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The Curious Case of Antony Flew

atheist now deist antony flew book not convincingAntony Flew created waves with his 2007 book There is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind. He was a prominent atheist philosopher who converted to deism. Attacked or ignored before, Flew suddenly became a darling within many Christian circles and was celebrated as one of the 20th century’s most important philosophers.

Antony Flew, the Christian coup

A 2009 Greg Koukl podcast gives an example of this Christian reaction. Koukl blathered on about what a top-flight philosopher Flew was. He attacked the idea that Flew was losing it, as some atheists charged. “Just read his book and see,” he said. He said that scientists like Dawkins should feel privileged to be in the same room with a great philosopher like Flew. And so on.

Koukl is often motivating, and that was the case here. However, I doubt that it motivated me in the direction that he was expecting. In the first place, and you need only look on the cover to see this, Flew wasn’t the author. It says “Antony Flew with Roy Abraham Varghese.” Maybe Flew wrote most of it, but I doubt it. The “with” customarily means that the other guy wrote it all.

There are other clues. This book is structured in a very different way than a typical nonfiction book in which someone lays out a thesis and then supports it with evidence. It has long summaries of the thinking of other people—Heisenberg, Schrödinger, and so on. No original thinking here, just summaries.

For example, it has a book report-like summary of part of Infinite Minds by John Leslie, which talks about quantum laws and special relativity. Flew’s background gives no indication that he was comfortable with this kind of science, and even if he was, who cares? He wasn’t a physicist or even a science journalist, and he brings no authority to his analysis of physics.

There are also lots of places like this: “In my new introduction to the 2005 edition of God and Philosophy, I said, ‘I am myself delighted …’” (p. 123). Flew was reduced to quoting himself? He can’t just say what he wants to say?

Another example: “In The Presumption of Atheism and other atheistic writings, I argued that we must take the universe itself …” (p. 134). Here again he’s referring to himself as if he were another person. The book is peppered with this structure. It looks exactly as it would if someone (I don’t know … maybe someone like Roy Abraham Varghese?) were told to write a book-length essay on someone else’s philosophy and tried to couch it as if written by the great man himself.

Was Flew losing it in his waning years?

Here’s how Flew summarized his new position in a 2007 video:

If the integrated complexity of the physical world is a good reason, as Einstein clearly thought it was, of believing that there was an intelligence behind it, then this argument applies a fortiori [even more strongly] with the inordinately greater integrated complexity of the living world.

Let’s step through Flew’s argument.

1. Einstein is really smart. True, but this is an irrelevant appeal to authority.

2. Einstein said that there’s an intelligence behind the physical world. False, but even if he did, so what? A really smart guy says that there’s a god behind the curtain, pulling the levers of reality, so therefore it must be so?

3. If you think the physical world is complex, the living world is way more so.

4. If there’s intelligence behind the physical world, there’s even more reason to believe that about the far more complex biological world. Complexity doesn’t demand design. A pile of straw is complex (imagine documenting each piece), but it wasn’t designed.

Flew approvingly mentioned Einstein’s reluctance to go “where [he] didn’t have any authority at all and wasn’t inclined (reasonably enough) to talk about it.” Too bad Flew himself didn’t follow that advice!

The relevance of Flew’s conversion

Let’s return to Koukl’s point about Dawkins vs. Flew. The book itself shows the ridiculousness of this complaint. In the beginning of the conclusion chapter, it lists “the three items of evidence we have considered in this volume—the laws of nature, life with its teleological organization, and the existence of the universe.” These three are all squarely in the domain of science! Now who’s the interloper into a field that he’s unqualified to critique?

If Varghese wants to spin Flew’s works or glean a theistic argument out of Flew’s writings, that’s fine, but what did Flew himself add to this project besides give permission? The image comes to mind of someone helping a senile old man sign his name to the release form. One critic of the book said, “Far from strengthening the case for the existence of God, [the book] rather weakens the case for the existence of Antony Flew.”

If you are drawn into controversy,
use very hard arguments and very soft words.
Frequently you cannot convince a man by tugging at his reason,
but you can persuade him by winning his affections.
— C.H. Spurgeon

About Bob Seidensticker
  • http://theophor.us Ignatius Theophorus

    I’m not an expert on Flew, but Wikipedia seems to suggest that the disputes with Flew’s book have in turn been disputed by Flew himself. What of those statements? It seems to me that is where the real argument lies anyway.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      IT:

      I could believe that Flew was challenged and that he said that he arrived at his conclusions without duress. My main point is that Flew’s critique of scientific arguments are uninteresting. He’d left his domain of expertise, and the great triumph that some Christians proclaimed of having the Great Philosopher (sort of) in their fold was misplaced.

      • http://theophor.us Ignatius Theophorus

        My main point is that Flew’s critique of scientific arguments are uninteresting.

        Sure, I just felt that the article seems to be introduced as a critique of Flew and it really is a critique of a book he collaborated on (? authorized?). I was hoping to read more about the response Flew had to the book’s critic’s. Is that possible? Are there resources other than Wikipedia?

        • Bob Seidensticker

          When Flew was dabbling with deism and then later, after his book came out, this was a popular topic. I’m sure there are articles filetting this issue from various standpoints, but I don’t have any links at the moment, sorry.

  • Lewis C.

    Wow, I’ve never read this book and I know close to nothing of this Flew…but I’ve never seen someone go to so much trouble to criticize a book on anything OTHER THAN its substantive arguments.

    So we get that you didn’t care for the book organization, the use of two writers (God forbid), citations to previous work….anything else? Maybe the page numbers were in the center of the page rather than in the corner? How was the font? Did the margin size undermine the arguments for you?

    • http://theophor.us Ignatius Theophorus

      Hey. Don’t mock people who care about fonts. Can you even imagine reading a book in Comic Sans? Papyrus? I know that I would be unable to finish a book written in either of those. They’re really just intolerable. I’ll bet that isn’t the case here, but still.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      Lewis:

      “Flew’s” arguments are irrelevant–that’s the point. If Flew had commented on Economics or medicine, would anyone have cared? Similarly, why care about his critique of a scientific argument?

  • smrnda

    I think the title is a bit presumptuous. I knew who Dawkins was by the time I was maybe 8 or 9. Flew is/was seriously the *most notorious atheist?* Then why am I just now hearing of him?

    All said, I don’t usually bother with books written by someone *with someone else.*

    • MNb

      The same for me. I had never heard of him until christians claimed that he was famous. Anyhow, just like his supposed dementia his fame is not relevant. His argument are. And they suck.

  • avalon

    Varghese’s ideas can be summed up as:
    1. Mind exists independent of matter. Therefore, an infinite Mind created the universe.
    2. The laws of physics are a ‘framework’ that matter and energy fit into.
    3. An emotional complaint against science: science doesn’t appreciate the “wonder” of the universe.

    It’s a god-of-the-gaps argument plus an emotional appeal.
    Science replies to his ideas with:
    1. There is no evidence that minds exist independent of physical brains.
    2. Physical laws are observations of what happens, not a pre-existing framework.
    3. Our emotional response to information is irrelevant to it’s truth content.

    That someone nearing the end of their life (Flew) would suddenly find it appealing to think their mind will continue to exist after death shouldn’t be surprising.

    avalon

    • Bob Seidensticker

      avalon:

      On point 2: Christians like to demand to know what explains the fundamental laws of physics. An interesting question, but I wonder what answer would satisfy them. Explain them in terms of what?

      • avalon

        Bob,
        “On point 2: Christians like to demand to know what explains the fundamental laws of physics. An interesting question, but I wonder what answer would satisfy them. Explain them in terms of what?”

        They see the laws of physics as ‘rules’ that the universe must follow and they see these rules existing independent of the universe itself. The reason is simple: by imagining pre-existing rules that govern the universe, they can ask “Who made these rules?”.
        What answer would satisfy them? Clearly not one that says the laws of physics are just observations of how this universe works. And in another universe things could work very differently. A random law of physics doesn’t require a law-maker, something they’ve already taken for granted.

        avalon

        • smrnda

          I think they’re lost at the idea of an ‘emergent property’ – a law nobody puts into a system but which is simply the consequence of the properties of the system or its elements. When chess was invented, nobody said “A player with just a king and a pawn cannot win against an opponent with all her pieces” but it sure does seem to be true. There are the *rules* of chess and then there are rules that are simply a consequence of how the pieces move.

        • MNb

          “A player with just a king and a pawn cannot win against an opponent with all her pieces”
          Actually a player with just a king and a pawn can win if she cooperates; I even can imagine it’s possible that in certain extreme positions that player wins by force. That’s why she with all her pieces still can lose on time. But your example easily can be replaced by a better one. E.g.
          “Good opening play involves control of the four central squares”.

  • Greg G

    You may not have heard of Antony Flew before the apologists began to tout him as a great philosopher (I hadn’t) but you are likely familiar with at least one of his arguments. He came up with “No True Scotsman”.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      Greg:

      Interesting–I didn’t know that.

      Wikipedia agrees with you.

  • Paul King

    My understanding is that Varghese didn’t write the entire book – he had an uncredited ghost help him.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      A ghost for a ghost??

      It is rather close to April Fool’s Day … is this for real?

      • Paul King

        Yes. I certainly remember reading of it. I wish that I could track it down, but it was some time ago.

    • Andrew G.

      The uncredited ghost-ghostwriter was Bob Hostetler; see Oppenheimer’s NYT article for the details.

      • Bob Seidensticker

        Here is that article.

  • Scott Leopold

    “Integrated complexity of the physical world”: This sounds suspiciously close to Michael Behe’s argument from design – the sub-scientific assertion that we can infer design (and therefore intent) from the mere appearance of design. I also find fault with his reference to Einstein – not just for appealing to authority – but because Einstein for one was very clear that to him god was simply mystery, and that the way we can understand the mystery of the universe is by scientific discovery. That didn’t prevent him from enjoying the awe and beauty of the universe, but Dr. Flew’s assertion that Einstein was at once “qualified to judge” and yet “declined to talk about it” seem to out of alignment with what we know of Einstein’s views. At the very least Einstein judged religion to be childish and he articulated that he saw no reason why the Jews, with whom he shared a common bond, should be “chosen” above any other “tribe”.

  • MNb

    “Einstein judged religion to be childish”
    Einstein actually use the word primitive, which is even worse for believers.


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