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Book Review: There is a God: How The World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind

EDITORS’ NOTE: When the preeminent atheist of the past 100 years reverses his position and says “there is a God,” it is, of course, an important event and one worthy of everyone’s time to study his reasons. However, as Ismailis, Antony Flew’s reasons are particularly important because they mirror, exactly, our Imams’ advices — highlighted at the end — for our spiritual development. Therefore, in light of the importance of the subject itself, given the sceptical, secular environment we find ourselves today, and the Imamat’s parallel advices, this review of There is a God not only summarises Flew’s reasons in some detail, but also discusses them, briefly, as well.

Antony who?

In 2004, Antony Flew (d.2010), billed as “the world’s most notorious atheist,” changed his mind and decided God does indeed exist. The furore ignited by his reversal is best appreciated from the opening paragraphs of Roy Varghese’s 18 page Preface to Flew’s 2007 book, There is a God: How The World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind.

“Famous Atheist Now Believes in God: One of World’s Leading Atheists Now Believes in God, More or Less, Based on Scientific Evidence.” This was the headline of a December 9, 2004, Associated Press story that went on to say: “A British philosophy professor who has been a leading champion of atheism for more than a half century has changed his mind. He now believes in God more or less based on scientific evidence, and says so on a video released Thursday.” Almost immediately, the announcement became a media event touching off reports and commentaries around the globe on radio and TV, in newspapers and on Internet sites. (p. v)

Associated Press, 2004: “A British philosophy professor who has been a leading champion of atheism for more than a half century has changed his mind. He now believes in God …”

The subject of the story and of much subsequent speculation was Professor Antony Flew, author of over thirty professional philosophical works that helped set the agenda for atheism for half a century. In fact, his “Theology and Falsification,” a paper first presented at a 1950 meeting of the Oxford University Socratic Club chaired by C. S. Lewis, became the most widely reprinted philosophical publication of the last century. (p. v)

Curiously, the response to the AP story from Flew’s fellow atheists verged on hysteria. One atheist Web site tasked a correspondent with giving monthly updates on Flew’s falling away from the true faith. Inane insults and juvenile caricatures were common in the freethinking blogosphere. The same people who complained about the Inquisition and witches being burned at the stake were now enjoying a little heresy hunting of their own. The advocates of tolerance were not themselves very tolerant. And, apparently, religious zealots don’t have a monopoly on dogmatism, incivility, fanaticism, and paranoia. (p. vi)

[I]t is not too much to say that within the last hundred years, no mainstream philosopher has developed the kind of systematic, comprehensive, original, and influential exposition of atheism that is to be found in Antony Flew’s fifty years of antitheological writings (p. vii) [making] Flew’s recent rejection of atheism [an] historic event. (p. ix)

Rare intellectual honesty and courage

Intellectual honesty is noble but, as it is said, “talk is cheap” and why Flew’s courage to publicly “walk the talk,” let alone on the global stage, is rare and captivating. While his courage alone deserves our respect, the reasons for his reversal deserve our serious and sincere study, rather than cavalier dismissals from superficial examinations.

There is a God is a must read for believers seeking, but lacking, a rational basis for their belief.

There is a God is a must read for believers seeking, but lacking, a rational basis for their belief. Similarly, it is also a must read for die-hard atheists so they can see for themselves why a life-time atheist, of Flew’s stature, reversed his position.

Fortunately, There is a God is an engaging, well written, easy read. The prose, lacking superfluous fluff, is crisp with every paragraph on point and to the point. At just over 200 pages of widely spaced, large type, There is a God can be comfortably read in just a few sittings.

There is a God is divided into two parts. In the first, “My Denial of the Divine,” Flew chronicles his life, back to his youth, when the seeds that led him to atheism were planted. While the impatient reader will be tempted to skip Flew’s background and proceed directly to part two — where Flew outlines the reasons for his reversal, I would not recommend doing so. The context Flew sets out in part one is essential to fully appreciate the depth of his life-long commitment to atheism and, therefore, the “historic” significance of his reversal. However, given the above glimpse of Flew’s background, I won’t dwell further on part one of There is a God other than to highlight two interesting facts from his life:

  • Flew’s father was an Oxford University graduate, professor of New Testament studies at Cambridge, a Methodist minister and one of the “leading Methodist writers and preachers in England.” (p. 5)
  • Flew now feels his journey to atheism came “much too quickly, much too easily, and for what later seemed to [be] the wrong reasons” but, nevertheless, “for nearly seventy years thereafter [he] never found grounds sufficient to warrant any fundamental reversal.” (p. 12)

“A Pilgrimage of Reason:” God without Revelation

On the first page of the Introduction, Flew declares: “I now believe there is a God!” However, as mentioned, he sets out his much anticipated reasons — the specific philosophical arguments and scientific evidence for his reversal — in the book’s second part, where he stresses that

my discovery of the Divine has proceeded on a purely natural level, without any reference to supernatural phenomena…. In short, my discovery of the Divine has been a pilgrimage of reason and not of faith. (p. 93)

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.” (p. 89)

Flew: 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.”

In a 2004 interview with Dr. Gary R. Habermas, 1 Flew confirmed he is a deist — that is, one who accepts God but does not subscribe to any particular faith or religion. This is important. It means his reasons for accepting God stand on their own merits, independent of any and all faiths. Nevertheless, his own bias lies with Christianity and, in that interview, he betrayed a surprisingly ignorant understanding of Islam 2.

However, as a deist, Flew clarifies the notion of God he now holds is the “God of Aristotle.” Flew elaborates, quoting David Conway:

“In sum, to the Being whom [Aristotle] considered to be the explanation of the world and its broad form, [he] ascribed the following attributes: immutability, immateriality, omnipotence, omniscience, oneness or indivisibility, perfect goodness and necessary existence. There is an impressive correspondence between this set of attributes and those traditionally ascribed to God within the Judaeo-Christian tradition. It is one that fully justifies us in viewing Aristotle as having had the same Divine Being in mind as the cause of the world that is the object of worship of these two religions.” (p. 92)

Of course Islam, having the same Abrahamic and monotheistic roots as Judaism and Christianity, holds this notion of God as well.

However, despite the intellectual rigour that led him to an omnipotent God, Flew sometimes betrays a freshman’s understanding of the implications. For example, in Chapter 10, “Open to Omnipotence,” he says, “you cannot limit the possibilities of omnipotence except to produce the logically impossible. Everything else is open to omnipotence.” Leaving aside an omnipotent yet “limited” God is, of course, a contradiction, God bound by reason and logic is philosophically naive. Nevertheless, his elementary views here don’t undermine his reasons for reversing his life-long commitment to atheism.

And so, no doubt, the burning question on everyone’s mind is, of course, what changed Flew’s mind?

Flew: Although I was once sharply critical of the argument to design, I have since come to see that, when correctly formulated, this argument constitutes a persuasive case for the existence of God.

Argument from design

In There is a God , Flew states:

Perhaps the most popular and intuitively plausible argument for God’s existence is the so-called argument from design. According to this argument, the design that is apparent in nature suggests the existence of a cosmic Designer…. Although I was once sharply critical of the argument to design, I have since come to see that, when correctly formulated, this argument constitutes a persuasive case for the existence of God. (p. 95)

When Habermas asked “of the major theistic arguments, such as the cosmological, teleological, moral, and ontological, [are] the only really impressive ones that you take to be decisive are the scientific forms of teleology?”, Flew replied “absolutely.” Teleology says natural entities exist for a purpose — that is, designed or purposefully created — as opposed to arising from indifferent, random events as accidents of time.

Unfortunately, however, when the word “design” and “God” are mentioned in the same sentence, the immediate — almost Pavlovian — reaction is “here is a creationist who rejects evolution and science.” And while that might be the case for some, remember Flew was the preeminent atheist of the past 100 years and, so, a little reserve would be wise, even though genetic research he cites provides compelling — if not the most compelling — evidence for design.

Design, however, is evident in many areas of Nature, not just life. For example, the Laws of Nature …

Design, however, is evident in many areas of Nature, not just life. For example, the Laws of Nature and their fine tuning as well as other finely tuned constants of Nature, all of which Flew discusses.

Flew also specifically mentions that “a renewed study of the classical philosophical arguments” (p. 88) for the very existence of Nature — the philosophical implications arising from cosmology — also played a role in his reversal from atheism.

To summarize then, Flew argues the case for design relying on evidence from these four perspectives, devoting one chapter to each:

  • the Laws of Nature,
  • the fine tuning laws and constants,
  • philosophy and cosmology, and
  • genetic research’s revelations about the mechanisms of life.

The Laws of Nature

In Chapter 5, “Who wrote the Laws of Nature?”, Flew points out that the Universe’s laws and its order have long been considered — by both scientists and philosophers — as evidences of the Divine.

What do I mean by the Laws of Nature? By law, I simply mean a regularity or symmetry in nature…. The important point is not merely that there are regularities in nature, but that these regularities are mathematically precise, universal, and “tied together.” Einstein spoke of them as “reason incarnate.” The question we should ask is how nature came packaged in this fashion. (p. 96)

Flew notes that “this way of thinking is not something found only in well-known premodern theistic scientists like Isaac Newton and James Maxwell. On the contrary, many prominent scientists of the modern era have regarded the Laws of Nature as thoughts of the Mind of God,” (p. 96). Stephen Hawking thought of them in similar terms in A Brief History of Time, which Flew quotes. In it, Hawking asked “What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a Universe for them to describe?” (p. 97)

Flew: Einstein maintained that God manifests himself “in the laws of the universe as a spirit vastly superior to that of man, and one in the face of which we with our modest powers must feel humble.”

Similarly for Einstein. In his Preface, Varghese denounces Dawkins’ “patently dishonest” (p. xx) and “deliberate distortion” (p. xxi) of Einstein’s position on God. Flew, citing Einstein’s own words a dozen times, starting with Einstein’s unambiguous declaration “I am not an atheist,” rectifies Dawkins’ misrepresentation and explains that

Einstein maintained that God manifests himself “in the laws of the universe as a spirit vastly superior to that of man, and one in the face of which we with our modest powers must feel humble.” Einstein agreed with Spinoza that he who knows nature knows God, but not because nature is God, but because the pursuit of science in studying nature leads to religion. (p. 101)

In contrast to the Laws of Nature — some of which, like gravity, are self-evident and don’t require “science” to recognise they are objectively real and exist, in Chapters 6, 7 and 8, Flew looks at the evidence for design uncovered from science.

Fine-tuning of laws and constants

In Chapter 6, “Did the Universe Know We Were Coming?”, Flew presents the fine-tuning argument as evidence for God. According to current science, the very existence of the Universe and life depend on finely tuned Laws of Nature. Specifically, several constants which, if varied by the slightest amount imaginable, would essentially “break” the Universe.

Flew, citing cosmologist Paul Davis, effortlessly dismantles and dismisses — as many before and after him have also done — the multi-verse as “vacuous” because “it explains everything and nothing.”

The standard counter to the fine-tuning argument is, of course, the multi-verse theory. It speculates — without a shred of evidence, which it also admits is impossible in any event — there are an infinite number of universes and so one with the proper laws and constants would inevitably exist rendering “fine-tuning” unnecessary. Flew, citing cosmologist Paul Davis, effortlessly dismantles and dismisses — as many before and after him have also done — the multi-verse as “vacuous” because “it explains everything and nothing.” (p. 118). However, the fatal flaw of the multi-verse theory is that it merely displaces the Laws of Nature to a grander level. Flew explains:

What is especially important here is the fact that the existence of a multiverse does not explain the origin of the Laws of Nature…. To ask how the laws governing the multiverse originated is the same as asking for the origin of the Laws of Nature in general…. So multiverse or not, we still have to come to terms with the origin of the Laws of Nature. And the only viable explanation here is the divine Mind. (p. 120)

Classical philosophy and cosmology

Closely related to the origin of the Laws of Nature, is the broader question related to the origin of the Universe itself, which Flew discusses in Chapter 8, “Did something come from nothing?” Flew admits, to avoid an infinite regress, cause and effects must terminate somewhere, at some primal cause. The question is where: God or the Universe itself? Philosophically, Flew argued, absent other evidence, there is no reason to assume God over the Universe, and that was his position (notwithstanding other philosophical arguments — such as the origin and existence of the Laws of Nature — do provide “other” evidence, albeit philosophical, that Flew sought).

Flew: If the universe had a beginning, it became entirely sensible, almost inevitable, to ask what produced this beginning.

Nevertheless, he says “my two main antitheological books were both written long before either the development of the big-bang cosmology or the introduction of the fine-tuning argument from physical constants. But since the early 1980s, I had begun to reconsider.” (p. 135) “If the universe had a beginning, it became entirely sensible, almost inevitable, to ask what produced this beginning.” (p. 136) As Flew points out, both atheists and cosmologists were “disturbed” about the implications so they “devised influential escape routes that sought to preserve the nontheist status quo.” (p. 137) These included the multi-verse and Stephen Hawking’s “self-contained universe.” Still, Flew says, Hawking didn’t rule out a creator. Instead Hawking said, “an expanding universe does not preclude a creator, but it does place limits on when he might have carried out his job!” (p. 138)

With scientific evidence suggesting the Universe started, with a bang, Flew now found greater intellectual satisfaction with God, and not the Universe, as the primal cause. He concludes that “Richard Swinburne’s cosmological argument [that “it is very unlikely that a Universe would exist uncaused, but rather more likely that God would exist uncaused”] provides a very promising explanation, probably the finally right one.” (p. 145)

On conclusions drawn from philosophy vs. scientific deductions vs. scientific discoveries

As an argument for God, the origin of the Universe itself is a philosophical, intellectual deliberation that doesn’t rely on “hard scientific discoveries” per se. This makes it somewhat fluid and unsatisfying for some, indeed many — including Flew himself because conclusions drawn from philosophical arguments change when your intellectual context changes. For example, in his 2004 interview with Habermas, Flew said “I’ve never been much impressed by the Kalam cosmological argument, 8 and I don’t think it has gotten any stronger recently” 1 and yet, in Chapter 8, he endorsed Swinburne’s version of it. Why? Not because the Kalam argument all of a sudden made new sense to him, but because scientific discoveries — or at least what he assumed were scientific discoveries — changed his intellectual context and led him to reconsider the Kalam argument. Note above, however, Flew could only bring himself to say Swinburne’s argument was “very promising” and “probably” correct.

However, when scientists present these theories of what “might be” as deductions or claims of what “must be” — as though these are deductions, these extrapolations, are actual “scientific discoveries,” which of course they are not — then the scientific enterprise is undermined.

However, even conclusions drawn from some “scientific discoveries” can be just as unsatisfying as from philosophical arguments. When scientists lack direct evidence of some aspect of Nature, they interpret indirect evidence they have and theorise — guess or imagine — what they think Nature might be. Theories are, by definition, limited by our existing knowledge of what is possible and our imagination of what might be possible. This is normal, necessary and how new theories are put forward for testing. But, when scientists don’t present their speculations as what “might be” but instead present them as deductions or claims of what “must be” — as though these are deductions, these extrapolations, are actual “scientific discoveries,” which of course they are not — then the scientific enterprise is undermined. Now, instead of researching and studying Nature, it is assumed all there is to be known, is known, and that Nature has no surprises left, nothing new to teach us. Nature, however, has a long history of laying waste to mankind’s best deductions and “proclamations” of “must be.” For example, given a flat horizon, and absent other knowledge, it is very reasonable to deduce the Earth is indeed flat.

Similarly, just last year, in March 2014, scientists announced the “dramatic discovery … from the BICEP2 experiment” 4 which purportedly measured “a signal from the very earliest times after the Big Bang, the closest we could hope to get to ‘creation’ itself” 4 it was said. The news “made the front page of The New York Times on March 17th with the [sensational] headline: ‘Space Ripples Reveal Big Bang’s Smoking Gun.’ Talk of a Nobel Prize and discovery of the century quickly ensued.” 4 But it was all too premature. Just three months later the “dramatic discovery” was laid waste when it was realised the signal detected — which was, purportedly, “Big Bang’s Smoking Gun” — could be mimicked by an entirely different source altogether (in this case, simple space dust). So whilst a signal was detected and measured, it was, firstly, assumed that one and only one source could produce the signal detected (the first — and false — deduction) and, secondly, it was assumed that only the Big Bang could produce that source (a second — and unproven — deduction).

Many so called “scientific discoveries” — like Big Bang cosmology itself — rest on similar deductions, or best guesses, and are, therefore, tentative by definition.

Many so called “scientific discoveries” — like Big Bang cosmology itself — rest on similar deductions and interpretations of indirect data, and are, therefore, tentative, by definition. The deductions may well be correct, but “may” is the operative word, and that is the point. We don’t know because they are deductions. Some new knowledge learned tomorrow may overturn the deductions these so called “discoveries” rest on. Whether or not one finds a deduction compelling and/or intellectually satisfying is, therefore, a subjective, personal opinion or belief.

And so, in Chapter 4, “A Pilgrimage of Reason,” where Flew says:

You might ask how I, a philosopher, could speak to issues treated by scientists. The best way to answer this is with another question. Are we engaging in science or philosophy here? When you study the interaction of two physical bodies, for instance, two subatomic particles, you are engaged in science. When you ask how it is that those subatomic particles — or anything physical — could exist and why, you are engaged in philosophy. When you draw philosophical conclusions from scientific data, then you are thinking as a philosopher. (p. 89)

he oversimplifies the situation.

What if you draw philosophical conclusions from science you don’t know is tentative? Obviously, only tentative philosophical conclusions may be drawn from tentative science. And, if the underlying deduction collapses, so too will the conclusions. Consequently, Flew’s attempt to distance himself from knowledge of science is unwise. If you want to draw valid, robust, sound, stable philosophical conclusions — let alone about something as important as whether or not God exists — you do need to be versed, very well versed, in the science you’re relying on if only to ensure you’re not relying on tentative science.

Although the BICEP2 “discoveries” were quickly exposed as mistaken, the scientific enterprise is not always so efficient — or forthright — in revealing its own mistakes. It is no more immune from human frailties, such as vanity, than any other endeavour. Consequently, scientific deductions can, and frequently do, get entrenched as, and masquerade as, “scientific discoveries” — for generations. It was not for nothing the famous German scientist, Max Planck, said “Science advances one funeral at a time.” And, as Mawlana Hazar Imam noted, “a wise observer once said, it’s not so much what we don’t know that hurts us, but also all those things that we are sure we know — but which are just not so.” 5

What if you draw philosophical conclusions from science you don’t know is tentative? Obviously, only tentative philosophical conclusions may be drawn from tentative science.

Consequently, arguments for God relying on scientific deductions are actually intellectually less robust than purely — though also somewhat subjective — philosophical arguments. In fact, though many philosophical arguments have come down to us from Aristotle’s time, they are still as valid today as they were then.

Fortunately, however, not all scientific results are deductions and real scientific discoveries, genuine scientific discoveries, are made. These, true scientific discoveries have a very different intellectual flavour from both philosophical arguments and scientific deductions. They make nature predictable so bridges stand, planes fly and we can talk to someone on the other side of the planet. True scientific discoveries are stable because they rest on direct evidence — objective evidence — and are not conclusions deduced from indirect evidence. And so, it is noteworthy that Flew singles out the Laws of Nature and discoveries from DNA research as most persuasive. Both of these rest on factual discoveries rather than deductions.

Developments in two areas in particular have led me to [conclude the design argument “constitutes a persuasive case for the existence of God”]. The first is the question of the origin of the Laws of Nature and the related insights of eminent modern scientists. The second is the question of the origin of life and reproduction. (p. 95)

Genetics and DNA research

For Flew and others, including myself, genetic research of the past several decades provides the most robust, if not unassailable, evidence and demonstration of design.

Flew was asked “if recent work on the origin of life pointed to the activity of a creative Intelligence.” He replied: “Yes, I now think it does … almost entirely because of the DNA investigations.”

At Flew’s last public debate, in May 2004, he announced at the start, “to the surprise of all concerned,” (p. 74) that he accepts God exists and that “his conclusion was influenced by developments in DNA research.” 6 During the ensuing discussion — which he says “might have been an intense exchange of opposing views ended up as a joint exploration of the developments in modern science that seemed to point to a higher Intelligence” (p. 74) — Flew was asked “if recent work on the origin of life pointed to the activity of a creative Intelligence.” (p. 74) He reiterated his position, replying:

Yes, I now think it does … almost entirely because of the DNA investigations [emphasis added]. (p. 74)

Now, evolution and neo-Darwinism — evolution through genetic mutations — are the cornerstone, the linchpin, of atheist orthodoxy because with evolution, we are told, Darwin supposedly gave us “design without a Designer.” 3 Evolution is, therefore, hallowed ground, sacred ground, for atheists. Dissent — or even the hint of it, by anyone, much less “one of their own” — will not, cannot, be tolerated at any cost. And so, the moment the word “design” and “life” are uttered together, shrill cries of apostasy ring out from all the usual suspects as they launch headlong into their predicable, dare I say evangelical, defence of evolution, laced, of course, with all the requisite scorn, ridicule, character assassinations and accusations of “unscientific religious creationism,” as cited above from Varghese’s Preface. Fortunately, burning at the stake is no longer legal. Yet in all the din, many subtle, and not so subtle, points are lost — or perhaps deliberately ignored. And it is these that Flew, and others, rely on when they draw on design for their arguments.

In particular, insofar as the design argument is applied to life, the issue is not whether or not life, after appearing, follows evolution in its development, but rather, how, exactly, life appeared in the first place. In other words, the issue is not about the evolution of life, but the origin of life itself. Specifically, here is how Flew — and others, including Darwin himself — see the issue:

It seems to me that Richard Dawkins constantly overlooks the fact that Darwin himself, in the fourteenth chapter of The Origin of Species, pointed out that his whole argument began with a being which already possessed reproductive powers [emphasis added]. This is the creature the evolution of which a truly comprehensive theory of evolution must give some account. Darwin himself was well aware that he had not produced such an account. 1

And this is where genetic and DNA research has put a rather large fly in the atheist orthodoxy ointment.

In other words, the issue is not about the evolution of life, but the origin of life itself…. And this is where the evidence from genetic and DNA research has put a rather large fly in the atheist orthodoxy ointment.

What happens after life appears is another issue altogether, which although Flew doesn’t raise, a whole host of other discoveries from DNA research have also rendered neo-Darwinian evolution all but impossible. Mutation rates are just one example. These can and have been measured and it turns out genes are very stable. Far too stable, fortunately. And this severely limits how much change they can produce within the age of the Universe, let alone the Earth. For a detailed explanation, I recommend Chapters 9, 10 and 12 of Stephen Meyer’s 2014 book, Darwin’s Doubt.

Flew’s position is that life is an unforgiving enigma that is impossible to explain without design for many reasons, only a few of which he touches on. For example, quoting David Conway, he highlights two “philosophical quandaries:”

The first challenge is to produce a materialistic explanation for “the very first emergence of living matter from non-living matter. In being alive, living matter possesses a teleological organization that is wholly absent from everything that preceded it.”

The second challenge is to produce an equally materialist explanation for “the emergence, from the very earliest life-forms which were incapable of reproducing themselves, of life-forms with a capacity for reproducing themselves. Without the existence of such a capacity, it would not have been possible for different species to emerge through random mutation and natural selection. Accordingly, such mechanism cannot be invoked in any explanation of how life-forms with this capacity first ‘evolved’ from those that lacked it.” (p. 125)

Another, and more compelling, example Flew mentions is the “unbelievable complexity” (p. 123) surrounding living cells’ operations which decades of painstaking research has uncovered. Design opponents — like Dawkins — will of course immediately cry “God-of-the-gaps” as if saying so makes complexity irrelevant. However, this is not the over simplified its-too-complex-so-it-must-have-been-designed argument they misrepresent the matter as. Rather, decades of DNA research has discovered — not deduced — solid, quantified, scientifically objective (as opposed to philosophical, logical or argumentative) evidence of design. This research and its results, however, rarely, if ever, makes its way into material written for lay audiences. One such example is the discovery of a rich “coding and information processing central to all life-forms.” (p. 126) As Flew, citing others, explains, the problem is “a deep conceptual challenge” (p. 126) unresolvable without design.

The problem is how semantic information came to be coded in the DNA itself. The standard speculation is it happened by accident. And yes, up to now it was reasonable to think it may well have happened that way, but now it is known it couldn’t for a number of reasons.

It is well known the DNA contains semantic information — that is meaningful information, as opposed to random letters of some genetic alphabet. The problem is how semantic information came to be coded in the DNA itself. The standard speculation is it happened by accident. And yes, up to now it was reasonable to think it may well have happened that way, but now it is known it couldn’t for a number of reasons.

For example, proteins are chains of amino acids linked together in the order specified by DNA. Not all sequences of amino acids produce functional proteins and the probability of producing a function protein of just 150 amino acids is about 10164. This is 1 with 164 zeros after it. To put this in perspective, the odds of winning the $500,000,000 Powerball lottery jackpot is about 2×108 or 2 followed by just 8 zeros. However, we know that if you have lots of chances to play — known as your probabilistic resources — your odds increase. Similarly, the probability for forming a functional 150 amino acid protein increases with more chances to try. Now, the probabilistic resources of the entire Universe — which is the total number of events (specifically all possible interactions of all elementary particles that exist) that have happened since the Universe’s creation — can and has been calculated. It is 10139. This puts a hard upper limit of the number times 150 amino acids get to try and form a functional protein, randomly. Now if we want to reduce those odds to 50-50, then at least half of the possible 10164 amino acids need to be created. Half is not 1082, but 5×10163 — just half a zero less — and 1024 (a trillion, trillion) more amino acids than the Universe allows. So the chances of it being created is just one in a trillion, trillion — the same as winning three Powerball lotteries in a row with just three tickets — assuming everything in the Universe has always been focused on making just that one protein. But that’s just one protein. And a short one at that. Others have 3,000 amino acids. The odds of the Universe creating all the proteins necessary to service a minimally complex cell is 1041,000, which completely dwarfs the probabilistic resources of the Universe’s 10139 possible events by 1040,861. 10 And that is why Flew correctly points out “physicists’ view of the age of the Universe gives too little time for these theories of abiogenesis to get the job done.” (p. 124) Remember too, all this must happen on our very young, very limited and very insignificant — compared to the Universe — planet and so it doesn’t even matter if the Universe turns out to be infinite.

And that is why Flew correctly points out “physicists’ view of the age of the Universe gives too little time for these theories of abiogenesis to get the job done.”

For a comprehensive discussion — from peer reviewed literature — of this and related dilemmas (each of which is sufficient to discount the it-happened-by-accident speculation), I recommend Chapters 8-10 of Stephen Meyer’s first book from 2009, Signature in the Cell, which I will review here at a later date.

However, semantic information in the DNA is only the tip of the iceberg. Next, Flew points out an even more perplexing and profound dilemma: the information processing “hardware” which not only understands that semantic knowledge but also transforms the knowledge into real, physical entities (functional proteins) within the cell. And this is where design really begins to show its muscle.

By way of analogy, consider, for example, knowledge contained in manufacturing blueprints. That knowledge is worthless — and irrelevant — unless it can be deciphered, understood and used by machinery to manufacture the item specified.

Next, Flew points out an even more perplexing and profound dilemma: the information processing “hardware” which not only understands that semantic knowledge but also transforms the knowledge into real, physical entities (functional proteins) within the cell. And this is where design really begins to show its muscle.

Similarly, just as Microsoft Windows software will only function on hardware compatible with it — and won’t function on Apple computer hardware — so too the DNA’s “software” must compatible with cell’s decoding “hardware,” for otherwise the DNA’s information is unusable, worthless. In other words, without design, several very complex, tightly integrated, intricate, functional systems — the coding language alongside the decoding and manufacturing hardware — must all arise randomly and independently of each other, yet still work together as a whole, because otherwise life would simply cease to function, right from the outset.

But wait, there’s more! The enigma doesn’t even end there. All the hardware itself is made of proteins assembled from the software in the DNA. In other words, the designs to build the decoding hardware is locked in the DNA itself and can’t be constructed unless it first exists itself. What we have is an intractable, mutual dependence known as a deadly embrace. The chicken and egg riddle is no longer a farmer’s joke. Again, I suggest Meyer’s Signature in the Cell for the definitive explanation and proof of these and many, many other conceptual dilemmas genetic research has uncovered.

In other words, the designs to build the decoding hardware is locked in the DNA itself and can’t be constructed unless it first exists itself. What we have is an intractable, mutual dependence known as a deadly embrace.

Ismaili philosophy and Flew

As outlined above, three lines of argument and evidences compelled Flew to reverse his life-long commitment to atheism:

  • A “renewed study of the classical philosophical arguments” (p. 88) on the very existence of Creation.
  • The laws, order and rationality of Nature.
  • Scientific discoveries, particularly DNA research.

All of these expose design and thus a Designer. As Muslims we call such evidences of God, signs or ayats. What most probably don’t know is our Imams have indicated these very same three intellectual dimensions are critical and essential for our spiritual development. Some examples appear below. That these same three, specifically, led Flew to God — after 70 years and as “the world’s most notorious atheist” — is a powerful and compelling testament not only to their importance, but also to the validity and importance of following our Imams’ guidance.

The Imamat on Philosophy

Time and time again Mawlana Sultan Muhammad Shah advised the jamat that “your religion teaches you to think deeply and apply your reason” 7 and to study philosophy:

If you study philosophy you will be able to approach God Most High. Pir Shams, Pir Sadardin, Mawlana Rumi studied much philosophy and they had also studied the Qur’an and its meaning. From where has the soul come? To where shall it return? Those who read the books of philosophy know all this. Do not think that only Pir Shams, Pir Sadardin, and Mawlana Rumi can become like that. You also, if you take the trouble to study, you can become like them. Such ilm is obligatory for you. I will leave philosophy for you, study it and comprehend it. There is great courage in this. [Emphasis added]

Mawlana Sultan Muhammad Shah
Zanzibar, 14 September 1899

The Imamat on The Laws of Nature

Flew’s remark cited earlier — that his discovery of the Divine “proceeded from a natural level” — along with his, Einstein’s, Hawking’s and others’ realisation that the Laws of Nature are themselves evidence of design and the Divine parallel, exactly, Ismaili philosophy as Mawlana Sultan Muhammad Shah explained:

Islam is fundamentally in its very nature a natural religion. Throughout the Qur’an God’s signs (ayats) are referred to as the natural phenomenon, the law and order of the Universe, the exactitudes and consequences of the relations between natural phenomenon in cause and effect…. Alas, Islam, which is a natural religion in which God’s miracles are the very law and order of nature, drifted away and still drifting away, even in Pakistan, from science which is the study of those very laws and orders of nature. [Emphasis added]

Mawlana Sultan Muhammad Shah
Letter to H.E. Dr. Zahid Husain, President of Arabiyyah Jamiyyat (Karachi, Pakistan), 4 April 1952

The Qur’an, Prophet and Imamat on science

In 1983, in New York, Mawlana Hazar Imam said

those who are most qualified in scientific subjects today are often the most humble and the most convinced in their attitude to the existence of Allah. [Emphasis added]

Mawlana Hazar Imam
New York, USA, 14 June 1983

Note his emphasis on having knowledge of science — which doesn’t mean you have to be a credentialed scientist, but merely one who has taken the trouble and pains to be well versed in the science one is relying on as evidence of God. Nevertheless, Hazar Imam singles out such people simply because science provides the evidence to recognize design, and thus God, as it did for Flew. Little wonder, then, in the Qur’an itself, God calls on believers to study and reflect on nature, as Hazar Imam reminds us:

The Holy Qu’ran’s encouragement to study nature and the physical world around us gave the original impetus to scientific enquiry among Muslims. [Emphasis added]

Mawlana Hazar Imam
Faculty of Health Sciences of the Aga Khan University and Aga Khan University Hospital Inauguration Ceremony (Karachi, Pakistan), 11 November 1985

In 1956, Mawlana Sultan Muhammad Shah specifically advised the India Ismaili Association (now ITREB) that “The young Waezin should each try and find new arguments based on the discoveries in all branches of science …”

Indeed, even the Prophet himself (pbuh) stressed “the lessons of science” over even religious exercises:

To listen to the words of the learned and to instill into others the lessons of science is better than religious exercises. [Emphasis added]

Abdullah Al-Mamun Al-Suhrawardy, The Sayings of Muhammad, #435
Marmaduke Pickthall, Madras Lecture “Islamic Culture”, 1927

Conclusion

That God exists is not — and never has been — a matter of just “faith” or “belief,” but rather His existence can be confirmed, philosophically and scientifically, with the above three lines of argument and evidence, each of which is specifically endorsed by our Imams, the Qur’an and the Prophet himself (pbuh). Reflecting on the evidence from science — and appreciating how and why it indicates design, and thus God — may well be the most important intellectual facet of intellectual faith traditions, like Ismailism, and perhaps never more so than today.

Reflecting on the evidence from science — and appreciating how and why it indicates design, and thus God — may well be the most important intellectual facet of intellectual faith traditions, like Ismailism, and perhaps never more so than today.

At a time when many believe science has, once and for all, eliminated God, science has, on the contrary, done the very opposite. It has advanced to such a stage that it now confirms God’s existence with such force, that even “the world’s most notorious atheist” was obliged to agree after a lifetime of atheism, and that — notwithstanding its minor flaws — is the real message and value of There is a God and why it should be read by all.

But to those still unsatisfied that these lines of evidence — individually and/or collectively — validate God’s existence, Flew says:

Now it often seems to people who are not atheists as if there is no conceivable piece of evidence that would be admitted by apparently scientific-minded dogmatic atheists to be a sufficient reason for conceding “There might be a God after all.” I therefore put to my former fellow-atheists the simple central question: “What would have to occur or to have occurred to constitute for you a reason to at least consider the existence of a superior Mind?” (p. 88)

About the Reviewer

Mohib Ebrahim is the Editor and Publisher of the NanoWisdoms Archive of Imamat Speeches, Interviews and Writings. An honours graduate of Simon Fraser University in Computer Science and Mathematics, Mohib has been involved in software development and the IT industry since the ’80s. His religious interests lie in understanding the intersection of faith and reason: validation of faith and the nature of truth.

Credits

Image: https://www.flickr.com/photos/nebarnix/357596223 (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Footnotes
  1. “My Pilgrimage from Atheism to Theism: A Discussion between Antony Flew and Gary Habermas”, DigitalCommons@Liberty University, Winter 2004.
  2. As an aside irrelevant to Flew’s reasons for his conversion, There is a God has a curious anomaly. In contrast to his extensive discussion on Christianity and Jesus — and Judaism’s position on the same — in Appendix B, “The Self-Revelation of God in Human History: A Dialogue on Jesus with N.T. Wright,” curiously, Flew only mentions Islam twice in his book. The reason for this anomaly, it would seem, can be found in his interview with Habermas 1 where his remarks about Islam, the Prophet and the Qur’an betray a gross — if not malicious — ignorance of even Islam’s most basic tenets, beliefs or even recent history.

    Habermas asked Flew if he thought Bertrand Russell, J. L. Mackie, and A. J. Ayer — all towering 20th century atheists — would have been “bothered or even angered” by Flew’s conversion to theism. As Flew explains in There is a God, his conversion rests, partially, on Aristotle’s philosophy, and so Flew replied “I’m not sure how much any of them knew about Aristotle” suggesting their ignorance of Aristotle led them to their misplaced conclusions. Similarly, given Flew’s tectonic reversal demanded significant intellectual honesty and courage on his part, I am inclined to give Flew the same benefit of the doubt he gave to Russell, Mackie and Ayer, and assume had Flew not been so ignorant of Islam, his remarks would have been more enlightened and more worthy of him.

  3. Francisco Ayala, quoted in Stephen Meyer’s Signature in the Cell, p. 19, Harper-Collins, 2009.
  4. Marcelo Gleiser, Cosmic Confusion: It’s How Science Gets Done, 25 June 2014, accessed 18 July 2015
  5. Mawlana Hazar Imam, Aga Khan Academy, Mombasa, Residential Campus, Foundation Stone Ceremony (Mombasa, Kenya), 14 August 2007
  6. “World’s Most Famous Atheist Accepts Existence of God, Cites Modern Science!” Press Release, 9 December 2004, thewonderoftheworld.com
  7. Mawlana Sultan Muhammad Shah, Usul e Din, Zanzibar, 29 September 1899.
  8. The temporal, Kalam Cosmological Argument, dates back to medieval Muslim philosophers such as al-Kindi and al-Ghazali…. Like all cosmological arguments, the Kalam Cosmological Argument is an argument from the existence of the world or Universe to the existence of God. The existence of the Universe, such arguments claim, stands in need of explanation. The only adequate explanation, the arguments suggest, is that it was created by God. What distinguishes the Kalam Cosmological Argument from other forms of cosmological argument is that it rests on the idea that the Universe has a beginning in time. Modal forms of the cosmological argument are consistent with the Universe having an infinite past. According to the Kalam Cosmological Argument, however, it is precisely because the Universe is thought to have a beginning in time that its existence is thought to stand in need of explanation. This argument has the following logical structure:
    1. Everything that has a beginning of its existence has a cause of its existence.
    2. The Universe has a beginning of its existence.
    3. Therefore: The Universe has a cause of its existence.
    4. If the Universe has a cause of its existence then that cause is God.
    5. Therefore: God exists. 9
  9. The Kalam Cosmological Argument, philosophyofreligion.info, accessed July 2015.
  10. Stephen Meyer, Signature in the Cell, p. 217-219, Harper-Collins, 2009.

One thought on “Book Review: There is a God: How The World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind

  1. Thank you for this very well written review of Flew’s book. I have also found Michael Behe an excellent read. In particular Darwin’s Black Box and Edge of Evolution.

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