In 1961, a college freshman of a month or two, I attended a lecture by the British philosopher Antony Flew in the small Quaker meeting house on campus. Flew threw out propositions and teased out all their implications like a chess grand master 12 moves ahead of me. What to him was a reasoned structure erected on pure logic and wide-ranging knowledge was to me a nearly impenetrable thicket of rapid-fire concepts. Here was a man of pure rationality and considerable intelligence, following evidence & reason whenever they would lead. I admired him.
Later on I found his Dictionary of Philosophy (Pan Books, 1979) very perceptive and useful. The short article on atheism gives a capsule summary of Flew’s beliefs at the time. At some point I became aware that Professor Flew, the son of a Methodist preacher, was the world’s foremost exponent of atheism. Then a few years ago it was big news that he had abandoned atheism and embraced the existence of God.
He explains it in the short book, There is a God (HarperOne, 2007.) Let’s briefly go over his arguments for atheism (pp.68-69.) The concept of an omnipotent, omniscient being is self-contradictory, like unmarried husbands or round squares. The idea of an “incorporeal omnipresent Spirit” is philosophically incoherent. Life originated from “nonliving materials.” The universe and its physical laws are “ultimate,” i.e. the universe is “the ultimate fact,” the starting point behind which or prior to which nothing can be postulated. “I know there is no God,” he proclaimed. All debate starts with the presumption of atheism.
But his atheism had been developed in the early twentieth century when British analytic philosophy, promoted by notorious atheists, was ascendant. Also at a time before two pivotal scientific discoveries: before the “coded chemistry” of living cells and DNA had been fully understood and the acceptance of the Big Bang theory, which showed that the universe had a beginning and thus could not be ultimate. What were the philosophical conclusions based on new scientific discoveries that moved Flew to change his mind? The considerations are best explained by an intelligent Creator.
- There is a “regularity or symmetry in nature,” expressed in mathematically precise and universal laws. Scientists exploring these laws investigate a “cosmic code” that cannot be explained naturalistically. Scientists assuming regularity operate in a kind of faith. (pp.95-112)
- Life has a teleological organization. I find this one fascinating. “Living matter possesses an inherent goal or end-centered organization that is nowhere present in the matter that preceded it.” Life possesses intrinsic ends, goals, or purposes.” For Aristotle teleology is essential to living things. (pp.124-126, “The purpose-driven organism”)
- The origin of life cannot be explained naturalistically or by chance. The chance hypothesis, termed the monkey theorem by Flew, holds that combinations of chemicals over aeons could have combined to form the first life. Flew cites the work by Gerald Schroeder, showing that the probability of six monkeys typing away and one eventually producing a Shakespeare sonnet is 10 to the 690th power, a rather large number. Similarly there is no enough time in the history of the universe for this “system of coded chemistry” producing life to have happened. (pp.126-132) Flew adds elsewhere that nothing evolves unless it already exists; and the Darwinian principle of natural selection creates nothing. I can add that proteins, the building blocks of life, do not evolve.
- Life can reproduce itself. Living cells are information storing, processing and replicating systems. This information expressed by DNA in a code is “semantic.” No physical principle can explain this. Semantics requires intelligence; code requires a coder. (cited above)
- The existence of the universe requires explanation. To assume an infinite series of events, each caused by the previous one, cannot be self-explaining. “The entire series needs an explanation.” Flew accepts Richard Swinburne’s assertion that “It is very unlikely that a universe would exist uncaused, but rather more likely that God would exist uncaused.” (pp.133-45)
Flew is careful to make clear that his is a pilgrimage of reason, naturalistic and free of revelation. But how close did he come to Christianity? For him this is a question of revelation. In There is a God he includes an Appendix devoted to an essay by Anglican Bishop N.T. Wright showing that, purely from the perspective of an historian, Jesus was God incarnate and indeed truly resurrected from death. Flew wrote that “the Christian religion is the one religion that most clearly deserves to be honored and respected …”
My guess is that for Flew personal beliefs unmoored from philosophical evidence do not belong in scholarly debate. For him the mind always had been the sole gatekeeper of entry into the heart. But he showed great intellectual and moral courage in standing up to the virulent attacks of the tough guy atheists and to confess publicly that his signal intellectual achievement had been mistaken. Like the origin of the universe, this courage requires an explanation outside itself. A change of mind leading to a change of heart. I suspect that before his death in 2010, like a questioning Nicodemus (St John3:1-21,) he had made his peace with the Lord privately and is now in a very good place. And I admire him still.
Troglo (L. H. Kevil)