There is a God
How the World's Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind
By Antony Flew and Roy Abraham Varghese
Harper One, 2007, 222 pages
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - July 15, 2009
Professor Antony Flew was one of the world's most outspoken atheists until he reached age 81 in 2004, when he admitted: "the world's most notorious atheist changed his mind." He tells the tale in his 2007 book There is a God, republished in 2008 as a paperback. Flew's discussion on the titled subject is only 73 pages long. Flew also offers his readers his biography and a description of his activities as an atheist in the first part of the book. The volume also has an essay by Roy Abraham Varghese on the same theme and one by Bishop N. T. Wright on the question of revelation. Flew states he is not ready to accept Wright's view.
Flew outlines his understanding of God on page 92. He says that he accepts Aristotle's view of God who has the attributes of "immutability, immateriality, omnipotence, omniscience, oneness or indivisibility, perfect goodness and necessary existence." He summarizes his thesis on page 93, "it is possible to learn of the existence and nature of this Aristotelian God by the exercise of unaided human reason," in other words, without the need for revelation. This is the very comforting view - a view accepted by many but not all people - that we can prove that God exists by simply looking at the universe that He created.
Flew supports this position in three ways. The first is the age-old and well-known "so-called argument from design," that Flew had rejected for eight decades of his life. The contention is that the design that people see in nature proves the existence of "a cosmic Designer."
Flew states that there is a clear and perfect design in nature that can only be explained by saying that there must have been a designer who designed it. It is like finding an enormous well-constructed castle in the desert. No one would reasonably contend that the castle appeared by chance. It must have been designed and built by someone.
Flew's second proof, on page 114, is that the universe is "finely tuned" for humans. It is like coming across a palace in the desert and, upon entering, noticing steaks and expensive wines on a well-decorated table together with an assortment of fruits and vegetable, polished silverware, dining room chairs with well-groomed servants standing behind each chair ready to serve, air conditioned rooms with a large assortment of books – novels, history, biography – bedrooms with turned down sheets, a welcoming sign, and a host of other amenities and facilities. It should be evident, Flew contends, that the palace furnishings were prepared to accommodate people. So, too, the natural laws show that a "Master Designer" must have arranged these laws for humanity.
Flew's third contention, on page 124, is that humans have two characteristics: they are living beings with "an inherent goal or end-centered organization that is nowhere present in the matter (that is, the flesh and bones) that preceded it." They also have the ability to reproduce, which does not exist in this matter. These abilities, he claims, are so amazing that one cannot say they appeared by chance, but: "The only satisfactory explanation for the origin of such 'end-directed, self-replicating' life as we see on earth is an infinitely intelligent Mind."
What are Varghese's proofs?
Varghese is more expansive than Flew in his attempt to prove the existence of God. He says on pages 161 and 162 that "five phenomena are evident in our immediate experience that can only be explained in terms of the existence of God. These are, first, the rationality implicit in all experience of the physical world; second, life, the capacity to act autonomously; third, consciousness, the ability to be aware; fourth, conceptual thought, the power of articulating and understanding meaningful symbols such as are embedded in language; and fifth, the human self, the 'center' of consciousness, thought, and action."
What are Flew and Varghese saying?
Flew describes a transcendent Aristotelian God who created or formed a perfect world for humanity and then left it to function according to the laws of nature. This is not a personal God, a deity who is involved in human affairs. Flew admits that he does not accept the idea that the deity reveals His will to humanity. Neither he nor Varghese discuss the responsibility that people have to God, if any, or if humans are in anyway rewarded for fulfilling their responsibility and punished for their failure to do so. Their entire focus is on the single issue: can we prove that God exists, to which they answer, "Yes."
Although the two scholars present their proofs as three or five separate ideas, the proof is essentially one, the "argument from design," that the world is designed so that it is perfectly suited for humans and, therefore, must have been formed by a creator who had this suitability in mind and the ability to produce it. The proofs are credible, but not conclusive or entirely convincing.
The contention that the laws of nature are so perfect that they show that there must have been a "cosmic Designer," has at least two problems: (1) Science has demonstrated that people tend to see a pattern when no pattern exists. The ancients saw "clearly" that the sun revolves around the earth and that the earth is flat. People see figures and constellations in groups of stars. Thus, it is possible that there is no perfect design, but we see a pattern only because it is in our nature to see patterns. (2) We know that science is making new discoveries almost daily that establish, in essence, that what we perceive about nature is wrong. Quantum physics has disproved the physics we learnt as youngsters. Thus the "perfect pattern" that we imagine we are seeing today will most likely be shown to be false in the future.
The argument that the laws of nature are finely tuned for humans does prove that natural laws did not result from chance. It is only an argument, nothing more. In fact, it can be argued that natural laws are not finely tuned for humans. They only allow the existence of certain kinds of humans and these humans are subject to all kinds of problems. Many people die from diseases and wars. Every six seconds a child perishes somewhere in the world because of hunger and related causes. As many as 25,000 adults and children starve to death each year, or a total of nine million a year.
Does Maimonides agree that nature can prove the existence of God?
We wrote that Flew and Varghese did not prove the existence of God from the design theory. What did Moses Maimonides (1138-1204), the greatest Jewish philosopher, say? In his Guide of the Perplexed 2:19, Maimonides states that he will "show by arguments almost as forcible as real proofs, that the universe gives evidence of design." By saying "almost as forcible as real proofs," he is admitting, as we said, that he cannot "prove" that there is design in the world.
However, he writes, "What is the cause of this design (of the world and the laws of nature)? The answer to this question is that all this has been made for a certain purpose, though we do not know it (why God created or formed the world); there is nothing that is done in vain, or by chance. It is well known that the veins and nerves of an individual dog or ass are not the result of chance; their magnitude is not determined by chance. There is no doubt that every one of these things is necessary and in accordance with a certain design; and it is extremely improbable that these things should be the necessary result of natural laws, and not that of design."
It is significant that the evidence of design that he found most persuasive is the different motions of the heavenly spheres, which he describes. However, his description does not conform to the current understandings of astronomy. Thus the design that he saw simply does not exist. Thus he has shown, as previously stated, that people see a design where it does not exist.
The argument from design, as Maimonides stated, is persuasive, but it cannot prove that God exists. This inability to prove a designer of a perceived design is the reason why agnostics and atheists remain unconvinced and why Flew was probably unable to accept the argument from design for eight decades.
Dr. Israel Drazin is the author of a series of books on Maimonides, a twelfth century rational philosopher, and the co-author of a series of books on Targum Onkelos, the earliest existing translation of the Hebrew Bible. Both are published by Gefen Publishing House, www.israelbooks.com.