Antony Flew: at last, the book

The story so far…

Last year there was a flurry of media attention around the “revelation” that Antony Flew, the British philosopher, had renounced his lifelong atheism and now believed in god. The main impetus for this was the publication of a book and video of a “debate” between Flew and a number of Christian writers and philosophers. In response to questions from various people, Flew made a number of comments, which I documented in previous blog entries. He also advised people to wait for the new edition of his 1966 book God and Philosophy, and promised that the new introduction to that book would answer all questions. I have now obtained a copy of this. Now read on….

First, a comment on the book itself. It was out of print, and has now been reissued by Prometheus Books. Apart from a Publisher’s Forward and the new Introduction, the text is unchanged, so if you already have God and Philosophy (also published as God: A Critical Enquiry) you should only buy this if you really have to have the new Introduction – 7 pages, plus a page of end-notes. As for the place of this book in a library of the philosophy of religion, I’d recommend it only for “completists”; it has largely been superceded by newer treatments of the subject.

“But what does he say in the Introduction?”, I can hear you asking. The short answer is: nothing earth-shattering. Flew does not claim any particular position, whether atheist, desist, theist, or whatever. (Indeed if it were not for the Publisher’s Forward by Paul Kurtz of SUNY Buffalo, there would be little reason to pay much attention to the Introduction.) Rather, Flew lists a number of recent developments which “any intending successor to God and Philosophy would need to take into account”, but without indicating whether such developments have caused him to change his position. As Kurtz notes, there were four drafts of the Introduction submitted to Prometheus, and “it is up to the readers of his final introduction published below to decide whether or not he has abandoned his earlier views.”

Those who were looking for a definitive answer to l’affaire Flew can stop reading here. Those who would like to dig for clues will presumably want to learn which “recent developments” Flew considers significant. Let’s examine them in order.

  • Flew first draws attention to the “multiverse” theory, citing Geneziano and Paul Davies. He doesn’t explain why this is relevant, and in re-reading his treatments of the Cosmological Argument and other classical moves, I couldn’t see how they would be changed by replacing the Big Bang by a multiverse model. (One form of the multiverse idea would rehabilitate the notion of an infinite chain of causation. Since this would presumably remove any need for an “uncaused cause”, it wouldn’t give comfort to any theist.)

  • Secondly, Flew raises the “fine tuning argument”. His choice of words is careful, yet disturbing: he simply says that “whatever [its] merits or demerits, it must… be allowed that it is reasonable [for believers in theistic religions] to see [it] as providing substantial confirmation of their own antecedent religious beliefs.” But this, surely, is beside the point: believers have many reasons for their positions which are wholly out of the scope of rational inquiry. The fine tuning argument would only be relevant to a successor to God and Philosophy if it constituted a substantial move in the debate. And it doesn’t: it is a wholly specious proposition that falls apart under even a cursory examination. (I’ll defend this position in a subsequent blog posting, for reasons of space.)

  • The third point that Flew raises is that of abiogenesis: how the first forms of life on Earth might have arisen from inanimate matter. Flew is “delighted to be assured” that science has this question in hand, and cites Richard Carrier’s excellent papers on the subject.

  • The fourth “development” is puzzling. Flew simply draws attention to Roy Abraham Varghese’s book The Wonder of the World, and says that it “provides an extremely extensive argument of the inductive argument from the order of nature”. Now Flew’s review of this book is on the web. In it, he wrote “until a satisfactory naturalistic explanation has been developed, there would appear to be room for an Argument to Design at the first emergence of living from non-living matter…. You have in your book deployed abundant evidence indicating that it is likely to be a very long time before such naturalistic explanations are developed, if indeed there ever could be.” Thereafter Flew noted that his views diverged with Varghese. Yet just above we noted that Flew was “delighted” that the scientific accounts of abiogenesis were in good order. So which is it?

  • The fifth “development” cited by Flew is a “revival”, due to David Conway, of “the classical conception of philosophy” and the Aristotelian notion of god. If one re-reads the original text of God and Philosophy, it seems that Flew has already considered all of the points that he raises (at inordinate length) in this “development”; there is, literally, nothing new here.

  • Finally, Flew says that “mention must be made of the radically new and extremely comprehensive case for the existence of the Christian God made by Richard Swinburne in his Is There a God? Radically new? Why haven’t we been told?! In fact, as Flew is forced to admit, Swinburne’s argument, “is, like the fine tuning argument, something that [believers] may very reasonably see as… confirmation.” For myself, I found Swinburne’s arguments remarkably unoriginal: he merely recycles the Paley argument for design and then makes an unsupported move from designer to personal montheistic deity.

So what’s the verdict? My reading is that Flew got drawn into an unsustainable position, realized his mistakes (as noted in my earlier blog entries), backed off, and removed anything controversial from the Introduction. However he still felt compelled by duty of friendship to give a favorable reference to those that he corresponded with during 2004: Varghese, Swinburne, and Conway. The end result, despite Paul Kurtz’s attempt in the Forward to whip up a controversy, is a damp squib. Oh, well.

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