Another Flew over the cuckoo’s nest #1
I remember the name Antony Flew from when I was studying philosophy in the late sixties. Rightly or wrongly I associate him with rather dry post-war Oxford linguistic and analytic philosophy: names like Gilbert Ryle, PF Strawson and John Austin.
This book though felt like something shiny off the evangelist shelf, the sort of thing shiny fundamentalists drop on you hoping you’ll be convinced because it’s in print. But you cannot judge a book by its cover, even if this one proclaimed it was the WINNER OF THE CHRISTIANITY TODAY BOOK AWARD.
I’m a sucker for really good anti-atheist polemic. There’s so little of it. I’m desperately trying to understand why people believe in gods, and why they believe in the kind of gods they do believe in. And this was from a mainstream academic, ex-atheist to boot. Heaven.
First though there was a preface to get through, by author Roy Abraham Varghese. In the context of a predictable swipe at the ‘new atheism’ dispensed by the likes of Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Lewis Wolpert, it quotes a revealing exchange between John Barrow (cosmologist, member of the United Reformed Church, and one of Varghese’s good guys) and bad guy Richard Dawkins:
“You have a problem with these ideas, Richard, because you’re not really a scientist. You’re a biologist.”
A little lower down:
“Biologists,” says Barrow, “have a limited, intuitive understanding of complexity. They’re stuck with an inherited conflict from the nineteenth century, and are only interested in outcomes, in what wins out over others. But outcomes tell you almost nothing about the laws that govern the universe.”2
On the web page this linked to the quote continued:
For physicists it is the laws of nature themselves that capture and structure the universe – and put brakes on it as well.
I keep puzzling over what Barrow says about biologists. He is clearly a clever man. It’s as if these words are the tip of an iceberg, and there’s something massive and unseen rocking slowly backwards and forwards below the surface. From the context, ‘these ideas’ are cosmological arguments supporting the hypothesis of a divine mind as creator.
If you take a reductionist perspective, you could say biology translates into chemistry and engineering; and chemistry and engineering translate into physics. So I can understand physics claiming some sort of priority. On the other hand biologists, unlike physicists, study living things – and we are living things.
I am aware that experts in cosmology and physics from Einstein, Heisenberg and Planck to Stephen Hawking, Paul Davies and, presumably, John Barrow, have been persuaded that what we understand of ultimate reality and/or the most fundamental laws and constants suggests that the universe could have arisen from rational design, rather than assuming any apparent rational design in the universe was only an afterthought, the result of evolution by natural selection.
On this question I am agnostic – in the sense that I literally do not know, and will never know, enough cosmology to have a qualified opinion. But I cannot see any reason to assume any connection between this hypothesis and the majority of god-descriptions we come across in the various religions. For example why should we assume this postulated creator entity – let’s call it ‘R’ for Rationality – is good (rather than bad or indifferent), or loves any part of its creation?
Meanwhile the brute facts of natural selection stare us in the face: over-production of progeny, destruction, waste; and cruel suffering for the vast majority of sentient creatures in the wild. So if R did consciously, rationally and deliberately create the universe, either it did so without a plan in mind and had no hand in subsequent events; or it knew in advance what suffering would result. For my money then, R, the god of cosmology, must be one of the following:
(1) A fiction
(2) Neither omniscient nor omnipotent
(3) Evil and/or callous
None of these really qualifies as a proper object of religious belief. Note that (3) is not that part of the theological ‘problem of evil‘ which is often countered by arguments about free will. We are not talking about evil perpetrated by human beings, but about suffering endured in the natural state, purely as a result of the way things are, by any living thing which has the capacity to suffer.
If our scientific understanding of the universe is such that there are features best explained by postulating an R-type entity, so be it. R’s explanatory role will determine what attributes R needs to possess, as the classic kinetic theory of gases did for gas particles (constant, random motion; perfectly elastic collisions; etc). But I cannot see how it can be legitimate to give R further attributes unrelated to its cosmologically explanatory role (source of goodness and love; singling out a particular Middle Eastern tribe as its chosen people; etc) just because we want to identify R with, say, the Judaeo-Christian god. After all we do not specify what colour the gas particles are, what language they speak and what music they like.
Varghese concludes his preface with a curious demand, quoted below. I have numbered the statements ,  etc for clarity:
 If they want to discourage belief in God, the popularizers [ie Dawkins and Co] must furnish arguments in support of their own atheistic views.  Today’s atheist evangelists hardly even try to argue their case in this regard.  Instead they train their guns on well-known abuses in the history of the major world religions.  But the excesses and atrocities of organized religion have no bearing whatsoever on the existence of God, just as the threat of nuclear proliferation has no bearing on the question of whether E = mc2.
Possible responses to statement  may differ depending on how we interpret ‘atheistic’. One perfectly legitimate interpretation of ‘atheist’ is a-theist, like a-moral. This sort of atheist is someone who does without a god. He or she sees the god hypothesis as neither the only nor the best possible explanation for what gods have been drafted in to explain: moral experience; consciousness; rationality; the origin of the universe; the origin of life; and so on.
Alternatively, just as a ‘theist’ can be described as one who believes there is a god – perhaps to the extent of claiming to know there is a god, then an ‘atheist’ is one who believes there is no god – again perhaps to the extent of claiming to know there is no god.
Only that latter kind of atheist could reasonably be expected to ‘prove there is no god’. I cannot remember reading anything by Dawkins that would expose him to this kind of demand – which could well be impossible anyway.
From my reading, Dawkins is more the former kind of atheist – the a-theist. But although this kind of atheist technically ‘does not know’ whether or not there is a god, and could therefore be described as ‘agnostic’, there is a world of difference between the a-theism of a Dawkins and the kind of non-committal agnosticism which thinks there may or may not be a god and leaves it at that – as if either option is just as likely.
So getting back to statement , Dawkins has quite definitely furnished arguments in support of his atheistic views, and quite specifically his view that the god hypothesis does not explain the existence of apparent design in the living world. No one who has read The Blind Watchmaker3, River out of Eden4, Climbing Mount Improbable5 or Unweaving the Rainbow6 could possibly claim that ‘Today’s atheist evangelists hardly even try to argue their case’ (statement ). And that’s before we start on Daniel Dennett‘s Darwin’s dangerous idea7, Freedom Evolves8 and Breaking the spell.9
This should dispense with the ‘Instead’ in statement , and bring us to statement :
But the excesses and atrocities of organized religion have no bearing whatsoever on the existence of God, just as the threat of nuclear proliferation has no bearing on the question of whether E = mc2.
I am not sure the analogy is fair. No one is claiming any conscious or rational or ethical dimension to the formula E = mc2. If it is a fact, it is just a fact. It is not something which could think that nuclear proliferation is a bad thing, and then do everything in its power to prevent it. But gods, and in particular the capitalised Gods of monotheism, are typically believed to possess both consciousness (and/or rationality) and goodness. It is therefore not unreasonable to expect that kind of god to have an opinion about atrocities committed in its name, and then use some of its omnipotence to do something about it. Yes there is the free-will argument which attempts to resolve the general problem of evil, which specific ‘excesses and atrocities of organized religion’ would fall under. But it would have to be proven that a god must necessarily give free will to those of its creatures who are likely to commit atrocities in its name, before it could be taken as self-evident that those atrocities have no bearing on the question of that god’s existence.
And quite apart from that, there is most definitely a relationship between the excesses and atrocities of organised religion and the question of whether a god or gods exist. To pick an all too familiar example, if I believe a god exists who is telling me to destroy people who do not believe that same god exists, then I might be persuaded to act on that belief. There are certainly people in the world who believe the formula E = mc2 is true, but I have heard of none who believes the formula is wilfully encouraging them to promote nuclear proliferation.
And that is just Varghese’s preface. We’ll get onto what Antony Flew himself says next time.
1 Antony Flew (with Roy Abraham Varghese), There is a god: How the world’s most notorious atheist changed his mind, HarperCollins, 2007.
3 Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker, 1986.
4 Richard Dawkins, River out of Eden, 1995.
5 Richard Dawkins, Climbing Mount Improbable, 1996.
6 Richard Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow, 1998.
7 Daniel Dennett, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life, Simon & Schuster, 1996.
8 Daniel Dennett, Freedom Evolves, Viking Press, 2003.
9 Daniel Dennett, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, Penguin Group, 2006.
© Chris Lawrence 2009.