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Antony in Wonderland: A Rejoinder to Professor Flew

“Curiouser and curiouser,” cried Alice. “Now I’m opening up like the largest telescope there ever was! Good-bye, feet!”

Substitute “Antony” for “Alice” and “atheism” for “feet.” You then have a perfect description of Antony Flew’s wanderings in wonderland since he abandoned the atheism for which he was long renowned.

They began when he succumbed to the advertising campaign by Intelligent Design salesmen, Gerald Schroeder and Roy Vargese, whose books (in 2001 and 2003, respectively) he found persuasive. Neither was an expert in the relevant fields of molecular biology or genetics, let alone evolutionary theory. Yet Flew allowed himself to be convinced that it was, as he put it, “inordinately difficult” to give a naturalistic explanation of the origins of living organisms or of the “unbelievable complexity” of life at the molecular level.

It was curious that he didn’t check the veracity of their claims before swallowing them whole. Reliance on a priori reasoning where knowledge of empirical fact is called for is the bane of far too many philosophers. Flew is one of them.

It was curious, too, that he accepted their inference to the conclusion that “intelligence must have been involved.” And even more curious that he–as a philosopher–vacillated about the nature of this intelligent being. Was it the God of pantheists? The God of deists? Or the God of theists? He couldn’t make up his mind so, at one time or another, endorsed all three.

That has now changed. Responding to my “An Open Letter to Professor Antony Flew,” he has settled on the God of deism. His article “Antony Flew replies” (The Open Society, Vol. 78, No.1, Autumn 2005), which consists mainly of extracts from his new introduction to God and Philosophy, begins thus:

In the many months of my exposure to the media of the English speaking world–it started in November 2004 and is not yet entirely finished–I said many things which I now regret having said and often failed to say things which I now wish I had said.

What I wish I had said was that I have become a deist, a believer in the existence of a God who requires no worship and does no more in human affairs other than to perhaps approve of old-fashioned, without prefix or suffix, justice (as opposed to the ‘social’ justice of John Rawls and his followers).

So now we know where his head is at, let’s remind ourselves how it got there and then take a look at what he has to say about the God in whom he now believes.

On both counts, things keep getting curiouser and curiouser.

Remember, first, that he thought that the evidence for so-called “irreducible complexity” was compelling. Nobly trying to follow the injunction to “follow the evidence where it leads,”he inferred that some sort of supernatural intelligent designer was called for.

Now, however, he recognizes that the evidence he was following was bad evidence and that it didn’t lead where he thought it did. He writes:

I am myself delighted to be assured by biological-scientist friends that protobiologists are now well able to produce theories of the evolution of the first living matter and that several of these theories are consistent with all the so-far-confirmed scientific evidence.

In effect, he is admitting that his inference was unsound since it began from false premises. So the conclusion he previously drew from those premises was in fact unwarranted. Yet, having drawn that conclusion, he has stuck with it.

Mind you, Flew does canvass another supposed reason drawn from natural (as opposed to revealed) theology for postulating an intelligent designer. The so-called “fine tuning” argument, having to do with the precise values of the physical constants that govern the universe, is his candidate. Whatever its merits or demerits, he says,

it must at once be allowed that it is reasonable for those who believe–whether rightly or wrongly–that they already have good evidencing reasons for accepting the teachings of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, to see the fine tuning argument as providing substantial confirmation of their own antecedent religious beliefs.

But this is odd. It is most definitely not reasonable to accept the conclusion of an argument just because it fits well with what you antecedently believe. Psychologically understandable perhaps. But not reasonable. And it certainly isn’t reasonable for Flew to accept it simply because he judges it reasonable for others to do so.

Perhaps chastened by his own belated discovery of flaws in the argument from complexity, Flew doesn’t presume to judge whether the argument from fine tuning is any better. Yet there are reasons aplenty for saying that it, too, is unsound. So why does Flew persist with his deist conclusion? Doing so might be considered “rational” in the Alice-in-Wonderland world of religion. But it isn’t in the worlds of philosophical or scientific thinking.

Even more curious are some of the claims Flew makes about his deistic god.

The deist god, he says, is the God of Aristotle, for a description of whom he invokes a quote from David Conway:

a supreme omnipotent and omniscient intelligence … who created [the world] in order to bring into existence and sustain rational beings such as ourselves who, by exercising their intellects, can become aware of the existence of God and thereby join their Creator in the activity of contemplating God, in which activity God is perpetually and blissfully engaged.

Heady stuff, this. But on what grounds does Flew make these claims about the nature and purposes of his God? As a deist, he’s ruled out revelation. And that leaves two other ways of “exercising our intellects” so that we can become “aware” of God’s existence.

One would be to indulge in a priori reasoning of the purest kind, unalloyed by appeal to experience, as in the Ontological Argument where we reason from the definition of “God” as something like “a being than which no greater can be conceived.” But wisely, Flew makes no attempt to resuscitate anything like that.

The other would be to base our reasoning on the findings of experience, as in the First Cause and Design arguments. But Flew doesn’t rely at all on the first of these and has now admitted that he was wrong to rely on the second. Nor does he offer any explanation of why an inference from the alleged need for a cause or designer of the universe should lead, given the evils that prevail in that universe, to a deist God as opposed to twin Manichean gods, one good and one evil.

So on what basis does Flew claim to know what activities God is engaged in? How does Flew know that God is “perpetually and blissfully” self-absorbed? His God, he had earlier said, “requires no worship.” How, one wonders, does Flew know that? And how does our contemplation of the existence of God and of his omnipotence and omniscience differ from worship? Given the disease-and-disaster-ridden world in which God has placed us, what reasons would we have to contemplate our Creator if he didn’t require it of us?

Nor does he offer any grounds for saying his God isn’t interested in human affairs other than those having to do with issues of justice.

How does he know that God isn’t at least as interested in, say, American baseball or the performance of New Zealand’s All Blacks? And why the claim that God isn’t interested in social justice, just “old-fashioned [Jeffersonian] justice”? Here, one suspects, Flew is projecting his own ultra-conservative Libertarian antipathy to anything smacking of socialism on to the mind of God. It is worth remembering that Aristotle (as distinct from Aristotle’s God) thought of distributive justice as one of the virtues. And Jefferson (following Vattel) defined justice, at one point, as “the obligation to respect the rights of others.” It is not at all clear why Flew thinks Jefferson’s definition of justice “most emphatically” excludes the social/distributive justice of Rawls and his followers.

Besides, what evidence is there that God approves of any sort of justice at all? How, one wonders, does God manifest that approval? God’s approval, if such it be, certainly isn’t evident in the world we humans inhabit. Some might hope for “Pie in the sky, in the sweet bye and bye,”as compensation for injustice in the world of here and now. But Flew doesn’t fancy, and hence doesn’t believe in, a “next” world for himself or anyone else. So what does his belief in God’s justice amount to? We hear the words. But what do they mean when thus emptied of empirical content? Once more, Flew offers no explanation and no justification.

The only basis Flew could possibly have for making his knowledge claims is pure make-believe, the dreaming up of a kind of God in whom he would like to believe: one who is omnipotent, omniscient, who brought us into existence so that we could contemplate him and his blissful self-contemplation.

Yet Flew believes his descriptions of his God to be literally true. By way of contrast, even a child doesn’t take Lewis Carroll’s whimsical story about Alice that seriously.

In my “Open Letter” I had asked: “What sort of ‘God’ do you really believe in? And why?”

He has answered the first question, albeit unsatisfactorily. But not the second. True, in a personal note attached to my copy of his reply, Flew did say (somewhat disarmingly), “If you still feel dissatisfied with this, then that makes two of us.”

But not just two of us. I’m guessing there’ll be dissatisfaction all around.

I had also suggested: “Perhaps, in light of my arguments, you will change your mind once again and revert to the well-reasoned atheism for which you once were renowned.”

But neither my criticisms nor those of any others have had any impact on his newfound religious faith. He displays all the intransigence of a true believer. And, for a philosopher, that’s not just curious. It’s sad.

For more on Flew’s “conversion” see:

The article “An Open Letter to Professor Antony Flew

by Raymond Bradley

The article “Antony Flew Considers God…Sort Of

by Richard Carrier

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