Friday, December 10, 2004

Flew's wager

What does one make of a famed advocate of atheism, who debated CS Lewis in the 1950s and a patron saint for modern atheist groups like, suddenly declaring himself a Deist at age 81?

A British philosophy professor who has been a leading champion of atheism for more than a half-century has changed his mind. He now believes in God more or less based on scientific evidence, and says so on a video released Thursday.

At age 81, after decades of insisting belief is a mistake, Antony Flew has concluded that some sort of intelligence or first cause must have created the universe. A super-intelligence is the only good explanation for the origin of life and the complexity of nature, Flew said in a telephone interview from England.

Flew said he's best labeled a deist like Thomas Jefferson, whose God was not actively involved in people's lives.

His later comment about the Christian and Muslim concept of God being akin to a "cosmic Saddam Hussein" suggests that he employs his dispassionate, Socratic assessment of evidence sparingly.

But what's more intriguing is to see him invoke belief buttressed by scientific evidence. As I've been wont to argue, proof denies faith. Not to say that a miracle on your doorstep wouldn't be valid empirical evidence, but rather that expecting to find conclusive rather than circumstantial evidence to rationally and rigorously deduce the existence of a Creator is misguided. Faith, by definition, lies outside the sphere of reason.

Still, the skeptic in me can't also help but wonder if his age doesn't have something to do with his tentative spirituality...

UPDATE: Richard Carrier of spoke to Flew personally about his apostasy, and reveals some more details:

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."

This is much more reassuring - I unintentionally mischaracterized his position based on the earlier article. Flew is arguing more for a remote "First cause" that does not neccessarily have a scientific explanation - Godelian, if you will.

Carrier also quotes the following from Flew:

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.

Carrier suggests that the modern literature, which Flew has not yet read, provides the naturalistic theory that Flew asks for, and so ends his article on the confident note that Flew will re-embrace the faith once more - after a suitbale period of re-enlightenment.

Overall, the case here is not of a conversion on the road to Damascus but rather one of plugging holes - which his atheist brethren are keen to rapidly provide him brick and mortar.

On the issue of whether a naturalistic account of the first reproducing organizms is required to banish introduction of a supernatural element to the origins of life, I think it's a red herring. I am sure that Richard Carrier can make a rgorous case that a purely naturalistic explanation can exist. The more I have learned of biology, the less mystique that early pre-cellular life seems to me, frankly.

Where the true wonder of creation manifests is in the longer view, and the staggerring complexity - and evolution itself - of complex organisms.

I predict Flew will return to the fold in due order, finding in Carrier's literature the excuses he needs.

UPDATE: Well, I was careless and thought that the following aricle came after Flew's flirtation with Deism, but it is actually from some years beforehand. Still, it is interesting: "">Sorry to disappoint, but I'm Still an Atheist"

I remain still what I have been now for over fifty years, a negative atheist. By this I mean that I construe the initial letter in the word 'atheist' in the way in which everyone construes the same initial letter in such words as 'atypical' and 'amoral'. For I still believe that it is impossible either to verify or to falsify - to show to be false - what David Hume in his Dialogues concerning Natural Religion happily described as "the religious hypothesis." The more I contemplate the eschatological teachings of Christianity and Islam the more I wish I could demonstrate their falsity.


I can suggest only one possible source of the rumours. Several weeks ago I submitted to the Editor of Philo (The Journal of the Society of Humanist Philosophers) a short paper making two points which might well disturb atheists of the more positive kind. The point more relevant here was that it can be entirely rational for believers and negative atheists to respond in quite different ways to the same scientific developments.

The gratuitous dig at Islam and Christianity aside (I think there's an element of a-priori opinion driving his supposedly dispassionate analyses), I find it fascinating that stressed the "negative" aspect of atheism. Logically, being unable to disprove God is logically equivalent to being unable to prove God - the latter being my position. He had indeed basically adopted the view that "God exists" is a Godelian statement, outside the realm of proof or falsification.

The other interesting point is his explicit agreement with my position that rationality is not uniform. I discussed this in an earlier essay that basically critiqued Richard Hoftstatder's "super-rational" argument (itself grounded in the game theory of the Prisoner's Dilemma). It is indeed perfectly valid for two rational thinkers to assess the same set of observations and facts and yet come to completely different conclusions.

To be honest, finding this much common ground with an atheist (negative or otherwise) is not that surprising to me. I'm fairly confident in the rigor of my own analyses, and you could in one sense characterize Flew's evolving position as a desperate attempt to NOT be atheist. desit, or anything else. I think they call these people "agnostics" in the real world. Perhaps my post title isn't as snarky as I thought...

Now, all of the above is moot of course, since he is now a declared Deist (of the "Aristotelian" type). I think I found more in common with him intelectually speaking when he was not a Deist. Much like my post, he seems to hae wandered all over :)

BTW, Flew's famous 1950 essay on Theology and Falsification is indeed required reading, regardless of where you stand on the line (or straddling it, as the case may be).

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