No. 118 (essentialsaltes) wrote,
No. 118

Antony Flew's There Is A God

I need to work on my blogging freebies. aaronjv writes about cocktails and gets free bottles of booze, whereas I get free books of religious apologetics. Ah well, at least Aaron shares some of his freebies.
Anyway, in this thread on Crosswalk, menendez7 kindly offered me a copy of Antony Flew's There Is No A God, and I offered to read and review it. (He also sent me a copy of Behe's Edge of Evolution, which I'll get to anon. So far I've learned a lot about malaria.)

Short Version:
Antony Flew was an eminent atheist philosopher, who has now become a deist, because:
*Science hasn't answered every question.
*The name for the answer to at least one of those remaining questions is "God".

My short response:
I have no need for that hypothesis.

Just to get this out of the way, I've mentioned this book before. Although Flew didn't write the book, he apparently stands behind it, so I can still review the book on its merits. If you like, you can imagine scare quotes around 'Flew' wherever he's mentioned.

Varghese's preface sets the stage a little, and bashes Dawkins (and Sagan and Asimov) a bit.

The first half of the book is closer to an intellectual autobiography of Flew. A few things struck me while reading it...
When he goes to Oxford, I think it's interesting that he says he would have preferred philosopher and psychical researcher Henry Price as tutor. Evidently Flew shares Price's interest in psychic research.
He refers to a few bits of his own earlier atheistical works that make good points:
"Until and unless we have a genuine, coherent, and applicable concept [of God], the question of whether such a being exists cannot properly arise. In other words, we cannot begin to discuss reasons for believing that a specific sort of God exists until we establish how to identify the God we mean to discuss."
"The presumption of atheism can be justified by the inescapable demand for grounds. To believe there is a God, we have to have good grounds for the belief. But if no such grounds are provided, there exists no sufficient reason for believing in God, and the only reasonable position is to be a negative atheist or an agnostic"
As I said, I'm not much of a philosopher, but Flew also writes a long section on free will (which he supports, in contrast to determinism) that seems to just completely beg the question. He may not be wrong, but he's certainly not convincing.

The second half of the book is more focused on what changed his mind to accept deism, so my commentary will now get commentatious. (And if I were to put on my literary sleuth hat, around this point in the book, where it switches from historical to polemical, one chapter starts with a long baseball metaphor. This and other changes in the writing style strike me as the obvious break between Flew and 'Flew'.) In discussing the possibility of life arising without a 'creative intelligence,' Flew brings up what he calls the "monkey theorem," which he says has been disproved by Schroeder. But the thing missing from the discussion is that it is the infinite monkey theorem. Schroeder neatly disproves the finite monkey theorem, but since no one anywhere thinks that the finite monkey theorem is true, that's not much of a success. This may be small potatoes, but Flew presents the monkey theorem as something that "the world" believes, but that is a "load of rubbish". The actual infinite monkey theorem is indeed believed, because it is true. The failure of a strawman finite monkey theorem is irrelevant.

Speaking of Dawkins, Flew says "Although I have commended his atheist works, I have always been a critic of his selfish-gene school of thought." This is extraordinary, since I have the opposite reaction. Dawkins' science is commendable, but his atheistic apologetics are rather slipshod. There is an interesting parallelism between Flew and Dawkins. Dawkins essentially says: Evolution explains life, therefore God is not necessary, therefore God does not exist.
Flew essentially will say: Science hasn't explained everything, therefore science is not sufficient, therefore there is a non-science explanation and its name is "God".
I don't find either of those arguments compelling.

Flew makes a strawman of Dawkins: "[Dawkins insists that since] we are all the choiceless creatures of our genes ... we cannot help but share the unlovely personal characteristics of those all-controlling monads." This makes Dawkins out to be a pure genetic determinist, which is just wrong as Dawkins makes abundantly clear in Genes Aren't Us. Not only does environment contribute something to the genes, but Dawkins also explicitly denies that humans must be selfish like our genes. Indeed, he much prefers the opposite. From the introduction to The Selfish Gene: "I am not saying how we humans morally ought to behave. I stress this because I know I am in danger of being misunderstood by those people, all too numerous, who cannot distinguish a statement of belief in what is the case from an advocacy of what ought to be the case. My own feeling is that a human society based simply on the gene’s law of universal ruthless selfishness would be a very nasty society in which to live."
Flew has not only misunderstood Dawkins, but he then crams this misunderstanding back in Dawkins' mouth.

"Defenders of Ptolemy's geocentric model of the solar system resisted Copernicus' heliocentric model by using the concept of epicycles to explain away observations of planetary motion that conflicted with their model."
Okay, maybe this is another minor point, but I think it shows that Flew doesn't merely make a poor historian of science, but he possibly doesn't have a good grasp of what science is. Epicycles preceded Copernicus by more than a thousand years. Indeed, epicycles existed before Ptolemy was born.
Epicycles do not "explain away" observations. Observations don't go away when you wave an epicycle at them. Epicycles are a hypothesis used to explain observations. Yes, observations conflict with naive geocentrism with circular orbits. That's why the Ptolemaic system is not naive, but includes epicycles to better explain the observations, long before there was any Copernicus to "resist".
Yes, ultimately the Ptolemaic system has been rejected, but the epicycle is an example of science (or protoscience) done right, not an example of scientific theories trumping evidence, as Flew tries to make it out to be.

Flew asks "my former fellow-atheists the simple central question: 'What would have to occur or to have occured to constitute for you a reason to at least consider the existence of a superior Mind?'"

Nothing has to occur. I am considering it. I'm not obliged to automatically believe it, of course. If I run across a convincing argument, I'll be convinced.

"In 2004 I said that the origin of life cannot be explained if you start with matter alone. My critics responded by triumphantly announcing that I had not read a particular paper in a scientific journal or followed a brand-new development relating to abiogenesis ... In doing so, they missed the whole point. My concern was not with this or that fact of chemistry or genetics, but the fundamental question ... And, at the risk of sounding immodest, I must say that this is properly the job of philosophers, not of the scientists as scientists."

It certainly does sound immodest to suggest that abiogenesis is essentially NOT a scientific question, that Flew has already answered the question (it's impossible), and that Flew doesn't need to examine the scientific evidence because it would be irrelevant (after all, he already knows the answer). Wow, is this the same guy who, 4 pages ago, was complaining about preconceived theories "explaining away" evidence?

Okay, we're about to get into the imponderables. Flew asks "Who wrote the laws of nature?" Flew is quite correct that we see order in the universe. For instance, there is a Kumquat Falling Law: When you drop a kumquat, it falls. Who wrote that law? Well, looking back a sentence or two, I see that I wrote it. And I'm willing to bet that I'm the first to write it. We don't expect to actually find the KFL written on kumquats or on the fabric of space-time. As Flew later says, we do not directly observe the laws of nature. So the correct answer to 'Who wrote the KFL?' is me. The same is true of all other scientific theories (er, not that I wrote them, but that some human wrote them). Case closed.
Okay, I won't let myself off that easily. Although the law is a human invention, the order that is described by the law is not. So what is the source of the order?

I don't know. I'm not entirely sure the question needs to have an answer. Certainly not everything is orderly. There is no Law of Rainfall that says that it rains every Thursday, or Law of Eggs that says that they all have a mass of exactly 60 grams. So the number of things that are really orderly is limited. And is it even conceivable that there could be NO order?
You drop a kumquat and it falls,
You drop a second one and it flies up
You reach for a third one, but it collapses into a black hole that shoots mint-flavored rainbows into your heart. Before you can even reach for the fourth one, your left leg turns into a lawnmower and your brain teleports to Sandusky, Ohio.
It seems to me that a universe of complete chaos can't really be coherently imagined, thus some natural order must exist naturally, without need for an Orderer.
But maybe I'm wrong; in which case, the answer to "What is the source of the order?" is "I don't know."

Getting back to Flew, he approvingly quotes Hawking on essentially the same topic: "If you like, you can define God to be the answer to that question."

This is a very important point, but it leads to problems.

Flew mentions some of the orderly laws that obtain in the universe. Rather strangely, he chooses Boyle's Law as one of his three examples. The order of Boyle's Law is experimentally observed. And if you'd asked someone in 1700 what is the source of that order, she might have taken Flew's advice and defined the answer of the question to be "God". In the light of current understanding, this means that God is defined to be the atomic theory combined with the kinetic theory of gases. Oops.
Ok, I guess we were wrong about what God is, but what explains kinetic theory? That must be God, right?
Ok, now God is statistical mechanics.
Ok, but what explains THAT?
Obviously, this could go on forever like a five-year-old's demanding Why's. Either this series of explanations goes on forever (not too likely), or it comes to an end with a last answer behind which there is no explanation.
Flew says that God would be this last explanation. Then in a last burst of five-year-oldism, I ask, "Well what explains God?" Oh no, oh no, God is where it comes to an end. Well, then in my chain of explanations, why can't I just stop with the one before God? Oh no, oh no, everything needs an explanation. Well, then what explains God? Oh no, oh no, God is where it comes to an end. And so on.

If we make a chain of 26 explanations, each one more fundamental than the last, why should we add yet another layer called 'God' to be on the bottom? We already had one on the bottom -- one that we actually know something about.

[Showing that Boyle's Law has a non-God explanation also points out what's so wrong about Flew's attitude toward research on abiogenesis. If everyone believed as he did, biologists would just give up looking for an explanation. If they had done so in the case of Boyle's Law, their God-explanation would be wrong. They would be worshipping the false idol of the atomic theory and kinetic theory.]

But my other objection (which should give pause to traditional theists) is that Flew's God is the Splunge god. It is an answer that doesn't answer anything, and doesn't explain anything. It is simply a word specifically invented as an answer to a question. Why is energy conserved? God is defined to be the answer. Thus, all we know about God is that God is the answer to the question Why is energy conserved. One might as well use any group of phonemes, like Splunge, to answer the question. None of God's traditional properties follow from its use as a placeholder to 'answer' these questions.

Flew curiously goes on to spend quite some time to argue from authority. What's so curious about this is that, having previously discounted scientists as authorities when it comes to these matters, he quotes numerous scientists, focusing on Einstein, who believed in a non-personal God that manifested itself in the order of the universe, much as Spinoza believed. One of the quotes from Einstein that you will not find in Flew's book is "What really interests me is whether God had any choice in the creation of the world."
It is conceivable, though by no means certain, that there really is only one consistent set of laws of nature. Then the answer to the question "Why are the laws the way they are?" would be "Because it can't be otherwise." (Flew quotes Paul Davies as saying that this idea is "demonstrably wrong," because he can imagine it being otherwise. Imagination makes for a pretty poor demonstration.)

Flew then discusses the anthropic principle, which I have never found very persuasive.
What are the odds that we live in a universe that would forbid our own existence?
Thus, any claims of excitement about how parameters of the universe are 'finely tuned' for our existence is misguided, because the universe could not be otherwise.
Flew surely overstates the fine-tuning argument when he says "It has been calculated [by whom? no reference is given] that if the value of even one of the fundamental constants -- the speed of light or the mass of an electron, for instance -- had been to the slightest degree different, then no planet capable of permitting the evolution of human life could have formed."
Even if we join Davies and imagine lots of different potential universes, then the argument simply boils down to probability. But calculating probabilities after the fact shows that just about everything is exceedingly unlikely. What are the odds that my mother, born in Buffalo, and my father born in Ohio, would meet in California, and that the particular sperm and egg involved in my conception actually did so? If we calculated it in 1960, the odds would be amazingly unlikely. If we calculate it today, the odds are 100%.

To his credit, Flew discusses eternal inflation and other multiverse theories as other ways of addressing the anthropic principle without necessarily relying on Splunge/God. But in the flow of the argument it seems strange:

Splunge is the only answer I can see to the question "why is the universe fine-tuned?"
Scientists have come up with alternative explanations that don't require Splunge.
But these alternative explanations are speculative.
Therefore Splunge is the only answer.

Flew turns back to the origin of life. Again he asserts that "we are not dealing with biology, but an entirely different category of problem." [i.e. one that should be addressed by philosophy.] I'm getting a little tired of going through detail by detail, so let's cut to the end. Flew remains a deist, whose idea of Splunge is a hands-off deity. So Flew does not believe (so far as I can tell) that Splunge physically manipulated matter in the universe to make a living thing. So I can only imagine that Flew's Splunge ordered everything so that it would happen 'on its own'. Which means that nonliving matter in that particular arrangement can turn into life by itself following the laws of nature. So when Flew says there is "no satisfactory explanation for such a phenomenon," that's not quite true. The actual event is entirely naturalistic. The question is how likely is that starting arrangement. Splunge can set it up correctly 100% of the time if it likes, but there must be a nonzero chance for naturalistic elements to combine in that same way. (And as with the discussion of the anthropic principle, we already know we exist.)
It's quite true, as Flew quotes Andy Knoll saying, that "We don't know how life started on this planet. We don't know exactly when it started, we don't know under what circumstances." But, as we've seen with Boyle's Law, when science does not have an answer, this does not justify Splunge as an answer. If we stop at Splunge, investigation and learning comes to a halt.
Flew ends this chapter with "The only satisfactory explanation for the origin of ... life as we see on earth is an infinitely intelligent Mind."
Ok then, how did this Mind originate life? In Flew's deistic view, matter must have gone from an unliving to a living state without any direct interference. Surely scientists can continue to investigate how this might have happened. It is very much a God-of-the-Gaps giving-up solution to define the answer to the question as Splunge, and then to be satisfied with Splunge as an answer, and to consider modern ideas and evidence relating to abiogenesis as a matter of no concern. If Splunge is defined as the answer to the question, then everything stops and it seems we can learn nothing more of Splunge other than that it is the answer to the question.

Page 140 is awesome. Flew epitomizes an atheistic argument from Hume that I don't understand. He then epitomizes a counterargument from Conway that I don't understand. I call it a tie.

"John Leslie has shown that none of today's fashionable cosmological speculations preclude the possibility of a Creator."
Correct, but neither do they preclude the possibility of unicorns. Not-disproven is not the same as proven.

Okay, big sum up of the whole Flew part of the book. We are in the exact same position as Laplace when he said that he "had no need of that hypothesis" (i.e. God) when writing his book on celestial mechanics. Science doesn't disprove God, but that is not an argument for God's existence. For all the questions that science has answered, God is unnecessary. And for all the things we don't know the answer to... we don't know the answer to. Plugging in Splunge as the answer does not actually explain anything. Splunge does not seem to me to be a "genuine, coherent, and applicable concept," as Flew previously required of any potential idea of God that was worth even addressing as potentially existing.
Splunge is more like Dumbo's feather, a magic talisman to be grasped to protect us from uncertainty. "I couldn't explain X, and it was bothering me. Fortunately, I have defined Splunge to be the unquestionable explanation for X, and now I feel great!"

To briefly continue, first there is an Appendix by Varghese where he appraises the "New Atheists". He thinks they all stink, and I think he stinks. Then there is an Appendix by NT Wright on the concept of resurrection. If you're interested in Christian theology, it may be of interest, but it seems enormously out of place in this book. One peculiar point is that he finds it possible to imagine a non-supernatural contemporaneous-to-the-first-century explanation for the empty tomb (tomb robbing was common in that era) and possible to imagine a non-supernatural contemporaneous-to-the-first-century explanation for the 'appearances' of Jesus after his death (hallucinations and visions of lost loved ones were known to the ancients). But somehow the combination of empty tomb and appearances is convincing to Wright. But if the two events are possible non-supernaturally, then their conjunction is also non-supernaturally possible.
Tags: atheism, book, religion, science

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