Monday, November 19, 2007

There Is A God by Antony Flew

Antony Flew’s There Is A God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind, 2007, Harper Collins.

I found this book exceedingly interesting and absorbing though requiring careful attention to the elegant simplicity of the arguments in which few if any words were wasted.

Antony Flew was one of the most influential atheists of this century, helping to set the agenda for world atheism for a half century. His “Theology and Falsification”, a paper first presented at a 1950 meeting of the Oxford Socratic Club chaired by C. S. Lewis, became the most widely reprinted philosophical publication of the last century.

Roy Varghese writes in the introduction, “It is not too much to say that within the last hundred years no mainstream philosopher has developed the kind of systematic, comprehensive, original, and influential exposition of atheism that is to be found in Antony Flew’s fifty years of anti-theological writings.” In comparison, Bertrand Russell only produced a few polemical pamphlets on his skeptical views and his disdain for organized religion. There were other atheists in later years, but none of them have changed the agenda in the way that Flew did.

Part of the learning I have derived from this book was of the first hand historical accounts. Antony Flew first really began his path of atheistic argumentation in the debate forum of the Oxford Socratic Club chaired by C.S. Lewis. He gives an account of one famous night when the atheist Elisabeth Anscombe debated Lewis and routed him, causing the revision of a chapter in his book Miracles. He tells of the Lewis’s surprise and describes his memory afterward of seeing the lone figure of Lewis retreating to hurriedly walking to his study in the distance and Anscombe and her friends directly ahead of Flew laughing and in high spirits. Lewis has been accused at times of chauvinism. Women I respect have detected it in his writings. It occurs to me that sometimes God humbles through objects of our scorn and in this case it may have been an atheist woman. Certainly for anyone who has read much of Lewis, though, especially for instance his reflections upon the death of his wife in A Grief Observed, the tenderness and humility and devotion he shows there seem to indicate that if he was chauvinist he progressed in his beliefs to greater wisdom, or at least showed at times an uncommon feeling connection to the opposite sex.

It was also at the Oxford Socratic Club that Flew made his first and only presentation, reading the paper “Theology and Falsification”, which would become the over the years the most widely reprinted philosophical publication of the last century and a regular staple for philosophy courses. Of the Oxford Socratic club, Flew notes: “This Socratic principle [“follow the argument wherever it leads.”] also formed the inspiration of the Socratic Club, a group that was really at the center of what intellectual life there was in wartime Oxford. The Socratic Club was a lively forum for debates between atheists and Christians, and I was a regular participant at its meetings. Its redoubtable president from 1942 to 1954 was the famous Christian writer C.S. Lewis. The club convened every Monday evening during term time in the underground Junior Common Room of St. Hilda’s College. In his preface to the first issue of the Socratic Digest, Lewis cited Socrates’ exhortation to ‘follow the argument wherever it leads.’ He noted that this ‘arena specially devoted to the conflict between Christianity and unbeliever was a novelty.’” (p. 22-23).

Obviously my attention is being caught especially by Lewis, a truly “beautiful mind”, in Flew’s accounts. However, there is something noteworthy about Flew from the beginning here that sets him apart from the “New Atheists”. Flews’ first work, while challenging theism is also considered by him to have been a driving of the nail into the coffin of logical positivism which as a cultural phenomenon and a philosophical tactic had had the effect of silencing conversation and toleration between the theists and atheists. Flew participated in and truly appreciated the open exchange of views and the dialogue between atheists like him and men like Lewis, who altered their views when confronted with logic regardless of who it came from. Part of what this book brings out in clarity and historical perspective is how intellectual communities are often guided by tactics and temporal vogues of approaches that frame their thinking and debates. Understanding this brings out in relief how the tactics being adopted by the New Atheists as a whole are similar to the Logical Positivists in not allowing for discussion or debate.

Flew defended the legitimacy of discussing theological claims against the logical positivist tactic and challenged philosophers of religion to elucidate their assertions. Oddly enough, his principled atheist argumentation facilitated the rebirth of rational theism in analytic philosophy. Before him the logical positivists of the Vienna Circle, popularized by A.J. Ayer in the English speaking world by his 1936 work, Language, Truth and Logic, held that only statements which could be verified through sense experience or which were true simply by the nature of their form and the meaning of the words used. At the heart was the claim called the “verification principle” that the meaning of a proposition lies in its verification. Flew considered his argument in “Theology and Falsification” a final nail in the coffin against this position. “Instead of the arrogant announcement,” he wrote, “that everything which any believer might choose to say be ruled out of consideration a priori as allegedly constituting a violation of the supposedly sacrosanct verification principle- here curiously maintained as a secular revelation- I preferred to offer a more restrained challenge. Let the believers speak for themselves, individually and severally.” Ayer himself agreed on the death of logical positivism and stated that he no longer thought much of Language, Truth and Logic was true, but that it had a cathartic effect at the time.

“In ‘Theology and Falsification’, God and Philosophy, and The Presumption of Atheism….he laid out a road map for subsequent philosophy of religion. In ‘Theology of Falsification” he raised the question of how religious statements can make meaningful claims (his much-quoted expression ‘death by a thousand qualifications’ captures this point memorably); in God and Philosophy he argued that no discussion on God’s existence can begin until the coherence of the concept of an omnipresent, omniscient spirit had been established; in the Presumption of Atheism he contended that the burden of proof rests with theism and that atheism should be the default position. Along the way, of course, he of course analyzed the traditional arguments for God’s existence. But it was his reinvention of the frameworks that changed the whole nature of the discussion.”

Flew in his introduction responded to the spurious claims by Dawkins and others hand waving a man of his accomplishment off by reference to his age at a distance, without listening to the man, no doubt. He responds to this and Roy Varghese responds too, much more blisteringly. Flew’s response is with the quiet lucid reasoning that characterizes the book as a whole. The wise, the few, will note that popular opponents, such as Richard Dawkins, of positions like Flew’s are indicating by their silencing tactics their willingness to be intolerant but not their capacity to answer the superior arguments that men like Flew quietly, elegantly, serenely give. Flew writes: “It has been said that fear concentrates the mind powerfully, and these critics had concluded that expectations of an impending entrance into the afterlife had triggered a deathbed conversion. Clearly these people were familiar with neither my writings on the nonexistence of the afterlife nor with my current views on the topic. For over fifty years I have not simply denied the existence of God, but also the existence of an afterlife. My Gifford Lectures published as The Logic of Mortality represent the culmination of this process of thought. This is one area in which I have not changed my mind. Absent special revelation, a possibility that is well represented in this book by N.T. Wright’s contribution, I do not think of myself “surviving” death. For the record, then, I want to lay to rest all those rumors that have me placing Pascalian bets.” After reading the book the vacuity of the dismissive remarks is amply apparent. There is no reason to belabor this point but I would like to remark that the vast majority including Dawkins are unable to write such a well reasoned book as the one Flew has provided.

I am not going to try to reconstruct the arguments of the book in detail. It recounts key issues and how positions he held and argued forcefully were met and answered in ways he had not at first seen. The story is one of an incremental change, a progress in philosophy, in following the argument where it led. Four key chapters address the following questions (chapter headings):

Who wrote the laws of nature?
Did the universe know we were coming?
Did something come from nothing?

In reading this book one of the things that were brought home to me was the work of philosopher and how beyond reading books there is the reading of arguments, exactly the thing Socrates was so keen on. The work of following an argument requires great labor at times and may lead to embarrassing overturning of ones hard fought positions. It is easier to cast aspersions and revel in prankish tongues, ‘innovative’ for their intolerance, but weak on reason. But there is a reward in love of the truth.

Flew is a quiet sign to searchers that beyond the silencing tactics of the “new atheists” and others voices in an increasingly intolerant secularism, there is the argument and the questions, and if one is brave enough in their soul to heed these instead of the cosmic diversions, a lucid and narrow way beckons.

Another thing that occurs to me is the nature of atheism in general. It becomes more vividly apparent that not all views are equal. Flew directly contrasts with much of what atheism stands for, which is often an evasion and silencing of deeper questions. Materialism after all from ancient times has had the notion that the cosmos always was and is and will be and that therefore we need not ask why is there anything and not nothing. Many atheists express their distaste for ultimate questions, their boredom, their repugnance, their pride in innocence from contemplation, their erstwhile avoidance of philosophy. Schopenhauer’s quip remains true: “…materialism is the philosophy of the subject who forgets to take account of himself.” I do not mean to say by this that there are not honest and truth loving atheists that are sincerely seeking the truth. I know at least one. But as for the repudiation of ultimate questions, that is more blameworthy than anti-science, which is quite blameworthy. It is avoidance of, well, one’s reason. There is always something lesser to lose yourself in, you cowards!

Especially interesting in the context of the present debates is Flew’s history with Richard Dawkins, most recently the author of The God Delusion, and his pointed criticism of some of Dawkins arguments. I see about recounting some of these in more detail, especially if there is expressed interest. One point is perhaps in a sense more minor but not too flattering of Dawkins. He points out that Dawkins is aware of and cites Max Jammer’s book Einstein and Religion, (Jammer was one of Einstein’s friends) but uses it very selectively in order to uphold the view Flew previously held that Einstein was an atheist. Dawkins tries to explain away Einstein's statements about God as metaphorical references to nature. Roy Varghese writes, "But this bit of Einsteinian exegesis is patently dishonest. Dawkins references only quotes that show Einstein's distaste for organized and revelational religion. He deliberately leaves out Einstein's belief in a 'superior mind' and a 'superior reasoning power' at work in the laws of nature, but also Einstein's specific denial that he is a pantheist or an atheist." Einstein even in one place cited by Jammer expresses anger at the attempts of atheists to misuse his statements to this end. Jammer also dispels notions that Einstein believed in Spinoza’s God, relating Einstein’s relation to Spinoza, which was not a deep conceptual one.

This book is worth getting a copy of even for the preface and first appendix alone by Roy Varghese in which he sets out an astute and withering critique of the New Atheists. Similarly, the final appendix by N.T. Wright stands on in its own right, where he sets out a powerful argument for belief in the resurrection of Christ, the most powerful that Flew says he has ever encountered.

Below touches on Varghese’s critiques:

Roy Varghese notes that oddly the recent books by the new atheists read like fundamentalist sermons with hell-fire and brimstone and asks how the new atheists fit into the philosophical discussion on God of the last several decades. He answers that they don’t, that basically they are a reversion to the refuted logical positivism of another age.

First, he says, they refuse to address the central grounds for positing a divine reality. “Dennett spends seven pages on the arguments for God’s existence. Harris none… Dawkins talks of the origins of consciousness as ‘one-off’ events triggered by an initial stroke of luck.’ Wolpert writes: ‘I have purposely [!] avoided any discussion of consciousness, which remains mostly poorly understood.’ About the origin of consciousness, Dennett, a die-hard physicalist, once wrote, ‘and then a miracle happens.’

Dawkins talks of the origins of consciousness as ‘one-off’ events triggered by an initial stroke of luck.” Besides the rationality implicit in all our experience of the natural world, Varghese identifies autonomous agency, consciousness, conceptual thought and the self as unaccounted for by all of the new atheists. He develops his point about each of these in Appendix A of the book.

Secondly, the new atheists show no awareness of the raise and fall of arguments of logical positivism.

Third, they seem entirely unaware of the massive work in analytic philosophy of religion or of the sophisticated arguments within philosophical theism.

Varghese then notes in contrast to Dawkins how often Russell was known to change his mind and also the case of J.N. Findlay who argued that God's existence can be disproved but then reversed himself and argued for the existence of God in a series of subsequent books.

"Dawkins 'old-age' argument (if it can be called that) is a strange variation of the ad hominem fallacy that has no place in civilized discourse. True thinkers evaluate arguments and weigh evidence without regard to the proponent's race, sex, or age." p. xvii

““It would be fair to say that the ‘new atheism’ is nothing less than a regression to the logical positivist philosophy that was renounced by even the most ardent proponents. In fact, the ‘new atheists,’ it might be said, do not even rise to logical positivism. The positivists were never so naïve as to suggest that God could be a scientific hypothesis- they declared the concept of God to be meaningless precisely because it was not a scientific hypothesis. Dawkins, on the other hand, holds that ‘the presence or absence of creative super-intelligence is unequivocally a scientific question.’ This is the kind of comment of which we say it is not even wrong!” -Roy Varghese p. xviii.


Stephen... said...

Just a few clarifications:

Elizabeth Anscombe is Catholic, not an atheist. (You link to First Things, it has a few good articles on her, and Lewis).

shovenism = chauvinism.

I look forward to reading this book though. Should be good.

Raskolnikov said...

Thank you for the corrections, Stephen. I am enriched by it.