Sunday, July 27, 2008

Book Report:: There is a God by Anthony Flew

I first heard of There is a God from a post on pharyngula when the book first came out last fall. The original post was followed by a few others. I'd never heard of Anthony Flew and the consensus of opinion was that he was an aging philosopher who was being manipulated by an unscrupulous fundamentalist nut job - coauthor Roy Varghese (see links for post and interviews). I I read PZ's posts, figured the book wasn't worth my time and carried on with out a further thought. Then, my parents mentioned that they'd read the book and asked if I'd take a look at it.

At first I thought I'd just breeze through it and then disregard it based on the reviews I'd already seen, but after further consideration I realized that wasn't a good skeptical approach. To reject the book before even considering it would be as dogmatic as any fundamentalist. So instead I read it carefully and took pages of notes for the purpose of writing a little book report.

First off Anthony Flew was a philosopher. I'm completely unqualified to read and understand philosophy, so I'm sure I missed some subtleties. On the other hand the book was written for a general audience so hopefully what I was able to understand most of what was going on.

The preface was written by Roy Varghese. In my opinion he overstates Flew's significance. Yes, he was an atheist philosopher for a long time and wrote lots of books. He wrote more books than Bertrand Russell. Not a strong argument to my mind. He then proceeds to quote mine Stephen Hawking, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris and uses those distortions question the quality of the reasoning employed by the "new atheists". He wraps up with two familiar assertions: Einstein believed in God and atheism is a religion. Of course what Einstein believed about a god is irrelevant. He had no special ability or information to base his belief on. And atheism is a religion like baldness is a hair style.

Section 1:
The first three chapters of the book deal with Flew's career and antitheological writings. He chooses to highlight three problems for theists. 1) How is god to be identified 2) How positive terms can be applied to god and 3) The problem of evil. He also asserts that the burden of proof for a deity is on the one making the positive claim - that there is a god. The theists should be the ones supplying evidence of god. Not expecting everyone to believe until proven otherwise. This is all pretty reasonable. Then things start to get a little off track. He finishes the section with a several familiar arguments against a naturalistic universe. DNA is complex therefore god. Monkeys with typewriters trying to duplicate Shakespeare. These are a result of flawed methods or poor understanding of biology.

Overall I found the first section rather dull. Lots of book titles and philosophical name dropping. No real discussions or arguments to be found.

Section 2:
Chapters 4-10 contain the arguments for theistic belief. They are built around "three dimensions of nature that point to god". These dimensions are 1) nature obeys laws 2) life exists and 3) there is something rather than nothing.

Flew begins by noting that the universe appears to obey laws, and claims that this requires an author of those laws. Related is that the universe and the laws of nature seem fine tuned for the kind of life we see in the universe. This is unconvincing. The fine tuning argument is dealt with nicely in this quote by Douglas Adams.

. . imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, 'This is an interesting world I find myself in, an interesting hole I find myself in, fits me rather neatly, doesn't it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!' This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, it's still frantically hanging on to the notion that everything's going to be alright, because this world was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it; so the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise. I think this may be something we need to be on the watch out for.
From the 'fine tuning' issue Flew moves to abiogenisis. This is where the god of the gaps is in full force. His claim is that since science as yet has not developed a good theory for the origin of life, it must have been god that started it all. There is no evidence for this position and science is not static. It is impossible to predict the future of science, but odds are on science to fill the gap and force theist to find another gap for god to fill.

Finally we get to the question of why there is something rather than nothing. The discussion here is essentially personal incredulity. The origin of the universe may always be a mystery. There are ideas like quantum vacuums and zero net energy. But those don't don't seem like satisfactory explanations to Flew. He doesn't find it compelling or he doesn't understand it. This doesn't make it wrong. Since this is a place where science hasn't come to definite conclusions, Flew says that makes it a philosophical problem rather than a scientific one. I think that is a bunch of garbage. Philosophers can sit around all day and wonder about hard questions, but they won't gather any data to answer those questions without doing science.

From here the rest of the book is lots of philosophical talk that sort of didn't mean anything to me.

Overall there was nothing new in this book that I hadn't seen before. A few weak god of the gaps arguments, and a bit philosophical hand waving. Not the kind of thing you'd hope for in a book that is supposed to make a convincing stand for the existence of god. What would be convincing for me might be some physical evidence or hypothesized mechanisms for how a god could answer the questions posed in the book.


Herb said...

Jeff! How on earth is Jesus ever supposed to reach you if you keep insisting on being so damn logical? Why must you be so obsessed with reality, man? You need to install a "woo door" on the entrance to your heart so Jesus will at least have somewhere to knock!

Iron Soul said...

Herb it is worse than you know. I had to refrain from discussing the appendix B which say that since we've concluded that there is a god Christianity is obviously true. I couldn't read all of it.

Herb said...

Yeah, I've heard about the infamously ridiculous "Appendix B" in my reading of the book reviews. I wasn't sure if I should laugh or cry...

Reverted said...

(Sorry for the retardedly long comment.)

First off, I have read that Flew didn't actually even read the book before attaching his name to it! That particular reporter said Flew seemed unfamiliar with the book's contents throughout the interview.

Regarding the laws of nature, and their supposedly requiring a "lawmaker": It is important to note that "laws of nature" are NOT like "laws of man". Laws of nature are *descriptive*, while laws of man are *prescriptive*. There is an enormous difference.

Richard Dawkins discusses abiogenesis at some length in his book, The Blind Watchmaker, including careful considerations of various probabilities along a broad spectrum. The analysis points toward abiogenesis being ExPECTED to be a relatively rare occurrence, not simply based upon the chemical probabilities (which we are as yet uncertain about), but also based upon our observations of the universe. (That said, "relatively rare" could still mean literally *millions* of planets exist out there that harbor life; the universe is a very, very large place after all.)

Jeff, your comment about philosphy vs science reminds me of something I read quite awhile back, which I can't seem to locate right now. But, it was something along these lines:

Science is like Cinderella, and Philosophy and Theology are its evil step-sisters. Philosophy and Theology sit around smoking their pipes and talking about issues endlessly, while Science tends the fire, washes the dishes, mends the clothing, scrubs the floor, weeds the garden, cooks the meals, etc.

In other words: in the end, Science does all the heavy lifting---all the work that really matters---while Philosophy and Theology get a free ride through life.

"Atheism as religion"---Atheists, in general, say that god is *unproved*, not that god is *disproved*. There is simply no good evidence. How can a lack of belief be called a religion? (The quote is hair *color*, not hair *style*, by the way.)


To conclude---a few quotes from Einstein, which show it is ludicrous to try to claim he believed in any sort of god even remotely akin to the Christian god. At the absolute best (from a religionist's perspective), he could be called a pantheist; at worst, an atheist.

1) "Through the reading of popular scientific books I soon reached the conviction that much in the stories of the Bible could not be true. The consequence was a positively fanatic orgy of freethinking coupled with the impression that youth is intentionally being deceived by the state through lies; it was a crushing impression. Mistrust of every kind of authority grew out of this experience, a skeptical attitude toward the convictions that were alive in any specific social environment - an attitude that has never again left me, even though, later on, it has been tempered by a better insight into the causal connections."

2) "It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it."

3) "I have repeatedly said that in my opinion the idea of a personal God is a childlike one. You may call me an agnostic, but I do not share the crusading spirit of the professional atheist whose fervor is mostly due to a painful act of liberation from the fetters of religious indoctrination received in youth. I prefer an attitude of humility corresponding to the weakness of our intellectual understanding of nature and of our own being."

4) "From the viewpoint of a Jesuit priest I am, of course, and have always been an atheist."

Iron Soul said...

Thanks for the comment Jim. I think you filled in some of my weak areas for me.