The Magazine

What Hath God Wrought

When an elderly philosopher meets a Dallas business consultant.

Jan 21, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 18 • By LAWRENCE KLEPP
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Theoretical speculation among physicists about what is known as the anthropic principle seems to have moved well beyond his providential account of it. But for Varghese and, apparently, for Flew, it can only mean fine-tuning by an omnipotent being with a keen mathematical mind who generously created the entire universe for the sole purpose of establishing (after a waiting period of about 13 billion years) occasionally intelligent life--us--here on earth.

All this amounts to no more than Flew's newly professed deism, an encore for the Enlightenment's divine watchmaker who meticulously fashions the universe, winds it up, and lets it run without miracles or other meddling. But Varghese can't resist offering, in Flew's persona, tentative but eager endorsements of Christianity that can sound a bit like a pitch for some double-action detergent: "No other religion enjoys anything like the combination of a charismatic figure like Jesus and a first-class intellectual like St. Paul. If you're wanting omnipotence to set up a religion, it seems to me that this is the one to beat!"

If you're wanting a question-begging assertion, it seems to me this one is hard to beat. I lost my own mild-mannered, small-town Protestant faith at about the same adolescent age that Flew lost his, but you don't have to be a skeptic to be put off by the complacent, comfortable tone of this book. It's the sort of thing that incensed Kierkegaard.

For instance, there's the analogy that Varghese offers to make his point that the universe was divinely devised just for us. Suppose you arrive at a hotel in some place you've never visited. You're amazed to get to your room and find your favorite music playing, your favorite snacks and beverages laid out, the latest book by that writer you like on the desk, and so on. You would "certainly be inclined to believe that someone knew you were coming."

The actual Hôtel de l'Univers we find ourselves in looks a little different. It has billions of empty rooms inimical to us and to all life, many of them on fire. We occupy a corner of the obscure room assigned to us, much of it being uninhabitable or under water, and while managing pretty well there at the moment we know that, in the fullness of time, if we succeed in sticking around that long, the source of the room's heat and light will fry us to a crisp just before going out, and that the whole hotel will finally go to pieces, as will the pieces, leaving a pitch-dark nothingness where no reservations are accepted.

If I were Varghese, I'd call the front desk and complain. Maybe an omnipotent agent did thoughtfully arrange these accommodations for us, and the reason they're so dicey and dangerous is--well, Varghese recruits a Panglossian theologian or two to assure us that all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.

Voltaire being unavailable, I will offer on his behalf a few equally plausible possibilities. Maybe a designer deity exists, but He doesn't resemble the God of the theologians. He resembles Rube Goldberg, because a better exercise in elaborately precarious and ironic indirection can't be imagined. Maybe the universe was designed by a quarrelsome committee of gods, in which case the wasted space and the delays and cross-purposes and the eventual collapse of the whole project are just what we might have expected.

Maybe the Epicureans were right. The gods exist, but they are serenely unaware of our existence. Being infinitely more intelligent than ourselves, they have no interest in us and our prosperity, opinions, or sexual habits, just as we have no interest in the private lives of the gnats that live for a summer's day in the woods at the edge of town. Or maybe, "god" being "dog" spelled backwards, the ultimate reality is a Supreme Canine who pensively excretes universes capable of giving rise to similarly perfect, productive creatures. We are just here to walk them.

Drawing inferences about a supernatural orderer and His (Her, Its, Their) characteristics from cosmic order (and from our little cliffhanging niche in the midst of that vast impersonal order) is hazardous work, as David Hume demonstrated more than two centuries ago. Flew made it look even more hazardous in God and Philosophy, and as recently as the new introduction he wrote for the book, reissued by Prometheus in 2005, he was still saying that such cosmological arguments will seem persuasive only to someone who already believes in God. If he's finally been bowled over by them, it's worth noting that they leave eminent cosmologists like Steven Weinberg as unmoved as the Unmoved Mover.