thinking makes it so

There is grandeur in this view of life…

Another Flew over the cuckoo’s nest #7

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John Barrow may be right that biologists are not real scientists (see Another Flew over the cuckoo’s nest #1). Biologists may be poor conceptual thinkers compared to cosmologists and physicists. But, as I hope my previous post illustrates, at least they are capable of more subtlety and sophistication than this:

But… none of it [Richard Dawkins’ ‘selfish gene’ theory] is true – or even faintly sensible. Genes… do not and cannot necessitate our conduct. Nor are they capable of the calculation and understanding required to plot a course of either ruthless selfishness or sacrificial compassion.1

Seventh in a series responding to Antony Flew’s There is a god: How the world’s most notorious atheist changed his mind.2

See also:

Another Flew over the cuckoo’s nest #1

Another Flew over the cuckoo’s nest #2

Another Flew over the cuckoo’s nest #3

Another Flew over the cuckoo’s nest #4

Another Flew over the cuckoo’s nest #5

Another Flew over the cuckoo’s nest #6

The Parable of the Satellite Phone

The subtlety continues. Chapter 4 (A PILGRIMAGE OF REASON) – which is itself the beginning of PART II (MY DISCOVERY OF THE DIVINE) – starts with a parable about a satellite phone washed up on an island inhabited by a tribe who have never had contact with modern civilisation.

The inhabitants press buttons, hear voices, and speculate about where the voices come from. The scientists of the tribe decide the voices are just properties of the object. But the tribal sage thinks the voices must be from people like themselves, and that the scientists

should investigate the possibility that through some mysterious communication network they are “in touch” with other humans…

The scientists laugh at the sage, saying the voices are

obviously nothing more than sounds produced by a unique combination of lithium and printed circuit boards and light-emitting diodes.

Light-emitting diode

Light-emitting diode

You cannot attack a story. Flew (or ‘Flew’?) can tell it how he likes. It would be churlish to object how improbable it would be for a tribe with no contact with modern civilisation to know about printed circuit boards and light-emitting diodes. But the story is only really making a point about scientific method. The scientists and the sage had alternative scientific theories, both consistent with the evidence in front of them, and both verifiable in principle and falsifiable in principle. There was nothing transcendental about the sage’s explanation. It’s just that the sage was right and the scientists were wrong. The scientists were presumably mere biologists while the sage – despite the fact that within a page or two he gets mysteriously capitalised as the ‘Sage’ – was a real scientist.

Following the evidence

This is at least consistent with Flew’s insistence that his new-found faith is not the result of revelation but of ‘following the evidence wherever it may lead’. That evidence leads him to the following conclusion:

Science spotlights three dimensions of nature that point to God. The first is the fact that nature obeys laws. The second is the dimension of life, of intelligently organized and purpose-driven beings, which arose from matter. The third is the very existence of nature.

Antony Flew: There is a God

Antony Flew: There is a God

He surveys a number of physicists, cosmologists and philosophers who, like him, have pondered the first of those facts and, in particular, the questions:

1 Where do the laws of nature come from?

2 Why are the laws of nature the ones they are?

3 Why is it that the laws of nature which do exist are ones that support life and consciousness?

He summarises Oxford philosopher John Foster’s conclusion that

regularities in nature, however you describe them, can be best explained by a divine Mind. If you accept the fact that there are laws, then something must impose that regularity on the universe… [T]he theistic option is the only serious option as the source…

There is no doubting the seriousness with which a view like this is held. It is as if there are two types of mind. There is the kind of mind like those of Flew, John Foster, John Barrow, Richard Swinburne and (maybe?) Paul Davies for which to posit unexplained mystery2 (a god) as the explanation of mystery1 (the laws of nature) is somehow more satisfying than to leave mystery1 unexplained. And there is the kind of mind which does not see what mystery2 adds to the equation.

The conclusion quoted above seems anthropomorphic. We know ourselves to be capable of imposing order. We know what imposing order is like and what it takes. So we assume that any other perceived order must have been imposed by something like ourselves – but something of course much greater than ourselves, because the perceived order is so much greater than the order we can impose. But what justifies that assumption?

Flew quotes a telling passage from Richard Swinburne, about the uniformity which a natural law describes:

[I]t is simpler to suppose that this uniformity arises from the action of one substance [ie a god] which causes… [all bodies] to behave in the same way, rather than to suppose that all bodies behaving in the same uniform way is an ultimate brute fact.3

I think I can imagine what it is like to think like this, to see this greater simplicity. But I think I would already have to believe that this ‘one substance’ exists. I cannot see how the argument can lead me to think that single causal substance exists – as an alternative or equivalent ‘ultimate brute fact’. Flew’s claim to be ‘following the evidence wherever it may lead’ is therefore unconvincing.

He states Swinburne’s central argument as being that

a personal God with the traditional properties best explains the operation of the laws of nature.

Dawkins, says Flew, rejects this because

God is too complex a solution for explaining the universe and its laws. [My emphasis.]

Flew sees this as ‘bizarre’:

What is complex about the idea of an omnipotent and omniscient Spirit, an idea so simple that it is understood by all the adherents of the three great monotheistic religions…? [My emphasis.]

The emphasis is to highlight the point I think Flew misses, and why I think he misses it. Dawkins is not denying that the idea of a god may be simple. He is saying that the actual entity must be complex in order for it to have the powers it is said to possess, if it is to be a feasible explanation for the complex and sophisticated design (or apparent design) we see in the universe. He is taking the idea of a god seriously as an explanatory hypothesis and asking where its powers could have come from. If the response is that its powers ‘just are’, then why is it unacceptable to say the laws of nature ‘just are’?

Paul Davies is Flew’s next recruit:

Atheists claim that the laws [of nature] exist reasonlessly and that the universe is ultimately absurd. As a scientist, I find this hard to accept. There must be an unchanging rational ground in which the logical, orderly nature of the universe is rooted.4

It is important to be clear what statements like this actually amount to. Absurd is a powerful word, with connotations like ‘meaningless’, ‘nonsensical’, ‘bizarre’ – even ‘insane’. More importantly, absurd typically applies to things which ought to have meaning – because they are the sorts of things which by definition typically do have meaning. A story, in order to work as a story, has to mean something: it has to make sense. An absurd story is one which should make sense, or appears to make sense, but does not. Ditto an explanation: an explanation must make sense if it is to work as an explanation. If it is an absurd explanation then it might have seemed to be an explanation but because it makes no sense it cannot actually be one.

Behind a statement that ‘the universe is absurd’ therefore seems to lurk an assumption that the universe is the sort of thing that ought to have meaning. But what justifies an assumption like this? There seems no reason to think that the universe is the sort of thing that ought to have meaning. So if it turns out not to have a meaning, that does not imply it is absurd. Does a dog or a circle or a letterbox have meaning? If not, does that mean they are absurd?

There may be atheists who claim ‘the universe is ultimately absurd’. But it is certainly false that all atheists do, or that atheism necessarily involves such a claim. An atheist may certainly and consistently claim that the universe is not the sort of thing which has, or ought to have, meaning – and that therefore it is not the sort of thing which can be meaningfully described as ‘absurd’.

Then the last sentence of the quoted passage could be said to entail an infinite regress. If the ‘logical, orderly nature of the universe’ must be rooted in ‘an unchanging rational ground’, then what is the ‘unchanging rational ground’ rooted in? If it does not need to be rooted in anything, why does the ‘logical, orderly nature of the universe’ need to be? If the ‘unchanging rational ground’ does not need to be rooted in anything because the ‘unchanging rational ground’ is defined as something which does not need to be rooted in anything, then what justification do we have for defining it in this way?

We will consider other ‘dimensions of nature’ 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.

2 Antony Flew, 2007: 1 above.

3 Richard Swinburne, ‘Design defended’, in: Think, Spring 2004.

4 Paul Davies, ‘What happened before the Big Bang?’ in: God for the 21st century, ed. Russell Stannard, Templeton Foundation Press, Philadelphia, 2000.

© Chris Lawrence 2009.


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