Wednesday, November 07, 2007

How Life Went Live

From no less than Stanley Fish in the NY Times, an account of someone who has seen the non-dark:

about Antony Flew’s “There Is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind.” Flew, a noted professor of philosophy, announced in 2004 that after decades of writing essays and books from the vantage point of atheism, he now believes in God. “Changed his mind” is not a casual formulation. Flew wouldn’t call what has happened to him a conversion, for that would suggest something unavailable to analysis. His journey, he tells us, is best viewed as “a pilgrimage of reason,” an extension of his life-long habit of “following the argument no matter where it leads.”

Where it led when he was a schoolboy was to the same place Ehrman arrived at after many years of devout Christian practice: “I was regularly arguing with fellow sixth formers that the idea of a God who is both omnipotent and perfectly good is incompatible with the manifest evils and imperfections of the world.” For much of his philosophical career, Flew continued the argument in debates with a distinguished list of philosophers, scientists, theologians and historians. And then, gradually and to his own great surprise, he found that his decades-long “exploration of the Divine ha[d] after all these years turned from denial to discovery.”

What exactly did he discover? That by interrogating atheism with the same rigor he had directed at theism, he could begin to shake the foundations of that dogmatism. He poses to his former fellow atheists the following question: “What would have to occur or have occurred to constitute for you a reason to at least consider the existence of a superior Mind.” He knows that a cornerstone of the atheist creed is an argument that he himself made many times – the sufficiency of the materialist natural world as an explanation of how things work. “I pointed out,” he recalls, that “even the most complex entities in the universe – human beings – are the products of unconscious physical and mechanical forces.”

But it is precisely the word “unconscious” that, in the end, sends Flew in another direction. How, he asks, do merely physical and mechanical forces – forces without mind, without consciousness – give rise to the world of purposes, thoughts and moral projects? “How can a universe of mindless matter produce beings with intrinsic ends [and] self-replication capabilities?” In short (this is the title of a chapter), “How Did Life Go Live?”

Flew does not deny the explanatory power of materialist thought when the question is how are we to understand the physical causes of this or that event or effect. He’s is just contending that what is explained by materialist thought – the intricate workings of nature – itself demands an explanation, and materialist thought cannot supply it. Scientists, he says, “are dealing with the interaction of chemicals, whereas our questions have to do with how something can be intrinsically purpose-driven and how matter can be managed by symbol processing?” These queries, Flew insists, exist on entirely different levels and the knowledge gained from the first can not be used to illuminate the second.

In an appendix to the book, Abraham Varghese makes Flew’s point with the aid of an everyday example: “To suggest that the computer ‘understands’ what it is doing is like saying that a power line can meditate on the question of free will and determinism or that the chemicals in a test tube can apply the principle of non-contradiction in solving a problem, or that a DVD player understands and enjoys the music it plays.”

How did purposive behavior of the kind we engage in all the time – understanding, meditating, enjoying – ever emerge from electrons and chemical elements?

The usual origin-of-life theories, Flew observes, are caught in an infinite regress that can only be stopped by an arbitrary statement of the kind he himself used to make: “ . . . our knowledge of the universe must stop with the big bang, which is to be seen as the ultimate fact.” Or, “The laws of physics are ‘lawless laws’ that arise from the void – end of discussion.” He is now persuaded that such pronouncements beg the crucial question – why is there something rather than nothing? – a question to which he replies with the very proposition he argued against for most of his life: “The only satisfactory explanation for the origin of such ‘end-directed, self-replicating’ life as we see on earth is an infinitely intelligent Mind.”

... Flew assures his readers that he “has had no connection with any of the revealed religions,” and no “personal experience of God or any experience that may be called supernatural or religious.”

Well, I don't see where he gets the "infinite intelligence" part, but the argument for the insufficiency of materialism is compelling. Still, there are people (Daniel Dennett, David Chalmers) who understand the question but nevertheless work very hard to sweep it under a rug somehow.

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