Home » Library » Modern Library » Michael Martin Review Flew

Michael Martin Review Flew

[Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in Teaching Philosophy 8:4 (October 1985): 352-54. The page numbers below show the position of the text within that pagination scheme.]



God, Freedom and Immortality,

Antony Flew.

Buffalo: Prornetheus Books. 1984, 183 pp, $8.95.


This collection of essays, divided into three parts (God, Freedom and Immortality), presents the views of one of the world’s leading atheists. Although most of the essays have appeared elsewhere, all of those previously published have been revised for this volume, some extensively. In addition, Flew has provided a single unified bibliography of all works to which he refers and has inserted cross references, eliminated overlappings and developed a uniform system of sections and subsections. As a result, the book has more coherence than do many collections of previously published essays. Nevertheless, it would be fair to say that the book does not read smoothly and is not tightly organized. For this reason alone it has limited classroom use. In addition, not all the major arguments for the existence of God are critically discussed; in particular, the ontological argument and the argument from miracles are not considered. (Flew’s critique of this argument is found in Paul Edward’s The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Vol . 5.) Furthermore, the arguments that are covered by Flew are more clearly discussed elsewhere, for example, in Wallace Matson, The Existence of God. Indeed, other books published by Prometheus are more appropriate than this one for use in presenting an atheistic point of view to beginning students. (See, e.g., Peter A. Angeles, ed., Critiques of God.)

Despite these problems, a sophisticated, albeit incomplete, atheistic approach emerges from this volume. Flew argues that in religious contexts there should be a methodological presumption of negative atheism.[1] Flew characterizes a negative atheist as someone who does not believe that God exists. This presumption means that the burden is on the religious believer to justify the coherence of the concept of God and its application. Such a defeasible



presumption is justified, Flew argues, because in order to have knowledge, rather than true belief, one must give grounds. Since without such grounds there is no reason for belief, the believer is the one who must supply grounds.

This presumption of negative atheism is reinforced by the principle of agnosticism, the view that one should proportion one’s belief to the evidence. Thus Flew rejects all appeals to faith, including William James’ will to believe and Pascal’s religious wager, since these approaches advise one to believe something that goes beyond what the evidence indicates. In addition, Pascal’s wager is attacked because it wrongly supposes that there are only two options: belief in the Christian God and atheism. Flew points out there is an indefinite number of options: "For every such system demanding one way of life and threatening all others, there is a possible system threatening just that way of life and rewarding all others. For every possible way of life, there are possible systems demanding and penalizing that way of life" (p. 67). Flew maintains that once these complications are understood, Pascal’s argument should result in our withholding all bets on supernatural beings.[2]

Flew rejects the religious hypothesis as an explanation of the universe since it has no determinant consequences that are falsifiable. Further, Flew maintains that in order to suppose that this universe is caused by God, one would have to have experience of other universes. Otherwise one would not know that a universe or universes with particular features "are the works of God or Gods of this or that particular sort" (p. 51). But since this is impossible, one can not argue from the effect (this universe) to the cause (God).

In his original paper "Theology and Falsification," Flew challenges believers to specify what would count against or be incompatible with their belief in God. In his second thoughts on this challenge published along with the original paper in this volume, he admits that religious believers do allow evil in the world to count against their belief but that they attempt to provide an explanation, e.g., the Free Will Defense. However, Flew maintains that God is given attributes which rule out "saving explanations" (p. 75). Flew now also admits that he was wrong to conflate something counting against a hypothesis and something being incompatible with a hypothesis. The important challenge is in terms of incompatibility. Flew argues that in order for a hypothesis to assert something genuinely one must know what would be incompatible with it. Flew’s challenge, then, is not the positivist one in terms of a criterion of meaning nor the Popperian one in terms of a criterion of science. But surely without further qualification this challenge can easily be met by religious believers. What would be incompatible with a believer’s assertion that "God exists" is that God does not exist. In order for Flew’s test not to be trivially satisfied, one might specify that for there to be a genuine assertion one must be able to specify what empirical evidence would be incompatible with the assertion "God exists." If this is what Flew means, then it is hardly uncontroversial for on this view mathematical existence claims, e.g. "There is a number between 1 and 3," would not seem to be genuine assertions.

On the other hand, Flew might say in response that if the religious believer can only meet the challenge in the trivial way suggested above, this shows something interesting about the status of the believer’s assertion. Furthermore, if the assertion that God exists is made analogous to mathematical existence claims by its being immune to empirical refutation, this also shows something interesting about the status of the claim. As Flew puts it in one place, "The Falsification Challenge is … a powerful instrument of inquiry in discovering what is actually being said on different occasions" (p. 79).

In any case, believers attempt to argue that the existence of evil is not incompatible with belief in an all powerful and all good God. This is because evil is supposedly the result of human free will; consequently evil cannot be attributed to God. Further, all the evil that results from human choice is



more than offset by some other goods that result. In evaluating the Free Will Defense, Flew maintains that one must distinguish between two views of free will: the libertarian view that free will is incompatible with determinism and the view of the compatabilist that free will is compatible with determinism. (On the latter view having free will is identified with being uncoerced and not with being uncaused.) The libertarian view, Flew points out, is not the one held by classical philosophers such as Aquinas, Leibniz, Descartes who use the Free Will Defense. This is because the libertarian view is incompatible with the traditional view of God as the sustaining cause of all creation. However, Flew argues that a compatibilist doctrine of free will, when combined with the traditional view of God as the ultimate cause of everything, makes the Free Will Defense useless and even immoral. There is no problem in God causing people always to choose what is good. Further, it would be wrong for God who manipulates people to choose wrongly to punish them for their choice.

Flew argues against the thesis of personal survival maintaining that there are three basic ways a person might survive death. First, the Platonic-Cartesian way of survival via an incorporeal, intangible soul; second via an astral body, an ethereal body of the same form as the original body; third, via a reconstituted body. Flew believes that all three ways are problematic. The third is rejected since the reconstituted body is indistinguishable from a replica of the original person. Punishing such a replica for the sins of the original person would be morally unacceptable. The Platonic-Cartesian way is rejected because it makes no sense for a person to survive his or her body’s destruction. For one thing, Flew argues there is no adequate principle of individuation to distinguish one soul from another. Memory cannot be used as such a criterion since true memory presupposes correct personal identity and cannot be used to define it. The astral body view is rejected as well: either it becomes so qualified that it becomes identical with the Platonic-Cartesian view or else it seems false in light of presently known facts.

In several of his essays Flew gives further arguments against the Platonic-Cartesian view. For example, he argues in detail that despite several arguments to show the contrary, it makes no sense to claim that a person can witness his or her own funeral. Flew maintains that to suppose otherwise is to conflate the following two theses:

(1) One can imagine one’s own funeral.

(2) One can imagine one witnessing one’s own funeral.

Flew argues that (1) is certainly possible but that (2) makes no sense unless (2) becomes identical with (1).

In the last essay in the book Flew criticizes the view that life is meaningless in a Godless world or in a world without personal immortality. Tolstoy’s position on these topics is singled out for special consideration.

In conclusion, this volume, despite its limitations, is a welcome addition to Prometheus’ extensive list of atheistic and skeptical religious literature.


[1] For a critique of this presumption see Anthony Kenny, Faith and Reason (New York: Columbia University Press, 1983) pp. 85-86.

[2] Indeed, if the principle of agnosticism is dropped, the considerations brought up by Flew can be used to show that one is justified in disbelieving in God. See Michael Martin, "Pascal’s Wager as an Argument for not Believing in God," Religious Studies 19, 1984, pp. 57-64.