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One Flew out of the atheists’ nest
How DNA investigations led a philosopher to affirm a ‘creative intelligence’ at the origin of life.
The ongoing debate about the existence of God has been one of the most bitterly fought and enduring in the history of philosophy. But surely one of the most significant events in its long history has been the about-face in recent years by leading British philosopher Professor Antony Flew who, for more than half a century, was “one of the world’s most outspoken atheists”.
Parents looking for a weighty academic reference to support their personal belief in a divine creator could hardly find a better candidate than Flew. Until a few years ago, he had been writing books and debating prominent religious believers for more than five decades, beginning with his jousts with celebrated author and Christian apologist CS Lewis. Some of his debates attracted crowds of thousands. But at his last, in 2004 at New York University with Israeli scientist Gerald Schroeder and Scottish philosopher John Haldane, he announced, “to the surprise of all concerned”, that he now accepted the existence of a God.
Although he says he is now a deist – he hasn’t yet embraced any particular religion – he says he is most impressed by the evidence for Christianity. In his book, There is A God – How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed his Mind – Flew includes an essay by New Testament scholar and Anglican Bishop of Durham N. T. Wright which presents an “assessment of the body of historical fact that underlies Christian theists’ faith in Christ”. Commenting on this essay, Flew says: “In fact, I have to say here that Bishop Wright presents by far the best case for accepting Christian belief that I have ever seen.”
In his book, Flew does not simply outline his own arguments for God’s existence, he also addresses the views of many of the major scientists and philosophers with strong views about the “God question”. In the process, he examines the rise and fall of the philosophical school of logical positivism, philosopher David Hume’s attack on the principle of causation, and the arguments of leading scientists like Richard Dawkins, Paul Davies and Stephen Hawking. He also looks at Albert Einstein’s views on God, arguing that Einstein was clearly a believer in God (contrary to the claims of atheists like Dawkins).
To appreciate the significance of Flew’s conversion, it may be helpful to consider the extent of his writings during his period as one of the high priests of philosophical atheism. They began with the publication of God and Philosophy in 1966 (reissued in 1975, 1984, and 2005), considered a “classic in the philosophy of religion”. In 1976 Flew published The Presumption of Atheism, which was republished as God, Freedom and Immortality in the United States in 1984. Other works include Hume’s Philosophy of Belief and Logic and Language, An Introduction to Western Philosophy: Ideas and Arguments from Plato to Sartre, Darwinian Evolution, and The Logic of Mortality.
So why has Flew changed his mind? The main reason, he says, is recent scientific work on the origin of life which he believes points to the activity of a “creative Intelligence”. As he explained to the 2004 symposium at which he announced his new beliefs to the world, his change of heart was “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.”
Flew said he was particularly impressed with scientist Gerry Schroeder’s point-by-point refutation of what he calls the “monkey theorem”. “This idea,” he says, “defends the possibility of life arising by chance using the analogy of a multitude of monkeys banging away on computer keyboards and eventually ending up writing a Shakespearean sonnet.
“Schroeder first referred to an experiment conducted by the British National Council of Arts. A computer was placed in a cage with six monkeys. After one month of hammering away at it (as well as using it as a bathroom!), the monkeys produced fifty typed pages—but not a single word. Schroeder noted that this was the case even though the shortest word in the English language is one letter (a or I). A is a word only if there is a space on either side of it. If we take it that the keyboard has thirty characters (the twenty-six letters and other symbols), then the likelihood of getting a one-letter word is 30 times 30 times 30, which is 27,000. The likelihood of a getting a one-letter word is one chance out of 27,000.
“Schroeder then applied the probabilities to the sonnet analogy. ‘What’s the chance of getting a Shakespearean sonnet?’ he asked. He continued: ‘All the sonnets are the same length. They’re by definition fourteen lines long. I picked the one I knew the opening line for, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” I counted the number of letters; there are 488 letters in that sonnet. What’s the likelihood of hammering away and getting 488 letters in the exact sequence as in “Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day?”? What you end up with is 26 multiplied by itself 488 times – or 26 to the 488th power. Or, in other words, in base 10, 10 to the 690th.
“Now the number of particles in the universe – not grains of sand, I’m talking about protons, electrons, and neutrons – is 10 to the 80th. Ten to the 80th is 1 with 80 zeros after it. Ten to the 690th is 1 with 690 zeros after it. There are not enough particles in the universe to write down the trials; you’d be off by a factor of 10 to the 600th. If you took the entire universe and converted it to computer chips – forget the monkeys – each one weighing a millionth of a gram and had each computer chip able to spin out 488 trials at, say, a million times a second; if you turn the entire universe into these microcomputer chips and these chips were spinning a million times a second [producing] random letters, the number of trials you would get since the beginning of time would be 10 to the 90th trials. It would be off again by a factor of 10 to the 600th. You will never get a sonnet by chance. The universe would have to be 10 to the 600th times larger. Yet the world just thinks the monkeys can do it every time.’
“After hearing Schroeder’s presentation, I told him that he had very satisfactorily and decisively established that the ‘monkey theorem’ was a load of rubbish, and that it was particularly good to do it with just a sonnet; the theorem is sometimes proposed using the works of Shakespeare or a single play, such as Hamlet. If the theorem won’t work for a single sonnet, then of course it’s simply absurd to suggest that the more elaborate feat of the origin of life could have been achieved by chance.”
Flew rejects Richard Dawkins’s theory that the “selfish gene” is the author of human life, branding it as “a major exercise in popular mystification”. “Genes, of course, can be neither selfish nor unselfish any more than they or any other non-conscious entities can engage in competition or make selections,” he says.
Outlining his own views he goes on:
“I now believe that the universe was brought into existence by an infinite Intelligence and that this universe’s intricate laws manifest what scientists have called the Mind of God. I believe that life and reproduction originate in a divine Source.
“Why do I believe this, given that I expounded and defended atheism for more than a half century? The short answer is this: this is the world picture, as I see it, that has emerged from modern science. 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. But it is not science alone that has guided me. I have also been helped by a renewed study of the classical philosophical arguments.
“My departure from atheism was not occasioned by any new phenomenon or argument. Over the last two decades, my whole framework of thought has been in a state of migration. This was a consequence of my continuing assessment of the evidence of nature. When I finally came to recognize the existence of a God, it was not a paradigm shift, because my paradigm remains, as Plato in his Republic scripted his Socrates to insist: ‘We must follow the argument wherever it leads.’”
Flew points out that he is primarily a philosopher applying philosophical reasoning to the findings of science. Along with Einstein he laments that many scientists (like Dawkins) make poor philosophers. At the same time, he says his views are based purely on reason, not on faith. Nevertheless, he is clearly now more open to arguments in favour of the God of religious revelation. At the end of his book you are left with the impression that he is inviting the reader to stay tuned for further developments.
William West is a Sydney freelance writer and the editor of Perspective magazine, where this article first appeared.
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