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