Instead of the traditional April Fool’s confession to a sudden religious epiphany, conversion to an unlikely faith, and abandonment of my previous heathen ways including this whole heretical blog, I’ve actually got some stuff to comment on.
Anyone remember Anthony Flew? He was the most famous atheist on the planet – at least, so we were often told after he decided he believed in God. Given how long he’s apparently been writing books and philosophising and such, it looks like he may actually have been kind of a big deal, despite never making it onto my own radar. I don’t think there’s any real news being brought up in this article – his book describing his change of heart was a couple of years ago now – but what’s surprising is the inanity of the arguments that Flew apparently now finds persuasive, and the kinds of basic, fundamental errors in understanding that abound in his rejection of materialism.
For instance, he has a problem with Richard Dawkins, who published The Selfish Gene in 1976. His complaint is that genes can’t be selfish – they’re only unthinking, non-conscious, microscopic strands of genetic material, after all – which, as a dismissal of Dawkins’ work in biology, is about as coherent as walking out of a production of Hamlet, thirty seconds into the first scene, muttering “Francisco? Barnardo? Who are these people? They weren’t in the title! This play makes no sense!”
I can only imagine he’s never actually read the book itself, and is judging its thesis entirely on the title. And he’s not even doing that well. Terms like “gay gene” have been thrown around fairly commonly lately, and it’s generally understood that it doesn’t refer to a DNA strand which [insert whatever gay stereotype you find most personally offensive and distasteful here], any more than the idea of a “selfish gene” refers to a string of organic molecules gleefully rubbing its hands together and cackling with delight at the thought of all the nucleotides it’s hording for itself. Even if you don’t want the hassle of reading a book before you critique it, how much of a leap does it really take to guess that “selfish gene” might refer to a gene for selfishness (in the same way that we have genes for red hair, green eyes, and so forth), and that the whole thing might not be so obviously and ludicrously wrong as you’d prefer to think? (In fact, that’s still not how Dawkins means the phrase, but it’s not a terrible starting point. Want to actually understand what he’s getting at? Read the book.)
It’s worth noting that his primary arguments against atheism actually seem to be arguments against evolution, as it’s the intelligent design thing that seems to have swayed him most. But this raises the question, what the hell did you think evolution was about for the forty years or so you were an atheist? Especially when you look at quite how simplistic are the lines of unreasoning that have finally changed his mind.
He refers to a statistical analysis by Gerry Schroeder, of the mathematical improbability of getting a perfectly spelt sonnet from a monkey bashing randomly at a keyboard. Even the odds against happening upon a single line, such as “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” are well beyond trillions to one against, so obviously the collection of precisely oriented random events required to produce life are even more remote, and it’s utterly implausible that living beings could have arisen except by the design of an intelligent creator.
Dude. You accepted for decades that the universe could be adequately explained without invoking any divine agency, and this is what finally convinces you otherwise? You’d never thought it through this far before? You’d blindly accepted evolutionary theory all this time without ever noticing that life is pretty complex, and looks unlikely to have just happened randomly? What the hell were you thinking all that time?
I’m too bored of this guy to reiterate just what’s wrong with the probability argument, but I’m guessing he hasn’t read Dawkins’ The Blind Watchmaker either. The Weasel Applet has a much more appropriate model of how evolution actually works (by selecting for randomly occurring small changes, and accumulating numerous, only moderately improbable events over time), and my own page on evolution might help explain some ideas, at least to a better extent than Anthony Flew understands them.