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Antony Flew, God and the Evidence: A review of There Is a God


On December 9, 2004, an Associated Press story story went out on the wires, “Famous Atheist Now Believes in God: One of World’s Leading Atheists Now Believes in God, More or Less, Based on Scientific Evidence.”

More? Or less? As it turns out, neither. He believes in God simply on the scientific evidence. Many might consider that thin gruel, but he is entitled to cite the evidence in his defense. And there is a lot of it.

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Introduction: Antony Flew, God, and the Evidence: A review of There IS a God
Part One: Antony Flew sought to make the best case for atheism

There were, of course, many other 20th century atheist thinkers. But Varghese argues that thinkers like Ayer, Sartre, Camus, Heidegger, Rorty, and Derrida differed from Flew in that they offered systems of thought, one of whose byproducts was atheism.

Essentially, they were saying, my system is right – oh, and by the way, there’s no God. But that means that you must buy into the system to get the atheism. And if you come to doubt the system, why believe the atheism?

Part Two: Following the argument wherever it leads

Recounting his adventures in philosophy, Flew provides an answer to a question that had long puzzled me: Where did the intelligent design theorists get their slogan, “Follow the evidence wherever it leads!” It seems to have originated in Plato’s account of Socrates’ command in The Republic, to “Follow the argument wherever it leads.” (p. 22) This exhortation formed the basis of the Oxford Socratic Club, of which Christian apologist C.S. Lewis was president (1942-1954) and of which Flew was a member – and a leading exponent of the principle. Somehow (at least by p. 42), this transmutes to “following the evidence wherever it may lead.”

Part Three: Rediscovering the God of the Philosophers

Flew, one begins to realize, is an old-fashioned thinker who assumes at the outset the possibility of the moral life as a distinct human quality. He is not seeking to ground it in the squabbles of ancestral primates or the mindless hum of genes – let alone demonstrate that it doesn’t exist. In other words, an old-fashioned atheist like Flew thought that you could be moral without God. Many new atheists think that there is no “you” and there is no “moral”, never mind that there is no “God.”

Part Four: Einstein’s God and Antony Flew

While Einstein is often associated with the philosopher Spinoza, for whom God and nature were synonymous, Flew points out that Einstein knew little of Spinoza’s work and admitted as much (p. 98). True, he did not believe in a personal God and displayed little interest in organized religion, but he did think that the pursuit of science leads to the recognition of a “superior mind”, and “illimitable superior spirit”, or “superior reasoning force” (p. 101). And that is certainly enough to remove Einstein from the catalogue of celebrated materialist atheists.

I wasn't all that impressed with Carrier's blog entry, as it mostly centered around him frantically insisting he thinks the arguments are all bad, he wrote Flew a long letter with a lot of questions, his name wasn't mentioned once in the book and you better not call him a nobody (Who did? He's a known, very animated atheist and author.) Among other things, the fact that he refers to Flew's book as a 'scholarly work' when neither Flew nor Varghese nor anyone else has presented it as such (It's portrayed as a story, a 'last will and testament', an account of decision - not exhaustive metaphysics) indicates he's trying to stretch the situation beyond its proportion. At the end of the day, Flew's had this position for years now, he's admitted to Varghese's heavy assistance with the book, he's elderly, and the book centers around a personal story and views more than anything else. All this plus a recognition from even Oppenheimer that Flew's atheism had a vastly different grounding and cultural relation compared to the modern. Everyone who could respond to the accusations about Flew, has. Nothing has changed, it seems like nothing will change. And it's important to remember, alongside accusations the Christians have manipulated Flew - whenever a former atheist writes a book about converting to a belief in the divine, the attacks from the activist wing do start to pour in regardless of who the person is. Francis Collins' book (which was not a scholarly work but a story plus views - rather similar to Flew when you think about it) received pretty much every criticism Flew's did, minus 'manipulation'. nullasalus
Einstein is portrayed as a universal genius, but this is a serious mistake. I read several Einstein biographies, I read his works, with emphasis especially on those that address science, philosophy and religion, etc. I don't want to take anything away from his scientific genius, (his knowledge, skill and ability to think and imagine in terms of mathematics and physics), but the rest of Einstein's thinking is either rather average (socialism, pacifism, politics) or outright vague, confused and shallow, especially his philosophy and religion. Re: "Part Four: Einstein’s God... True, he did not believe in a personal God and displayed little interest in organized religion, but he did think that the pursuit of science leads to the recognition of a “superior mind”..." Many modern scientific giants and genii exhibit similar weakness when it comes to philosophy, theology and religion. This starts with their insufficient imagination of the spiritual domain, its function, and purpose, and how it reflects back on the meaning of what it means to be "human", next the whole things is aggravated by their poor understanding of the basics of logic and philosophy, which is a precursor to solid theology. And this applies to many professional philosophers, like Flew. Re, post 13: "As a philosopher, Flew is determined to proceed by philosophy. You may think that he does not go fast enough or that he does not go in the right direction, but he goes under his own steam in the way he has done all his life." Really, there are very few real thinkers, including professional philosophers, who can do that and bring their reasoning to a satisfactory conclusion. As St. Paul says, even the best philosophy alone is not sufficient and philosophy can be used to deceive. Only a handful of people come to mind who had such powerful ability to perceive phenomena and reason correctly, and who thus possessed the best humanly attainable totality of knowledge and experience. In this respect, Aristotle, one these real scientific and thinking giants, is head and shoulders above any struggling modern philosopher or scientist, (and without the Jewish and Christian revelations he was in a situation comparable to a modern agnostic who rejects these revelations), yet even he was unable to bring his philosophy to a truly satisfactory conclusion. rockyr
Antony Flew, I am told, suffers from nominal aphasia, as do a number of elderly persons I am close to, whose judgment I justifiably respect. They too tire easily and would not appear at their best under intense grilling. Go here for an explanation of nominal aphasia: http://neurology.health-cares.net/nominal-aphasia.php It is surprising how little NA affects judgment, though it does slow down conversations and make some interactions (especially hostile ones, I suspect) tedious and unsatisfactory. The persons camping out on Flew's life and grilling him to show that he can't really have abandoned atheism for sound reasons - and reporting any instance of old-age troubles as their evidence - should be seen for what they are. As I said earlier, if he returned to their fold, I am sure they would be singing a different tune. Given what they have revealed about themselves in this episode, I should think he knows all he needs to know about them, and - for his own welfare - I hope he will never go back to them. But he is obviously a man who follows his reasonable convictions and he will do as he thinks right. O'Leary
Oh what a surprise, my comment didn’t get posted, again!
My comments have been blocked plenty of times by the Masters of the Borg Collective (inside joke for John Kwok fans). I don't take it personally, cause I know its a computer thing. russ
Thank you Patrick! It's nice to see that different views are welcome - I've been trying for a long time and none of my posts were ever accepted - hence my frustration. tdean
tdean, The spam filter is automated. Moderators are not. Be patient; your comment was stuck along with several other long-time UD contributers. I edited the timestamp so your comments are the "newest". Patrick
Oh what a surprise, my comment didn't get posted, again! I posted something that a) Tried to make a reasonable intelligent point (about the possibility that there is evidence for Flew being senile) b) Was not derogatory or ad hominem c) Contained no profanity Does it ever occur to you that somebody like myself might just actually be a little open-minded to ID in that we are motivated to post comments? Yet, it seems very few critical (or mildly critical) posts ever get through the filter. Contrast this with any number of atheists blogs and forums where freedom of speech is tolerated and encouraged. It's hard to take the ID Community seriously when they are essentially censoring opposing views. Is it any wonder that ID is accused of being more of a propaganda endeavor than real science? Ironic really, given all the complaining that IDers make about being 'expelled' etc. tdean
Denyse wrote: "Incidentally, I am still hearing from persons seeking to prove that Flew is senile and does not know what he thinks. I find that a source of mirth." I really think you really need to read Richard Carrier's commentary on Flew (http://richardcarrier.blogspot.com). Carrier had personal correspondence with Flew, as did Oppenheimer from the NY Times (and apparently spent two days with him in person). It may still be true that Flew is no longer an atheist, but I think there is good reason to think that Flew's mental acuity is not what it was, and that indeed he is suffering from some form of aphasia. I've also seen some recent videos of Flew too and they are both sad and alarming; one does not need to be a mental health expert to realize something isn't right there. This doesn't necessarily detract from the book, but I think it is important to recognize the limits of Flew's current mental state and that this is reflected in the book. tdean
I wonder if they are willing to research whether there is a cerebral basis for believing in evolution. ari-freedom
Denyse, Completely O/T but thought you might be interested. The New England Journal of Medicine has a short free full text article published today and titled Seeking God in the Brain — Efforts to Localize Higher Brain Functions by a fellow named Snyder who is a professor of neuroscience at Johns Hopkins. He references Collins, Linden and Trimble but not Beauregard. Here is the last bit of his conclusion:
as imaging technology and associated cognitive testing become ever more sophisticated, we may be able to discriminate ways in which religious and creative sensibilities relate to one another and to brain areas that mediate emotions that are deranged in psychiatric illness. Whether any of these advances will provide the answer to the cerebral basis of religion, if one exists, is anybody's guess.
28 we have several reasons 1) there was division on that day and it is meant to teach us that even a necessary division can't be called good 2) the work on the 2nd day was incomplete. It was completed on the 3rd day which is why 'good' is stated twice 3) the water would be used later on to destroy mankind in the flood of Noah. ari-freedom
Sorry, folks. #30 should be addressed to Rude. Why is there no edit on this thing? Gerry Rzeppa
toc - You seem to be suggesting a young earth point of view can only arise from reading Genesis. But isn't this the most natural view for authors and artists, programmers, engineers and almost every other creative individual who is untainted by evolutionary doctrine? In my latest effort as an author, for example, I created a ten year-old boy with all the apparent attributes of his age, but with no actual history. As a painter, I often render the flowers - including their shadows - before I go to work on the sun. As a programmer, I can write a self-replicating "chicken" program that lays "eggs" which in turn become chickens, some days later, on other computers; and though I can make the chicken OR the egg come first, I really see both as an integrated whole, outside of time. And as an engineer, I'm well aware that most things are not constructed in a strict, bottom-up sequence. The wheels on my car, for example, were added rather late in the assembly process. I sometimes wonder if bottom-up, evolutionary thinking hasn't permeated our outlook more than we know... Gerry Rzeppa
Atheism often seem to recoil from this. The usual argument "who caused God" seems to beg the question. At least with a Deistic starting point, all effects must have a cause. Aristotle's first cause cannot be an effect and also a First Cause. The premise of the question violates the law of non-contradiction. I agree with your point of view. toc
Gerry Rzeppa in 20: “Where do believers in a ‘young’ cosmos, who see God as an Author or Artist creating a work with all the unavoidable appearances of age, fall in your mind?” I guess they’re the classic “creationists” who, unlike ID (and unlike Anthony Flew, by the way), start with the Book and attempt to fit the facts of the world into their understanding of the same. ID, as often reiterated here, tries to follow the facts and the argument wherever it leads. Quite a number of believing Christians and Orthodox Jews opt for a Young Earth based on their understanding of Genesis—which is fine by me—though personally I prefer the ID approach and I’m not so sure that Genesis requires a Young Earth. Ari-Freedom in 22, I’m with you on Flew and the Jewish approach to the world, but as for Monday that’s a puzzle … has anyone ever considered the interpretation of Genesis, as in the Ramban to Gen 2:3, where Monday equals the millennium of Noah? Could that in some way explain the lack of a proclamation of good on that day? Remember how that God said to Moses (Exodus 32:10), “Now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may wax hot against them, and that I may consume them: and I will make of thee a great nation.” Moses would have none of it and through his pleading a whole nation was saved. When it comes to Noah we read (Gen 6:7-8), “And the LORD said, I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth; both man, and beast, and the creeping thing, and the fowls of the air; for it repenteth me that I have made them. But Noah found grace in the eyes of the LORD.” Did Noah go to bat for his generation? Evidently not the way Moses did Rude
toc, "We theists can hitch a ride from his credible argument, but “faith,” as a belief system is quite a distance from affirming a creator." I agree. But I also think that Flew's example (and others) provides theists with an important method for making their case: Even if we affirm a certain deity and a certain faith, it would do well to start arguing from a deistic perspective first. Establishing the rationale for an agent behind creation, even one as basic as what Flew depicts, is only one step. But it, I think, would gain far more traction in dialogue with people who want to know a rational basis for any deity at all. nullasalus
That's correct...the actual count is 7 however the 7th day is blessed and as for Mondays...what can I say? ari-freedom
To ari-freedom (#21) re your response to rude (#12): Yes, it's true that there is no statement "God saw that it was good" on the second day -- at least, not in the Hebrew text (though it's there in the Greek of the Septuagint). However, rude's count of a total of seven is still correct, once on the first, fourth and fifth days, and twice each on the third and sixth days. Even though there are only six days of creation, the text presents us with seven "goods". The appearance of certain key words in multiples of seven is a characteristic feature of the story in Genesis 1.1-2.4a. Timaeus
Trust isn't mindless but it also requires a heart. He did not believe in using his heart as a factor before and he is being consistent. ari-freedom
ari-freedom: I read Flew's (and Varghese's) book upon its release. I believe you are right that he had to step away, so to speak, from an existential commitment toward any particular religion due to his philosophical method. Moreover, reason in the sense you mentioned could only take him to Aristotle's first cause, an honest place to stop. My point in post # 10 was to clarify that belief, or faith, stated in the pejorative sense as is so often the case, is thought to be some mindless and fideistic leap. Trust, in the sense I meant it in the post, is not so far removed from reason. There are evidences from sources other than the anatomy of the cell and cosmology. We theists can hitch a ride from his credible argument, but "faith," as a belief system is quite a distance from affirming a creator. Yet, he is looking at those "other" evidences, as implicated from N.T. Wright's essay in the appendix. toc
Rude, I'm Jewish and that's why I don't see Flew as an unbeliever. According to Judaism, converts are discouraged (see the story of Ruth). Flew is a moral person who believes in one G-d and from our perspective it is far better for a person to be "just" than than try to do something that he is not obligated and not ready for. If only there were more people like him in this world... note: there is no "good" in the 2nd day. ari-freedom
toc that's not my rule but his rule. This may not be intentional on his part but he is sacrificing a spiritual life and the consequence is that theists can now claim that a significant basis of their faith can be backed up by pure reason. We have to learn to appreciate what his loss gives us. ari-freedom
Rude - Thanks. Where do believers in a "young" cosmos, who see God as an Author or Artist creating a work with all the unavoidable appearances of age, fall in your mind? Gerry Rzeppa
Gerry Rzeppa, The "theistic evolutionists" I've encountered always deny the Deity any fingerprints in the physical cosmos---at least this side of the Big Bang. They're strong demarcationists---evidence is for "science" (whatever that is) and faith is for religion (whatever that is), and they always invoke the "God of the gaps" falacy. For them the Deity manifests himself subjectively---never objectively. But I should qualify that here I do not include those who subscribe to an old cosmos and evolution---evolution in the sense that evolution is evidence---at least in technology (the automobile, the airplane) it always points to design. Rude
Rude says, "What the materialist forgets is that science is built on evidence and faith, and what many religious folks miss—especially the “theistic evolutionists”—is the very same truism." Could you elaborate a bit on the "theistic evolutionist" part of that statement? Gerry Rzeppa
Rude - Well said. Gerry Rzeppa
Mrs. O'Leary, you have a firecracker mind. I have your book The Spiritual Brain and intend to start it soon. I read Flew's book and find the ascriptions of senility by his detractors revealing of their bankruptcy, especially when it comes from the mouths of their leaders like Dawkins. I reviewed this book as well and posted my comments on the arn.org boards (http://www.arn.org/ubbthreads/showflat.php?Cat=0&Number=30338030&an=0&page=0#Post30338030) and plan to link there to your review. I especially found interesting your observation of the parallel of the decline of the atheist mind with the decline of the evangelical mind. I noted how Varghese compared the New Atheists with the Logical Positivists and argued that they are in some ways a reversion to Logical Positivism ignorant of the developments that occurred since then (such as Ayer's later rejection of his own arguments) and wonder if you might comment on further on whether you see a strong parallel or you think the "New Atheists" are different than the Logical Positivists, despite the later also using silencing tactics. Pax Christi, Davd David Alexander
Faith—yes—and wisdom emerges from both the positive (Deut 4:5-8; 31:6) and negative (Psalms 111:10; Prov 1:7; 9:10) aspects of it. It’s what the scientist needs to get started and what succeeds after Popperian refutation has failed. Although they’re probably related, faith and the mystical experience are not quite the same thing. The very fact that disperate zealots exude faith in contradictory propositions means that faith not built on evidence is suspect. And if not all spirits are benevolent then maybe not all mystical experiences are good. What the materialist forgets is that science is built on evidence and faith, and what many religious folks miss—especially the “theistic evolutionists”—is the very same truism. Rude
I agree with toc. Faith is that which allows us to act on those ubiquitous frontiers where logic fails. Faith in reason, for example, enables us to reason. In everything, everyday, the sane man gathers what evidence he can and then leaps into the unknown and unknowable future. It's unavoidable. We believe our chairs will support us, and that our food has not been poisoned -- we do not know. The Apostle said, "Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." And, further, that "without faith, it is impossible to please God." I humbly elaborate: "Without faith it is impossible to get out of bed in the morning." Gerry Rzeppa
Janice and all, my comment on ecstatic experience is not intended as a disparagement. Quite the contrary, Mario Beauregard and I wrote a book whose very heart is an examination of the evidence for that category of experience (The Spiritual Brain, Harper One, 2007). Our conclusion is that the available evidence suggests that mystics do contact a power outside themselves. However, the mystic (ecstatic experience) and the philosopher (reason and evidence from nature) agree that they pursue separate projects by different means. As a philosopher, Flew is determined to proceed by philosophy. You may think that he does not go fast enough or that he does not go in the right direction, but he goes under his own steam in the way he has done all his life. Incidentally, I am still hearing from persons seeking to prove that Flew is senile and does not know what he thinks. I find that a source of mirth. If, come tomorrow, Antony Flew informs the world that he realizes that he is an atheist after all and that Christian friends were merely manipulating him, and he has since foresworn those friends - will those same people say, "No, this cannot be believed! He is senile and had better stay with his new Christian friends, who will, after all, look after him!"? My instinct is that we will not get a chance to test that, but it would be most interesting if we did ... O'Leary

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