In There Is A God: How The World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind, Dr. Antony Flew writes, “As a professional philosopher I have changed my mind on disputed topics more than once. This should not be surprising, of course, given my beliefs regarding the possibility of progress in philosophy and the principle of following the argument wherever it may lead me.” (p. 56).
He changed his mind on the biggest question of all: Does God exist? In this series, I’ve shared some of what God was doing in his life that led up to this change. Last week I outlined two of the four pieces of evidence that finally convinced him. This week I’ll discuss the other two.
The Origin of Life
The academic life is a life of asking, “how can this be” and searching for answers. Scientists, historians, philosophers, sociologists, linguists, and academics in all other disciplines are committed to continuing the search until we find satisfactory answers. One feature of our universe requiring an explanation is the origin of life. “How can this be—life coming from non-living matter?”
Like all other questions arising from science, the answer is ultimately philosophical. Flew writes,
Most studies on the origin of life are carried out by scientists who rarely attend to the philosophical dimension of their findings….The philosophical question that has not been answered in origin-of-life studies is this: How can a universe of mindless matter produce beings with intrinsic ends, self-replication capabilities, and “coded chemistry”? Here we are not dealing with biology, but an entirely different category of problem. (p. 124)
Flew then outlines three specific problems that must be solved to develop an adequate explanation of how living things came to be. First, why do living things possess “an inherent goal or end-centered organization that is nowhere present in the matter that preceded it.”? (p. 124) He quotes DePauw University philosophy professor Richard Cameron in observing,
Contemporary biologists, philosophers of biology, and workers in the field of ‘artificial life’…have yet to produce a satisfying account of what it is to be alive, and I defend the view that Aristotle can help us fill this gap….teleology is essential to the life of living things. (p. 125, citing Richard Cameron, “Aristotle on the Animate: Problems and Prospects,” Bios: Epistemological and Philosophical Foundation of Life Sciences, Rome, February 23-24, 2006)
Try as they have, no one has been able to offer an adequate natural account of this reality, nor does the future for naturalistic (non-theistic) explanations look promising.
A second problem to be solved is how self-reproduction originated. Flew quotes Scottish philosopher John Haldane’s framing of the problem:
[Origin-of-life theories] do not provide a sufficient explanation, since they presuppose the existence at an early stage of self-reproduction, and it has not been shown that this can arise by natural means from a material base. (p. 125, citing John Haldane, “Preface to the Second Edition,” in Atheism and Theism (Great Debates in Philosophy), J.J.C. Smart and John Haldane [Oxford: Blackwell, 2003], p. 224).
Haldane presents a fact that must be explained, and Flew agrees with many others who find it hard to explain the origin of self-reproduction in purely naturalistic (non-theistic) terms.
The Coding of DNA
A third problem to be solved is the origin of the code and information processing found in DNA (involving the information resident in DNA, it’s transcription into RNA, that being translated to amino acids, and finally assembly into proteins). Flew quotes Arizona State physicist Paul Davies in observing,
…life is more than just complex chemical reactions. The cell is also an information storing, processing and replicating system. We need to explain the origin of this information, and the way in which the information processing machinery came to exist….The problem of how meaningful or semantic information can emerge spontaneously from a collection of mindless molecules subject to blind and purposeless forces presents a deep conceptual challenge. (p. 128-9, citing Paul C. W. Davies, “The Origin of Life II: How Did it Begin?”)
Flew summarizes, “Not only is there no underlying physical principle, but the very existence of a code is a mystery.” (p. 128). Again, no physical (natural, non-theistic) explanation is adequate. See my blog here for more on the information in DNA as evidence of Design.)
Each of these three features of life cries out for explanation. When all three are taken together, the cry is deafening. Scientists working in the field are often honest that they have no natural explanation. Flew cites Andy Knoll, a Harvard biology professor, who states:
If we try to summarize by just saying what, at the end of the day, we do know about the deep history of life on Earth, about its origin, about its formative stages that gave rise to the biology we see around us today, I think we have to admit that we’re looking through a glass darkly here. We don’t know how life started on this planet. We don’t know exactly when it started, we don’t know under what circumstances. (p. 130, citing Andy Knoll, PBS Nova interview, May 3, 2004)
At this point, a person has two choices. One option is to press on with blind faith in materialism, hoping that someday we may find a naturalistic explanation. Flew chose this option for many years. Perhaps this path is best articulated by George Wald, a Nobel Prize-winning physiologist, who said, “we choose to believe the impossible: that life arose spontaneously by chance.” (p. 131)
The other option is to “follow the evidence where it leads” and agree that only a Designer capable of causing this effect can be the reasonable explanation for life. After years of trying to explain away the evidence naturalistically, many come to this conclusion. George Wald did, finally concluding that a “preexisting mind” is the only reasonable explanation of life:
How is it that…we are in a universe that possesses just that peculiar properties that breeds life? It has occurred to me lately—I must confess with some shock at first to my scientific sensibilities—that…It is mind that has composed a physical universe that breeds life…” (p. 131-2, citing George Wald, “Life and Mind in the Universe” in Cosmos, Bios, Theos, ed. Henry Margenau and Roy Abraham Varghese [La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1992], p. 218)
Flew summarizes: “This, too, is my conclusion. The only satisfactory explanation for the origin of such ‘end-directed, self-replicating’ life as we see on earth is an infinitely intelligent mind.” (p. 132)
The Origin Of The Universe
Not only must the source of life be explained, but the origin of the entire universe. However, for many years Flew argued against the universe needing an explanation. During his debate with Craig, he argued, “… our knowledge of the universe must stop with the big bang, which is to be seen as the ultimate fact.” (p. 73) He argued that everyone eventually has to posit something as an ultimate “brute fact”—something that just is, and doesn’t need further explanation. Theists posit God. Atheists posit the universe. But we see and therefore know about the universe, but we cannot see God. Therefore the universe is a better brute fact to posit than God.
What changed Flew’s mind on this point? He writes his discussions on this topic:
…were carried on independent of developments in modern cosmology…before either the development of the big-bang cosmology or the introduction of the fine-tuning argument from physical constants….I confessed…that atheists have to be embarrassed by the contemporary cosmological consensus, for it seemed that the cosmologists were providing a scientific proof…that the universe had a beginning. (p. 135)
A universe that began is a huge problem for the atheist (see my blog here fore more). If the universe were eternal, it would not need an explanation:
As long as the universe could be comfortably thought to be not only without end but also without beginning, it remained easy to see its existence (and its most fundamental features) as brute facts. And if there had been no reason to think the universe had a beginning, there would be no need to postulate something else that produced the whole thing. (p. 136)
But since the scientific (and philosophical) data shows the universe began, the reasonable person must have an adequate explanation. Flew writes, “If the universe had a beginning, it became entirely sensible, almost inevitable, to ask what produced this beginning. This radically altered the situation [for me].” (p. 136)
However, there may be a way out for the atheist:
Modern cosmologists seemed just as disturbed as atheists about the potential theological implications of their work. Consequently, they devised influential escape routes that sought to preserve the nontheist status quo. These routes included the idea of the multiverse, numerous universes generated by endless vacuum fluctuation events and Stephen Hawking’s notion of a self-contained universe. (p. 137)
Unfortunately for the atheist, these alternative explanations fail in numerous ways. Flew outlines these in the book, which I summarized in my previous post. In the final analysis, Flew concludes the evidence from the Big Bang is substantial evidence that God exists. He especially likes the way Richard Swinburne, emeritus professor of philosophy at Oxford University, frames the argument: “Richard Swinburne’s cosmological argument provides a very promising explanation, probably the finally right one.” (p. 145).
These are the four scientific evidences, and philosophical implications, which convinced Flew that God exists:
- The Laws of Nature require a Law-Giver
- The finely-tuned universe requires a Fine-Tuner
- The origin of life requires an Originator
- The origin of the universe requires a Big Banger
Flew committed his life and academic career to “following the evidence wherever it leads.” It led him to the God of the universe. Did it lead him to the foot of the Cross? I have some thoughts on this. I also have some “take-aways” from the journey I’ve chronicled in this series. I’ll share these final thoughts next week.
Until then, grace and peace.
For further reading see There Is A God: How The World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind