“There is a God”: My Disappointing Introduction to Antony Flew

I recently finished reading There is a God by Antony Flew (HarperOne, 2007), at the suggestion of my dad. I don’t usually read books in defense of god because I find that they tend to rehash the same arguments, and I find them unconvincing each time. But this book by Antony Flew was supposed to be different. Flew, who passed away in 2010 at the age of eighty-seven, was not an apologist, or even a Christian for most of his life. He made his career as an atheist philosopher, wrote several books and essays in defense of rationalism, and even engaged in public debate with theists on a number of occasions.

His notable ideas include “No True Scotsman,” the term he coined for the ad hoc logical fallacy. He also coined the term “death by a thousand qualifications,” a phrase drawn from a section of his essay, Theology and Falsification (1950), commonly known as “the parable of the gardener.” In this parable, Flew describes a claim that must be qualified so many times to guard against contrary evidence, that it entirely loses its original meaning.

But after more than a half-century of dedicated rationalist advocacy, Flew reversed his position, declaring that he had become a deist. There is a God: How the world’s most notorious atheist changed his mind was published three years later drawing bewilderment, frustration, and even vitriol from prominent atheists, and smug, almost giddy delight from Christian apologists. (Christianity received a couple unsupported shout-outs throughout the book, which frankly, came across as pandering to a group he explicitly failed to join with his 2004 declaration, but which was all too willing to defend him from newly made enemies in the rationalist camp.)

When my dad suggested the book it was clear to me that it would not be an ordinary trip down the catalogue of apologist mainstays. I borrowed it at once and finished it in three days. I was disappointed.

Flew drew a lot of criticism for what some termed a Pascalian death-bed hedge bet. Some people even went so far as to suggest his reversal was the result of his declining state of mind (Flew eventually passed away from dementia), or that the book was the fruit of his co-author’s efforts to take advantage of him. All of these accusations seem a bit too easy to me. It is a convenient bit of rhetoric, when the elderly leader of a movement takes leave of his role, to claim he has also taken leave of his senses. If nothing else, these claims were made by people who did not have access to any special knowledge of Mr. Flew’s mental health, and frankly, are often delivered in such poor taste as to make me question their motive: cool analysis of a shocking situation, or the emotional lashing-out of spurned admirers.

I am too young, both in years and to rationalist philosophy, to have developed an attachment to Antony Flew’s previous body of work. My reasons for being disappointed with his arguments for god are simple: they aren’t very good.

The book itself is little more than a trip down memory lane wherein he repents of his former works, some musings on the burden of proof, a rehashing of the fine-tuning argument, and a long-winded reminder that science has not yet discovered what preceded the big bang and the question of “first causes” remains as relevant today as it was in the days of Aquinas. He takes the time to contextualize the question of god’s existence as a philosophical one, claiming that it is a question beyond scientific answer, but his philosophical argument for god’s existence is lackluster at best.

On the Limits of Science

Antony Flew is not the first person to assert that the question of god’s existence is unanswerable by science. This is one point on which I have yet to form a comprehensive opinion. On hand, the gods posited by theists are mystical entities, outside of and beyond the laws of nature. Given that science is the process by which nature is observed and described, theist gods definitionally falls outside of its purview. Similarly, one might argue that because god exists outside the universe, and science has not yet developed a method of seeing “beyond the universe” (whatever that may mean), the realm of god is thus beyond science. The boundaries of the universe are impenetrable from the inside. Another argument asserts that god affects the universe on a spiritual plane, not on the physical plane, and thus the impact of god’s intervention cannot be scientifically measured.

On the other hand, if by ‘god’ we mean not a trans-cosmic personality, but the “first cause,” or the original spark which made the universe bang into existence, scientific inquiry could yet lift the veil on the beginning of time. What we find there might be another natural system, or an intelligence, or a paradox. It may provide the final answer or simply introduce a new set of questions. It is difficult to imagine an ultimate beginning which does not beg further explanation.

Whatever we find before time, I believe it will demand our respect but be no more deserving of our worship or servitude than the earth, the laws of physics or the rainclouds.

On Fine Tuning

Many other people have written more clearly and comprehensively on the challenges to the fine-tuning argument than I wish to at this time. I’ll link some of their work below. To me, however, the most immediately compelling argument against an intelligently fine-tuned universe is a story my friend Jodi told me to explain why animals seem to suit their environments:

“Imagine a sentient puddle,” she said. “Stay with me…imagine that after a rainstorm there is a puddle in a pothole that for reasons unimportant to this story has achieved sentience. The puddle looks at its pothole and says, “Wow, this pothole is perfect! Every crack, every crevice accommodates my shape perfectly! What are the chances that I just happen to fit here? Why, it must have been designed just for me!”

The puddle thinks it exists apart from the pothole, and that the only way it could fit is if the pothole were designed for it. But we know it was the puddle which was made by the pothole. It’s shape is defined by the shape of the pothole. Likewise, animals, over millions of years, are defined by their environment. Nature is not suited to life, life is suited to nature, or it ceases to be.

It is easy for me to extend this argument to the universe. However improbable a life-sustaining universe may be (and sure, it is quite improbable), it logically follows that the life which thrives in the universe is that which is best suited to the conditions of the universe, or else it would cease to be (if it ever were at all). It is not the universe which is made for us, but we who were made by the universe.

I also wonder, though I’m no scientist, if life as we understand it is necessarily the only variety which could have existed. Perhaps a universe with different rules, while entirely precluding life and a world like ours, would hone natural wonders of its own.

More on Fine-Tuning

On the Sense of the Order of the Universe

Attendant to the fine-tuning argument is the notion that the universe operates in an organized manner. It makes sense to us, appeals to our intellectual sense of order, and it follows that something which appeals to our intellectual sense of order must be the product of an organized intellect: hence “intelligent design.” I’ve never been very impressed with intelligent design, perhaps because most of its proponents are unwilling to concede its limits. It is not science; it is not a testable hypothesis but a philosophical argument. As a philosophical argument it is worth some consideration, however, there are other worthy ideas which also deserve consideration.

Let’s consider for a moment that humans are hardwired to see patterns. The ability to notice repetition, draw lines between cause and effect, and make predictions based on those lines have aided our species’ survival. Let us also consider that these abilities are at the foundation of what we consider logic.

Several different conclusions may now be considered:

Perhaps the universe seems logical only to those creatures which thrive in the universe. Perhaps our less-suited forbearers died in confusion long ago.

Perhaps the universe is not objectively ordered (in the realm of all possible universes), but our minds impose order upon the universe as we continue to flex mental muscles originally furnished by evolution as we caught onto the rhythm of the waves or learned to predict the next sweep of a crocodile’s tail.

Perhaps the universe makes sense to us precisely because we are a product of the universe. Just as we are physically suited to an environment possessing the exact natural laws as the one we inhabit (Why would we develop any other way?), perhaps we are intellectually suited as well. Perhaps every species senses a greater harmony with the cosmos precisely because we are of it, and it is in us.

♦ ♦ ♦

There is a God did one thing for me for which I am very grateful: it made me stop and think about my position. Flew’s reputation provided him with enough credibility in my eyes for me to approach the question of god’s existence with a fresh mind. With each page I expected to be challenged, to have my world upended. I awaited the brilliant arguments which had turned around this career atheist with eager anticipation. I was disappointed when they did not come, but the time I spent waiting was honest and more open-minded than I have allowed myself to be for awhile. My views may not have undergone any drastic changes, but my reasoning was refreshed.♦

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