Anthony Flew's apostasy

Some readers of this journal will know that British philosopher Anthony Flew is one of the best-known contemporary atheists and philosophical critics of theistic religion.

It is now public knowledge that he has lost his faith--in the possibility of a strictly naturalistic, evolutionary explanation for the origin of life, that is.

It is important to note right off the bat that he is far from converting to some theistic religion like Christianity or Islam. He is calling himself a deist for the time being. This is not some coup for a particular organized religion. It is, however, a development of profound importance to the debate on intelligent design, since Flew now regards intelligent design as the best (and perhaps the only plausible) explanation for the complexity of life:

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. [Letter to Richard Carrier; emphasis in original]

I don't think Flew is troubled by the Darwinian and neo-Darwinian accounts of speciation; rather, the problem he sees is in the origin of the first replicating life from pre-biotic elements.

You can read more at The Evangelical Outpost and Fides Quaerens Intellectum.

Comments

not a religous win

It may not be a win for any specific religion but it is a plus for this country which is dealing with constant attempts to remove any reference to God from the principles we've based our government on.

Re:not a religous win

Flew is quoted as saying, "It has become inordinately difficult even to begin to think about constructing a naturalistic theory of the evolution of that first reproducing organism." I submit that difficulty is not evidence. The absence of an answer does not open the door to answers not subject to the same tests as those efforts leading up to an impasse. Science frequently has faced such impasses, e.g. the inadequacy of Newtonian theory in dealing with aspects of cosmology. Eventually Einstein provided a solution. All too frequently religiouns insert their unfouded beliefs, where science, pleads ignorance pending further testable reesearch. The fact that a statement about a creator appears in the Declaration of Indepence (notably not in the Constitution) has know epistemological significance whatsoever.

Re:not a religous win

Huh?

Re:not a religous win

GregS: Well spoken! What intellectual wit you so aptly display! Let me ponder your enlightening "Huh?" a few minutes more! It is typical of the religious that they not only refuse to think simply but simply refuse to think. You're obviously among the glassy-eyed herds of the galactically stupid who flock to junkyards where patterns of dust on old cars' windshields vaguely resemble either Jesus or Mary!


BobN: I would add to your excellent argument that Flew says "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 ..."


"Apparent"? With that word Flew immediately quantum-leaps from the objective to the subjective. The four-color theorem has always been apparent, but to prove it true was a monumental undertaking. Flying to the moon was once apparently impossible, as were many types of surgery, and even many of the technological breakthroughs whose implementations we now enjoy.


Flew further says: "...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."


Well, he doesn't call this impossibility apparent, but he should have! We humans have existed for a mere 50,000 years -- a speck as compared to the science-stated age of the universe! He should be patient and accept that such an account will not be provided within our lifetimes, if at all. I, for one, doubt it would ever stand up to the rigorous demands of the scieentific method -- how to repeat the experiment? Set up several empty universes like matrices of test-tubes in a lab and wait an eon or two for the results?


That an answer cannot be provided doesn't mean it cannot ever be provided, let alone that it doesn't exist. Thanks to past scientists who understand this, present scientist can continue their work and pass it on to future scientists.


Finally I submit to Mr. Flew and the thinking religious the following: Flew has agreed that to the religious belongs the burden of proof. After all, when you consider a missionary converting a savage in the Middle Ages, how can you place the burden on the savage, who knows only what plants and animals he should either eat or avoid, and how to make some primitive tools, clothes and more savages?


To further illustrate I remind the religious that they believe in one -- and ONLY one -- God, not including an obvious deity, the Devil. Suppose someone comes along who sincerely believes in TWO Gods? If the burden of proof were on the non-believers, and you clearly DON'T believe in any second God, YOU would have to prove the non-existence of the second God! And if you could do so, you'd also have to show how your proof DOESN'T apply to the God you believe in!


Thus clearly the burden of proof is with the religious. But to this day I've yet to meet anyone willing to lift an intellectual finger to do it. Rather, in my decades of discussions with the religious I've been tempestuously insulted at length. I used to believe in God, but when I began to question this particular belief I found it leads invariably to such behavior from the religious. To me, just the lack of a proof means the question is open, even with the mountains of scientific evidence conflicting with belief in God, but this behavior from the religious closes it for me. Well, also that priests have sodomized youngsters, and other priests covered it up, for decades, and also that more wars in human history were caused by religious reasons than any other.


Consider also the parallels with Santa Claus:
- he knows when you've been sleeping
- he knows when you're awake
- he knows if you've been bad or good
- if you're good you get gifts
- if you're bad you get coal, as if from Hell.
But Mommy never tells you God doesn't really exist!


Morality is within us. I for one am strong and smart enough to be moral without the fear of some imaginary creator. When I hear of a good deed by the religious, I always question: is it true altruism or simply selfishness, i.e., assuring their own place in Heaven? With atheists there's only one reason.

Re:not a religous win

Feeling a little frustrated?

My apologies to BobN but when words like "epistemological" get thrown into the mix my eyes glaze over. Contrary to what LISnews stats imply I do actually work and even have a life and while I'm willing to look up words (and do,pretty regularly) I don't have much patience for people who are trying to prove they have a larger vocabulary than I do. Its hardly difficult and doesn't do much for general discussion.

Back to jasmith: the atheist who does the good deed is no less selfish than the believer. Instead of believing in a God, they simply believe they are God.

That there is a reference to God, that our country's history is based on the idea of God, has nothing to do with proving that there is only one God, and only a particular God. The founders were all of the same basic Christian background and the idea of comparing that to the Muslim religion would have been laughable to them. That they chose to refer to God was, to me, an act of humilty and an acknowledgment of there being something more than ourselves. An idea we should continue to support.

Re:not a religous win

Once again the stupidity, ignorance and hypocrisy of the religious rear their ugly heads.

1. Atheists do NOT believe they're God. We just believe we're right. I understand the religious do too, but we have facts, science and logic on our side, and they only have an unfulfilled burden of proof.

2. This country was founded more than a century before Darwin, i.e., before scientists could or would think about any human origin other than via God without being burned alive, exiled, jailed, etc., by the same religious who preach peace on Earth and good will toward men.

3. The original topic, if you'd care to read it, was that a famous British atheist has decided to accept the possibility of a first-cause god, in my view for reasons that are only subjective and thus worthless.

There is no god unless someone can prove it using any combination of facts, science, math and logic, i.e., 100% objectively. Just the lack of a proof means the question is open, just as the phrase "missing link" means only that no one's found it yet. But what closes the issue for me is that more wars in human history were over religion; the imprisonment, torture, exile, enslavement, etc., of people whose religion was different; and the recent revelations regarding priests taking kids in the rectory, if you know what I'm saying, and other priests covering it up. If God really existed, none of that would happen. But it does. Therefore he doesn't. QED. Eat it.

Re:not a religous win

"If God really existed, none of that would happen."

God doesn't exist but if he did exist you know what he would think and do.

Have a Merry Christmas jasmith.

Re:not a religous win

know epistemological significance whatsoever

Great pun! Or was it a Freudian slip ;-)

Flew is quoted as saying, "It has
become inordinately difficult even to begin to
think about constructing a naturalistic theory
of the evolution of that first reproducing
organism." I submit that difficulty is not
evidence.

Are you certain that you know about Flew's
position to believe that you have thus rebutted
it, or even aptly critiqued it? I submit to
you that you cannot have learned enough of his
views and his reasons for holding them from the
AP report, or even from the Habermas interview,
to do anything more than formulate a tentative
response.

Perhaps Flew has identified a set of
conceptual problems (as opposed to evidential,
probabilistic, inductive problems), the
conjunction of which he is persuaded (rightly
or wrongly) make a strictly naturalistic
solution to the emergence of genetic
replication from amino acids highly improbable
or even impossible. If this is the nature of
his case, then the issue turns not merely on
whether he has conceded to easily to difficulty,
but rather on whether he has identified a set
of difficulties with abiogenesis that warrant
his skepticism. In such a case, the substance
of his position would be the set of difficulties,
and the merit of his position would rest on
whether these difficulties mean what he asserts
they mean. Perhaps he has simply gotten tired
of thinking about the matter and conceded to
difficulty, but we can't know that without
knowing more of his position.

The point I am making has to do with the
aptness of your critique or rebuttal of Flew's
position, given that we know so little of its
real substance. I am not defending Flew's
reasoning, as I probably know nothing more of
it than you do. I am not asserting that I have
above correctly characterized Flew's position
(though I wouldn't be surprised to learn that I
have gotten it roughly correct)--rather it is a
plausible example of the kind of position one
might hold that wouldn't prima facie
be a too-easy concession to difficulty.

The absence of an answer does not
open the door to answers not subject to the
same tests as those efforts leading up to an
impasse. Science frequently has faced such
impasses, e.g. the inadequacy of Newtonian
theory in dealing with aspects of cosmology.
Eventually Einstein provided a solution.

So would you say that there is a perpetual
presumption of the solubility of all problems
in scientific terms (where science is
understood as considering only naturalistic
phenemona and explanations)? Or are we ever
warranted in believing that there may be
extra-scientific solutions to problems?

If such a presumption obtains, what is the
basis for it? Is it a merely methodological
matter, such that we might say "I don't know
whether or not the universe is a strictly
naturalistic affair, but if science is to be a
coherent and meaningful branch of knowledge, it
must constrain itself to consider only natural
phenemena"? Or is this presumption founded on
a philosophical naturalism, such that we must
say "Science considers only natural phenomena
and explanations because in reality, natural
phenomena are all there are in the universe"?

All too frequently religiouns
insert their unfouded beliefs, where science,
pleads ignorance pending further testable
reesearch.

Let me concede that there is something to
the notion of "the God of the gaps", in that
religious believers have at times posed
supernatural explanations for problems for
which there were, in retrospect, more apt
explanations in terms of physical laws (though
this phenomenon hardly seems to amount to an
argument against the existence of God, or even
against the rationality of belief in God). I
am not sure what you mean by "unfounded". Do
you mean that they aren't based on evidence of
some kind? A great deal of the content of
religious beliefs, at least as far as
Christianity, Judaism, and Islam go, are based
on documentary evidence. You may well reject
some aspects of the documentary evidence of
Christianity, either because other documentary
evidence to which you give greater credence
contradicts it, or because your philosophical committments rule out any supernatural phenomena. I don't think it is right, however, to regard religious beliefs as unfounded.

I would also point out that everyone, unless
their belief system is ultimately circular, has
important beliefs that are in some non-trivial
sense unfounded. For instance, can you give a
non-question-begging argument for the reliability of your senses over the range of phenomena for which we normally consider them reliable? I am not arguing for skepticism, but rather pointing out that, unless our belief system is ultimately circular, we must have some beliefs that do not rely on others as arguments for their truth.

The fact that a statement about a
creator appears in the Declaration of Indepence
(notably not in the Constitution) has know
epistemological significance whatsoever.

I don't think GregS* was attributing
epistemological significance to the mention of
a creator in the Declaration of Independence.
A more natural reading of his comment is that
he sees Flew's change of position as supporting
those who seek to preserve the explicitly
religious (if not Christian) character of this
country's founding documents.

Re:not a religous win

There is no god unless someone can
prove it using any combination of facts, science,
math and logic, i.e., 100% objectively. Just
the lack of a proof means the question is open,
just as the phrase "missing link" means only
that no one's found it yet.

Good for you! You rescued yourself with the
sentence beginning "Just the lack". The first
sentence made it seem as if you wanted to make
ontological matters contingent upon
epistemological ones. That would be a bizarre
move, to say the least.

But what closes the issue for me is
that more wars in human history were over
religion; the imprisonment, torture, exile,
enslavement, etc., of people whose religion was
different; and the recent revelations regarding
priests taking kids in the rectory, if you know
what I'm saying, and other priests covering it up.

If by this you intend a comparison between
the secular mindset and the religious mindset,
in which the secular mindsent comes off as more
tolerant or benevolent than the religious, I
would remind you of something you reminded GregS*
above: the secular, scientific, darwinian
mindset has only been around for a short time.
In that time, rigorously secular ideologies
have not exactly covered themselves in glory.
Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot come to mind. You might
consider Hitler a religous exemplar, but I don't
think you could make a serious argument that a
fundmantal notion like "blood and soil" can be
derived either from Biblical Christianity or
from Roman Catholic doctrine. There was more
than a whiff of paganism about National
Socialism. Further, I think it is reasonable
to see the Nazi fascination with eugenics and
genetic purity as not entirely unrelated to
social darwinism. In the brief span in which
secular ideologies have had to experiment in
statecraft, they don't seem to me to have done
any better than religious ones.

I would also ask in how many of the cases of
religous wars & violence you refer to was
religion the central issue, and in how many was
it a marker (in structuralist terms) for ethnic
or political differences? Probably wars like
the Moorish conquest of Spain, or the Crusades,
were indeed largely over religious matters.
But I think of the Thirty Years War--religion
was central, but largely because of the
political significance of confessional stances
at this time: questions of loyalty to the Holy
Roman Empire and to the Vatican depended in
part on professing Catholicism. Take the case
of my two pals, Daniel and mdoneil: I suspect
that they hold views on Communion and Purgatory
and justification that are very much in line
with the views of the 17th century Roman church.
I, on the other hand, hold views on these
matters that are probably very much in line
with the Calvinian reformers. The Council of Trent probably separates us in much the same way it separates the combatants in the Thirty Years War, and thus many of the strictly religious determinants of that war are present in our
relationship. And yet we aren't at each other's throats. Why aren't we?
Because the political determinants
of the Thirty Years War are not present. If you
want to cite all cases of war, torture, etc. in
which religion played a role and yet overlook
the political and ethnic components of the same,
then I think you are simply arguing from one
side of the equation.

If God really existed, none of that
would happen. But it does. Therefore he doesn't.
QED. Eat it.

This sounds like the classic atheistic
argument from evil, though it is usually stated
more carefully. It could be, of course, that
you are simply saying that if there were a God,
he wouldn't let evil things be done in the name
of religion. If that is what you are saying,
then I respond that the only conceivable way
you could know that is to know what a putative
God's intentions would necessarily be. How
could you know that?

If the above is what you are saying, then I
suggest that you move to a more standard kind
of argument from evil, something along these
lines: the presence of evil in the world is
inconsistent with a wholly good, omniscient,
and omnipotent God. In other words, you should
make your argument contingent upon God's nature
or character, and not upon his intentions or
plans.

My own (admittedly incomplete) response to
the argument from evil is this: given the Fall
and God's curse upon Adam and Eve and their
progeny, a lack of evil in the world would
falsify Christianity (and, I suspect, at least
some versions of Judaism as well). One of the
truth of Christianity is that there will be
evil in the world until the Lord returns. Now
you may go on from this to say that the
Christian faith is therefore internally
inconsistent (Christian God not congruent with
evil). I don't think it is inconsistent,
though I doubt that I could satisfy you on that
point.

Interestingly, Alvin Plantinga thinks that
the argument from evil is the only antitheistic
argument that deserves to be taken seriously,
though he also thinks there is a strong theistic
argument from evil
as well.

Re:not a religous win

All of what you say presumes that the question of the existence of any god is even serious. It's not! It's nothing more than a silly, much-glorified Aesop's fable. It's ludicrous, ridiculous and preposterous to even consider that anything divine could exist -- I refer to my previous analogy to Santa Claus. Anyone can propose anything, and it seems you'd consider that proposition both serious and open in the absence of proof. Wake up: some questions are SILLY.

Nevertheless I read Platinga's argument with interest; he says there needs to be some objective idea of wickedness, a subjective term. Or is it? If a dog sees you kill or even torture another dog, the first will fear you. Seems to me that's true of most animals, even sharks, which are pretty low on the evolutionary scale. So now are we talking about causing death or pain as objectively wicked, or perhaps degrees of subjectivity related to an entity's place in evolution? This is what I mean by "silly".

As for the wars: you conveniently neglect to mention that religion, politics, philosophy and education were inextricably intertwined during those wars, so to ask me to separate those is, well, silly. And look at what happened to Galileo: for the ultimate sin of proving himself correct based on science, math and logic he was jailed and exiled by people who couldn't prove their beliefs at all! Once again, silly. How about looking at more modern conflicts, e.g., the Middle East, Ireland, Bosnia, Ukraine, or Rwanda?

It's also silly to suppose that I could know what God's intentions would be if he existed -- all I know is from religious people and texts: priests are supposed to be good and celibate, and homosexuality and incest are sins. Yet some priests have been sodomizing boys for decades, and others have allowed it to continue and spread. Alas, to this topic, the clearest evidence that there can't be a God, you have no response at all.

I've already proved that the burden of proof is with the believers. There is no need for anti-theistic arguments of any kind, plentiful and correct though they are. What is needed is absolute proof that a god exists. But there isn't even an argument that it's worth considering.

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