The Anthony Flew brouhaha

While I was visiting my mother, she mentioned that she’d heard that “Anthony Flew has got religion”. This means that the rumours of Flew’s possible recantation must have spread from the phil. of religion blogosphere to BBC Radio 4, so I thought I’d check out the state of play.

In October, Richard Carrier documented the history of Flew’s supposed conversions in a piece in SecWeb, and reported that Flew was questioning whether an “impersonal spirit” of some kind might be the best explanation for “why a universe exists that can produce complex life”. Carrier’s recently updated the piece with some quotes from Flew himself, explaining this Deist-like position:

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.

Is this simply an argument from incredulity? In his 1993 Atheistic Humanism, Flew points out that “Absent excellent evidencing reasons […] it becomes preposterous to postulate a” CEB [Cosmos-Explaining Being]; in the same chapter he also argues against the uncritical use of various forms of the anthropic principle. Recently Flew has admitted to being impressed by Gerald Schroeder’s The Hidden Face Of God, but Schroeder’s (widely criticised) arguments seem to fall short of the “excellent evidencing reasons” that Flew demanded 12 years ago. (See Perakh and Carrier.)

Various religious types have been running around claiming Flew’s supposed “conversion” as evidence for the supernatural. J. P. Moreland made this argument on PAX TV, and Carrier quotes Flew as emphatically rejecting it: “my God is not his. His is Swinburne’s. Mine is emphatically not good (or evil) or interested in human conduct”.

However Flew seems to have gone beyond the position that he described to Carrier, although it should be noted that the source is a story in Fox News. Last May Flew took part in a debate organized by author Roy Abraham Varghese’s Institute for Metascientific Research in Garland, Texas; a video of the debate has been released under the title Has Science Discovered God?. Typically, the press release from Varghese’s “Institute” is triumphal in tone, and does nothing to distinguish Flew’s “impersonal spirit” from popular religious notions of god. And to increase the confusion (according to Fox),

Flew told The Associated Press his current ideas have some similarity with American “intelligent design” theorists, who see evidence for a guiding force in the construction of the universe. He accepts Darwinian evolution but doubts it can explain the ultimate origins of life.

All of this is frustratingly incomplete, of course, and I hope the arguments will be fleshed out in the new edition of Flew’s God and Philosophy, coming next year. Presumably if Flew is postulating an intelligent designer, he has an answer for the question of “who designed the designer”, as well as all of the other arguments that he himself has articulated over the years in books such as the account of his debate with Terry Miethe. Nonetheless it’s hard to know how to reconcile alignment with “intelligent design” with his assertion that he “has in mind something like the God of Aristotle, a distant, impersonal ‘prime mover.’ It might not even be conscious, but a mere force.” Perhaps we expect too much: as Carrier wrote:

Flew’s tentative, mechanistic Deism is not based on any logical proofs, but solely on physical, scientific evidence, or the lack thereof, and is therefore subject to change with more information — and he confesses he has not been able to keep up with the relevant literature in science and theology, which means we should no longer treat him as an expert on this subject.

Of course such a disclaimer is unlikely to prevent people like Moreland and Varghese from using Flew as a poster child for their causes.

POSTSCRIPT, 12-Aug-05: To my amazement, this entry continues to attact comments 8 months after I wrote it. The sad thing is that so many of the comments raise points that I addressed in later postings. So please: if you stumble over this entry, and feel compelled to comment, please read the other entries on Flew before you do so. See here, here, and here. And thanks.

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