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Re: Anyone who's searching for an answer
 
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Published: 15 years ago
 
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Re: Anyone who's searching for an answer


Antony Flew Considers God...Sort Of

Richard Carrier

Antony Flew is considering the possibility that there might be a God. Sort of. Flew is one of the most renowned atheists of the 20th century, even making the shortlist of "Contemporary Atheists" at About.com. So if he has changed his mind to any degree, whatever you may think of his reasons, the event itself is certainly newsworthy. After hearing of this, I contacted Antony directly to discuss it, and I thought it fitting to cut short any excessive speculation or exaggeration by writing a brief report on, well, what's going on.

Once upon a time, a rumor hit the internet that Flew had converted to Christianity. The myth appeared in 2001 and popped up again in 2003. On each occasion, Flew refuted the claim personally, standing by his response to its first occasion with his own reply for publication at the Secular Web (Antony Flew, "Sorry to Disappoint, but I'm Still an Atheist!" 2001). So I was quite skeptical the third time around. But this time, things have indeed changed somewhat from where Flew stood in his 2001 article. Antony and I exchanged letters on the issue recently, and what I report here about his current views comes from him directly.

The news of his "conversion" this time came from a number of avenues, but the three I have good information on are an interview with Gary Habermas soon to be published by Philosophia Christi in which Flew appears to depart from his past views about God, a letter Flew wrote to a popular philosophy journal expressing doubts about the ability of Science to explain the origin of life ("On Darwinism and Theology," Philosophy Now 47, August/September 2004, p. 22; cf. also Flew's Review of Roy Varghese's The Wonder of the World), and, just recently on national TV (the October 9 episode of "Faith Under Fire"), J. P. Moreland used Flew's "conversion" as an argument for supernaturalism.

The fact of the matter is: Flew hasn't really decided what to believe. He affirms that he is not a Christian--he is still quite certain that the Gods of Christianity or Islam do not exist, that there is no revealed religion, and definitely no afterlife of any kind (he stands by everything he argued in his 2001 book Merely Mortal: Can You Survive Your Own Death?). But he is increasingly persuaded that some sort of Deity brought about this universe, though it does not intervene in human affairs, nor does it provide any postmortem salvation. He says he has in mind something like the God of Aristotle, a distant, impersonal "prime mover." It might not even be conscious, but a mere force. In formal terms, he regards the existence of this minimal God as a hypothesis that, at present, is perhaps the best explanation for why a universe exists that can produce complex life. But he is still unsure. In fact, he asked that I not directly quote him yet, until he finally composes his new introduction to a final edition of his book God and Philosophy, due out next year. He hasn't completed it yet, precisely because he is still examining the evidence and thinking things over. Anything he says now, could change tomorrow.

I also heard a rumor that Flew claimed in a private letter that the kalam cosmological argument proved the existence of God (see relevant entries in Cosmological Arguments). But he assures me that is not what he believes. He said that, at best, the kalam is an argument for a first cause in the Aristotelian sense, and nothing more--and he maintains that, kalam or not, it is still not logically necessary that the universe had a cause at all, much less a "personal" cause. Flew's tentative, mechanistic Deism is not based on any logical proofs, but solely on physical, scientific evidence, or the lack thereof, and is therefore subject to change with more information--and he confesses he has not been able to keep up with the relevant literature in Science and theology, which means we should no longer treat him as an expert on this subject (as Moreland apparently did).

Once Flew gives me permission to quote him I will expand this article with more information about his views and the reasons for them. That will have to wait for when Flew himself has finally mulled things over and come to something like a stable decision about what he thinks is most probable, and that may not happen until the release of his 2005 edition of God and Philosophy. For now, I think his view can best be described as questioning, rather than committed. And there is much to criticize in his rationale even for considering Aristotelian Deism. He is most impressed, he says, by Gerald Schroeder's book The Hidden Face of God: How Science Reveals the Ultimate Truth (2001), but Schroeder (a Jewish theologian and physicist) has been heavily criticized for "fudging" the facts to fit his argument--see Mark Perakh, "Not a Very Big Bang about Genesis" (1999); Victor Stenger, "Flew's Flawed Science"; and my own discussion in "Are the Odds Against the Origin of Life Too Great to Accept?" (2000), as well as my peer-reviewed article "The Argument from Biogenesis," Biology & Philosophy 19.5 (November, 2004), pp. 739-64. Flew points out that he has not yet had time to examine any of the critiques of Schroeder. Nor has he examined any of the literature of the past five or ten years on the science of life's origin, which has more than answered his call for "constructing a naturalistic theory" of the origin of life. This is not to say any particular theory has been proven--rather, there are many viable theories fitting all the available evidence that have yet to be refuted, so Flew cannot maintain (as in his letter to Philosophy Now) that it is "inordinately difficult even to begin to think about" such theories. I have pointed all this out to him, and he is thinking it over.

For now, the story of Antony Flew's change of mind should not be exaggerated. We should wait for him to complete his investigation of the matter and declare a more definite conclusion, before claiming he has "converted," much less to any particular religious view.

Update (December 2004)

Flew has now given me permission to quote him directly. I asked him point blank what he would mean if he ever asserted that "probably God exists," to which he responded (in a letter in his own hand, dated 19 October 2004):

I do not think I will ever make that assertion, precisely because any assertion which I am prepared to make about God would not be about a God in that sense ... I think we need here a fundamental distinction between the God of Aristotle or Spinoza and the Gods of the Christian and the Islamic Revelations.
Rather, he would only have in mind "the non-interfering God of the people called Deists--such as Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin." Indeed, he remains adamant that "theological propositions can neither be verified nor falsified by experience," exactly as he argued in "Theology and Falsification." Regarding J. P. Moreland using Flew in support of Moreland's own belief in the supernatural, Flew says "my God is not his. His is Swinburne's. Mine is emphatically not good (or evil) or interested in human conduct" and does not perform miracles of any kind. Furthermore, Flew took great care to emphasize repeatedly to me that:

My one and only piece of relevant evidence [for an Aristotelian God] is the apparent impossibility of providing a naturalistic theory of the origin from DNA of the first reproducing species ... [In fact] the only reason which I have for beginning to think of believing in a First Cause god is the impossibility of providing a naturalistic account of the origin of the first reproducing organisms.
He cites, in fact, the improbability arguments of Schroeder, which I have refuted online, and the entire argument to the impossibility of natural biogenesis I have refuted in Biology & Philosophy.

So what of the claim that Flew was persuaded by the Kalam Cosmological Argument? Flew "cannot recall" writing any letter to Geivett claiming "the kalam cosmological argument is a sound argument" for God but he confesses his memory fails him often now so he can't be sure. Nevertheless, I specifically asked what Antony thought of the Kalam, to which he answered:

If and insofar as it is supposed to prove the existence of a First Cause of the Big Bang, I have no objection, but this is not at all the same as a proof of the existence of a spirit and all the rest of Richard Swinburne's definition of 'God' which is presently accepted as standard throughout the English speaking and philosophical world.
Also, regarding another rumor that Flew has been attending Quaker meetings, Antony says "I have, I think, attended Quaker meetings on at least 3 or 4 occasions, and one was at the wedding of a cousin," and thus hardly a religious statement on his part but a family affair. Nevertheless, for him and his family generally, he says "I think the main attraction" of Quakerism has been "the lack of doctrines." On the whole God thing, though, Flew is still examining the articles I sent him, so he may have more to say in the future.

Update (January 2005)

Antony Flew has retracted one of his recent assertions. In a letter to me dated 29 December 2004, Flew concedes:

I now realize that I have made a fool of myself by believing that there were no presentable theories of the development of inanimate matter up to the first living creature capable of reproduction.
He blames his error on being "misled" by Richard Dawkins because Dawkins "has never been reported as referring to any promising work on the production of a theory of the development of living matter," even though this is false (e.g., Richard Dawkins and L. D. Hurst, "Evolutionary Chemistry: Life in a Test Tube," Nature 357: pp. 198-199, 21 May 1992) and hardly relevant: it was Flew's responsibility to check the state of the field (there are several books by actual protobiologists published in just the last five years), rather than wait for the chance possibility that one particular evolutionist would write on the subject. Now that he has done what he was supposed to do in the first place, he has retracted his false statement about the current state of protobiological science.

Flew also makes another admission: "I have been mistaught by Gerald Schroeder." He says "it was precisely because he appeared to be so well qualified as a physicist (which I am not) that I was never inclined to question what he said about physics." Apart from his unreasonable plan of trusting a physicist on the subject of biochemistry (after all, the relevant field is biochemistry, not physics--yet it would seem Flew does not recognize the difference), this attitude seems to pervade Flew's method of truthseeking, of looking to a single author for authoritative information and never checking their claims (or, as in the case of Dawkins, presumed lack of claims). As Flew admitted to me, and to Stuart Wavell of the London Times, and Duncan Crary of the Humanist Network News, he has not made any effort to check up on the current state of things in any relevant field (see "No Longer Atheist, Flew Stands by 'Presumption of Atheism'" and "In the Beginning There Was Something"). Flew has thus abandoned the very standards of inquiry that led the rest of us to atheism. It would seem the only way to God is to jettison responsible scholarship.

Despite all this, Flew has not retracted his belief in God, as far as I can tell. He only writes that "if any unbelievers choose to make a fuss about my recent very modest defection from my previous unbelief in any journal to which I subscribe, then I intend to point out in a letter to the editor that" his new preface to God and Philosophy "points the road to a more radical form of unbelief than" he held originally, which "was a belief that there was no sufficient evidencing reason to believe in the existence of the Gods of either Christianity or Islam," but now "surely there is material here for a new and more fundamental challenge to the very conception of God as an omnipotent spirit," it's just that "I am just too old at the age of nearly 82 to initiate and conduct a major and super-radical controversy about the conceivability of the concept of God as a spirit." This would appear to be his excuse for everything: he won't investigate the evidence because it's too hard. Yet he will declare beliefs in the absence of proper inquiry. Theists would do well to drop the example of Flew. Because his willfully sloppy scholarship can only help to make belief look ridiculous.
 

 
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