Friday, 2 November 2007

Antony Flew

Mark Vernon reads 'There is a God' by Antony Flew (with a similar post on Comment is Free), I predict that the late conversion (or rather "wholly rational discovery of the divine") of this formerly atheist philospher will get the sort of play that Alister McGrath and John Cornwell have.

There's nothing new here, but it is worth seeing how thin it sounds (obviously we only have Mark Vernon's summary to go on, but, as usual, I won't be reading it unless it looks like there are any interesting or novel arguments).

Apparently the 'free will defence' is sufficient rhetort to the 'juvenile' problem of evil, which may well be true for a non-Christian, possibly deist, like Flew, and he no longer has some, fairly esoteric, objections such as "being an actor without a body". Interestingly Vernon says that Flew believes the burden of evidence falls on atheism:

"It is up to atheists to explain how various things like life, consciousness and existence itself could come about. There are no satisfactory theses for these genesis issues...Moreover there is good reason to think that they simply lie outside the remit of science. (For example, if the genesis of the universe is the product of quantum laws you still have to ask about the origin of the laws; plus quantum genesis presumes a pre-existing quantum field so begs the question of how that originated.)"
Now I'm not a big fan of mysterious handwaving about consciousness so I'll ignore that hot potato for the moment, but I'm far from convinced that the infinite regression of causality ('but what caused the big bang?' etc) in any way shifts the burden of proof onto atheists. It doesn't seem like positing an uncaused God (or whatever) is any better an argument than asserting an uncaused anything else.

Flew then goes on to make some arguments for the existence of god from design:
"discussion of matters like fine-tuning will be familiar to those who have read in the field of popular cosmology. He rejects the multiverse response to fine tuning since it explains nothing, merely arguing that everything is possible. In addition, two further problems follow. First, and more fundamentally, saying everything is possible says nothing about why everything is possible in the multiverse. Second, the multiverse is a massively complex proposal. Intelligence behind the fine-tuning, the laws and the existence of the universe is far simpler."
I confess I'm not fan of multiverse theorising, it seems fairly contentless, but then that's the same reason why I'm unimpressed by probabilistic reasoning about cosmological constants since this just seems like plucking figures out of the air too, how does he know that this value of this constant in this mathematical relationship is unlikely, what is he comparing it to, where is the well developed physical theory that underlies such a judgement? But I guess I have less of a knockdown argument against that one, other than the anthropic principle, which is not irrelevant, but perhaps a little over used when the real problem is that the question is pretty meaningless at our current level of physical knowledge.

On evolution and abiogenesis he is just bonkers:

"The current biological theories to account for the origins of life are also examined. In short, Flew finds them unconvincing since, first they require the universe to have existed for far, far longer than it has (by many, many factors of ten); second they still don’t explain how life can have emerged from lifeless matter: how mindless matter can produce life with intrinsic ends and self-replicating tendencies is the serious philosophical question."
Not sure how Flew manages to calculate probabilities on various biochemical propositions for the origin of life, and from someone cautioning against applying intentional labels to matter* his claim that mindless matter oughtn't to be able to self-replicate betrays a spectacular lack of knowledge about molecular biology and biochemistry. Even a cursory aquaintance with prions or RNA make it abundantly clear how something can have a structure which causes elements in its environment to form that same structure, and thus allows self-replication and therefore evolution**:

"Flew also points out that even if a scientist produced life in a test tube, for example, that would not change his mind since the question would still be whence the life (not just the mix of chemicals)."
You what? Is he seriously proposing vitalism? A magic non-physical force animates all things that are 'alive' (whatever 'alive' is supposed to mean, are viruses?) I'm not sure most Catholics or any other theist groups would subscribe to that view!

I'm interested that Flew claims to be a deist, because it seems that he adheres to a very particular meaning of deism, that is, of rejection of revelation and scripture in favour of reason, because, although I presume that he rejects recent intervention in human affairs, it seems that he is far from believing in a mere creator of the universe, rather his God seems to have a hand in the origins of life on Earth some 10 billion years later.***

In conclusion Vernon's opinion of it:

"As to whether I, as an agnostic, find Flew’s design argument for the existence of God convincing, I think I find it impressive rather than conclusive. It is a profound challenge to atheism, but keeps me as a religiously-inclined agnostic."

*Vernon says that Flew says "a gene cannot be selfish and since moral causes incline humans genes also cannot determine their actions" which sounds remarkably like Mary Midgley's gross misunderstanding of Dawkins selfish gene concept, "Gene-juggling".

**It seems that Flew may actually be an outright creationist:

"It has emerged that 12 prominent academics wrote to Tony Blair and Alan Johnson, the education secretary, last month arguing that ID [intelligent design] should be taught as part of science on the national curriculum. They included Antony Flew, formerly professor of philosophy at Reading University..." [The Times]
Although Vernon says (in his Comment is Free article):
"Incidentally, Intelligent Design, as advocated by conservative evangelicals, is not addressed head-on in There is a God. I suspect Flew wouldn't have much time for it as an alternative to Darwinism: divine intelligence, for him, is an issue where natural selection falls short, notably at the origins of life."
***Vernon says in the comments on his blog that:
"Flew is committed to God as 'perfect goodness' (that's the formula he affirms) for reasons of ancient Greek theology. If God is being itself - indeed best referred to as Being rather than God - and the pinnacle of being is goodness and/or beauty - as both Plato and Aristotle thought (it is just that Aristotle did not conceive of it in relation to Forms) - then God must be perfect goodness. It doesn't follow that the world is good, of course, it only sharing in Being to a degree; or that God communicates with the world - something that Aristotle discounted when he said it was ridiculous to think that people could be friends with God. Humans can contemplate God though, as Aristotle taught at the end of Nico Ethics."
Which seems to suggest to me (I've never studied ancient philosophy) something along the lines of St. Anselm's ontological argument. Combined with the cosmological and teleological arguments above this gives him the whole set. It is interesting that rather than simply thinking that the balance of evidence on some scientific matters (e.g. the big bang, evolution) have shifted to favour the existence of God he has now also adopted a whole collection of unrelated arguments. This rather confirms my view that the atheism/theism distinction is a somewhat bistable continuum where once you are drawn somewhat to one side or the other you begin to interpret the evidence in that framework and are driven further and further towards that side.

The NY Times has an article on Flew, his book, and his conversion
"As he himself conceded, he had not written his book. “This is really Roy’s doing,” he said, before I had even figured out a polite way to ask. “He showed it to me, and I said O.K. I’m too old for this kind of work!” When I asked Varghese, he freely admitted that the book was his idea and that he had done all the original writing for it. But he made the book sound like more of a joint effort — slightly more, anyway. “There was stuff he had written before, and some of that was adapted to this,” Varghese said. “There is stuff he’d written to me in correspondence, and I organized a lot of it. And I had interviews with him. So those three elements went into it. Oh, and I exposed him to certain authors and got his views on them. We pulled it together. And then to make it more reader-friendly, HarperCollins had a more popular author go through it.”...To believe that Flew has been exploited is not to conclude that his exploiters acted with malice. If Flew in his dotage was a bit gullible, Varghese had a gullibility of his own. An autodidact with no academic credentials, Varghese was clearly thrilled to be taken seriously by an Oxford-trained philosopher; it may never have occurred to him that so educated a mind could be in decline. Habermas, too, speaks of Flew with a genuine reverence and seems proud of the friendship."
It all sounds a bit sad really, perhaps we've been denied masterful arguments for the existence of God that Flew would have written if he'd been able, perhaps his conversion was based on the rather thin gruel that it sounds like the book contains, and perhaps none of this is his work at all, I guess we'll never know.


potentilla said...

This is mildly interesting. It would probably date from late 2002.

pj said...

Interesting (biographically) since Flew's 'conversion' has been dated to 2004.

What I find sad is lines like this:

"unless that first living matter already possessed the capacity to reproduce itself genetically, there will still be room for a second argument to Design until a satisfactory explanation is found for its acquisition of that capacity."

Where he appears to think that 'living matter' (whatever he means by that) developed first, and then self-replication followed! If that is really what he thinks it suggests that by this stage in his career he was quite unfamiliar with molecular biology and biochemistry, and thus rather incapable of reaching any sensible conclusions about the plausibility or not of abiogenesis or self-replication.