Home » Kiosk » Kiosk Article » Flew’s Supernaturalism versus Secularist Bigotry

Flew’s Supernaturalism versus Secularist Bigotry

Long-time ace atheist, now born-again deist, Antony Flew has now replied to my Antony in Wonderland. In “A Response to Raymond Bradley,” (The Open Society, Vol. 79, N. 4, Summer 2006) he quotes (without citation) one of the arguments that apparently led to his conversion. It is from Gerald Schroeder’s Genesis and the Big Bang (1990):

The answers provided by science for life’s origins are no more satisfying than those provided for the universe’s origins. Since the monumental “Conference on Macro-Evolution” was held in Chicago in 1980, there has been a total reevaluation of life’s origins and development. In regard to the Darwinian theory of evolution, the world famous palaeontologist of the American Museum of Natural History, Dr Niles Eldredge, unequivocally declared, “The pattern that we were told to find for the last one hundred and twenty years does not exist.” There is now overwhelmingly strong evidence, both statistical and paleontological, that life could not have been started on Earth by a series of random chemical reactions. Today’s best mathematical estimates state that there simply was not enough time for random reactions to get life going as fast as the fossil record shows that it did.

Flew describes this as a “remarkable paragraph.” So remarkable, indeed, that he accuses me of being “a secularist bigot” for not having accepted its conclusions as gospel truth.

So why am I not awed by Flew’s appeal to Schroeder’s authority?

First, because Schroeder is an undistinguished physicist with no expertise in biology. He is not the sort of scientist on whom a scientifically untutored philosopher like Flew should rely when entering the contemporary debate about biogenesis.

Second, Schroeder’s Genesis and the Big Bang is no more a serious contribution to science than was Immanuel Velikovsky’s Worlds in Collision (1950). Both are pieces of theology-fiction, written with the express purpose of trying to reconcile the Jewish Torah with accepted science. I’d have to be extraordinarily credulous to join Flew in his genuflections.

Third, in the passage Flew relies on, Schroeder’s probity is put in question. He uses the tactic of distortion-by-selective-quote. Niles Eldredge, a distinguished evolutionary paleontologist, did indeed make the quoted remark. But he made it in order to dispute a detail of evolutionary theory, not to declare the bankruptcy of a naturalist account of the origins of life. Unlike Flew, I can’t easily swallow the product of Schroeder’s dishonesty.

Fourth–and most importantly–although Schroeder’s probabilistic argument can be fleshed out in a dauntingly sophisticated way, it is in fact a sophistical fraud.

The Supernaturalist Argument from Chance and Probability

Proponents of the argument always begin with the assumption that, on a naturalistic view, life can only have begun as a result of “purely chance” or “random” chemical reactions. They then claim that the probability of all necessary elements coming together at random in the right sequence to form something like a simple protein–let alone the first self-replicating organism–is mind-bogglingly small. They say that this probability is smaller by far than the probability of a monkey randomly hitting the 26 keys of the alphabet on an old typewriter and coming up with a page of Shakespeare; smaller than the probability (as calculated by Sir Fred Hoyle) of a blind man solving Rubik’s cube while making one random move every second; and smaller than the probability of a tornado passing through a junkyard containing the bits and pieces of an airplane and leaving a Boeing 747 in its wake, fully assembled and ready to fly. Finally, adopting an air of mathematical invulnerability, they flourish the conclusion that the occurrence of such a chance event in the time allowed would be nothing short of miraculous, and that biogenesis could be brought about only by the intervention of a miracle-working God or what Schroeder goes on to describe as “a metaphysical guide.”

But let’s not be dazzled by all this mathematical virtuosity.

A Refutation by Logical Analogy

It is easy to demonstrate that something has gone wrong here even if one isn’t quite sure exactly what.

By way of analogy, consider the beginnings of life for any given human individual. Start with the assumption that each of us begins life as a result of random chemical interactions between the 3 billion or so base pairs that make up our 20,000-2,5000 genes. Add in the components of our junk DNA (about 97% of the total). Factor in also the components of mitochondrial DNA, however many of them there happen to be. Keep in mind, further, that a typical adult individual’s body is made up of about 100 trillion cells, and that one’s brain alone contains approximately 100 billion neurons each of which has about 7,000 synaptic connections with other neurons and that the brain even of a three-year-old child has about 1,000 trillion synapses. Now let’s ask a good mathematician to calculate the a priori probability of all the foregoing ingredients being randomly arranged as to produce a healthy newborn child. My guess is that any mathematician willing to go along with the unwarranted assumption that all these factors are independent, would find the probability to be so “mind-boggling small” that a nine month gestation period would fall astronomically short of the time allegedly required to get all the arrangements right. The probability of any given individual’s make up being what it is would be nothing short of miraculous. Finally, we could conclude–by parity of reasoning–that all of us owe our origins to the intervention of a supernatural agent. We might even go so far as to conclude that the Holy Ghost is performing his procreative miracles all the time.

I doubt whether even the most gullible creationist would accept the conclusion of this parallel argument. The fact is that no one who knows the slightest bit of embryological theory would ever accept the original supposition that human life results from merely random chemical reactions. On the contrary, we all know that the development of an embryo is a function, not just of chance factors such as which sperm got to the ovum first, but also of a set of natural laws the details of whose application are still being explored by embryologists, molecular biologists and others.

Likewise, no one who knows the slightest bit of evolutionary theory would ever accept the supposition that biogenesis–the beginnings of life itself–is to be attributed solely to mere chance. Darwin and his successors have never said, nor are they committed to, anything remotely like this. Chance may well have played a role. But so did the laws of physics and chemistry. The challenge for biochemists and molecular biologists is not to discover some new biogenetic law but to spell out in detail–and perhaps replicate–the sorts of initial conditions in which the operation of already familiar laws might have performed the trick of producing the first primitive living thing.

The probabilistic argument against naturalistic explanations of biogenesis is a barefaced cheat. We have good scientific reasons to suppose that the origins and makeup of a human embryo do not result merely from random throws of our prenatal DNA dice. Equally, we have good scientific reasons to suppose that the origins and makeup of the first living organism did not result merely from random throws of the prebiotic molecular dice. The laws of nature didn’t suddenly get into gear, as it were, at the point when life began. They were operating all along–from the beginning of the universe, if there was one. Evolutionary theorists, molecular biologists and biochemists may yet have to work out the details of the story. But the same can be said for the embryological story. Neither requires us to invoke the agency of a supernatural being.

Arguably, if “chance” is involved in either case, it is only in that sense of the word in which the “chance” outcome of a particular game of roulette is a function, not of a breakdown of the laws of Newtonian physics, but of our usual ignorance of the precise circumstances–the initial conditions–of their application. I say “usual ignorance” because, as Thomas A. Bass’s book The Eudaemonic Pie (known in the U.K. as The Newtonian Casino) demonstrates, players who make inroads on their ignorance by feeding the appropriate data into a roulette simulation on a computer can substantially increase the probability of their winning. [1] Probability estimates are, or should be, sensitive to information about the initial conditions of the relevant system at any given time. Yet this sort of informational input is lacking in a priori estimates of the probability of biogenesis.

The Apriorist’s Fallacy

There is an important, and oft-neglected, lesson to be learned here about reliance on a priori probability to the neglect of empirical data.

Pure mathematics and logic are the very paradigms of a priori sciences. But by themselves, they cannot give us any information whatever about how the actual world happens to operate. Only applied mathematics, and applied logic, can do that. And those disciplines require us to feed in some empirical premises (whether known to be true, known to be false, or merely hypothetical).

As with computers so, too, with arguments in applied mathematics and logic: the output depends on the input. Hence the saying “Garbage in; garbage out.” Put in a false premise, such as the a priori supposition that the simplest forms of life arose from random chemical reactions, and you are likely to get a false, if not absurd, conclusion. And if you get a false or absurd conclusion, then–by the logical rule known as modus tollens – you should infer that at least one of your premises was also false or absurd.

So, apply modus tollens to the false conclusion that the earth hasn’t existed long enough to produce life. Then you are logically entitled–indeed logically obliged–to reject the supposition that biogenesis was the consequence of purely random events. What you are not entitled to conclude, however, is that life couldn’t have been the consequence of any natural process whatever. You aren’t entitled to conclude, that is, that it must have been brought about by some supernatural agent. Schroeder’s pseudo-mathematical argument–the one endorsed by Flew–is fallacious.

More generally, all such probabilistic arguments are methodologically unsound since they purport to generate factual (empirical) findings about the way the world works by employing purely a priori reasoning.

Curiously, and sadly, for a once-astute philosopher, Flew buys into all this logically shoddy supernaturalist stuff. I don’t. But that doesn’t make me “a secularist bigot.”