Sunday, September 13, 2015

Antony Flew - After the Conversion

In their snarky response to a blog post on Patheos by Bob Seidensticker (10 questions Christians must answer) that poses some issues worthy of consideration for theists, Manuel Alfonseca and Juan Carlos Nieto have posed some questions of their own for atheists in the Popular Science blog.  As I read their ten questions, it immediately became clear to me that these guys didn't take Seidenstricker's issues seriously.  Not only did they fail to answer any of his questions, but their response had an air of snarkiness and petulance that could be described as childish.  Most of their questions ended with something like, "Do you have scientific reasons to believe it, or do you believe it without reason? In other words, is it a dogma for you?".

I won't bother answering all their questions, mainly because I think they are too easily answered.  This is mostly due to the fact that these theists (like many theists) don't really understand what materialism entails or what materialists believe.  Instead, I would like to focus on one question in particular that they pose:
One of the most important atheist philosophers of the twentieth century (Antony Flew, 1923-2010) changed his mind in 2004 and published a book [5] explaining the reasons for his decision. Have you read Flew’s book, or  will you take care not to read it, so that your atheistic convictions won’t be in danger?
In answer to that, I will say that I hadn't previously read Flew's book, There is a God - How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind, but I obtained a copy and read it.  It's a short book.  No, I wasn't afraid that it would endanger my "atheistic convictions".  I was genuinely interested in understanding Flew's reasons for coming to believe in God.  I was especially interested to know if there was some particular idea that he had or some new information that he came across that he found to be convincing.  Perhaps I too, would see why he found it so convincing.

Flew's book consists of ten chapters, organized in two parts.  The first part, titled "My Denial of the Divine", consisting of three chapters, purportedly provides the background of where he was coming from, his atheistic system of beliefs.  Part 2, called "My Discovery of the Divine", contains seven chapters that purportedly give his reasons for changing his mind.  This sounds promising.  I expect to see him lay out the basis for his belief in atheism from the perspective of someone who understands it and has devoted much thought to it, and then systematically deconstruct that belief with some kind of solid evidence or damaging information.

I was disappointed.  Part 1 was really more of a history of his academic and professional career and achievements than a presentation of his belief system.  It seems to me that he was laying the groundwork for acceptance of his theistic beliefs by touting his impressive credentials and casting doubt on his atheistic beliefs.  While he did provide an outline of some of those beliefs, it was largely in the context of acknowledging with some embarrassment that he once believed that.
What do I think today about the arguments laid out in God and Philosophy? In a 2004 letter to Philosophy Now, I observed that I now consider God and Philosophy to be a historical relic (but, of course, one cannot follow the evidence where it leads without giving others the chance to show you new perspectives you had not fully considered).  And my current views on the themes treated there are presented in Part II of this book, “My Discovery of the Divine.”
That theme of following the evidence where it leads was ubiquitous throughout the book.  In Chapter 3 (surprisingly, still within Part 1 of the book), he began to make his case for theism in earnest.  He seems to have been most affected by the difficulty of life emerging from matter.  He explained that when asked if research on the origins of life points to intelligent intervention in nature, his response was
Yes, I now think it does . . . almost entirely because of the DNA investigations. What I think the DNA material has done is that it has shown, by the almost unbelievable complexity of the arrangements which are needed to produce (life), that intelligence must have been involved in getting these extraordinarily diverse elements to work together. It’s the enormous complexity of the number of elements and the enormous subtlety of the ways they work together. The meeting of these two parts at the right time by chance is simply minute. It is all a matter of the enormous complexity by which the results were achieved, which looked to me like the work of intelligence.
This chapter comes closest to fulfilling my expectations for the entire book, but it also reveals some deep problems with Flew's thinking.  In particular, he seems to be uninformed about the state of scientific knowledge.  He should have been aware that no biologist believes that DNA existed in anything like its present form in the earliest forms of proto-life.  But he devotes much of the chapter to expounding just how improbable such a thing would be without divine intervention.  He even mentions that he was told by some that he was scientifically uninformed, but he dismisses that notion by stating that the origin of life is a matter for philosophy to consider, not for science.  This Reppert-like view of philosophical elitism essentially says, "I'm a philosopher.  I don't need no stinkin' science."  That's where he lost me.

There's one more noteworthy point about his argument on the improbability of nature producing genetic codes.  As an example, he discusses monkeys banging randomly on typewriters.  He says that it is most unlikely that they would even produce a one-letter word, if the word was defined as an 'a' or an 'i' having a space on either side of it.  Given a typewriter with 30 keys, he claims that the probability of producing such a one-letter word would be one in 30 to the third power.  This is a glaring error, revealing that not only does he have little understanding of probability, but that he can't be bothered having his work checked by someone who does.  That's real philosophical elitism.

Part 2 of the book gives the reader very little to answer the question of why Flew converted.  It presents some theistic arguments in a fairly standard manner.  The focus is on apparent design in nature.  Where did natural laws come from?  How did the universe come to be fine-tuned for life?  How did teleological life emerge from non-teleological matter?  Could the universe have come to exist without being caused by an intelligent agent?  These arguments are not new, and they have all been addressed by atheists and materialists.  Presumably, they did not present a significant problem for Flew before he began to have his doubts, but they became problematic somewhere along the way.  But when it comes to explaining why he had this change of heart, the reader is left wondering.

One thing I noted about his presentation of these arguments is that they seem to presume the existence of God.  For example, in discussing the anthropic principle, rather than seriously exploring alternate possibilities for the origin of the universe, he easily dismisses them in favor of his preferred answer: goddidit.  Like most theists, he buys the theistic assumptions that inevitably lead to theistic conclusions, without any real debate about the validity of those assumptions.  My expectations of seeing this once-great philosopher give a solid logical case against atheism were shattered.  Instead I saw the standard theistic arguments with the standard theistic assumptions behind them.  What a let-down.

I must admit that I haven't read Flew's earlier works.  All I knew was that he was once considered to be one of the greatest philosophical spokesmen for atheism.  After reading this book, I was left wondering if he ever was a great philosopher at all.  It wasn't evident from this work.  Or perhaps this really is a case of a once-great philosopher who has come to be past his prime.

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