Flew's Flawed Science
by Victor J. Stenger
The following article is from Free
Inquiry magazine, Volume 25, Number 2.
The late-in-life “conversion” of philosopher Antony Flew from atheism to
belief in God has been widely reported in the media.1 In a recent
interview with Gary Habermas, misleadingly titled “My Pilgrimage from Atheism to
Theism,” Flew explains his new position, which he identifies as deism rather
than theism.2 Richard Carrier has also conducted a correspondence
with Flew, which clarifies some of the issues.3
Flew has not changed his mind on the inadequacy of the various philosophical
arguments for God, which he very ably covered in his classic work, God and
Philosophy.4 For example, he still does not buy into the moral
argument, and remains unimpressed by the kalâm cosmological argument.5
However, he says he is impressed by recent claims that science has discovered
evidence for God, although he admits to Carrier that he has not kept up with the
scientific critiques of those arguments.6
Flew does not completely reject the theistic revelation of scientific facts.
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
Flew has also warmed to contemporary design arguments: “I think that the most
impressive arguments for God’s existence are those that are supported by recent
scientific discoveries. However, I think the argument to Intelligent Design is
enormously stronger than it was when I first met it.”
Is Genesis “Scientifically Accurate”?
In his 1998 book, The Science of God, and other works,7 Gerald
Schroeder attempts to reconcile the Bible with modern science. I will only
address the particular claim that Flew finds impressive, that our current
cosmological understanding of the history of the universe was revealed in
Schroeder asserts that the six days of creation in the Bible really span
15.75 billion years of “cosmic time.” This he regards as a successful biblical
prophecy, since it is a mere two billion years greater than the current best
estimate of the age of the universe.
Let us see how Schroeder extracts this remarkable prophecy from Genesis. He
obtains the cosmic time for creation by multiplying the six days of biblical
time by the redshift of light at a moment in the early universe called “quark
confinement.” The redshift tells us how much the frequency of a particular
atomic spectral line decreases because of the expansion of the universe. That
frequency, Schroeder argues, is the only proper clock for measuring cosmic time.
At quark confinement, when atomic nuclei first form, the redshift is about a
factor of a trillion.
Actually, Schroeder assumes a redshift factor of 9.5x1011. A more precise
value, by current estimates, is 4.4x1012, which would have the six biblical days
of creation last 72 billion years. So the biblical prophecy, by Schroeder’s own
method of calculation, is over four times too high.
In any case, according to Schroeder’s choice of numbers, the first biblical
day of creation is eight billion cosmic years long. Each succeeding day is half
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 (plus or minus two billion
years), 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 cosmic years long.
As usual, prophecy is easy after the fact. Clearly, Schroeder played around
with the numbers until he found that quark confinement gave him roughly the
answer he wanted—and even then, he used the wrong number. But in any case, our
universe did not begin at quark confinement. It actually began about a millionth
of a second earlier, at the so-called Planck time. At this time, the redshift
was 1.6x1030. If Schroeder had used this redshift for his calculation, the six
days of creation would have lasted over 1028 cosmic years!
Schroeder claims he chose quark confinement since, in day one of Genesis,
“light is separated from darkness.” But there was no light at quark confinement.
It took about another 400,000 years for light to appear, when radiation finally
“decoupled” from matter. If Schroeder had used the redshift at radiation
decoupling for his calculation, the six days of creation would have lasted only
6,000 years (not to be confused with the 6,000 years since Adam and Eve).
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 Antony’s leg!
In fact, the creation story in Genesis looks nothing like Big Bang
cosmology—no matter how you spin it. In the Bible, the universe is a firmament
and Earth is fixed and immovable (not to mention flat). In reality, 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 reality, Earth did not form
until nine billion years after the Big Bang and after the sun and many other
Fine-tuning and Intelligent Design
Next, let me turn to the two other contemporary scientific claims that Flew
finds impressive—fine-tuning and Intelligent Design. These are no more than
modernized 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 concludes, it most likely had to be designed by at least some
kind of minimal deity.
Apparently, Flew is unaware 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 do not know it? We have no reason to believe that our kind of carbon-based
life is the only form that is possible under every possible variation in
constants and the laws of physics. I have shown that long-lived stars, which are
regarded as necessary for the building of the chemical elements that constitute
living structures, can be expected for a huge range of physical constants.9
Similarly, Anthony Aguire examined the universes that result when six
cosmological parameters are varied by orders of magnitude and found that they do
not preclude the existence of intelligent life.10
Furthermore, modern cosmology indicates that multiple universes may exist
with different constants and laws of physics. In that case, it is no more
surprising that we live in a universe suited for us than it is that we live on
the planet suited for us—Earth rather than Mars or Venus. The universe is not
fine-tuned to life; life is fine-tuned to the universe.
Theists argue that the multiple universe hypothesis is nonparsimonious—a
violation of Occam’s razor. On the contrary, multiple universes are implied by
our best current knowledge. It takes an additional hypothesis, not required by
the data, to rule them out—thus multiplying hypotheses beyond necessity. No one
thinks the atomic model, which multiplied the entities we deal with in physics
by a factor of 1024, violated Occam’s razor.
However, I must emphasize that the failure of the fine-tuning argument does
not rest upon the existence of multiple universes. It fails even for a single
universe, since some form of life might have developed in whatever way that
lonely universe happened to come about. At least we do not currently have the
knowledge to say otherwise.
Finally, Flew says, “the argument to Intelligent Design is enormously
stronger than it was when I first met it.” I am surprised that such a noted
philosopher cannot see the fatal flaws in the Intelligent Design argument, as
exemplified by Michael Behe’s “irreducible complexity”11 and William
Dembski’s “design inference.”12 They assert that a complex system can
only arise out of something with high intelligence. Although complexity is
difficult to define, we can reasonably expect a highly intelligent entity to be
highly complex. Thus, it 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, we can avoid an infinite regress. We can just stop at the world.
There is no reason why the physical universe cannot be it’s own first cause. As
we know from both everyday experience and sophisticated scientific observations,
complex systems develop from simpler systems all the time in nature—with not
even low intelligence required. A mist of water vapor can freeze into a
snowflake. Winds can carve out great cathedrals in rock. Brontosaurs can evolve
And our relatively complex universe could have arisen out of the entity that
is the simplest and most mindless of all—the void.
1. Associated Press, December 9, 2004.
2. Antony Flew and Gary Habermas, “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. Richard Carrier, “Antony Flew Considers God … Sort Of,” The Secular Web
(October 10, 2004), http://www.secweb.org/asset.asp?AssetID=369 (accessed on
December 13, 2004).
4. Antony Flew, God and Philosophy (New York: Dell, 1966).
5. William Lane Craig, The Kalâm Cosmological Argument, Library of Philosophy
and Religion (London: Macmillan, 1979).
6. Victor J. Stenger, Has Science Found God? The Latest Results in the Search
for Purpose in the Universe (Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2003).
7. Gerald L. Schroeder, Genesis and the Big Bang: The Discovery of the
Harmony between Modern Science and the Bible (New York: Bantam Books, 1992);
Science of God: The Convergence of Scientific and Biblical Wisdom (New York:
Broadway Books, 1998); The Hidden Face of God, How Science Reveals the Ultimate
Truth (New York: The Free Press, 2001).
8. I reviewed The Science of God in Victor J. Stenger, “Fitting the Bible to
the Data,” Skeptical Inquirer 23, no. 4, (1999): 67. See also The Secular Web,
December 13, 2004) and Has Science Found God?, pp. 165–170. A detailed critique
of Schroeder’s three books can be found in Perakh, Mark, “Not a Very Big Bang
about Genesis,” Talk Reason (December 2001), http://www.talkreason.org/articles/schroeder.cfm
(accessed December 15, 2004).
9. Victor J. Stenger, The Unconscious Quantum: Metaphysics in Modern Physics
and Cosmology (Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 1995), pp. 235–38; “Natural
Explanations for the Anthropic Coincidences,” Philo 3, no. 2 (2001): 50–67.
10. Anthony Aguire, “The Cold Big Bang Cosmology as a Counter-example to
Several Anthropic Arguments,” Physical Review D64 (2001): 083508.
11. Michael J. Behe, Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to
Evolution (New York: The Free Press, 1996).
12. William A. Dembski, The Design Inference (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Vic Stenger is Emeritus Professor of Physics and Astronomy at the University
of Hawaii and Adjunct Professor of Philosophy at the University of Colorado.