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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.

            The 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.

            Flew uses 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.

            Another 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.

            Hare calls 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.

            Hare’s 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 more-convincing evidence.

            Later in 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 rights reserved.

References

Carrier, Richard, 2005, “Antony Flew Considers God — Sort of,” The Secular Web, http://www.secweb.org/asset.asp?AssetID=369. Scroll down to “Update (January 2005).”

Flew, Antony, 2000, “Theology & Falsification: A Golden Jubilee Celebration (2000),” http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/antony_flew/theologyandfalsification.html.

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 http://people.brandeis.edu/~teuber/flew.html.

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,” http://www.pandasthumb.org/pt-archives/000687.html

Young, Matt, 2005, “Antony Flew’s Conversion to Deism: An Update,” http://www.pandasthumb.org/pt-archives/000723.html


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).


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