April 13, 2010


Professor Antony Flew (Daily Telegraph, 4/13/10)

Flew always described himself as a "negative atheist", asserting that "theological propositions can neither be verified nor falsified by experience", a position he expounded in his classic paper Theology and Falsification (1950), reputedly the most frequently-quoted philosophical publication of the second half of the 20th century.

He argued that any philosophical debate about the Almighty must begin by presuming atheism, placing the burden of proof on those who believe that God exists. "We reject all transcendent supernatural systems, not because we've examined or could have examined each in turn, but because it does not seem to us that there is any good evidence in reason to postulate anything behind or beyond this natural universe," he proclaimed. A key principle of his philosophy was the Socratean concept of "follow the evidence, wherever it leads".

When Flew revealed that he had come to the conclusion that there might be a God after all, it came as a shock to his fellow atheists, who had long regarded him as one of their foremost champions. Worse, he seemed to have deserted Plato for Aristotle, since it was two of Aquinas's famous five proofs for the existence of God – the arguments from design and for a prime mover – that had apparently clinched the matter.

After months of soul-searching, Flew concluded that research into DNA had "shown, by the almost unbelievable complexity of the arrangements which are needed to produce life, that intelligence must have been involved". Moreover, though he accepted Darwinian evolution, he felt that it could not explain the beginnings of life. "I have been persuaded that it is simply out of the question that the first living matter evolved out of dead matter and then developed into an extraordinarily complicated creature," he said. [...]

As an undergraduate, Flew had become an enthusiast for the new linguistic analysis approach to philosophy propounded by JL Austin and Gilbert Ryle and, as a lecturer, was considered one of its leading advocates. In 1955 he edited Logic and Language: First Series, an influential anthology that popularised the new approach.

He soon began applying the new technique to religious questions and, with Alasdair MacIntyre, edited New Essays in Philosophical Theology (1955). In his study of religion, Flew was greatly influenced by David Hume, on whom he became a leading authority. His Hume's Philosophy of Belief (1961) became the standard study of the philosopher's Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding. [...]

In political philosophy, Flew defended classical liberalism against the fallacies of egalitarianism, arguing that socialism and social democracy are based on assumptions about the world that are demonstrably false.

He became a leading critic of the Harvard philosopher John Rawls, who had attempted to reconcile liberty and egalitarianism in his critically acclaimed Theory of Justice. In Politics of Procrustes: Contradictions of Enforced Equality (1981), Flew rejected Rawls's claim that, since people do not acquire their natural talents through moral merit, these talents stand at the disposition of "society". Moral qualities, Flew argued, are not needed to entitle us to profit from our abilities.

The problem with his former atheism is classic, and was explained by Hume, if we are to be rigorous in our rationalism then the philosophical conversation never gets to God, because we can not show rationally that we exist. Such atheism is a form of cowardice, too fearful of its own implications to wrestle with them.

-LETTER: Letter from Antony Flew on Darwinism and Theology (Antony Flew, Philosophy Now)

Dear Editor,

The publication of ‘The Alleged Fallacies of Evolutionary Theory’ by Massimo Pigliucci and others in Issue 46 of Philosophy Now provides a convenient occasion for pointing out the limits of the negative theological implications of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection. In the fourteenth and final chapter of The Origin of Species Darwin himself – apart from noticing certain short (a mere handful of million years long) geological periods in which the fossil record reveals the occurrence of inexplicably rapid evolution – wrote:

“Analogy would lead me one step further, namely to the belief that all animals and plants have descended from one prototype.... Therefore I should infer from analogy that probably all the organic beings that have lived on the earth have descended from some one primordial form, into which life was first breathed.”

Probably Darwin himself believed that life was miraculously breathed into that primordial form of not always consistently reproducing life by God, though not the revealed God of then contemporary Christianity, who had predestined so many of Darwin’s friends and family to an eternity of extreme torture.

But the evidential situation of natural (as opposed to revealed) theology has been transformed in the more than fifty years since Watson and Crick won the Nobel Prize for their discovery of the double helix structure of DNA. It has become inordinately difficult even to begin to think about constructing a naturalistic theory of the evolution of that first reproducing organism.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 13, 2010 8:23 PM
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