Rational Scientific Theories from Theism
The Sunday Times. December 19, 2004
In the beginning there was something
His atheist chums arenít happy, but Antony Flew tells Stuart Wavell why he now thinks there was a higher power at work in the creation of the universe
The story flashed around the world: leading atheist finds God. With equal alacrity, the wrath of unbelievers has rebounded on Antony Flew, the philosophy professor responsible for this heresy, leaving him shaken and not very philosophical.
"I have been denounced by my fellow unbelievers for stupidity, betrayal, senility and everything you could think of," he says, his voice rising with emotion. "And none of them have read a word that I have ever written."
Flew is a spry 81, sitting in the living room of his Reading home proclaiming he is "willing and eager" to explain himself. Annis, his wife of 52 years, brings us coffee and cake. Throughout our meeting the telephone shrills but the couple ignore it.
Flew, professor emeritus at Reading University, is one of the most renowned atheists of the past half-century, whose papers and lectures have formed the bedrock of unbelief for many adherents. He bridles at the notion that he has preached against faith. "Iíve never thrown my weight about as an unbeliever. Iíve joined unbelieving organisations but I havenít attacked belief."
This insistence apparently is at odds with his scathing description of Christianityís and Islamís gods as "monstrous oriental despots", but evidently philosophers are permitted such distinctions.
From his early days debating with CS Lewis at Oxford, Flew argued that there was no sufficient reason for belief in God. He maintained that the debate over God must begin by presuming atheism, in the same way that innocence was presumed in criminal law, putting the burden of proof on those arguing that God exists.
But something has changed his mind. Joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, says the Bible. But hold that peal of bells: Flew is still convinced the gods of organised religion do not exist and there is definitely no afterlife. He is only willing to sign up to the notion that a deity of some sort created the universe.
"My positive belief is in an Aristotelian God," he says. "Aristotle never produced a definition, but his God was not interested in human beings. He would have said that if God had really been concerned with human behaviour he would have made us behave according to his own way."
Aristotle, tutor to Alexander the Great, believed that happiness was the goal of life and conceived of a divine creator who manipulated the universe from afar but was too preoccupied with contemplation to intervene in human affairs.
So what was Godís purpose ó just light the blue touch paper and stand back? "On the Aristotelian view, the question doesnít arise about the nature of God," Flew observes unhelpfully.
The Greek philosopher had a stationary or non-evolutionary view of the universe that was set on its ear by Charles Darwin. Ironically, it was Darwinís thoughts on the origins of life, added to recent scientific research, that prompted Flewís U-turn, he claims.
Or was it an octogenarianís desire to hedge his bets on the afterlife? He shakes his head. But donít Catholics say that a person who proclaims his unbelief too loudly wants to believe? Flew smiles. Didnít he yearn for proof of a benign God and an afterlife? He becomes cross. "I donít want a future life. I want to be dead when Iím dead and thatís an end to it. I donít want an unending life. I donít want anything without end."
His answer suddenly becomes an angry political rant. "One of the reasons I hate Blair and Brussels is that Blair is against Britain and British history!" His vehemence transforms the calm gaze of an intellectual into the stiff-armed gestures of a zealot. Noting my alarm, he concedes: "Iím getting very excited and why shouldnít I? I was alive in the summer of 1940 and it is terrible to see the country being thrown away by the present generation and made subordinate to a corrupt bureaucracy!" Such impassioned outbursts ó on Enoch Powell, immigration, Jack Straw, Sir Humphrey Appleby and the Treaty of Rome ó punctuate our discussion. Flew has been a leading member of the Freedom Association, founded by the late Norris McWhirter, which campaigns for individual liberties and against union with Europe.
Letís begin at the beginning, I suggest, with Flew, the son of a distinguished Methodist preacher. At 15 he declared himself an atheist. Teenage rebellion? "No, it was the beginning of me as a professional philosopher," he says. "It just seemed flatly inconsistent to say that the universe was created by an omnipotent and perfectly good being. Yet there were evils in abundance which could not be put down to a consequence of human sin."
His father must have been upset? "He was very distressed, reasonably enough. When he said I was influencing people I didnít believe him." This was 1938, a year before the outbreak of the second world war. Wasnít his stance seen as somehow disloyal? "I donít know that it was unpatriotic," he demurs.
He soon made his mark at Oxford, participating in religious discussions at the Socratic Club chaired by CS Lewis, the writer and Christian evangelist. "There was no doubt Lewis was first class in his field of English literature. He had internal religious conflicts and used to go to the pubs to have bibulous discussions."
Flewís first paper "provoked a wave of theological discussion. Then the whole business came alive with the publication of a collection of essays on theology, which I helped to edit". The Times Literary Supplement said it was the start of a new era.
His career took him to the universities of Keele, Calgary, Reading and Toronto. Only nine of his 29 publications dealt with atheism, but these enjoyed commercial success and have been reprinted in many languages.
The urge to puncture Flewís philosophical bubble is irresistible. I suggest that his influential Presumption of Atheism in 1976 followed the blind line of science, which discounts common sense and human experience in its insistence on empirical proof. Science can never prove the existence of God but many societies, after mature reflection, have accepted Godís existence as a fact.
"Oh, yes, yes," he concurs. "Itís the sort of thing that CS Lewis would point out. But thereís a world of difference between finding that thereís some very powerful, intelligent being in the background and finding that what youíve discovered is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel."
Which brings us to Flewís recent enlightenment, which was not philosophical but scientific. His doubts began when he read the last chapter of Darwinís Origin of Species, which suggests all organic beings on Earth had descended from one "primordial" form. "Darwin saw that there was a problem with the origin of life," he says. "It had to begin with a creature capable of producing creatures that are not always identical to their parents. It is simply out of the question that the first living matter evolved out of dead matter and then developed into an extraordinary, complicated creature of which we have no examples. There must have been some intelligence."
He also cites the puzzling Cambrian explosion, a spectacular sunburst of marine animals 540m years ago that laid the foundations of all subsequent evolution. These blueprint creatures became victims of a mass extinction soon after, suggesting that evolution worked by different rules at separate times in Earthís history. Instead of life pursing an increasing diversity, here was sophisticated multicellular life reaching its maximal scope at the start, followed by decimation that left only a few basic prototypes.
Flew claims no existing theory can cover such an event. Several hypotheses have been advanced, but he has confessed to being unable to keep up with the literature.
The clincher that persuaded Flew there may be a God is the elegance and complexity of DNA. He was impressed with the arguments of Gerard Schroeder, a Jewish theologian, physicist and author of The Hidden Face of God: How Science Reveals the Ultimate Truth. "He pointed out the improbable statistics involved and the pure chances that have to occur. Itís simply not on to think this could occur simply by chance," he asserts.
Here the story starts to wobble. In May a video was made of Flewís discussions in New York with Schroeder and Roy Abraham Varghese, an author who runs the Institute for Metascientific Research in Garland, Texas. The current controversy was triggered by Flewís statement that "intelligence must have been involved".
According to Flew, the video is proving a money spinner. "Iíve got some shares in it. Varghese thinks itís going to make a profit. All the fuss is based on the video."
Which poses the question why Flew, who is not a scientist, should embrace othersí theories and generate headlines for a lucrative product. Playing devilís advocate, I put forward three standard objections to Flewís reasoning. First, complexity does not imply intelligent design; nature responds to existing pressures by taking advantage of what is lying around to gradually build up a complex system.
"Iím not quite sure," he responds. "Itís the argument about life and its development up to this stage that is much more difficult than theology."
Second, because something looks improbable it doesnít mean itís impossible: the fact we are here means something did occur. Third, even DNA design is flawed.
"You have a point," he says. "Itís very reasonable to say that some of the forms are not very efficient. I donít consider the question of God is definitively proved. All Schroeder is saying is that all the chemical complexities that have to be dealt with are such an enormous improbability. This is not a proof but it will do until a proof comes along."
From The Sunday Times, London,