Christians Gain Little From Antony Flew’s Change of Mind

Antony Flew changed his mind on the God-hypothesis, which was announced in an interview published in December of 2004. To answer his critics he wrote an article for the Journal of the New Zealand Association of Rationalists and Humanists, called The Open Society (Summer 2005, Volume 78, Number 4), titled What I Mean by Atheism, pp 8-9. In it we see why Christians gain little from his change of mind...

In this article Flew rambles, and what he wrote seems contradictory. In the first place, why is the article titled, “What I mean by atheism,” if he now believes? He also states that “I am myself delighted to be assured by biological-scientist friends that protobiologists are now well able to produce theories of the evolution of the first living matter and that several of these theories are consistent with all the so-far confirmed scientific evidence.” Why would he say that if he has accepted the Intelligent Design hypothesis? And why would he answer the question of whether we need a God to explain the origin of life by writing, “the work in this area which I have now read and on which I am presently relying for my conclusion on this matter is Victor J. Stenger's Has Science Found God?: The Latest Results in the Search for Purpose in the Universe? Stenger’s answer to that question," Flew writes, "is, of course, an emphatic ‘No’."

But Flew does say this: “Probably I should always have called myself an agnostic.”

In an earlier article Raymond Bradley asked, “You say that you have abandoned atheism for belief in God. But the God of which religion? Pantheism? Deism? Or of some non-Mosaic version of theism?” Flew’s answers by writing “My answer is clear and confident. It is the non-interfering Aristotelean God of Deism and, most emphatically not the God of any revealed religion.” How much clearer can Flew be?

To emphasize this point, Flew wrote: “Albert Einstein was once asked – ‘to settle an argument’ – whether he believed in God. He replied that he believed in Spinoza’s God…No doubt many orthodox Christian and Jewish readers were reassured to think the great physicist was at one with them on this most fundamental matter.’ But of course, in Spinoza’s usage ‘God’ and ‘Nature’ were synonyms. Of course there is…a quite fundamental difference between an Aristotelian God who is the First Cause and Einstein’s Spinozistic ‘God or Nature’. But I don’t see why anyone else should be much interested in that question just so long as any God who is believed to exist is not Himself interested in human behaviour.”

Here’s my problem. In this essay we see Flew rambling and even making what seems to be contradictory claims in 2005. That should surely be an indicator that two years later he probably has other lapses in thinking and writing. It is not the clear and well written stuff he used to do. Nonetheless, in it he distances himself from any revealed religion. Why are Christians getting so much reassurance out of this? I don’t see it.

I think soft-agnoticism ("I don't know") is the default religious position. In this article Flew even says as much by saying he should've always affirmed agnosticism. Anyone leaving the default position must offer arguments in doing so. That's why I argue that moving from that initial position to a full-blown fundamentalist Christianity is as hard to do as flying a plane to the moon. That's why Christians of the fundamentalist type, gain little from his "conversion."

Flew’s viepoint is a very small step off that initial position. He affirms very little. Since the smaller the claim is, the easier it is to defend, his view is a much more reasonable position than fundamentalism, and harder to debunk. I too make a small move off the default position, but in the opposite direction, to atheism. However, his Deistic view offers him nothing...no hope...no morality...no helping God. A distant God like that is no different than none at all. Once I grasped this I became an atheist, for even if there is a God, it makes no difference to believe he exists.

I think all attempts to figure this existence out end in practical absurdities. Some people embrace those absurdities and punt to mysticism and mystery as pointers to the ultimate. Existentialists do so. Pantheists simply claim all is maya, an illusion.

But when I reflect on what best explains this absurd existence, then I offer a meta-explanation. Since no explanation is rational, I offer a meta-explanation for why this is so. It's because chance events, by their very nature, cannot be figured out. Our number came up in a Monte Carlo game. The universe is a brute fact, and this best explains why we cannot figure out why we exist.

20 comments:

Prup (aka Jim Benton) said...

John:
I agree with this, but saying it won't get through to Christians because of what I continue to refer to as the 'creationist double shuffle.'
Again and again I have to point out that believers make the same series of false equations:
A God = a Theistic God = the Christian God = My Interpretation of the Christian God.

In fact, none of these are equivalences. Even if any one could be proven (or postulated) it says nothing about any one further down the chain.

This is why I made such a point, in a previous comment you linked to, about the difference between saying -- as even Dawkins does -- that you can't prove a negative (that no God exists) and saying that it is possible to disprove that the Christian God exists.

Because, without making such a distinction, every time the first statement is made, believers will grab it and run down the chain and claim "See, even atheists admit they can't prove their position, which means they can't argue against MY God."

And that simply isn't true.

William Hawthorne said...

Fact: Flew now rejects atheism. That's reason enough for many theists (including Christians) to be excited for him.

Toward the end of your article, you say, "...when I reflect on what best explains this absurd existence, then I offer a meta-explanation."

What's a meta-explanation? What do you mean by it in this context? Roughly, for some proposition p and some proposition q, p explains q iff (i) p is true and (ii) p entails q, where "entails" is strict implication, not material implication. So what would it be for p to be a "meta-explanation" for q? Please explain.

"Since no explanation is rational..."

How did you arrive at this knowledge? Moreover, given your assertion above, and given that "meta-explanation" seems to be a kind of explanation, your position is difficult to make sense of. Perhaps you wish to deny that "meta-explanations" are really explanations? That's odd.

"Our number came up in a Monte Carlo game."

What does this mean?

"The universe is a brute fact,"

The proposition that the universe exists is not a necessary truth. So are you suggesting that there is no explanation for a contingently true proposition?

"and this best explains why we cannot figure out why we exist."

"Explains"? Since you think that no explanations are rational, then I suppose you haven't really offered a rational explanation here. Why should anybody accept it as the "best" explanation if it's not even rational?

Perhaps you can flesh out your view a little more.

Anonymous said...

What's a meta-explanation? What do you mean by it in this context? Perhaps you can flesh out your view a little more.

Here’s an analogy with the word metanarrative: According to Wikipedia: In critical theory, and particularly postmodernism, a metanarrative (sometimes master- or grand narrative) is an abstract idea that is supposed to be a comprehensive explanation of historical experience or knowledge. The prefix meta means "beyond" and is here used to mean "about", and a narrative is a story. Therefore, a metanarrative is a story about a story, encompassing and explaining other 'little stories' within totalizing schemas.

When it comes to explaining our existence, what does it mean to explain something? It means to offer a rational account of it based upon the premise that a rational account of it can be given. I can offer a rational account of the pattern of tides around the world based upon the gravitational attraction of the moon getting closer to the earth. But what if the tides could not be explained rationally? What if they rose and fell based upon chance? Then what? By continuing to try to explain them I would be trying unsuccessfully to do so, because they could not be explained rationally. People who continue to try to explain them would be operating on a lower level of what best explains them. They need to see a bigger picture based in a meta-explanation at that point to see their error. At this point we’d have to argue that a meta-explanation of tides based upon chance is a larger and better explanation…one which they would probably reject. Now you would say such an explanation in terms of chance it still an explanation, and rightly so. But it’s a higher explanation based on the rejection of the assumption that they can be explained on a lower level.

What happens when we’re talking about the ultimate origins of existence? Then what? I claim no one knows why we exist. There is no rational explanation for existence. You may disagree, but that’s my stance. Now what? Well, I look at WHY we cannot rationally explain it. I look at the big picture, and a higher explanation for why there is no lower explanation. I’m looking for an explanation of why we cannot rationally explain our existence, and at that point I’m talking about a meta-explanation which explains why there is no lower rational explanation for our existence.

Whether or not you agree with my nomenclature, I think you know what I mean when I use these words. The meaning behind my usage is how I used the words, and they communicate perfectly once you understand them.

GordonBlood said...

John would atheism gain a great deal if Richard Swinburne, Alvin Plantinga, John Adams etc became agnostic-atheists? Probly not. But it certainly would cause alot of questions. That is why atheists are alittle uncomfortable with a heavyweight like Flew, especially in a world where most atheists just dogmatically shreik "there is no God!" and then go on to attack fundamentalism or dismiss the rest of us Christians as "liberal" to the point that we just like to believe. Neither, of course, are true for most serious Christians with a decent education.

J.L. Hinman said...

You make it sound like you think Flew's change of mind was a plot. Like Flew had nothing to do with it, it's just a Christian scheme.

I wonder,your understanding of academic life seems to center around self promotion. that's what you think it's all about right?



It used to be about the ideas.

Steven Carr said...

Flew's change of mind was not a plot.

He, as a non-scientist, has simply read some rubbish science books.

Flew, like most atheists , was open-minded (although Flew regarded himself as best called an agnostic)

But Flew, like many non-scientists, had trouble with the science.

What is a plot is the idea of ghostwriting a book where Flew is called 'The Worlds Most Notorious Atheist', and where Flew's deistic beliefs are not discussed.

Will Varghese sue the New York Times?

Anonymous said...

JI Hinman, I have been both impressed and unimpressed by you. You definitely seem to be knowledgable, but your thinking skills just aren't where they should be for your level of knowledge.

Hinman said...You make it sound like you think Flew's change of mind was a plot. Like Flew had nothing to do with it, it's just a Christian scheme.

That's nonsense. Complete nonsense. Where did you get that out of what I wrote?

Hinman said...I wonder,your understanding of academic life seems to center around self promotion. that's what you think it's all about right?

What are you even talking about here in this context? Is this another ad hominem? Why do you think saying this comments on what I wrote?

Hinman...It used to be about the ideas.

Are you saying that after reading what I've been writing for a few weeks here that I DON'T discuss the ideas, or that what I wrote here isn't dealing with what Flew believes?

Sheesh. No wonder I've stopped dialoguing with you.

Anonymous said...

The story that Flew changed his mind had already been published. What more was there to be said? If Flew was competent to write something more on the issue he should've at least done so in a subsequent journal or magazine of some type. If he wasn't, then why would Varghese want to do so in his book? I think I have a partial answer. Varghese wanted to make some money off a best selling book. I just hope Flew gets his share.

Now we are left with applying the same types of higher criticism toward that book as we must do with Plato's Dialogues and the gospels. Who said what and why? Such an exercise isn't worth it to me. If I want to read the arguments on behalf of the issues pro or con there are better books.

So I hope you'll pardon me if I pass on this book. I cannot tell who wrote what and who didn't. Besides what Flew believes makes no difference to me about what I should believe. People have been changing their minds on the God question down through history, and most of the changes have been from belief to non-belief since the Enlightenment. No wonder Christians want to parade one important success through the streets, since such a parade is so small to begin with.

Bill Gnade said...

Dear Mr. Loftus,

I thank you for this post. I always appreciate it when people are so honest and open. I am honored to make your acquaintance here.

I would agree with you that Christians have little to gain from Mr. Flew's "conversion," largely because most Christians have no idea who Mr. Flew is or why he is a person of interest. I did not know of the man until perhaps a year ago, and I consider myself an informed Christian. But I note that you at least admit that Christians have something to gain, which is worth at least a penny. I would simply counter that atheists have nothing to gain but something to lose in Mr. Flew's epistemological shift, which is a more significant point to make (or so I think).

But you have narrowly defined who it is that might gain from Mr. Flew's new position, i.e., you define them as "Christians of the fundamentalist type." Does this imply that Christians of a different type have MORE to gain from news of Mr. Flew's change of mind? Do Catholics gain a lot; do Episcopalians reap scads of benefits here? I wonder.

Re: Your response to Will Hawthorne -- I appreciate your effort to explain yourself, but I think you miss his point. But maybe I do, too.

You originally wrote:

But when I reflect on what best explains this absurd existence, then I offer a meta-explanation. Since no explanation is rational, I offer a meta-explanation for why this is so. It's because chance events, by their very nature, cannot be figured out. Our number came up in a Monte Carlo game. The universe is a brute fact, and this best explains why we cannot figure out why we exist.

This, I think you must see, is very problematic and cloudy. Do you mean to say that no explanation is rational? If so, then you contradict yourself in your analogy of the tidal patterns, which you posit as rationally explained. So you can't have contradicted yourself; what you must've meant is that no META-explanation is rational, including your own (I appreciate the consistency). But that you would choose to use the word meta-narrative seems rather awkward; metaphysic works just fine. But all this still demands our attention, for if there is no rational metaphysic then all this is futile. You seem to admit this, and yet you pursue "explaining" things anyway.

And I have some problems with that explanation, particularly this part:

Our number came up in a Monte Carlo game. The universe is a brute fact, and this best explains why we cannot figure out why we exist.

Surely you see the problem. If we are here by pure chance, then we are not here as a result of some Monte Carlo game. For a Monte Carlo game is a system that is itself neither random nor is it created ex nihilo; any Monte Carlo game is the result of a creating intelligence. There is nothing ultimately random either about the existence of the game or the results of the game as played. Your analogy assumes intelligence, even intelligent design. Moreover, you intend to use this analogy rationally; you don't intend to use it irrationally. Hence, you do believe that there are rational metaphysics, namely yours. You DO explain existence: we are a number that came up in a drawing, and this is a "brute fact" that prevents us from explaining existence.

Moreover, since you call this existence "absurd," I am led to believe that you don't believe your own assertion, for to know what is absurd one must first know what makes sense; and since what makes sense is the rational, you must stand in the rational, or else you could not discern the absurd from what is not. Hence, you have not really shown what is your ultimate view of reality, couched as it must be in sensibility and reason (and even sanity); you have not shown us how you KNOW this existence is absurd.

So, perhaps you have contradicted yourself -- massively. But I will withhold judgment.

But the broader point here is that you miss what I think is Mr. Hawthorne's most important statement:

The proposition that the universe exists is not a necessary truth.

I had hoped you would address this challenge. Is Mr. Hawthorne correct here? If not, why, and why do you think he would posit it?

I look forward to reading your replies.

Like you, I love this stuff!

Peace and mirth,

Bill Gnade

Anonymous said...

Bill, thanks for commenting. Remember, I had said...Whether or not you agree with my nomenclature, I think you know what I mean when I use these words. The meaning behind my usage is how I used the words, and they communicate perfectly once you understand them.

Hawthorne said...The proposition that the universe exists is not a necessary truth.

The proposition that God exists is not a necessary truth either. The Ontological argument does not work.

Christians and I reject all other religions. I simply reject their Christian religion with the same confidence they have when rejecting all other religions. The rejection of a religious viewpoint is the easy part. We all do it. And we're all confident when doing so. The hard part after the rejection is to affirm a religious viewpoint. That's where a person must argue that he has the correct one. And from what I see, Christians are just as confident that they are right as that the others are wrong, unlike me. I think the default position is soft-agnosticism, which simply says, "I don't know." That's right, I don't know what to believe after rejecting all religious viewpoints. I could even happily concede that there is a God, a deist god, a philosopher's god. But such a distant god is no different than none at all. Think about it. That's why I've chosen to be an atheist, since it makes no difference to me even if a god does exist. But I could be wrong, and I admit it.

Christians on the other hand seem absolutely confident that they are correct in what they affirm, and that's a huge difference between us. Given the proliferation of religious viewpoints separated by geographical location around the globe, the fact that believers have a strong tendency to rationally support what they were taught to believe (before they had the knowledge or capability to properly evaluate it), along with the lack of compelling evidence to convince people who are outsiders to the Christian faith, mine is the reasonable viewpoint to affirm, that's all.

J.L. Hinman said...

JI Hinman, I have been both impressed and unimpressed by you. You definitely seem to be knowledgable, but your thinking skills just aren't where they should be for your level of knowledge.


You don't understand. Like my older brother, when he thinks he knows something he just wont listen to anything that contradicts his view no matter what.He's gotta right at all costs if he doesn't get the argument he just assumes it's illogical, because after all, its' in disagreement with him!

you are saying this because I challenge your cherished myths, propaganda slogans, truisms and other bromides

btw not that it matters but I's L. not I. Joe Lynn Himan


Hinman said...You make it sound like you think Flew's change of mind was a plot. Like Flew had nothing to do with it, it's just a Christian scheme.

That's nonsense. Complete nonsense. Where did you get that out of what I wrote?


because you seem to think we are trying to "get something out of it."

Hinman said...I wonder,your understanding of academic life seems to center around self promotion. that's what you think it's all about right?

What are you even talking about here in this context? Is this another ad hominem? Why do you think saying this comments on what I wrote?


everything goes back to "read my book." you can't just get into an argument and take ideas n head on it's when you read my book we will talk. but you don't read my web site.

Hinman...It used to be about the ideas.

Are you saying that after reading what I've been writing for a few weeks here that I DON'T discuss the ideas, or that what I wrote here isn't dealing with what Flew believes?


you don't deal with ideas the depth they deserve. You give them honorable mention or wave them about as weapons you don't explore them, not in the writings I see. I'm not saying you don't' understand them or that you haven't read them, but you don't really deal with them the way ideas deserve. Now I admit I don't deal with them enough on the blog. I try to on the website.

maybe you do in your book. I am saying you don't because I haven't read it.

when I first did my blog I didn't even have a hit counter because all I cared about was the ideas, nothing else not even who read them.


Sheesh. No wonder I've stopped dialogging with you.

I suspect you are happy you thought of the excuse. It saves you the embarracement.

J.L. Hinman said...

John the reason I came over this morning was in reference to the comment you left on my blog. Which brain/mind argument are referring to?

Do you mean the one with Chalmers?

see my answer on my blog.

Anonymous said...

Hinman, again, I have been both impressed and unimpressed by you. You definitely seem to be knowledgable, but your thinking skills just aren't where they should be for your level of knowledge. Any comment by you that is off-topic from now on will be deleted to leave space for those comments that are.

J.L. Hinman said...

up yours self promoting know nothing jackass

Anonymous said...

I'm done with you Joe.

I wish you well, my fine Christian friend.

You are banned from DC.

Good luck getting a decent debate going. You don't deserve it from me. Apparently I'm below your standards.

Bill Gnade said...

Dear Mr. Loftus,

First, as a Christian, I must apologize to you on behalf of the Church for the behavior of Mr. Hinman. He may be a brother in Christ, but he fights like a member of some other family. I cannot understand why he chooses to approach topics in the manner he does; I am befuddled and even saddened. This does not mean that my love for him or you or anyone else has dried up. It merely means that I groan deep inside when I read his sort of commentary.

I very much appreciate your taking time with me. I am a Christian who struggles every day with my faith. And I am a Christian who knows what it's like to be alone in those struggles and crises; there are days that I feel utterly forsaken. So I am familiar with your own extensive doubt. Somehow, for some reason, I have not given in to my ultimate doubts. I wish I could say I have remained steadfast because my doubts are reduced to so much nothing by the undeniable strength of my reasons for faith, but I don't think -- at least this morning -- that I can make such a defense. Even Nietzsche, one of my favorite atheists, struggled; in Beyond Good and Evil he noted that man can only be heroic in the face of real suffering -- that suffering is necessary -- and that life is too short for boredom. For me, I find his words make me leap up in agreement; for me, there is nothing more adventurous in this life than believing that Jesus is the Christ. This confession might mean that my sense of adventure is extraordinarily banal, but I don't think it means that at all.

You have every right to use whatever nomenclature you choose. I will not quibble with you here. My point in suggesting the use of 'metaphysic' vis-á-vis 'meta-narrative' is that the former is a religious and philosophical term that works just fine; while the latter seems more appropriately a literary term with roots in post-modern literary criticism. I admit this is largely an issue of style and not one of substance. I just thought I'd elucidate for you why I quibbled over your use of meta-narrative.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on some of the other questions I asked in my comment above. You are probably right about the Ontological Argument, though I hope you recognize that the argument is at least logically valid. It might be pure muck, but illogical it is not (I think it genius, even if unconvincing). But Will Hawthorne's question opens up a very important idea, namely, that the existence of the universe is not "known;" hence, at best, our acceptance of the universe as known is based on faith (forgive me Mr. Hawthorne if I've said too much). And if faith is the first principle of knowledge, then I believe any argument against Christianity as "faith" is silly.

Peace to you,

Bill Gnade

Anonymous said...

Bill, there is no need to apologize for what someone else does. No one represents you or your faith, except for you, in my opinion. Joe is a big boy. I have not banned him permanently. I actually like him, and I learn from him. I’d like to have him back if he’ll just be reasonable. I just hope he concludes I am not a stupid jackass, that I am sincere in my disagreements with him, and that I will discuss the issues that separate us reasonably, or not at all.

I make my case here at DC. If it’s not good enough, then so be it. I don’t really care that much what someone believes so long as he can deal with the arguments reasonably. I happen to think Christians will change their minds if they do so, not me. I am not afraid of their arguments. I even link to Christian sites (and books) that make their case for them, unlike almost every Christian site on the web, and many secular ones as well.

Cheers

Anonymous said...

Bill said…But I note that you at least admit that Christians have something to gain, which is worth at least a penny. I would simply counter that atheists have nothing to gain but something to lose in Mr. Flew's epistemological shift, which is a more significant point to make (or so I think). But you have narrowly defined who it is that might gain from Mr. Flew's new position, i.e., you define them as "Christians of the fundamentalist type." Does this imply that Christians of a different type have MORE to gain from news of Mr. Flew's change of mind? Do Catholics gain a lot; do Episcopalians reap scads of benefits here? I wonder.

Yes, agreed, but that too is only worth a penny. ;-)

Tsheej said...

Flew has 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 percent 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. This is my book and it represents my thinking."

Steven Carr said...

That statement first appeared on an Amazon.com book review written by the literary agent of Pastor Bob Hostetler.

It has never appeared on a Harper Collins press release.


Is that how Harper Collins are now issuing press releases?

Getting the literary agents of Christian pastors to release 'press releases' on amazon.com book reviews?

I thought they were a reputable firm.