God and the Multiverse: Humanity’s Expanding View of the Cosmos, by Victor J. Stenger

Virginia Trimble on a book that aims to explain the universe and its contents in terms of natural processes

October 9, 2014

Je n’avais pas besoin de cette hypothèse-là,” French mathematician Pierre-Simon Laplace supposedly said to Napoleon in 1799, when asked why his treatise Mécanique Céleste had no mention of a Creator. The late physicist Victor Stenger (who died at age 79 shortly before this book’s publication) says that the exchange may never have happened, but there is no doubt whatever that Stenger himself had no need of that hypothesis. God and the Multiverse is his 13th book, and it is partly intended to convince readers that they don’t need it either, because the universe and its contents can all be explained in terms of natural processes. He argues that phenomena we don’t currently understand very well, from the expansion rate of the universe to the existence of consciousness, will eventually also come under the laws of physics (etc).

I think he may well be right in his conclusion. Indeed, I am a third-generation atheist (my Grandmother Farmer’s story is available upon request), but if anything in the world could cause me to rethink that position, it would be books such as Stenger’s. Two aspects of the volume are particularly off-putting. First is the derogatory tone in which readers are told that some ways in which observed objects and processes can be explained are “technical and require adequate training to understand”. And Martha Betts Shapley is said to have “dabbled in astronomy”. She was actually an expert on eclipsing binary stars, admittedly not one of Stenger’s territories.

The second is the enormous number of errors throughout the book, starting with chapters 1-12, which contain a fairly standard history of astronomy, from Thales and Anaximander to strong evidence for a Big Bang (hot, dense phase of history about 13.8 billion years ago) and the realisation that many of the remaining puzzles could be dealt with by a brief epoch of exponential expansion, called inflation, and preceding the Big Bang. Take your pick of these errors and their corrections: the primary problem with refracting (lens-based) telescopes is chromatic aberration, not spherical aberration. The recognition that the universe is much larger than a few light years came long before the first galactic redshifts were measured. There is no evidence that William Thomson, Baron Kelvin (for whom the Kelvin scale is named), engaged in “mutual fudging” to find comparable (though wrong) ages for the Earth and Sun. And those are just from pages 96 and 97, which also place a third – imaginary – 36in telescope at Lick Observatory.

My favourite bit of sheer nonsense is that “a record of Copernicus’s contribution to the Gregorian calendar has not survived”. Well, no. The main astronomical contributor to the 1582 calendric revision was Christopher Clavius, a firm anti-Copernican. Nor does measuring the length of the year accurately depend on whether we orbit the Sun or conversely. Like the proverbial clock striking 13, such blunders make one wary of statements on topics one knows less about.

The last four chapters move into more speculative territory, including interpretations of quantum mechanics, the origins and frequency of life in our universe, and several versions of the multiverse concept (whole separate space-times, with little or no communication possible). Again, these are declared to be comprehensible, perhaps even predicted, by known or very likely physical principles. And again I don’t disagree, but to be told “you should not give up all your worldly goods and enter a monastery or convent because the cosmological constant is so small” is not helpful.

Stenger has some interesting things to say, including more than is usual in astronomy books about the philosophical, theological and religious opinions of the people in his story – Newton, Galileo, Leibniz, Kant and many others. My take-home fact is that Edward Arthur Milne (1896-1950), whose unconventional, non-Einsteinian cosmology was partly predicated on a non-standard theology, was the brother of A. A. Milne, author of Winnie-the-Pooh. “Art in the blood”, Sherlock Holmes (himself a sort of deist) said, “is likely to take the strangest forms.”

I very much doubt that this book will change anyone’s opinions, at least in the direction Stenger seems to have wanted. The same can be said for political polemics, but this doesn’t stop people from writing them.

God and the Multiverse: Humanity’s Expanding View of the Cosmos

By Victor J. Stenger
Prometheus, 447pp, £19.99
ISBN 9781616149703
Published 9 September 2014

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