The Young Antony Flew
by Matt Young
The atheist philosopher
Antony Flew has famously or, depending on your perspective, notoriously,
converted to deism. He is not a Christian, he does not believe in a
personal god, and he does not believe in immortality (Young 2004). Though
he has admitted to being “mistaught” by the pseudoscientist Gerald
Schroeder, he has not retracted his newfound belief that life could not
have begun without some kind of apparently purposeful creator (Carrier
2005, Young 2005).
Professor Flew is
the author of “Theology and Falsification,” one of the most famous essays
of the twentieth century (Pojman 1987). In that essay, which has been
reprinted over 40 times and translated into several languages (Flew 2000),
he shows that religious belief is not falsifiable and is based on an
argument from incredulity.
I wrote a short
essay about Professor Flew and two of his interlocutors several years ago
(Young 2001). Here is my take on their debate, lightly edited.
philosopher Antony Flew, now an emeritus professor at Reading University,
recounts a parable about two people who chance upon a clearing in the
forest. Both flowers and weeds grow in the clearing. One of the people,
the Believer, says that some gardener must be tending the plot, whereas
the Skeptic disagrees. They set up camp and watch, but no gardener
appears. The Believer suggests that the gardener is invisible, so they
patrol with bloodhounds, then set up an electric fence, but there is still
no evidence of a gardener. The Believer insists, however, that there must
be a gardener, even if that gardener is invisible, silent, odorless, and
impervious to electric shocks. The Skeptic asks how that differs from an
imaginary gardener or no gardener at all.
his parable as a jumping-off point to discuss whether religion is
falsifiable. Specifically, referring to the problems of evil and
suffering, he asks what would have to happen to falsify a belief in God or
in God’s love. Flew’s question is rhetorical; he clearly implies that
nothing will falsify a firm religious belief. An Oxford philosopher,
Basil Mitchell, agrees or, more accurately, admits that nothing can count
decisively against the belief of the true believer; by definition, the
believer is committed to a belief in God and is not a detached observer.
That is, to Mitchell, the concept of falsifiability is not appropriately
applied to a religious belief, whereas, to Flew, religion’s lack of
falsifiability evidently counts against it.
Oxford philosopher, R. M. Hare, responded to Flew with a parable of his
own: A lunatic (Hare’s word) believes that the dons want to kill him. A
friend believes otherwise and tries to convince the lunatic by introducing
him to the dons and showing him that they are friendly, gentle people and
mean him ho harm. The lunatic responds that the dons are duplicitous and
are really plotting against him, all the while pretending to be friendly.
the lunatic’s belief a blik. This is a term that Hare has coined
to describe a belief that is neither verifiable nor falsifiable. Hare
notes that the friend also has a blik: The friend’s blik is
that the dons are not planning to kill the lunatic. Hare considers
this belief a blik just as much as the lunatic’s belief is a
blik. That is, the friend does not have no blik at all, but
rather has the blik that the dons are harmless. Precisely like the
lunatic, the friend cannot prove his blik, because the lunatic can
always find an ad hoc hypothesis to refute the friend’s arguments.
article was influential, but it seems to me that it contains within it the
seeds of its own destruction. First, the issue is not whether a sane
person can convince a lunatic that the lunatic’s blik is wrong; he
cannot. The issue is, rather, what arguments could both the friend and
the lunatic use to convince a detached observer which one is right. In
this case, it is clear that the detached observer would rule in favor of
the friend, not the lunatic, because the friend would present
the debate, Hare notes his own blik that the steering column of his
car will not fail when he goes for a drive. This blik gives him
confidence, without which he might be paralyzed into inaction. Hare’s
confidence might be based on a blik, but I have no such blik.
Whenever I drive my car, I am perfectly aware that the steering column
might fail. I am equally aware, however, that the vast majority of
steering columns do not fail during normal use, so I drive my car in the
uncertain knowledge that the steering column will probably not fail. This
belief is not a blik; it is a statistical statement based on
evidence, which I see all around me, that other cars have sound steering
columns. Not all firmly held beliefs are bliks.
Hare’s position is that a
religious belief need not be defended because it is a blik and can
neither be proved nor disproved. Hare himself, however, distinguishes
between bliks that are right and bliks that are wrong.
Indeed, he seems to intend his lunatic to be analogous to the religious
believer who supports his belief with ad hoc hypotheses. The
issue, then, is not whether people have bliks but rather whether
their bliks are right or wrong. How do we decide whether bliks
are right or wrong? We look for evidence. Far from refuting Flew’s
argument, Hare has strengthened it.
The Antony Flew of old, the
young Antony Flew, would never have embraced an argument based solely on a
lack of empirical evidence. It is disappointing that he does so now.
Copyright © 2001, 2005 by Matt Young. All
Carrier, Richard, 2005, “Antony Flew
Considers God — Sort of,” The Secular Web,
http://www.secweb.org/asset.asp?AssetID=369. Scroll down to “Update
Flew, Antony, 2000, “Theology &
Falsification: A Golden Jubilee Celebration (2000),”
Pojman, Louis P., 1987, Philosophy of
Religion: An Anthology, Wadsworth, Belmont, California, pp. 359-364.
The entire exchange may also be found on the Web at
Young, Matt, 2001, No Sense of
Obligation: Science and Religion in an Impersonal Universe, 1st Books
Library, Bloomington, Indiana, pp. 67-69.
Young, Matt, 2004, “Antony Flew’s
Conversion to Deism,”
Young, Matt, 2005, “Antony Flew’s
Conversion to Deism: An Update,”
Matt Young is Senior Lecturer in Physics at the
Colorado School of Mines. He is coeditor of Why Intelligent Design
Fails: A Scientific Critique of the New Creationism (Rutgers, 2004)
and author of No Sense of Obligation: Science and Religion in an
Impersonal Universe (1st Books Library, 2001).