It takes a professional philosopher to choose, of all the arguments for the existence of some kind of god, the most exquisitely wrong:
“A philosophy professor who has been a leading proponent of atheism for more than 50 years has decided that God may exist after all.
“Antony Flew, 81, now believes scientific evidence supports the theory that some sort of intelligence created the universe. But he continues to reject traditional religious ideas of God and especially the idea of salvation after death.
“Speaking in a new video, Has Science Discovered God?, Flew argues that the investigation of DNA “has shown, by the almost unbelievable complexity of the arrangements which are needed to produce [life], that intelligence must have been involved.””
Just for the record—and I suspect this is one of those rare occasions when I can say I am speaking not only in a personal capacity, but on behalf of my colleagues and employers—the investigation of DNA has done no such thing. If science is a stately home, then in one room, in one wing there is a cupboard. In the drawer inside the bureau inside that cupboard is the little box devoted to my sub-specialism. If there was even a hint of intelligence behind the origin of life I would expect to find that box empty.
Even from reading his own public correction of exaggerated reports of his theism, Flew is clearly touting a slightly polished variant of the Argument from Design—the one I refer to as the “Argument from Lack of Imagination”. Perhaps he read a special genome edition of Nature and saw the light. This would be ironic, because anyone who has paid close attention to the general results of molecular biology and the sequencing of various species’ genomes should find that the spontaneous emergence of life and its acquisition of complexity to be that much easier to explain than they have ever been. (One of the most awe-inspiring aspects of Darwin’s insights is that he originally made them, not only in an unsympathetic intellectual environment, but in the absence of fundamental knowledge of biological mechanisms underlying the processes he described.)
A couple of other philosophers have dismissed Flew’s conclusion as being trivial—in the sense of being without philosophical consequence. Other professional philosophers could, I think, make a good case against this, but I know that this is not true in the broadest sense of “philosophy”. If I accepted Flew’s conclusion I would stop wondering about the first replicators, alternative forms of life based on different substrates, or the possibility of generating life de novo in the lab, and I would especially stop worrying about the reason why there are both so many different protein structures and so few forms for proteins to fold into. His is a counsel against a class of speculation and, as a natural philosopher, I dismiss it as intellectual cowardice.
There is one excellent practical argument and there is a number of illuminatingly seductive (and broken) philosophical arguments for God. The latter are useful for investigating certain logical fallacies and amusing stoned undergraduates. The former is that believing in God makes you happier. Certain kinds of ignorance can be bliss. I am a sad scientist and Flew has done a piece of bad philosophy. I hereby sentence him to statistics tutorials until the end of time.
The Today programme had one of these intelligent design people vs Steve Jones on this morning. You could sense his annoyance that it is even necessary to counter such rubbish these days. The reporter finished with some throw away line like “I’m sure the controversy will go on”.
Controversy? 99.99% of biologists think intelligent design is nuts and the BBC managed to make it into a controversy because they “intelligently design” a 50/50 split on the Today programme?
From Sorry to Disappoint, but I’m Still an Atheist!
I remain still what I have been now for over fifty years, a negative atheist. By this I mean that I construe the initial letter in the word ‘atheist’ in the way in which everyone construes the same initial letter in such words as ‘atypical’ and ‘amoral’. For I still believe that it is impossible either to verify or to falsify – to show to be false – what David Hume in his Dialogues concerning Natural Religion happily described as “the religious hypothesis.”
Being a “negative atheist” does not imply you accept that science offers the only explaination, on the contrary, because science, or certain aspects of it, cannot be properly explained, it sits alongside theism in Flew’s vision, to suggest he supports either is contrary to his own explaination.
That this is being jumped on as “a polished view of argument from design” is what you’d expect from most proponents of ID, their belief is that if science cannot prove something then it _must_ be ID, which is entirely the opposite of what Flew thinks.
Then he has changed his mind, again, since this interview with Gary Habermas
HABERMAS: Once you mentioned to me that your view might be called Deism. Do you think that would be a fair designation?
FLEW: Yes, absolutely right. What Deists, such as the Mr. Jefferson who drafted the American Declaration of Independence, believed was that, while reason, mainly in the form of arguments to design, assures us that there is a God, there is no room either for any supernatural revelation of that God or for any transactions between that God and individual human beings.
Dang, that was an irritating clip. Why did Today let Meyer talk so much more of the time than Jones? Started with him, ended with him, let him go on and on each time he spoke; then Jones would reply for about fifteen seconds, then back to Meyer. What will most listeners take away from that? That Meyer is the real expert and that Jones is just some grouch. And then as Anthony says, of course the bit at the end. There wouldn’t be any damn controversy if entities like Today didn’t keep paying too much attention. Next up: the controversy over the flat earth.
Is Stephen C Meyers article in First Things in April 2000 as misleading, in your opinion, as some of the correspondence in October 2000 seem to indicate it is?
Yes. I thought about fisking the Meyers article, but there was so much that was so wrong that I gave up after scribbling half a page of notes. One point that made me smile though: he makes a comparison between the simplicity of spontaneously growing crystals and our discovery of the complexity of DNA; the only reason we know the structure of DNA is because we can make crystals of it.
For others’ benefit, here are links to the original article and the correspondence.
I’m pretty strident about this stuff, but I’d be shy, even in irony, of making the comparison with arguments about the flatness or otherwise of Earth. Much as I admire Ophelia and Jeremy’s work in keeping darkness at bay, I have to concede that most scientists in the area are fumbling around in the gloom when it comes to explaining the emergence of life. In the absence of direct evidence or measurement there is probably a good case to be made by clever and well-informed critics of most stories about the origins of life (and they are stories). Funny thing is, most people in the “clever and well-informed” category don’t make such a case. When people do, it’s usually to advance a silly alternative.
(Or to put it another way, I picked up that comparison from Jones and was too lazy and dim to think of my own.)
Well…I guess I’m just that bit more strident. Modest, reasonable, humble to a fault, but strident. (And I picked up the flat earth comparison from Jones in that clip, so it seemed apposite…)
What I love about this sort of thing is that it invokes what some philosopher or other called “the God of the gaps”: find something that science has not yet explained and claim that that’s where God is. I love it because it’s inherently self-defeating, as the number of things unexplained by science is ever-decreasing. Sensible theists see that one coming and simply state that religion and science are addressing separate issues and should not confuse each other’s territory, which is fair enough. The theists who latch on to this sort of thing are idiots, in that they are sowing the seeds of the destruction of their own beliefs. Yay!