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Originally published December 16, 2004 at 12:00 AM | Page modified December 20, 2004 at 12:41 PM

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Guest columnist

Entertaining the notion of a place of wonder

British philosopher Antony Flew has been called the world's most influential philosophical atheist. As far back as his debates with Christian apologist C. S. Lewis in 1950, he...

Special to The Times

British philosopher Antony Flew has been called the world's most influential philosophical atheist. As far back as his debates with Christian apologist C.S. Lewis in 1950, he argued that there simply wasn't enough evidence for a creator.

Now Flew has changed his mind.

Those who admired his intellect when he was an atheist should listen carefully to his reasoning now — for if a man suddenly becomes persona non grata for changing his mind, then the possibility of reasoned civil discourse withers.

That's a tough warning to heed, however, because Flew takes issue with the bedrock of modern materialism: pre-biotic evolution.

In a recent interview (, Flew points out that even if Charles Darwin's theory of random variation and natural selection can explain how organisms evolved, the theory does not explain one crucial question: Where did a living, self-reproducing organism come from in the first place?

Flew insists that the scientific establishment has simply failed to answer this question persuasively, and he singles out Richard Dawkins, another influential British atheist and leading proponent of Darwinism:

"Richard Dawkins constantly overlooks the fact that Darwin himself, in the 14th chapter of 'The Origin of Species,' pointed out that his whole argument began with a being which already possessed reproductive powers."

If we trace evolution backwards, we reach a primitive single cell from which nothing simpler could survive and reproduce. How did it come to be? This first cell must be produced by something other than natural selection — a point Darwin readily conceded.

Those eager to expunge God's fingerprints from nature weren't concerned by this shortcoming in Darwin's material explanation for life, because Darwin and his contemporaries thought a single cell was a simple blob of protoplasm. How hard could it be for nature to randomly produce something so simple?

In those days the cell was a black box, a mystery. But in the 20th century, scientists were able to open that black box and peek inside. There they found not a simple blob, but a world of complex circuits, miniaturized motors and digital code.

We now know that even the simplest functional cell is almost unfathomably complex, containing at least 250 genes and their corresponding proteins.

Explains New Zealand geneticist Michael Denton, each cell "is in effect a veritable micro-miniaturized factory containing thousands of exquisitely designed pieces of intricate molecular machinery, made up altogether of one hundred thousand million atoms."

The odds of a primordial soup randomly burping up even one protein strand of moderate length are dramatically less than one chance in 10 to the 150th power.

It's hard to grasp how long these odds are — one followed by 150 zeros. We know that a lot of strange things can happen in a place as big and old as our universe, but as mathematician and philosopher William Dembski explains in the Cambridge University Press book "The Design Inference," the universe isn't remotely big enough, old enough, or fast enough to generate that much complexity.

Nor have attempts to explain this complexity as the natural outworking of the laws of nature proven successful. The best explanation? Intelligent design.

Most contemporary biologists will have none of this. Harvard geneticist Richard Lewontin is refreshingly open about their reason. He admits their prior commitment to see only material causes forces them to "produce material explanations, no matter how counterintuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that Materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door."

Lewontin's approach isn't science. It's dogma. Flew's method is more objective. He has decided to follow the evidence wherever it leads. "It now seems to me," he says, "that the findings of more than 50 years of DNA research have provided materials for a new and enormously powerful argument to design."

Such evidence has drawn Flew from atheism to a non-specific theism. He isn't ready to accept the God of a particular religion, nor does he believe in an afterlife. The change is, nevertheless, significant. He no longer inhabits a worldview where the miraculous and the irrational are synonymous.

The amazing complexity of even the simplest cell; the information-bearing properties of DNA; the exquisite fine-tuning of the laws and constants of physics that make organic life possible; the Big Bang of the cosmos out of nothing — these signs of intelligence do not compel our belief in a God who thundered from Mount Sinai, lay in a manger or hung from a cross. But the evidence does have metaphysical implications, drawing us to a still place of wonder where such notions can be reasonably entertained.

Jonathan Witt is senior fellow and writer in residence at Discovery Institute's Center for Science & Culture in Seattle.

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