Alternative MedicineReligion and SpiritualityScienceSkepticism

Vic Stenger on God: The Failed Hypothesis

Today I got my copy of the New York Times Bestseller, God: The Failed Hypothesis (How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist) signed by Victor J. Stenger himself.

Victor J. Stenger saying what Im about to say in this post with different wording.

Victor J. Stenger saying what I'm about to say in this post with different wording.

I had good fun meeting the believers, non-believers, and simply open-minded-on-the-fencers who came out to see his talk. But, I feel the need to pass on to you something he said at the beginning of his talk, a conclusion which I had come to on my own as well as a skeptic.

Now, y’all know that I have said several times on this blog that I believe that believers in God are just as capable of skeptical thinking as any non-believer, but admittedly I get annoyed when certain people in and out of the skeptical community claim that science and skepticism have nothing whatsoever to do with God’s existence or non-existence.

Well, I’ll start by making an analogy, and being half-Chinese it’s based on and old, antiquated idea that I grew up with.


Certain acupuncturists claim that because chi is something they’ve defined as unknowable by science, “western” science can’t meddle with “eastern” medicine (I await the day that the Chinese claim that the Eastern hemisphere isn’t actually a hemisphere because “western” science doesn’t work in the east).

But at the same time, chi is supposed to be the force that makes acupuncture (the practice of sticking needles in certain points on the body cure disease) work.

I’m perfectly fine with supernatural things that science can’t prove the existence of. Just because you can’t prove it exists doesn’t give me any reason to believe in it, though. I can imagine a giant, pink, bioluminescent jelly fish with bat wings that exists outside the space-time continuum which you can’t prove the existence of with science, but that doesn’t mean I believe in it.

But here’s the problem… if something is supernatural and it has some sort of effect on the natural world like, say, curing diseases, answering prayers, keeping us safe from danger (etc.), oops… it left physical evidence.

Acupuncturists fail when they both claim that chi is what makes acupuncture work and that you can’t prove its existence with science because you can prove or disprove the efficacy of acupuncture.

Easy, it works something like this study:

It took 1200 people, with an average of 8 years back pain each: we can assume not been helped by biomedical treatments. They were split into three groups: one group had medical treatment; one group had proper, real, bells and whistles, needles in the “meridiens” acupuncture; and one group were treated with pretend acupuncture.

This way you have something to compare the acupuncture treatment to.

What happened?

The results were fascinating: they set a threshold for “improved” (which was either a 33% improvement in 3 aspects of one score, or 12% improvement on another measuring scale). They found that people having acupuncture were almost twice as likely to reach this level of improvement in back pain as people on medical treatment (which had already let them down for 8 years of course). But even more interestingly, the pretend acupuncture group, where they just bunged needles in any old place with a bit of ceremony, did just as well as the people having proper, posh, theatrical, genuine acupuncture.

Lo and behold, acupuncture has some efficacy but it doesn’t matter at all where you stick the needles. So much for the “12 Meridians of Chi”. It seems that what’s actually going on is not the redirection of some sort of invisible energy but the release of endorphines, an effect similar to when you stub your toe while having a headache and you feel less pain from the headache for a little while.

Meh, Chi might still be out there somewhere but it definitely doesn’t seem to affect my life any more than the giant, pink, bioluminescent jelly fish with bat wings so I don’t think I’ll worry about it much.

But see, I know it looks like I’ve just gone off on a tangent about something completely unrelated (and it definitely feels like it because I’ve nearly forgotten what the purpose of this post was in the first place besides bashing beliefs people of my ethnicity often cling to due to some sort of nationalistic-pride-thing), but the same goes for God. You can go on all you want about how God is unknowable by science but the second you postulate something that would affect the physical world in such a way that would leave evidence (answering prayers, creating life, making the universe so its perfect for human life) your idea is now exposed to the cold examination of science.

If anybody can give me a piece of empirical, scientifically verifiable evidence that there is such a force meddling in our affairs I’d be very interested to know about it. I don’t believe in a god, but I acknowledge the possibility. Skeptics have to have an open mind, after all. If you don’t have it, though, I’m going to be with Vic on this one and continue with my life on the assumption that there is no God.

Oh! But I’m leaving something out!

The deist god.

The deist god is basically a god who creates the universe, then goes lie down in a lounge chair or something, has a glass of iced tea, and ignores human affairs for an eternity. The deist god is basically the wad of chewed gum that people attempt to stuff in the hole of our current ignorance about the origin of the universe.

When asked about this Vic said that he agreed that you can’t prove or disprove it. Heck, the deist god is probably the most probable god I can think of since it would make the most sense.

But you can’t prove or disprove my giant, pink, bioluminescent jelly fish with bat wings that exists out of space-time either.

Science doesn’t have the answer to everything, but those gaps in our knowledge aren’t any more likely to be filled with the traditional idea of some dude/dudette/it up in the sky pulling strings and affecting our lives than those gaps are to be filled with unicorns, faeries, elves, or gnomes (wouldn’t it be cool if Stephen Hawking were a gnome?).

Science can’t know everything, but let’s stop pretending that just because a belief is held near-and-dear by loads of people science should just wordlessly pass over it. My Chinese family happens to get very defensive whenever I challenge them on some of their antiquated ideas.

Chinese nationalism might as well be considered a religion. They care about those ideas just as much as any Christian that I know, but for some reason skeptics let loose all of their arsenal on Chinese medicine while a few of us continue to insist science shouldn’t say squat about religion.

My mum (mum, I love you but it needs to be said) sometimes holds a double-standard on some of the blog posts that I write. I can criticise virtually any pseudoscience, any aspect of society, or the United States government and she’ll praise my writing, but when I write something that criticises her deeply held beliefs about Chinese medicine or the Chinese governement suddenly I’m “too young to understand it.”

Well, since she’s my parent she gets to hold double-standards when it comes to me, but please… I expect more from the skeptical community. Don’t let me down.

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  1. November 10, 2008 at 11:58 pm —


  2. November 11, 2008 at 9:19 am —

    Well put. Although your cephalo-god sounds like something that crawled gasping from the Pharyngula boards. =)

  3. November 11, 2008 at 11:35 am —

    Right, but jelly fishes aren’t cephalopods. Cephalopods are in mollusca. Jelly fishes are in cnidaria.

  4. November 11, 2008 at 11:41 am —

    *sigh* My shaky grasp of taxonomy fails once again. All hail the giant pink jelly.

  5. Joy Wang
    November 11, 2008 at 5:23 pm —

    Now, if only there was a stuffed animal of that wonderful avian-cnidarian hybrid…

    Yes, Elles, I’d imagine you’d be first, seeing as you, y’know, wrote the post… Hmm. Maybe we should replace the word first with something akin to “I am a creationist” or something like that…

  6. November 12, 2008 at 12:58 pm —

    I was about to say Cnidaria was a really cool name… but then I looked it up and found the pronounciation. Meh.

  7. Dread Polack
    November 14, 2008 at 1:14 pm —

    Excellent post. However, I’m curious: is there a story behind the new pic?

  8. November 14, 2008 at 11:10 pm —

    Heh, I am in a Korean family, and Koreans like my parents believe in the same thing. I tried, of course. ^_^ The thing about confusing correlation with causation, though… It is very convincing.

  9. November 14, 2008 at 11:11 pm —

    By the way, I am Korean too, in case I made the wrong impression. I just don’t follow some of their culture.

  10. November 15, 2008 at 9:56 pm —

    @Dread Polack

    Haha, no. Not really. There’s just a website that lets you paste you face onto old yearbook photos so that you know what fashions you’d probably have been using in that year. I thought my picture came out pretty epic.

  11. Dread Polack
    November 15, 2008 at 10:52 pm —

    I concur 🙂 You have a link?

  12. November 15, 2008 at 11:19 pm —

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