There Is A God by Antony Flew

Five centuries ago the English philosopher Francis Bacon cautioned that human perception is not a window into reality but a distorted reflection of it akin to that captured in a warped mirror. And he went on to list the many “idola,” or misconceptions, to which we are prone, including this one: The idola theatri—a misconception resulting from the simplification of reality by scientific models.

I think it is worth remembering this idea when assessing the views of scientific specialists on subjects which extend far beyond their particular area of expertise. Richard Dawkins’ competence and knowledge in evolutionary biology, for example, does not confer any conclusive advantage in evaluating theism—a vast metaphysical hypothesis of which biology is only a small part. In fact, it may even impose an idola theatri: a blind spot in the gaze of the specialist to phenomena that cannot be comprehensively understood within the purview his speciality.

Who, then, is ideally placed to evaluate the probability of the existence of God?

In this book British philosopher Antony Flew makes the case that the question should be placed under the jurisdiction of philosophers; for to study the interaction of subatomic particles, he notes, is to engage in physics; but to ask why those particles exist or behave in certain ways is to engage in philosophy. [1] And while scientists are free to dispute the conclusions of philosophers, their arguments will have to obtain philosophically, as, in a like case, “if they present their views on the economics of science, such as making claims about the number of jobs created by science and technology, they will have to make their case in the court of economic analysis.”

The reader who concedes this point owes Flew their full attention: He is arguably one of the most important philosophical voices to have spoken on this subject in our century—not simply an atheist and a philosopher but a philosopher of atheism. “Prior to Flew,” writes Varghese, “the major apologias for atheism were those of Enlightenment thinkers like David Hume, Arthur Schopenhauer and Nietzsche.” And it is this fact which makes There Is A God—Flew’s account of his conversion from atheism to some form of deism on the pattern of Einstein—so very unique and striking.

Having dismissed the New Atheism as a regression to the discredited logical positivism of the 1950s, Flew sets out the rational grounds for his dramatic renunciation of atheism. This can be expressed in a single sentence: On the basis of recent developments in physical cosmology and molecular biology, Flew now believes there is a sound argument for the existence of God from “the integrated complexity of the physical world.” Or, to put it slightly differently, Flew now believes that theism is an inference to the best explanation given that our fine tuned universe originated ex nihilo and that intelligent life arose from inanimate matter. [2]

Flew then invites his readers to dwell on this curious circumstance: That all the key forces and principles governing our world (the inverse square law of gravity; the mass-energy equivalence; the semantic language of gene replication; the laws of thermodynamics and electromagnetism) are not cultural creations or human analogues for naturalistic phenomena. We did not invent them and we did not impose them. “These laws,” writes Flew, quoting the British physicist Paul Davies, “really exist.” Rationality, in other words, is the very stuff from which our world is made—an attribute of the universe as substantive and concrete as its carbon or its hydrogen. As Einstein was moved to remark, the universe is, “reason incarnate.”  

A further fact to be wondered at, suggests Flew, is the intelligibility of these regularities. After all, why should the universe be describable by elegant mathematical equations apprehensible to the human brain? The mathematician David Berlinski makes the point rather colourfully when he asks, “Why should a limited and finite organ such as the human brain have the power to see into the heart of the matter of mathematics? These are subjects that have nothing to do with the Darwinian business of scrabbling up the greasy pole of life. It is as if the liver, in addition to producing bile, were to demonstrate an unexpected ability to play the violin.”

For theists all this squares tidily with their metaphysic—the phenomena are precisely those consequences to be expected if theism is true. The world is intelligible because it was created by an Intelligence; and it is intelligible to us because that Intelligience wishes for us to come to a knowledge of Him. Medieval theologians referred to this as the adequatio intellectus ad rem: “The adequation of the intellect to reality.” Atheism stands mute before it.

In discussing these final matters, Flew concedes that the theist and the atheist alike arrive at the endpoint of inquiry; the point where explanations come up against a final, brute fact. The atheist follows his arguments through to their ultimate logical consequence at arrives at a supermassive foaming multiverse that fluctuates uncaused out of nothingness and in one tiny pore of which intelligent life spontaneously arises for no particular reason and to no particular purpose. That this is a supposition, and even an article of naturalistic faith, atheists on occasion admit. [3] In this fascinating book Antony Flew offers us an alternative and far more persuasive thesis: That, “intelligence, rather than emerging as a late outgrowth of the evolution of life, has always existed as the matrix and substrate of physical reality.” We are rationally warranted, he concludes, in believing that the fundamental element of our universe is not the atom or dark energy but Mind.

And whether you or not you accept Flew’s conclusion, it is beyond dispute that his conversion and book present a significant conceptual challenge to the glib scientism of the New Atheists.

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[1] It is interesting to note in this connection that in the Philosophy of Religion (the only field to take God as its direct object of inquiry) 72.3 percent of philosophers hold to or learn towards theism.

[2] The Kalam Cosmological Argument, the Argument from Cosmic Teleology, the Argument from Biological Teleology and the Argument from Adequation.

[3] Dawkins, for instance, has confessed that his atheistic view of the universe is something in which he, “has faith.” Dennett, a physicalist, introduces the emergence of human consciousness by writing, “and then miracles happen.” 

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