Saturday, August 21, 2010

Antony Flew and God

David Kenney mentions atheist philosopher Antony Flew's "conversion": There Is A God – How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind, Antony Flew. One should not draw many conclusions from this conversion; certainly the conclusion that Kenney draws
The lesson is obvious—if Flew, a son of a Methodist minister, can go so far away from Christianity as to affirm in public discourse that there is no God, make an academic career as a philosophical atheist, but be turned to theism based on evidence, then the case for God is far stronger than many may have considered.
is entirely unwarranted.

(Of course, not only is Flew not the world's most notorious atheist (Dawkins has probably wrested that title from Madelyn Murray O'Hair), Flew is not even in the top 10 notorious atheists. To the extent that any philosopher can be notorious*, Flew is not even the most notorious atheist philosopher (that title almost certainly belongs to Daniel Dennett, or perhaps Michael Martin).

*Hence the Wikipedia links for all the philosophers, so you'll know who I'm talking about.

That any philosopher accepts anything should not impress anyone. Philosophy is, after all, a profession where idiots such as Alvin Plantinga and Richard Swinburne are held in real esteem even by their nominally atheist colleagues. And whatever else they might be good at, philosophers have very little training in making and evaluating specifically evidentiary arguments; philosophers (at best) specialize in making logical arguments. I can't overstate the value of specialized training: it's not enough to be clever, you need to know the right questions to ask. Scientists, for example, are notoriously bad at debunking fraudulent psychics; the most renowned debunker is James "The Amazing" Randi, a professional magician.

Flew's conversion rests on the flimsiest of evidence. Historian and atheist philosopher Richard Carrier corresponded with Antony Flew regarding his conversion. Carrier reports that Flew emphasizes repeatedly that
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.
But Flew himself later concedes that
I now realize that I have made a fool of myself by believing that there were no presentable theories of the development of inanimate matter up to the first living creature capable of reproduction.
Antony Flew did not convert to any sort of theism; at best he converted to the most abstract and mechanical deism. Flew writes to Carrier in October 2004 that
I do not think I will ever make that assertion [that probably God exists], 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. [emphasis added]
Evidence for one proposition is not by definition evidence for a different, fundamentally distinct proposition. A deistic "God" is no closer to Christian theism than is the most materialistic atheism.

Worst of all, using Flew's "conversion" in any sense is sad, pathetic and patently offensive. Death comes to us all, all too often preceded by infirmity physical and mental. Flew's so-called conversion comes when he was 81 years old, and his friends paint a picture of a man with mind succumbing to the depredations and indignities of old age. Carrier writes
During the course of 2005, Flew cut off all correspondence and now refuses to speak to any member of the press. When Matt Donnelly, a reporter for Science and Theology News, asked him for permission to read and quote his letters to me, Flew refused, and insisted that even his phone conversations with Donnelly not be used. A friend and eyewitness whom I trust reported to me that he and another prominent secular humanist spoke to Flew in private during his recent visit to New York for the 25th Anniversary conference of the Council for Secular Humanism in October of 2005. They found him to be philosophically incoherent. He affirmed his belief in an uncaring, uninvolved, unconscious (yes, unconscious) Jeffersonian Deity, but despite half an hour of questioning as to why, he could not give any specific reason for this belief. ...

In recognition of his "conversion," [in May 2006] Antony Flew was awarded the Phillip E. Johnson Award for Liberty and Truth at Biola, an Evangelical Christian university in La Mirada, California. Flew accepted it in person... I have received communications from several eyewitnesses in attendance who all confirm that Flew appeared to sleep through most of it, said little, and what he did say was difficult to understand.
In November 2007, Carrier writes,
Flew has now confessed to the fact that he did not write a word of [There Is A God, There Is a God: How the World's Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind] (even though it is sold under his name), and apparently knows (or remembers) little of its contents, despite the publisher's assurance that he signed off on it (though even his publisher confesses doubts about Flew's ability to remember essential details). Oppenheimer presents sufficient evidence to confirm that Flew's failing memory is what I would call clinically serious, and I believe his mental decline is now more or less confirmed.
Really, is this the best, or anywhere near the best, that Christians can do? An aged man with a failing memory, taking a position far away from their own on the flimsiest of evidence?

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