all the result of interactions between various parts of our bodies and particles in, or emanating from, objects of the outside world (pp. 25-26). He provides some illuminating quotes from Lucretius that talk about the chance movements of atoms, the material nature of our bodies and everything else. I’m in no position to judge one way or another, but Stenger seems to be an able curator of ancient thought on his chosen topic, showcasing (on p. 39) amazing passages like this one (reformatted here):

Thus clearly there are particles

of wind you cannot spy

That sweep the ocean and the land

and clouds up in the sky.

While discussing these ancients, Stenger makes the atheism connection by noting how their view is based on everything being material, all the way down. No intervention by any deities was considered necessary or even useful, it seems. And, he notes, their views about human mortality is clearly not one involving any afterlife. Here is the first stanza of a passage from Lucretius that Stenger particularly enjoys, quoted on p. 36 of his book:

So when our mortal frame shall be disjoin’d

The lifeless lump uncoupled from the mind,

From sense of grief and pain we shall be free;

We shall not feel, because we will not be.

In The Tell-Tale Brain, the neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran notes that our conscious selves emerge “from the mindless agitations of atoms and molecules” in our brains. Those brains are made up of a hundred billion neurons, he says, each making “from one thousand to ten thousand contacts with other neurons.” This knowledge of ourselves, much of it gained within living memory of the current generation of scientists, is staggering. And, more than 2,000 years after Lucretius wrote them, the barren wisdom of his words stands: We shall not feel, because we will not be.

If it ain’t tabbed or highlighted, it ain’t been read. Not with a book this informative.

Stenger artfully continues his history lesson forward through the centuries, presenting scientific and historical facts with his subdued atheistic theme holding things together. It doesn’t seem at all preachy or overbearing. Even when I was a Christian, the science and history probably would have kept me engaged without the book’s low-key atheism turning me off too much. The way Stenger patiently shows (not just says) how little God figures into our scientific understanding is a refreshing change of pace, and may be more powerful an approach for the godless than the explicit reverse evangelism of books like Hitchens’s God is Not Great or Dawkins’s The God Delusion.

I did much of my reading of the book on a beautiful sunny day, sitting out on the deck. After taking in one of the many profound little nuggets in Stenger’s well-crafted text, I would pause to look up at the big trees that surround my home. The “universe is not fine-tuned for us; we are fine-tuned to the universe” (p. 146), the words would ring out in my mind, as I noted the height of those trees, evolved to strain upwards above their green rivals in a greedy quest for photons to feed the long-captive chloroplasts in their needles. Stenger has explained what those are, too: massless, dimensionless particles of light that act like waves, not individually, but when moving together in beams (pp. 154-55), in countless, unfathomable numbers.

All that structure, all those organic compounds are formed from tiny clumps of proton and neutron (which themselves are made of quarks that can never be isolated), surrounded by statistical clouds of negative charge—dimensionless particles that can’t be pinned down to a single point, which we call electrons (p. 151). The carbon atoms in those trees have six electrons, not individual little balls whizzing around but probabilities of position layered into two shells. And those atoms are almost always fused with other atoms, and other shells.

Frost on pine needles: It’s all atoms.  [Flickr page]

Stenger explains what’s behind all this: quantum indeterminacy and the Pauli exclusion principle. Without that principle keeping them from overcrowding orbitals, “the electrons in every atom would settle down to the ground state and we would have no complex chemical structures” (p. 164). Not the pine needles, not the crooked-dumbbell shaped water molecules that stream into them and provide raw material for photosynthesis, not the rods and cones in my eyes that alternate from Stenger’s words to the greenery.

It’s exhilarating to have even a dim comprehension of all this hidden splendor beneath the beauty that stands before me, and within me. What about God, the unseen force to whom I’ve given credit (and blame!) for all of this during most of my life thus far? Nowhere to be found, apparently. “In today’s science,” Stenger writes as he draws to a conclusion, “we find no evidence for any ingredient in nature other than matter. If some other immaterial substance exists, such as what is usually referred to as spirit, it has no effect on our senses or instruments that we can verify scientifically” (p. 263).

Stenger, 78 years old and apparently very comfortable in his own material and mortal skin of atomic particles, seems quite unperturbed by this godless universe he describes so well. He shrugs his shoulders about the appeal to theism, the very human need to find some agency behind it all. Bah humbug, Stenger says to any search for spirit or qi or, of course, God. In “what sense can we say immaterial objects exist if they have no measurable effects on the material objects we do observe?” (p. 264).

God and the Atom goes on for a few more pages from that jarring question, but there is no metaphysical soft landing to comfort those who, like me, cannot quite seem to embrace an existence based solely on nothing more than four fundamental particles. That is the only part of the book that seemed uneven to me. It isn’t necessarily a shortcoming of Stenger’s writing, but of this reader’s emotional yearning for something more than what writer and reader alike have concluded, intellectually, just isn’t there. I look up from the trees—my exultation in understanding their evolution and the wondrous bits of physics that Stenger writes about turning to a pang of sadness as I look to the empty sky—and say with the writer of Isaiah 45:15, “Verily thou art a God that hidest thyself, O God of Israel, the Saviour.”

See the Prometheus website for more information. Get the book from in hardcover or for the Kindle, or for the Barnes & Noble Nook.