Saturday, April 24, 2010

The Death of Antony Flew, February 1923- April 2010.

In August last year I wrote a post about Antony Flew titled Antony Flew and The “Slippery Slope” of Theism. In that post I gave sources which cover Flew’s conversion to Deism , so it won’t be my purpose here to go over that again. Now that Flew is gone, I felt that it would be interesting to reconsider his thought.

In regard to Flew’s 2007 book There Is a God: How the World's Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind suggestions have been floated that much of it was “ghost-written”. Kenneth Grubbs outlined this argument in this tribute to Flew Antony Flew, 1923–2010
Following the Argument Wherever it Leads

Subsequent to Oppenheimer’s story, Varghese wrote a letter to the editor of the New York Times magazine: “First the good news: Antony Flew is alive and well (physically and mentally)” (“Doubting Antony Flew,” November 5, 2007. This letter was written just one year prior to Flew’s dementia requiring hospitalization).

When I spoke with Mark he reminded me that Harper One wasn’t entirely satisfied with Varghese’s prose, so they asked Bob Hostetler, an evangelical pastor, to re-write many of the passages, “To make it more reader friendly,” according to Varghese himself. So the ghostwriter had a ghostwriter!

In essence then, two-thirds of Antony Flew’s book is actually Roy Varghese writing for Flew, with some undefined portion written by Bob Hostetler writing for Varghese. The remaining one-third of the book is Varghese writing as Varghese, taking puerile whacks at the “New Atheists” in Appendix A; and Bishop Wright in Appendix B, writing as Bishop Wright, presenting his 28-page Christian dissertation. As Annis said, “All those Christians [were] trying to pull him to their bosom.” Yet almost unbelievably, nowhere in There is a God is any of this information disclosed. The omissions alone are disturbing. “The most disappointing thing to me,” Oppenheimer told me, reflecting back with clear candor, “is the cynicism of the publishing industry. They knew they made a mistake, and never took the opportunity to correct it.”

However, published a letter written by Flew, countering suggestions that the views expressed in There is a God were not his own:

I have rebutted these criticisms in the following statement: “My name is on the book and it represents exactly my opinions. I would not have a book issued in my name that I do not 100 per cent agree with. I needed someone to do the actual writing because I’m 84 and that was Roy Varghese’s role. The idea that someone manipulated me because I’m old is exactly wrong. I may be old but it is hard to manipulate me. That is my book and it represents my thinking.”

On the same page is Flew’s review of Richard Dawkins’ book The God Delusion, in which he writes, in part:

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.)

Antony Flew’s views were anything but simple and straightforward, and in my opinion Kenneth Grubbs does make some valid points in the following:

Flew/Varghese argue that, “Perhaps the most popular and intuitively plausible argument for God’s existence is the so-called argument from design.” Having now read hundreds of pages of masterfully constructed arguments from this classically trained Oxford philosopher, in my opinion Professor Flew would shudder at the notion of employing “popular” or “intuitively plausible” statements as arguments for or against anything. They write, “What I think the DNA material has done is that it has shown, by almost unbelievable complexity of the arrangements which are needed to produce life, that intelligence must have been involved.”

Consider this passage from God and Philosophy, written by Flew in 1966: “Certainly it is proper to feel the awe in the contemplation of the human eye or of the single living cell. But no exploitation, however breathtaking, of the limitations and potentialities of materials would give good ground for inferring Omnipotence.” So what changed? Did complexity became more complex? Did design became better designed? Is Flew’s qualification, “however breathtaking,” invalidated by the complexity of DNA?

Another cornerstone of any argument for deism is the Anthropic Principle. Flew/Varghese submit the weight of electrons, the speed of light, and gravitational constants to demonstrate that the universe is too “fine tuned” to be accidental. Again, these observations contribute nothing substantive — they are simply statements about the universe, not packets of data’ — save the same misleading implication what else could it be, but God? The authors conclude: “The only satisfactory explanation for the origin of such ‘end-directed, self-replicating’ life as we see on earth is an infinitely intelligent Mind.” The logic proffered fails as an argument because it requires us to accept the lack of knowledge as knowledge, and the lack of evidence as evidence. This is Argumentum ad Ignorantiam, or, appeal to ignorance. It is also the Burden of Proof Fallacy, which states that if we cannot prove X to be false, then X is true; the inability to disprove X becomes the proof of X. The argument is of course invalid.

Bertrand Russell was fond of suggesting that a teapot orbited the sun just beyond Mars; no one can disprove his claim, therefore it is true. If we follow the this line of reasoning we must accept the conclusion that the more evidence we lack … the greater the likelihood that God exists. The argument beckons for God to be defined as “the sum of all knowledge yet acquired.”

This was the reason Flew wrote The Presumption of Atheism back in 1976. It was written to mirror the legal maxim, Ei incumbit probation qui dicit, non qui negat, or “The onus of proof lies on the proposition, not on the opposition.” Flew noted in that book: “If it is to be established that there is a God, then we have to have good grounds for believing that this is indeed so. Until and unless some such grounds are produced we have literally no reason at all for believing.” The absence of evidence hardly qualifies as “good grounds” for anything, much less god, and thus our expectations for some epiphanic insight to leap from the pages of this book and help us understand the basis for Professor Flew’s recantation have been thoroughly dashed.

The landscape of science has changed in almost unrecognizable proportions since Flew’s early life. However, it is unreasonable — irrational even — to suggest that Flew’s original position opposing complexity as an argument for a Divine Mind was only a matter of degree. If complexity is a poor argument for the existence of God (and it is) then the degree of complexity is an irrelevant attribute.

Flew, The Conclusion

As a species our hunger for answers is insatiable. So desperate are we to understand the universe around us that for untold centuries we have refused to accept any “gap” in that understanding. Unexplained phenomena are the spawning grounds for ghost stories, sea monsters, grassy knolls, and a Divine Mind.
Antony Flew understood this as well as anyone. He devoted a lifetime of vigorous intellectual argument against presuming God. Today we are asked to accept that he has changed his mind. With asterisks in hand, we accept.

Could we make a cogent argument “pointing to” his age and capacity as factors that might mitigate a change of this magnitude? We could. Are there uncertainties that could warrant a tenable challenge to the motives of those individuals surrounding Flew, with regard to his “conversion” and the curiously construction and authorship of the book? There are. Should the publishers bear any responsibility for preventing misperceptions concerning the disclosure of would-be ghostwriters? They should. There is little hope of ever reconciling the Antony Flew of 87 years with the Antony Flew of 27 years. Did he change his mind, or did his mind change him?

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