Sunday, April 18, 2010

Antony Flew: RIP 4-8-2010


The world of philosophy produces a dearth of good writing. One most often has to endure swimming through turgid prose, but there are notable exceptions. One of them is Antony Flew. His career was interesting. In philosophy of religion circles he is known for the essay Theology and Falsification which includes the charming analogy of the invisible gardener. An excerpt:


Let us begin with a parable. It is a parable developed from a tale told by John Wisdom in his haunting and revolutionary article "Gods."[1] Once upon a time two explorers came upon a clearing in the jungle. In the clearing were growing many flowers and many weeds. One explorer says, "Some gardener must tend this plot." The other disagrees, "There is no gardener." So they pitch their tents and set a watch. No gardener is ever seen. "But perhaps he is an invisible gardener." So they set up a barbed-wire fence. They electrify it. They patrol with bloodhounds. (For they remember how H. G. Well's The Invisible Man could be both smelt and touched though he could not be seen.) But no shrieks ever suggest that some intruder has received a shock. No movements of the wire ever betray an invisible climber. The bloodhounds never give cry. Yet still the Believer is not convinced. "But there is a gardener, invisible, intangible, insensible, to electric shocks, a gardener who has no scent and makes no sound, a gardener who comes secretly to look after the garden which he loves." At last the Sceptic despairs, "But what remains of your original assertion? Just how does what you call an invisible, intangible, eternally elusive gardener differ from an imaginary gardener or even from no gardener at all?"

In this parable we can see how what starts as an assertion, that something exist or that there is some analogy between certain complexes of phenomena, may be reduced step by step to an altogether different status, to an expression perhaps of a "picture preference."[2] The Sceptic says there is no gardener. The Believer says there is a gardener (but invisible, etc.). One man talks about sexual behavior. Another man prefers to talk of Aphrodite (but knows that there is not really a superhuman person additional to, and somehow responsible for, all sexual phenomena).[3] The process of qualification may be checked at any point before the original assertion is completely withdrawn and something of that first assertion will remain (Tautology). Mr. Wells' invisible man could not, admittedly, be seen, but in all other respects he was a man like the rest of us. But though the process of qualification may be and of course usually is, checked in time, it is not always judicially so halted. Someone may dissipate his assertion completely without noticing that he has done so. A fine brash hypothesis may thus be killed by inches, the death by a thousand qualifications.


His life was all the more remarkable for his late conversion to a deist point of view. He was convinced that he had been in error by the Fine Tuning and Intelligent Design arguments. For that change of mind, he earned the ire and consternation of what he came to term "secular bigots".


Flew published a book entitled There Is a God: How the World's Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind with a co-author, and was promptly the subject of wild accusations of having not written the book, and being the subject of sinister manipulation by the co-author. Having read the book, it is certain to me that he was after all a co-author and responsible for large portions of it, for it bears the imprint of his unique voice, as does this lively and humorous 2008 take down of perhaps the most famous secular bigot these days, Richard Dawkins.


The God Delusion by the atheist writer Richard Dawkins, is remarkable in the first place for having achieved some sort of record by selling over a million copies. But what is much more remarkable than that economic achievement is that the contents – or rather lack of contents – of this book show Dawkins himself to have become what he and his fellow secularists typically believe to be an impossibility: namely, a secularist bigot. (Helpfully, my copy of The Oxford Dictionary defines a bigot as ‘an obstinate or intolerant adherent of a point of view’).

The fault of Dawkins as an academic (which he still was during the period in which he composed this book although he has since announced his intention to retire) was his scandalous and apparently deliberate refusal to present the doctrine which he appears to think he has refuted in its strongest form. Thus we find in his index five references to Einstein. They are to the mask of Einstein and Einstein on morality; on a personal God; on the purpose of life (the human situation and on how man is here for the sake of other men and above all for those on whose well-being our own happiness depends); and finally on Einstein’s religious views. But (I find it hard to write with restraint about this obscurantist refusal on the part of Dawkins) he makes no mention of Einstein’s most relevant report: namely, that the integrated complexity of the world of physics has led him to believe that there must be a Divine Intelligence behind it. (I myself think it obvious that if this argument is applicable to the world of physics then it must be hugely more powerful if it is applied to the immeasurably more complicated world of biology.)

Of course many physicists with the highest of reputations do not agree with Einstein in this matter. But an academic attacking some ideological position which s/he believes to be mistaken must of course attack that position in its strongest form. This Dawkins does not do in the case of Einstein and his failure is the crucial index of his insincerity of academic purpose and therefore warrants me in charging him with having become, what he has probably believed to be an impossibility, a secularist bigot.

On page 82 of The God Delusion is a remarkable note. It reads ‘We might be seeing something similar today in the over-publicised tergiversation of the philosopher Antony Flew, who announced in his old age that he had been converted to belief in some sort of deity (triggering a frenzy of eager repetition all around the Internet).’

What is important about this passage is not what Dawkins is saying about Flew but what he is showing here about Dawkins. For if he had had any interest in the truth of the matter of which he was making so much he would surely have brought himself to write me a letter of enquiry. (When I received a torrent of enquiries after an account of my conversion to Deism had been published in the quarterly of the Royal Institute of Philosophy I managed – I believe – eventually to reply to every letter.)

This whole business makes all too clear that Dawkins is not interested in the truth as such but is primarily concerned to discredit an ideological opponent by any available means. That would itself constitute sufficient reason for suspecting that the whole enterprise of The God Delusion was not, as it at least pretended to be, an attempt to discover and spread knowledge of the existence or non-existence of God but rather an attempt – an extremely successful one – to spread the author’s own convictions in this area.

A less important point which needs to be made in this piece is that although the index of The God Delusion notes six references to Deism it provides no definition of the word ‘deism’. This enables Dawkins in his references to Deism to suggest that Deists are a miscellany of believers in this and that. The truth, which Dawkins ought to have learned before this book went to the printers, is that Deists believe in the existence of a God but not the God of any revelation. In fact the first notable public appearance of the notion of Deism was in the American Revolution. The young man who drafted the Declaration of Independence and who later became President Jefferson was a Deist, as were several of the other founding fathers of that abidingly important institution, the United States.

In that monster footnote to what I am inclined to describe as a monster book – The God Delusion – Dawkins reproaches me for what he calls my ignominious decision to accept, in 2006, the Phillip E. Johnson Award for Liberty and Truth. The awarding Institution is Biola, The Bible Institute of Los Angeles. Dawkins does not say outright that his objection to my decision is that Biola is a specifically Christian institution. He obviously assumes (but refrains from actually saying) that this is incompatible with producing first class academic work in every department – not a thesis which would be acceptable in either my own university or Oxford or in Harvard.

In my time at Oxford, in the years immediately succeeding the second world war, Gilbert Ryle (then Waynflete Professor of Metaphysical Philosophy in the University of Oxford) published a hugely influential book The Concept of Mind. This book revealed by implication, but only by implication, that minds are not entities of a sort which could coherently be said to survive the death of those whose minds they were.

Ryle felt responsible for the smooth pursuit of philosophical teaching and the publication of the findings of philosophical research in the university and knew that, at that time, there would have been uproar if he had published his own conclusion that the very idea of a second life after death was self-contradictory and incoherent. He was content for me to do this at a later time and in another place. I told him that if I were ever invited to give one of the Gifford Lecture series my subject would be The Logic of Mortality. When I was, I did and these Lectures were first published by Blackwell (Oxford) in 1987. They are still in print from Prometheus Books (Amherst, NY).

Finally, as to the suggestion that I have been used by Biola University. If the way I was welcomed by the students and the members of faculty whom I met on my short stay in Biola amounted to being used then I can only express my regret that at the age of 85 I cannot reasonably hope for another visit to this institution.

Antony Flew was always blessed by a keen analytical mind, a razor sharp wit, and embodied the notion of the happy warrior. The world shall miss him.