Secular VIP of the Week: Victor Stenger

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This fall, Dr. Victor Stenger’s 13th book, God and the Multiverse, will be published by Prometheus Press.  In his usual clear, concrete language, Dr. Stenger will review the history of our understanding of the universe and show that today’s scientific understanding of the multiverse requires no supernatural forces to explain its origin or existence.  Dr. Stenger is retired Emeritus Professor of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Hawaii and Adjunct Professor of Philosophy at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

As Dr. Stenger is a prolific writer on many topics, RDF asked him to expand on some recent columns he’s published.


RDF:  Dr. Stenger, you have said our addiction to magical thinking may “doom” humanity.  Could you explain what you meant by “doomed”?

VS:  I of course was thinking of climate change and possible disasters like nuclear war.  This is a place where Richard, the four horsemen and I differ greatly from other atheists.  I read all the time that we should be more accommodating and sensitive to religious beliefs.  But if we don’t work towards the elimination of magical thinking, I just don’t think accommodation will do us any good.  We can’t make decisions based on faith and ancient texts written by primitive people living in the desert thousands of years ago.  That doesn’t mean we have to eliminate various cultural aspects of religion, such as rituals like the marriage ceremony, music or art.  I enjoy these things too.

RDF:  Any thoughts on what we can do to address climate change quickly?

VS:  I’ve become increasingly pessimistic.   Unique to this country is a tremendous political propaganda movement to prevent any action to ameliorate global warning.  Science has become politicized while most scientists don’t want to get involved. I think it’s going to be a disaster.  The recent report on how Florida is already suffering from global warming is amusing—in a black humor sort of way– when you think of Florida Senator Marco Rubio standing up and expressing doubt that humans are not causing global warming.

RDF:  If you could do two or three things to make the American political system more responsive, what might you do?

VS:   You cannot use scare tactics with people, who won't listen.  Americans are narcissistic; to make changes, they have to see the advantages individually.  It's amusing that Oklahoma’s governor wanted to tax solar panels. But many conservatives had solar panels on their houses and loudly objected to new taxes. Now the governor supports solar panels and wind power.  People must see a benefit to themselves.   Al Gore's "the sky is falling" approach did little good. It's time to take a more optimistic approach, and that includes me getting rid of my own pessimism.

RDF:  With younger Americans, high school students for example, would you recommend any curriculum changes that might effect less magical and more scientific thinking?

VS:   Parents who are science oriented must take an interest and work with their children, but only a small minority do so.    A larger problem is that many so-called educated people–such as lawyers in our Congress– don't understand science because most professional degrees do not require the broader education required of humanities majors.   In Hawaii, my wife, an English major, was required to take a couple of science courses and one math course.  When she taught English, she taught it correctly,  as a discipline, and demanded that students think critically, examine evidence, look at pros and cons.   That ability may be more important than scientific knowledge.

RDF:  Any other changes you would suggest?

VS:  Two more things I would like to see:  we should do away with the bachelor’s degree in education. Have every prospective teacher get a degree in a standard discipline, something fundamental, whatever they choose.  Then maybe colleges of education could provide a fifth year, where they learn the special things they need to teach children.  Then I would turn the teachers loose and let them do what they think is best within broad guidelines.  Don't control them; common core, national standards don't work; teachers don't know how to teach from them; it's a disaster.

RDF:  Dr. Stenger, Richard Dawkins has said that debating creationists gives them a forum they don't deserve.  You've said things that seem to agree with Richard, but yet I noticed you've debated a couple of them yourself.  Where do you draw the line between creationists who are/are not worth debating?

VS:  I discovered debating is a no-win situation:  you're giving attention to a lot of stuff that doesn't hold up under scrutiny; you could easily critique it but you don't have time, because debates are just a series of sound bites.  And then, when debating William Lane Craig, I had to listen to evangelical sermons about empty tombs.   So I've decided not to debate any more. Unlike a discussion during which people can ask questions, debating is not an honest intellectual exercise. It’s like a trial in which the goal is not to get to the truth but to win.

RDF:  I notice you recently published a piece with advice for potential atheist debaters.

VS:  I've seen a couple of debates during which inexperienced debaters didn't answer all questions posed by theists. So I tried to think of every point a theist would make.    In my piece, I tried to provide potential debaters with short sound-byte responses to every theist question. These aren't complete answers but that’s all you need in a debate.

RDF:  You’ve written critically about federal spending on scientific research   Given diminishing federal resources, where would the money best be spent? 

VS:  Except for the walk on the moon, which was a political necessity, I think the whole manned space program was a total waste of money.   But the robot telescopes have been remarkably successful. So spending money on that sort of thing is worthwhile because we're learning so much about the universe.  The Higgs boson discovery and experiments at the South Pole are producing great results; these are worthwhile expenditures. 

RDF:  When it comes to the multiverse theory, you've said it possible to use the cosmic background radiation map to detect other universes.  Could you explain how?

VS: When our bubble universe was formed, other bubbles may have been formed nearby and could have, by their gravitational attraction, affected an asymmetry on the map so that it wouldn’t be spherically symmetric.   There actually are some hints for that on the original WMAP (Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe) and more recent Planck telescope data. But they were at such low levels that scientists still need more data to confirm or rule out the possibility that a multiverse bubble originally near ours may be detected on the WMAP.

RDF:  The nature of consciousness is, as you’ve said, one of science’s unsolved mysteries.    Richard Dawkins has said himself that he would love to understand the nature of consciousness.  What's your take on consciousness?

VS:     I look for the simplest explanation because physics is really the simplest of all subjects; it reduces everything to a few elements.  I think consciousness is nothing fundamentally limited to neurons or any chemistry or physiology of the brain.  Any system of many particles could develop consciousness. Consciousness balances between simplicity and complexity and is a system that might be produced some day in the laboratory with a large number of silicon chips connected together, as many as we have in the brain, operating a million times faster than the brain operates.  From this consciousness would simply arise; it’s a property of a sufficiently complex system.

 

 

 

Written By: RDFRS

15 COMMENTS

  1. Always a pleasure to hear from Mr. Stenger. Some of his material is a little rough for me. But you don’t need to be a physicist to read most of his works. He explains things quite well in laymen’s terms. I recommend his books to anyone.

  2. As a teacher, I completely agree with the Mr. Stenger’s recommendation for a different teacher certification process. I have a bachelor’s degree in biology, and went back to school a few years later to obtain my teaching certificate. It is obvious to me that I am much better prepared to deliver my content than other teachers in the same field. As soon as I became a teacher, I thought of the same type of “5 year program” for teachers to become certified.

  3. 5/28/14

    …Good to see Dr. Stenger in a more palpable, progressive blog environment, as opposed to the now conservative Huffington Post.

    While I certainly do not agree with Dr. Stenger’s view on manned flight as “a waste of money”…let’s talk about the bottomless black pit of military and Defense Department spending before we condemn the pitiful pittance of NASA’s interminably micro-based budget…I do agree most sincerely that religious zealotry, or any orthodox mindset, will inevitably sabotage progressive thinking if it continues to gain a foothold in public consciousness.

    And I adamantly agree with Richard Dawkin’s position on not giving fanatics a platform of “legitimacy” (by default) if we continue to engage their mindless nonsense in public forums.

    Fight them in the courts, without a doubt, but don’t give them a bone to chew on every time they land their superstitious bird-droppings in cyberspace.

  4. A single subject degree might be beneficial for Fourth or Fifth Grade and up, but does a First Grade teacher really need a degree in History or Political Science? There’s nothing worse than a person with a degree in Math or Science, who ends up teaching First Grade. Their enthusiasm for their major becomes unrequited and they burn out quickly. Perhaps in the lower grades we should have education degrees with specialties in Math, English and Reading with each candidate required to focus in one of those areas.

    • In reply to #4 by mordacious1:

      A single subject degree might be beneficial for Fourth or Fifth Grade and up, but does a First Grade teacher really need a degree in History or Political Science? There’s nothing worse than a person with a degree in Math or Science, who ends up teaching First Grade. Their enthusiasm for their major…

      For the early grades a degree in something related to cognitive studies, especially related to young developing brains, seems like it would be appropriate. For teaching of early grades a specialized teaching degree makes sense. The problem isn’t that teaching degree programs are in principle a bad idea, at least for the younger grades, but that the teaching degree programs that have evolved in our education system aren’t any good.

      On a side note, at the high school I attended the majority of the math & science courses were taught by teachers that were retired from a professional career directly related to what they were teaching. Nearly all of these teachers were excellent. I didn’t really notice this until later going through university and seeing how well prepared I was. I don’t know if this reflected a conscious hiring policy or if it was merely the result of the school being located in an area heavy with tech industries. Whatever the cause, the results were such that I think it would be a good model to try.

  5. As with his books, Dr. Stenger is spot on. I especially applaud his idea of eliminating the colleges of Education. Teachers should have a real degree in a real subject which they will then be able to teach from a greater depth of understanding of the subject material. Current teacher’s college courses seem to be a huge waste of time and resources.

  6. I wholeheartedly agree with Dr. Stenger that spending our money on robotics to explore space is the way to go.
    The difficulty and dangers that are inherent in manned exploration drive up costs. Building into a space vehicle the life support and protection against the solar radiation is expensive and challenging. Bringing our astronauts back home after a mission is difficult and dangerous. If there were no alternative ways to do it, then perhaps we would have no choice. But that is not the case. Over the last few decades we have seen what robotic space vehicles are capable of and it is truly astonishing. Lets continue to use our money wisely and by doing so we are much more likely to have the support of the public, while getting the most ‘bang for the buck’.

  7. Dr Stenger is obviously a very wise man. And I agree with most of his suggestions. However, I am still waiting for his -or anybody’s- -answer to the question posed “* If you could do two or three things to make the American political system more responsive, what might you do?”*

    Is the problem -like in most “democracies”- that the power of lobbies is uncontrolled, and funding of parties/candidates through super PAcs etc,, decide the day ?

    • In reply to #10 by catphil:

      Dr Stenger is obviously a very wise man. And I agree with most of his suggestions. However, I am still waiting for his -or anybody’s- -answer to the question posed ” If you could do two or three things to make the American political system more responsive, what might you do?

      Here are a few suggestions, off the top of my head:

      1. Reverse the recent Supreme Court decisions that have held that (a) corporations are “people” with legal rights, (b) donating money to political campaigns is a form of “free speech” that all “people” can exercise and (c) “people” can donate as much money as they want to political campaigns. This might take a constitutional amendment to effectuate, but there are already some being proposed and worked on.

      2. Have all election campaigns funded from taxpayer money and give each candidate the same amount of money to use, with a maximum of how much other money can be spent regardless of the source of that money.

      3. Change the voting laws to require participation in primary voting as a prerequisite to voting in the general election. So few people vote in primaries compared to the general election that extreme candidates with extremely vocal supporters end up on the general ballot instead of more moderate candidates.

      4. Have laws in place preventing any public official from joining a lobbying firm after leaving office. That would remove the incentive to vote a certain way in hopes of being rewarded with a cushy job afterwards.

      • In reply to #11 by godzillatemple:

        In reply to #10 by catphil:

        Dr Stenger is obviously a very wise man. And I agree with most of his suggestions. However, I am still waiting for his -or anybody’s- -answer to the question posed ” If you could do two or three things to make the American political system more responsive, what might yo…

        I think those are great ideas except 3. Anyhting that can potentially exclude people from voting IMO is a bad idea. Iwould also add some kind of instant run off law or some other mechanism so that people can vote for their first but if the candidate isn’t in the top two finishers they can also specify a backup candidate, I.e., something to encourage more participation from candidates not from the two dominant parties.

        • In reply to #12 by Red Dog:

          I think those are great ideas except 3…

          Yeah, I know. I’m torn about it as well. I just wish there were some way to encourage more primary voting other than penalizing people for not doing so. I mean, it doesn’t matter if, say, 80% of all Republicans are moderates if the 20% who are extremists are the ones who decide who is on the ballot for the general election (and yes, I just made those numbers up to illustrate a point).

  8. RE: not debating fundamentalists. I agree that such debates are just sound-bite exercises. Maybe secularists should refuse to debate, but offer to participate in a discussion – maybe moderated, maybe not.

    • I prefer reading (or viewing) each side’s media releases instead of watching a realtime one-on-one debate or a moderated discussion. By doing so I have time to filter an advocate’s arguments through a critical watchlist of topics and techniques to separate the value of their positions from their skills in generating sexy sounding bites.

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