Flew's Flawed Science

Vic Stenger

 

The late-in-life "conversion" of philosopher Antony Flew from atheism to belief in God has been widely reported in the press.[1] In a recent interview with Gary Habermas, misleadingly titled "My Pilgrimage from Atheism to Theism," Flew explains his new position, which is based more on science than philosophy.[2] Although that interview contains a discussion of other topics-such as the moral argument for God, which Flew does not buy, I will only comment on the science.[3]

Flew identifies his new position as Deism, but does not completely reject theistic revelation. As he tells Habermas, " I am open to it, but not enthusiastic about potential revelation from God. On the positive side, for example, I am very much impressed with physicist Gerald Schroeder's comments on Genesis 1. That this biblical account might be scientifically accurate raises the possibility that it is revelation."

Flew is also impressed by contemporary design arguments: " I think that the most impressive arguments for God's existence are those that are supported by recent scientific discoveries. I've never been much impressed by the kalm cosmological argument,[4] and I don't think it has gotten any stronger recently. However, I think the argument to Intelligent Design is enormously stronger than it was when I first met it.

 

Schroeder's Genesis:


In his 1998 book The Science of God,[5] Schroeder attempts to reconcile the creation story in Genesis with modern cosmology.[6] He explains that the six days of creation in the Bible really span 15.75 billion years "cosmic time," which is a mere 2 billion years above the current best estimate of the age of the universe. The cosmic time for creation is obtained by multiplying the six days of biblical time by the red shift of light at a moment in the early universe called "quark confinement," which is about a factor of a trillion. The red shift tells us how much the wavelength of a particular atomic spectral line in increased because of the expansion of the universe.

According to Schroeder, the first day of creation is eight billion years long. Each succeeding biblical day is half as long as long as the previous one in cosmic time so, by the magic of the exponential function, we arrive at the time of Adam and Eve, at which moment conventional human time takes over. The 6,000 or so years from then to now, in human time, is insignificant on this scale, the last day of creation being 250 million years long.

Schroeder gets the answer he wants by using the red shift at quark confinement. But the universe did not begin at quark confinement. It actually began about a millionth of a second earlier, at the so-called Planck time, when the red shift was twenty orders of magnitude higher. That calculation would have the six days of creation lasting 16x1020 billion years!

Actually, a more sensible red shift would be that at the time when radiation decouples from matter, that is, when "light is separated from darkness." But in the case the six days would only be expanded to fifteen years.

When I first read The Science of God I thought it was a clever spoof on religious apologetics. Come on, Gerald, admit you are pulling our legs!

In fact the creation story in Genesis looks nothing like big bang cosmology, no mater how you try to spin it. In the Bible, the universe is a firmament and Earth is fixed and immovable. In fact, the universe is expanding and Earth rotates about the sun. In the Bible, Earth is created in the first "day," before the sun, moon, and stars. In fact, Earth did not form until nine billions years after the big bang, after the sun and other stars. If Genesis reveals anything, it is that God has a great sense of humor.

 

Fine-Tuning and Intelligent Design:


The mathematically and scientifically illiterate are also easily impressed by other two recent variations on the ancient argument from design, which can be simply stated:

I cannot understand how the universe and the enormous complexity of living things we see around us can have come about naturally. Therefore, they must have been created supernaturally.

In 1802, William Paley could not understand how the human eye, so fine-tuned for the collection of light and formation of images, could have developed naturally. So, he concluded, it had to be designed by God. Now we understand how eyes evolved several times by natural selection.

Today, Antony Flew cannot understand how the universe, so fine-tuned for the manufacture of the materials needed for living organisms, could have happened naturally. So, he apparently concludes, it had to be designed by at some kind of minimal deity.

Apparently Flew is not aware that physicists and cosmologists are not as totally stumped by fine-tuning as he seems to be. While slight changes in the constants of physics could make life as we know it impossible, what about life as we don't know it? We have no reason to believe that our kind of carbon-based life is all that is possible. Furthermore, modern cosmology indicates that multiple universes may exist with different constants and laws of physics. So, it is not surprising that we live in the one suited for us. The universe is not fine-tuned to life; life is fine-tuned to the universe.

I am surprised that philosopher Flew does not see the flaws in the design argument, as exemplified by Michael Behe's "Irreducible complexity" and William Dembski's "Design Inference." They assume that a complex system can only arise out of something with high intelligence. Surely such intelligence is highly complex, and so can only have arisen out of something even more intelligent and complex, in infinite regress. It's intelligent designers all the way down, not Aristotle's first cause as Flew seems to think.

Fortunately, as we know from everyday experience and scientific observations, complex systems develop from simpler systems all the time in nature, with no high intelligence needed. A drop of water can freeze into an ice crystal. Winds can carve out great cathedrals in rock.

And, our relatively complex universe can have arisen out of the simplest object of all-the void.



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Vic Stenger is Emeritus Professor of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Hawaii and Adjunct Professor of Philosophy at the University of Colorado; Member of Mukto-Mona

Notes

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[1] Associated Press, December 9, 2004.

[2] Flew, Antony and Gary Habernas, "My Pilgrimage from Atheism to Theism," Philosophia Christi (Winter, 2004), to be published. On the Web at http://www.biola.edu/antonyflew/index.cfm (accessed December 12, 2004).

[3] See Stenger, Victor J., Has Science Found God? The Latest Results in the Search for Purpose in the Unviverse (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2003).

[4] Craig, William Lane, The Kalm Cosmological Argument. Library of Philosophy and Religion (London: Macmillan, 1979).

[5] Schroeder, Gerald L., The Science of God: The Convergence of Scientific and Biblical Wisdom (New York: Broadway Books, 1998).

[6] I have reviewed this in Skeptical Inquirer 23(4): 67 (1999). See also Has Science Found God?, pp. 165-170.

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