Quantum Gods by Victor J. Stenger - Book Review

Creation, Chaos, and the Search for Cosmic Consciousness

By on July 25th, 2009 07:03 GMT
It was only last night that I finished reading Victor J. Stenger's new book, “Quantum Gods: Creation, Chaos and the Search for Cosmic Consciousness,” and, boy, I can tell you for sure that my understanding of quantum physics was a bit off before. In fact, it was not necessarily wrong, as it was featuring the correct information, but no explanation as to why things are the way they are at a level of miniaturization that seems almost incomprehensible. And that is exactly what this book does – it explains quantum physics, albeit from a point of view that negates the premise of a classic God, such as the one found in Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Overall, we are treated to a coherent and well-written physics theory, which is a part of the dwindling current made up of those scientists who also try to offer a philosophical explanation of their discoveries. It became obvious over recent years, and Stenger identifies this accurately, that most physics researchers now adopt a “shut up and calculate” attitude, which was not common, for example, among those who conducted their investigations in the first half of the 20th century or earlier.

The former Professor Emeritus of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Hawaii, currently an Adjunct Professor of Philosophy at the University of Colorado, chose to place his findings and life's work in a different reference frame. As he himself admits in the new book, “Nothing I have said conflicts with existing physics. (...) All I have done is give an unconventional philosophical interpretation to otherwise well-established theory.”

Essentially, the entire book is a joy ride, if your goal is to make sense of the various types of pseudo-sciences that appeared in the world over the past few decades, since some physicists set on their quest for the unified theory of everything. Beautifully organized, Quantum Gods begins at “macro” level, with a number of studies showing the religious mix-up of the American people, and the “deviation” that the country exhibits from normal trends of religiosity. Then it takes us through some of the claims that have been made about quantum mechanics, as far as transcendental meditation (TM) goes.

In the following chapters, the author explains, with a great deal of references, the main views that those arguing the Universe and humanity are permeated by a single quantum field have on the matter. He cites some of the most famous physicists involved with finding a unified theory of everything (UTE), and lists their arguments. The rest of the book is naturally devoted to combating these arguments, and this is done in a very elegant and logic-driven manner.

It's not often that I come across books that explain such intricate matters as particle physics in a way that is both accessible to the average reader as well as explained with a logic that permeates each line. The conclusion that Stenger draws from his arguments seem like the obvious one and, when broken down, his critics' theories really have nothing on it. Additionally, many confusions that scientists make when thinking about quantum mechanics are also explained clearly.

For a good part of the book, the author treats us to a basic introduction in particle physics, showing a brief history of natural laws, and how they came to be discovered. The Standard Model, its components and its interactions, its quarks, leptons and bosons are also reviewed and explained thoroughly. This data makes up the basis of his arguments, in the last chapters of Quantum Gods, when he begins taking on theories elaborated by either UTE physicists or theologians.

Then, the debate turns philosophical. Stenger first and foremost underlines the differences between the theist and deist gods, which is very important if modern advancements in science are to leave any room for God to act. At the level of knowledge that scientists now have of the particles making up the world, and of the origins of the Universe, it becomes clear that finding a place for a supreme being to act becomes increasingly difficult, despite apologetics' best efforts.

Additionally, throughout the book, the author reveals that complex quantum calculations have led him to the conclusion that a deist god, as in a being that created the Universe but then plays no further role in it, answering our prayers, or actively changing chains of events, is improbable, but not impossible to exist.

However, if it does, it has nothing in common with the God in the three major religions, simply because it does not play an important role in the world. This god does not intervene, and the only action he did before turning “to better things” was allow for the Universe to appear. However, this would imply that randomness, chance and free will are basically human artifacts, constructs we've made to make ourselves feel better.

Theologians in Christianity, for example, have a tough time believing this, as it refutes the knowledge that we are central to God's plans, and also the fact that worship and prayer results in immediate help. “Science has no reason to introduce into its explanatory system an Enlightenment[-era] deist god,” Stenger writes.

Indeed, in most of the lines of argument he presents in Quantum Gods, the author demonstrates that either God does not exist because he never left detectable traces of his presence – which would be expected if he did intervene daily in our lives – or because, if God acts within the confines of natural law, then there is no need to introduce him into an explanatory system. This seems to make sense, I believe. If God, say, created natural laws, and the entire Universe is ruled by those laws and nothing else, then there is no room for him to interfere.

But even this small opening for the existence of God is closed in the final chapter, as Stenger explains an idea that has over recent years gained much support among physics scholars. He quotes philosopher David Armstrong: “There is only one true eccentric view. This is the view that, although there are regularities in the world, there are no laws of nature.” This statement, which at first glance seems to blow the ground from under the feet of exact science in general, is actually somewhat true.

As the author explains, it all makes sense if you look at Stephen Hawking and James Hartle's explanations of how the Universe appeared. Out of nothing (as in real, indeterministic chaos – a space that has no measurable properties), the initial particles that collided during the Big Bang and exploded our Universe into existence bore their way out through quantum tunneling, a process that is now used in creating such powerful instruments as scanning tunneling microscopes (STM). These instruments can, for example, photograph independent atoms.

Combined with the knowledge that, in nature, simple systems eventually develop into complex ones, the “nothing” theory proves that natural laws are in fact just human constructs, just like space and time, which are created in such a way that they respect the point-of-view invariance. This concept refers to the fact that physicists need to formulate their theories in a manner that is not necessarily related to the reference frame of the observer, or to a certain point in space and time. Newton's laws thus become embedded in Noether's theorem, which holds:

1. Space translation symmetry implies conservation of linear momentum
2. Space rotation symmetry implies conservation of angular momentum
3. Time translation symmetry implies conservation of energy.

As you can see, it's very easy to get trapped in complex explanations of seemingly simple things, but somehow Stenger manages to keep his “cool” throughout the book, and maintain a level of simplicity that essentially means people can understand what he's talking about with a minimum of effort. I would daresay that this book is a must read for those religious fanatics who hold science to be the sign of the Devil. Additionally, a lot of physicists could also benefit from it, as it clarifies a number of issues on which confusion still lingers.

In the end, I would like to say that reading this book was a real pleasure. It was not written as a fairy tale, but it was not filled with mathematical equations either. I can say that a lot more things make sense now that I went through it. And even if some theories will in the future prove Stenger wrong, I would have already gained a deeper understanding of the particle world. And that is why you should get to read it too, whenever you have the chance.

Book data:

Author: Victor J. Stenger
Title: Quantum Gods: Creation, Chaos and the Search for Cosmic Consciousness
Publisher: Prometheus Books
ISBN 978–1–59102–713–3

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