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Mark Perakh's Web Site

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Flew, Schroeder, Varghese: What a company!

By Mark Perakh

Posted November 10, 2007

For the last few years (beginning, I believe, in 2004) a lot of noise has been filling a number of websites regarding the "conversion" of British author Antony Flew from atheism to deism. Recently a new book [1], ostensibly authored by Flew, was published by HarperCollins, wherein Flew's newly adopted deistic worldview is defended. Two Christian propagandists, Roy Varghese and Bob Hostetler, and, indirectly, Jewish religious propagandist Gerald Schroeder seem to have played a substantial role in producing that book. (See, for example, http://pandasthumb.org/archives/2007/11/yet-more-on-ant.html).

Some advocates of theism try to present Flew's "conversion" as a supposedly important event somehow proving their beliefs. Is it indeed an important event deserving numerous posts and articles? Let us see.

To start with, to view deism as closer either to theism or to atheism is a matter of viewpoint. In some respect deism is not much different from atheism [2]. Deists typically do not share any tenets of Abrahamic religions -- they do not believe in the resurrection of Jesus, life after death, a god that is interested in human affairs, and in any other articles of faith of Christians, Jews, or Muslims. Historically some Christian philosophers even viewed deists as just a subspecies of atheists. Therefore the conversion of an atheist to deism may sometimes require no drastic upheaval in his worldview. Since reportedly Flew still remains unbelieving in the tenets of Abrahamic religions, his conversion actually offers little comfort to orthodox believers like Varghese or Schroeder. All that (reportedly) happened is that a certain atheist whose atheism probably was never as strong as some religious propagandists want now to present it, changed nuances of his worldview -- is this indeed a big event?

Another point is the role of Flew in promoting atheistic philosophy. Contrary to what religious propagandists are now shouting with gaping mouths, Flew hardly had ever been the most notorious or most influential atheist. While he wrote many books and articles, even his most widely known early essay (of 1957) "Theology and Falsification," not to mention the rest of his output, has been known mainly within the narrow circle of philosophers of religion. It has had an insignificant impact beyond that circle. Just look at the following short (and far from complete) list of names: Richard Dawkins [3], Christopher Hitchens [4], Sam Harris [5], Daniel Dennett [6], Victor Stenger [7], David Mills [8], etc. Each of the people in this list (plus many others) qualifies as a more influential and better known atheist than Flew. Certainly, if, say, Flew's British compatriot Dawkins suddenly announced his conversion to theism, this would be a much more unexpected and loudly echoed event, far exceeding the effect of Flew's conversion.

One more factoid that is discussed is that Flew is reported to be 84 years of age. Of course, every individual ages at his own rate. The prominent biologist Ernst Mayr, who died at almost 101, seemed to have preserved a clear mind until the end. Recently the founder and leader of a world-famous Russian dance company, Igor Moyseev, died at the age of almost 102 and was reported to be agile and clear-minded until the last day of his long life. Compared to Moyseev and Mayr, Flew is still in early stages of aging. Nevertheless, unlike Mayr and Moyseev, his mental power may be deteriorating at a faster pace. Indeed, he reportedly has problems even with recognizing the names of people mentioned in that newest book [1] which he supposedly has authored.

These facts alone seem to be good reason to take his "conversion" with a grain of salt. (In fact, the new book supposedly authored by Flew seems to be written not by Flew himself, but to a large extent by Varghese and Hostetler [9].) However, let us not concentrate on the question of the ethical propriety of publishing a book that seems to be written in fact by two highly biased ghostwriters using Flew's name as a supposed author. Assume that Flew indeed has sincerely converted to deism and agrees with the contents of Varghese-Hostetler's concoction. What is the significance of that conversion?

I submit that Flew's conversion is a non-event. To explain why I think so, it may be sufficient, besides the above mentioned exaggeration of Flew's role as an influential atheist, just to look at how Flew himself explained his "conversion."

A telltale detail in this respect seems to be Flew's reference (first given, then withdrawn, and then again revived) to the impression he gained from the supposedly scientific pro-theistic arguments by Gerald Schroeder.

While I am not that familiar with Flew's literary output, I am well familiar with that by Schroeder. If Flew was impressed by Schroeder, it means, I believe, that either he never possessed much intellectual power, or perhaps indeed is a victim of the early onset of senility. Being myself just one year younger than Flew, I certainly sympathize with his intellectual deterioration, but it hardly can be ignored if we wish to judge the importance of his "conversion."

To see what I mean, let us talk a little about Schroeder. He is the author of three popular books [10,11,12] where he suggested supposedly "scientific" arguments "proving" the harmony between science and the book of Genesis. My critique of Schroeder's output is found in [13,14,15]. Another critique of Schroeder's publications (by Matt Young) is found at http://www.mines.edu/~mmyoung/BkRevs.htm.

I had a chance to meet Gerald Schroeder in person. It happened a few years ago in Miami Beach, where a conference organized by several religious bodies was held on the relationship between science and religion. Schroeder was a member of a panel and was sitting on the podium next to another author of books propagandizing the full compatibility of the book of Genesis with science, Nathan Aviezer. (I was familiar with the books by both Aviezer and Schroeder, which, I believe, both contain plainly erroneous notions. While Aviezer's book [16] shows his confusion regarding probability [17], Schroeder's opuses show Schroeder's illiteracy in elementary physics, simply stunning given his PhD degree in physics from MIT -- see below.)

When the Q&A period started at the Miami Beach conference, I raised my hand, and was given the floor. I started by saying that the books by Aviezer and Schroeder (highly acclaimed by several speakers) both contained errors. I had not yet finished my first sentence, when Aviezer interrupted me, shouting from the podium, "Give just one example! Give at least one example! Just one example!" When Aviezer stopped shouting, I said, "If you let me speak, I'd be happy to give the examples. Let me start with the errors in the output of Schroeder, and then I will address your errors. Let us look at how Schroeder describes the photoelectric effect….." At this moment Schroeder started hysterically shouting, not letting me say a single additional word. He continued shouting until the moderator said "Please move your debate to the lobby, after the session is over."  I had no choice but to sit down, having thus been deprived of a chance to publicly speak about the errors in Aviezer's and Schroeder's output. (Of course, neither Aviezer nor Schroeder appeared for a discussion after the session.) This episode demonstrated that, besides being stunningly ignorant of elementary physics (see below) Schroeder possesses a good dose of arrogance and lack of interest in truth. One of the displays of his contempt for truth is his claim (in particular printed in the conference's program) that he has been affiliated with the famous Weizmann Institute in Israel. Inquiries made at Weizmann Institute resulted in denials by Weizmann's representatives of having such a person in any way affiliated with that respectable institution. In fact, Schroeder turned out to be affiliated with Aish HaTorah, an Israeli outreach religious institution whose activity is aimed at prodding Jews who lost faith to return to the fold. Nevertheless, the assertions of Schroeder's allegedly being somehow affiliated with Weizmann Institute can still be found in print without any attempt from Schroeder to admit the falsehood of that assertion.

So, let us take a brief look at Schroeder as a physicist. He sports a PhD degree from MIT. I am not familiar with the procedure employed by MIT to grant PhD degrees, so hopefully Schroeder's degree is an exception and does not exemplify the normal level of proficiency of MIT graduates.

Schroeder's ignorance of elementary physics is stunning for a professional physicist.

In my book [13] there is a chapter discussing Schroeder's egregious flops, which would result in an F grade for a freshman in an average community college. I will not repeat all that critique which is also available online [14, 15]. I will provide here just a few examples.

One telltale point is how Schroeder described the photoelectric effect [10]. Let us not concentrate on such minor errors as, for example, his attributing to Einstein the experimental results which in fact had to be credited to Hertz and/or Millikan, although even these misattributions testify to his lack of familiarity with the material he writes about. More importantly, Schroeder obviously is grossly confused about the physics of the effect. For example, he states erroneously that the color of light (i.e. the wavelength) determines the photocurrent. Wrong. The wavelength in fact determines the energy of photoelectrons (measured via the stopping voltage) but does not affect the photocurrent (which is determined by the light intensity). This is the stuff of elementary college physics.

Another really stunning assertion by Schroeder is that masers are devices which emit atoms. What an amazing ignorance! Masers emit electromagnetic radiation in the microwave range. (Optical masers, usually also called lasers, emit visible light.)

One of the especially preposterous assertions by Schroeder is that a system's temperature drops when its volume expands, because the available heat "dilutes" in an increased volume. This is nonsense, known to be such since the work by Rumford at the end of the 18th century when he showed that "heat" (more properly to be referred as thermal energy) is not a "caloric liquid" but a form of motion. This point is routinely discussed in chapters on thermodynamics in introductory courses of college physics.

One more example of the (many) absurdities asserted by Schroeder is his discussion [11] of frames of reference wherein photons are at rest (thus making the flow of time stop). He seems not to know that, according to the special theory of relativity, photons move with the speed of light in all inertial frames of reference, hence frames of reference wherein photons are at rest are impossible.

In his third book [12] Schroeder suggests a formula where a constant is presented as equal to a variable. Some defenders of Schroeder (in email messages) tried to justify Schroeder's absurd formula by saying that, while it indeed is wrong in a classical interpretation, it becomes justified in a relativistic interpretation. This is an invalid argument. First, Schroeder clearly applied his formula only for a classical case. Second, while in a relativistic interpretation the quantity which in the classical case is a constant indeed becomes a variable, the two variables found on the opposite sides of Schroeder's equation vary following two completely different regularities, so Schroeder's formula remains absurd also in a relativistic case.

Schroeder's attempt [10,11] to reconcile the scientific data about the age of the universe with the Genesis story of six days of creation by using theory of relativity shows his abject lack of understanding of relativity (see details both in the article by Stenger [18] and in my posts [13,14]).

The list of preposterous statements revealing a level of ignorance stunning for a PhD from MIT could easily be prolonged.

It is perhaps proper to add that Schroeder's texts show not only his illiteracy in elementary physics, but also in some cases his inability to comprehend even the plain text of the Torah, which he misread in a ridiculous way (see details in [13, 14]).

Now let us return to Flew. If he was "impressed" by Schroeder's allegedly scientific pro-theism arguments, what does that say about Flew's own intellectual prowess today?

Alas, the above seems to show that even if Flew earlier in his life used to be an intellectually strong author, his age-caused decline may have impaired his mental abilities to an extent making his conversion to deism just a subject for a story which may be considered either sad or funny, depending on the observer's vantage point, but in any case without any significance for the theism vs atheism confrontation.

On the other hand, if the information regarding the manipulation of the old man by the likes of Varghese and Hostetler (plus the seemingly flexible moral standards of some members of the HarperCollins's editorial stuff) is confirmed, this would make the story not as much sad as ugly.

References

[1] Antony Flew. There Is a God: How the World's Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind. Harper One, an imprint of HarperCollins, 2007.

[2] Bill Cooke. "Deism". In The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief, Prometheus Books, Amherst, NY, 2007. pp. 240-243.

[3] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion. Houghton Miffin, 2006.

[4] Christopher Hitchens. God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. Twelve Books, 2007.

[5] Sam Harris. Letter to a Christian Nation. Knopf, 2006.

[6] Daniel Dennett. Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. Penguin, 2007.

[7] Victor Stenger. God: The Failed Hypothesis. Prometheus Books, 2007.

[8] David Mills. Atheistic Universe. Ulysses Press, 2006.

[9] Mark Oppenheimer. "The Turning of an Atheist." NY Times Magazine, November 4, 2007, available online: http://www.nytimes.com/glogin?URI=http://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/04/magazine/04Flew-
t.html&OQ=_rQ3D1&OP=57ab0785Q2FzoGnzlQ22Q3B8Q2FQ22Q22u1z1YY4z..zY3za9J9(SpGzY3,
BGobuQ245uaB
.

[10] Gerald Schroeder. Genesis and the Big Bang. Bantam Books, 1992.

[11] Gerald Schroeder. The Science of God. The Free Press, 1997.

[12] Gerald Schroeder. The Hidden face of God. The Free Press, 2001.

[13] Mark Perakh, Unintelligent Design. Prometheus Books, 2003 (Chapter 10).

[14] Mark Perakh. "Not a Big Bang About Genesis." http://www.talkreason.org/articles/Schroeder.cfm.

[15] Mark Perakh, "Confronted with Critique, Schroeder Lost Voice," http://www.talkreason.org/articles/Reply_to_Schroeder.cfm.

[16] Nathan Aviezer. In the Beginning. KTAV Publishing House, 1990.

[17] Mark Perakh. Unintelligent Design, chapter 9. Also available online at http://www.talkreason.org/articles/aviezer.cfm.

[18] Victor Stenger. "Flew's Flawed Science."Free Inquiry magazine, v. 25, No 2; available online at http://www.secularhumanism.org/library/fi/stenger_25_2.html.

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