An Interview with Particle Physicist
Victor J. Stenger
by Cliff Walker

November 6, 1999

Introduction: While Cliff was setting up the recording device, Victor perused Cliff's copy of Patrick Glynn's 1997 book, God: The Evidence. Cliff had mentioned that he wanted to discuss the Anthropic Principle, as advocated in Glynn's book, and how Glynn's idea of the Anthropic Principle differs from two principles of the same name discussed in Stephen W. Hawking's 1988 book, A Brief History of Time. Cliff had also mentioned that he wanted to find out whether Glynn's use of physics to bolster his argument involves accepted ideas within the science of physics, or if Glynn was misrepresenting what physics says in making his case.

This is what was said between the time the recorder started functioning and the official beginning of the interview. We include this fragment because later discussions refer to what was discussed here. Also, at the time this discussion took place, Victor was clearly under the impression that the interview had already started; thus, we do not consider inclusion of this fragment an invasion of any sort.

Cliff Walker: Did you see the part I was talking about?

Victor Stenger: Yeah. I know which [Anthropic argument] your talking about.

Cliff Walker: It's different from the one that Stephen Hawking describes.

Victor Stenger: That issue hadn't really arisen when I wrote Not By Design, but I do discuss that in The Unconscious Quantum, in Chapter 8, and I've [since] gone a little further. That's basically what I will be talking about today, that argument, the Anthropic argument.

Cliff Walker: Oh, good! I covered it about six months ago [May, 1999: "Questions from a Protestant"], and I hadn't encountered anything about it yet (I hadn't read your book.) I read this book [Glynn's God: The Evidence], and I put some questions out to our e-mail list (there are a few physicists on our list), and nobody had heard the argument.

Victor Stenger: Well, I've written a bunch of stuff on this already. I have an article that I wrote for the National Center for Science Education's report, that came out a couple of years ago, now. I wrote a long article for the Skeptical Intelligencer, which is a British skeptics organization. (All of this stuff is on my Web page.) And I had a recent one in Skeptical Inquirer, in a special religion issue.

Cliff Walker: Was I thinking of one in Skeptic?

Victor Stenger: Actually, now that you mention it, I also wrote something for Skeptic on this. So I've written articles on this specific anthropic argument, and that's what the main subject of my talk is today. I will cover some of the other cosmological type arguments. I will basically be trying to explain to people what the argument is and how to counter it.

Cliff Walker: There's a fragment from Francis Crick's Autobiography floating around India and elsewhere titled, "How I Became Inclined Towards Atheism." What's your story?

Victor Stenger: Oh, wow! That's a good one!

It certainly was a gradual thing. I was raised as a Catholic in a town, Bayonne, New Jersey, just across the river from New York City. An immigrant neighborhood, everybody was Catholic -- certainly, everybody was religious (there were obviously some Jewish people, but not too many Protestants). Although I went to public school, I went through the whole process of Catechism, and so on, and getting Communion. I had to go to church every Sunday, but just sitting there listening to sermon after sermon never convinced me. By the time I went to college I had pretty much split from being a Catholic.

After I graduated from college in the east, I went west. I went to U.C.L.A., to graduate school in physics. Interestingly enough, I started going to a church there, a big Methodist church that's right on Wilshire Boulevard there in Los Angeles, one of the big central churches there -- mainly because it was a nice place to meet young ladies and sing in the choir, and things of that sort. I actually had some good discussions with the ministers there. It was a very liberal church, a kind of liberal Protestantism you don't hear of any more. It's pretty much faded out of existence.

Cliff Walker: I think it's still around, they just leave us alone.

Victor Stenger: (Laughs) I actually didn't have too much of a problem with that. But then when I graduated from U.C.L.A. I moved to Hawaii, and didn't pursue any religious interests. Although my wife and I did send our children to private schools that had religious connections. Again, it was something that just didn't bother us much. It didn't make them religious. They ended up just as much nonbelievers as I am.

My wife is (this is an interesting story, too), my wife was always a nonbeliever. She tells a story about a time she was a child and there was a big lightning storm going on outside her house. (She grew up in Canada; this was up in the woods some place.) There was this big lightning storm, and she had her nose pressed to the window, and she said, "God, if you exist, show me a sign!" At just that instant there a tremendous flash of lightning.

And she said, "You know, I still didn't believe." (Laughs) It hadn't convinced her.

So our family, in other words, never took this up. Although, I was not a person who was out there getting into big fights and arguments about it.

Then toward around 1986 or so I got involved in some skeptical things. There were some psychics doing things on campus, at the University of Hawaii, that I wasn't too happy with. They were claiming they could train you in psychic abilities, and so on. So I kicked up a bit of a fuss about that, and that led to one thing after another.

Cliff Walker: Is that the football team incident you mentioned in your book?

Victor Stenger: No, this was actually before this. This was a fellow named Garith Pendragon. What happened is that he sued us. He sued me and bunch of other people, and that got me into the business of being an active skeptic. (You may know that I got sued by Uri Geller -- three times! All these suits turned out okay; I never had to pay a cent and he's had to pay quite a bit!) But this made me increasingly militant in my skepticism.

Then I started looking more and more into these science and religion issues, and I said, "Hey, that's right up my alley!" I'm a physicist, and I also know a lot about astronomy and cosmology, and I could see what was wrong with many of these arguments. They just did not hold water. The physicist and astronomers who were aware of this were not speaking up. They were just letting the theists have their way on these issues.

So, I began to carve out a little niche for myself, not only in a science and religion interface, but also in physics and the interface with psychic phenomena. That was another place where physicists were involved, but they were really not the mainstream of physicists. The mainstream physicists were just saying, "Oh, this is nonsense!" but they weren't doing anything about it. They weren't speaking out against it. So I became the one physicist who started to write and speak out about it.

Now, I might say, there are more. The American Physical Society has begun to take a much greater interest in these matters, because it realizes that science has something to say. When people start using science to argue for their specific beliefs and delusions, to try to try to claim that they're supported by science, then scientists at least have to speak up, and say, "You're welcome to your delusions, but don't say that they're supported by science."

That's been my main theme, just looking at the scientific end of it (that's been my expertise), and seeing what arguments hold water, and if they don't, saying so.

Cliff Walker: I spoke with Dr. M. Reza Ghadiri, who has perfected self-replicating molecules, and one of the things I brought up was the situation in Kansas, Tennessee, Illinois, and thankfully not Colorado -- what's that young girl's name, Emile --

Victor Stenger: Emile Rosa! New Mexico, recently, turned back the tide, too. They did a very impressive job. There was a bunch of scientists in New Mexico who were able to get to the education board and to convince them not only not to take evolution out of the schools, but to insist that it be taught in the schools. Otherwise, science students will not be getting the education in science that they need.

Cliff Walker: One study says 45 percent, one study says 46 percent, and one says 47 percent of Americans can be described as young-earth creationists. Is this a wake-up call for us? Or do we continue to let people be entitled to their opinions, as Dr. Ghadiri insisted that we do?

Victor Stenger: Well, people are entitled to their opinions, but when the opinion is in disagreement with the data -- with the facts -- when that opinion does not stand up under critical or rational scrutiny, I think we have a right to point that out. We shouldn't be stepping on anybody's toes when we do that. If they're going to be spouting off nonsense, then we should say that -- not as a matter of opinion, but as a matter of scientific fact. When someone says science says something, and science doesn't say something ("It doesn't say that! That's a misrepresentation of what science says."), then I think we can state that. And if it ruffles some feathers, so what? I just don't see the basis for arguing that creationism has equal standing with evolution.

Cliff Walker: Do you think scientists need to speak out? and-or do you think science itself may need a branch that is more like a spokesperson?

Victor Stenger: I think scientists tend to say, "Leave me alone. I want to do my own work. This is not something I want to spend my time on." It's sort of a bottomless pit. So they tend to stay away from it.

Although I think it's interesting to note that there have been some recent surveys of scientists in the U.S., and their beliefs, and how their beliefs have changed over the years. (Actually, they haven't changed; that's what the survey revealed.) While something like 90 percent or more of the American people believe in God, that percentage is about 40 percent for all scientists and mathematicians. When you get down to physicists and astronomers, it's only 20 percent. I think for biologists it's even less, I'm not sure what the exact figure for biologists --

Cliff Walker: I think its five or six.

Victor Stenger: Yeah, a very low percentage for biologists.

And the other interesting figure is that they did a survey of the National Academy of Sciences which, of course, contains the top scientists in the country, and asked them specifically about a personal god (there are a lot of concepts of God that people talk about, they talk about Spinoza's god, associating "God" with the order of nature, and so fourth) but the personal god, the god that you can pray to and that takes a role in your life, that kind of god, only about seven percent of the members of the National Academy of Sciences believe in that kind of a god.

I remember (I forget who it was now) but there was some Representative who, on the House floor, was absolutely furious about that, but what could he do about it? What's he going to do, pass a bill saying that you can't be a member of the Academy unless you state a belief in a personal god? It's not the Boy Scouts! It's the National Academy of Sciences.

Cliff Walker: (Facetiously) So, is this some kind of atheist conspiracy, or something?

Victor Stenger: (Laughing) Where -- where's the conspiracy among a small group of people? It's just a small fraction of the total American public. But that points out that there is a strong disagreement between scientists and the community -- at least in the U.S. Remember, we're talking about the U.S. In other countries (except, perhaps, Iran and a few countries like that) there isn't this widespread fundamentalist belief in God, and what the Scriptures say, and interpret that as fact.

But in our country, we seem to have this aberration, almost. And it's rather strange because we're the one country that has benefitted, more than any country, from technology, from the fruits of science. And, of course, our science is the best in the world. Well, our high schools and our grade schools aren't so good. The undergraduate colleges are starting to look like high schools, now, dumbing down everything. But our graduate schools are still good, and our research is still good, and the majority of the Nobel Prizes are still coming to Americans. And so we have this tremendous science going on. It's supported well. And, of course, we have the industries that take what science gives them and develop all these wonders of technology.

And yet, the people who, on the one hand, are very rich because of that, don't like what science is telling them about the world. They like what science does for them, but they don't like what science tells them about reality. They haven't since the time of Galileo, from the time that the Earth was no longer the center of the Universe. People want to be at the center of the Universe. I think that's what you get from that, and they're going to flock to anybody who tells them that.

What we have now (and this is the whole point of this new claim of the convergence of science and religion) is that some scientists and theologians and philosophers who are theistically inclined are trying to tell us that there is a message out there in the Universe. There is evidence of design to the Universe. Religion was right after all. Of course, that's a very popular notion now, because people can have the best of both worlds: they can have the fruits of technology, and they can also say, "Yeah! Science has been telling me that I'm the center of the Universe after all!" They'll buy that any day!

If I wanted to make a lot of money (Well, I do want to make a lot of money!), but if I sacrificed my principles, I could write a book that would make me a lot of money saying just that, because that's what people want to hear. They don't want to hear what I'm telling them!

Cliff Walker: The largest fraction of the letters I get are about ethics and morals: Can atheists have morals? Where do we get our morals from? The second largest fraction is about origins.

In Not By Design you make what I found to be an astonishing statement that the Big Bang did not need any energy in order to start. Would you go over that with us?

Victor Stenger: There are two things that people say. The one is, "How can you get something for nothing?" and the other one is (and they wave around), "How could all this have happened by chance?"

If you translate these two statements into physics statements, the first one is, "How could you get energy?" The Universe contains energy and matter, and you have a law of physics called the Conservation of Energy (it's also called the First Law of Thermodynamics), and that appears to have been violated (or so these think it was violated) at the origin of the Universe.

Well, if you look and you ask yourself (from observations of the Universe), "What is the total energy of the Universe?" It turns out, that, as far as we can tell, it's zero.

Cliff Walker: Have we found the WIMPs yet? [WIMPS: Weak Interacting Massive Particles, not yet observed, that may constitute the major component of the matter of the Universe.]

Victor Stenger: No. But even if we find those, it's not going to change this picture. Even though we can't see this dark matter (that you're referring to), we know its gravitational effect.

Every measurement that we make indicates that the total energy of the Universe is balanced between the rest energy that's in the matter, the kinetic energy that's in the motion of objects, and then this is balanced by a negative potential energy of gravity. And the total energy is very close to zero. So, if the total energy is zero, and if you had zero energy to begin with, there was no violation of energy conservation. There was no miracle that created energy at the beginning of the Universe (other than, perhaps, a little quantum fluctuation that is, again, in agreement with existing knowledge, and so would not be a miracle).

Then you have the Second Law, which says that, "Where did the order come from? If you started out from complete disorder, how could you develop order from that? because the Second Law of Thermodynamics says that the Universe is always moving toward a state of increasing disorder, what is called entropy (which for our purposes is the same thing as disorder).

This actually was a legitimate question a hundred years ago, when we thought that the Universe was a firmament, but now we know that the Universe is expanding. An expanding universe leaves increasingly more space for order to form.

An example I like to give on this, is, suppose that you have a very small yard, and every day you take your rubbish and you dump the rubbish into the yard. Eventually it's going to cover up those petunias that you plotted over there your garden, and your yard is going to become very disordered. How can you, then, get some more petunias growing? Well, what you can do is buy the land around your yard. Then you have more space and you can plant some petunias. As time goes on, of course, you keep dumping the rubbish and it fill up the space, you've got to keep buying more and more land. But, in principle, you can do it that way; you can always have some space left over. As long as the Universe continue to expand, in other words, there's always room for more order to form.

So neither of these two principles of physics, the First and Second Laws of Thermodynamics were violated were violated in the process of producing the Universe.

Cliff Walker: I think you were saying that the Universe was expanding faster than entropy can happen.

Victor Stenger: Yes, and we generate entropy. The amount of order in the Universe is very small. Because we live in this tiny little pocket of order over here on the Earth, we tend to think that it's a very organized place. But, in fact, it's mostly random.

If you take the particles, for example, and just count the particles in the Universe, and you have the protons and the neutrons and the electrons, that make up the atoms, that make up the molecules, that make up the stars and planets and galaxies, and all that stuff that we see and that we're part of, that's only one part in a billion of all the particles in the Universe. Most of the particles are photons (particles of light) and neutrinos. These are remnants of the Big Bang. They're at three degrees above absolute zero, and almost -- but not quite -- at complete equilibrium.

About ten years ago there was an experiment, a satellite experiment (the COBE satellite, that, I'm sure, people read about) that [found] a one part in a hundred thousand deviation from smoothness in this background. And interestingly enough, that was exactly the amount that was predicted by the Inflationary Big Bang Theory (which I'm using when I talk about scenarios of the Universe coming about by chance).

Everything sort of fell together with that. But, the point being -- still -- is that most of the Universe is of these photons and neutrinos, and they are mostly just moving around randomly, and only one part in a hundred thousand of those shows any deviation from just being a completely smooth thing.

So what we have is a universe that's mostly chaos, that's mostly random motion, and here and there are little, tiny, tiny, tiny, little pockets of order. And so they get organized and they kick out their entropy to the rest of the universe, and it hardly notices the amount that we pump out. The Earth, for example sends out entropy -- radiation from the Earth. Infrared radiation from the Earth adds entropy to the Universe. And the Universe doesn't even notice it.

Cliff Walker: Is it proper to speak about a beginning -- or -- what does Stephen Hawking mean when he says that the Big Bang has no boundary? (And that's just a suggestion on his part.)

Victor Stenger: He is talking about a specific idea of his (and of others, I'm sure), that the universe is sort of like a closed sphere. A good example would be, we think of the surface of the Earth, but think now of the surface being two-dimensional. Well, you know that our picture of space and time (time is one of the dimensions), of a four-dimensional space-time structure, underlies things. Well, let's just think about one dimension of space and one dimension of time, and imagine the space being the longitude (around the sphere, a point on the surface of the Earth), and then the time would be the polar angle, the co-latitude (the latitude is measured up from the equator, imagine measuring time down from the poles along a line of longitude). Then you would have a point in space-time defined by a point on this sphere.

Then, as you go back along that line of longitude to time t=0, you go to the pole. Well, then you continue back along another t line, you see that it's not really a boundary, it's not the end of things, it's just one particular point on a sphere that you've defined as t=0. It's not an end. It's not a boundary. That's the boundary-free view of the Universe, but that's just his particular model that he would like to see develop into something.

Cliff Walker: I'd like to hear about your model, but I see we're running out of time.

Victor Stenger: The alternative to all this -- remember, Hawking is not a particle physicist (although he talks a lot about particle physics in his book), he comes from the more traditional kind of cosmology, that comes through gravitational studies and General Relativity. The Inflationary Big Bang Theory came out of particle physics, so he has a different perspective on this. He brings things from that perspective, and the Inflationary Big Bang that I talk about, that I think is much more --

Cliff Walker: Could you run over that, briefly, with us?

Victor Stenger: The idea is that there is a vast, super-universe out there, and ours is just one: it's a multi-universe or multi-verse. It's just, basically nothing.

Cliff Walker: Are you talking along the lines of a larger system?

Victor Stenger: Yeah. Then our universe occurs as just a quantum fluctuation, a bubble of what's called false vacuum in this true vacuum, and that expands into our universe, and these bubbles are going off all over the place making other universes. The inflationary part is the early part of our universe, where it expands very rapidly -- all these processes that I've talked about, that generate the first particles (and forces get developed) -- all during those very early stages of the Big Bang. That theory is, of course, still tentative, and could eventually be shown to be incorrect, but it's been around now for close to twenty years. And as I've said, it's made some successful predictions, and provides, really, the only explanation for an awful lot of observations that we make about the Universe.

Cliff Walker: Can we peer into beyond that point of the Big Bang?

Victor Stenger: Only with our equations, you see, we can't see beyond our own universe. That's where it becomes speculation, rather than actual physics; that's where the theists get into the picture. They say, "Well, you're just speculating, you're not doing science."

Cliff Walker: One guy wanted me to ask you if it was faith.

Victor Stenger: Well, I don't think that it is. Faith is when you believe something that nobody in his right mind would believe. That's faith! [Laughs]

Cliff Walker: Well, they would dispute that!

Victor Stenger: Belief is, I think, different from faith. I think one can believe in science, and believe in the message of science, without saying that that is faith. If you're a scientist, and if you're a true scientist, you will always accept the possibility that it could change. So, you just have to rely on the data -- what the data tell you. What I'm talking about today is what the data tell us; when the data tell us something different, we'll have to change our minds about it. You always have to leave yourself open to that possibility.

  • Cliff Walker: I heard a lecture at United States Atheists last year, and I got a letter from Brazil this year [Is the Big-Bang a Religious Hoax? by Huascar Terra do Valle] -- you must have encountered this one: Atheists who think that the Big Bang is a creationist hoax.
  • Victor Stenger: Well, you know, there are still some people out there who think that the Big Bang is not solidly verified. What happened was the Big Bang, actually, was picked up by the theists, who say, "See? That's what the Bible was telling us all along!" Of course, not just the Bible, practically every religion that has ever existed has a creation myth of some sort that talks about creation out of nothing. There's certainly nothing in the Bible that looks even remotely like the Big Bang: the Earth is created before the sun and the stars in the Bible, so I don't know how you can say that resembles the Big Bang!

    But this is, again, something that they began throwing around. "Aha! You see? People that are opposing the Big Bang, they're opposing it because they're really atheists, and the Big Bang is showing us that the Bible was right all along." Well, there are an awful lot of atheist who look at the Big Bang as a well-established theory.

    We have to leave open the possibility that it could be wrong, but it doesn't look very -- every year that goes by, and more astronomical data comes in, it's more and more consistent with at least the general Big Bang picture.

    Cliff Walker: It sounded enticing until I realized that the presentation that they're making is the same kind of reasoning that the anti-evolutionist use. They're using the associations -- this group of scientists' associations, the history of that dogma and who supported it -- to argue against the model.

    Victor Stenger: There was a real terrible book that came out about ten years ago called, The Big Bang Never Happened by a guy by the name of [Eric J.] Lerner. He tried to make this argument in there, because he was promoting a different model of the Universe, a sort of steady-state model. He was trying to say that the only reason why scientists are believing in this Big Bang is because of religion, you see (he was very anti-religion as well). But that book was just absolutely awful; it just did not have any basis. While it was on the bookshelves for a while, I think it was shot down by many people, not just me.