Thursday, November 01, 2007

The New Parable: The greatest atheist of the 20th century changes his mind--and writes a book about it

About three years ago, it became public that the greatest and best known atheist of the late 20th century had disavowed his atheism and announced his belief in God. For many years Anthony Flew was the one atheist that Christian intellectuals really feared. Unlike most prominent atheists (and Richard Dawkins in particular), he was philosophically sophisticated--and one of the most most widely-respected philosophers of the last 100 years.
The problem with most atheist philosophers is that they set their philosophical sophistication aside in order to make many of their anti-theistic arguments. David Hume did it with his argument against the miraculous--which did not live up to the quality of the rest of his philosophical corpus. The same thing applies to Bertrand Russell, whose essay, "Why I am not a Christian," is simply a poor impersonation of a philosophical argument--and in distinct contrast to the quality of much else Russell had to say.

Flew was different. Flew was at his best when making his argument that Christianity was not falsifiable. There was simply no way, he argued, to tell what the difference would be between a world where Christianity was true and one where it was false. In his essay, "Theology and Falsification," he uses the following parable, "The Parable of the Gardner," to make his point:
Once upon a time two explorers came upon a clearing in the jungle. In the clearing were growing many flowers and many weeds. One explorer says, "Some gardener must tend this plot." The other disagrees, "There is no gardener." So they pitch their tents and set a watch. No gardener is ever seen. "But perhaps he is an invisible gardener." So they set up a barbed-wire fence. They electrify it. They patrol with bloodhounds. (For they remember how H. G. Well's The Invisible Man could be both smelt and touched though he could not be seen.) But no shrieks ever suggest that some intruder has received a shock. No movements of the wire ever betray an invisible climber. The bloodhounds never give cry. Yet still the Believer is not convinced. "But there is a gardener, invisible, intangible, insensible, to electric shocks, a gardener who has no scent and makes no sound, a gardener who comes secretly to look after the garden which he loves." At last the Skeptic despairs, "But what remains of your original assertion? Just how does what you call an invisible, intangible, eternally elusive gardener differ from an imaginary gardener or even from no gardener at all?"
But now Flew has other stories to tell. In his new book "There is a God: How the World's Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind," Flew turns his talents on those with whom he once agreed, including Richard Dawkins (who could use a few lessons in philosophical sophistication):
Let us begin with a parable. Imagine that a satellite phone is washed ashore on a remote island inhabited by a tribe that has never had contact with modern civilization. The natives play with the numbers on the dial pad and hear different voices upon hitting certain sequences. They assume first that it’s the device that makes these noises. Some of the cleverer natives, the scientists of the tribe, assemble an exact replica and hit the numbers again. They hear the voices again. The conclusion seems obvious to them. This particular combination of crystals and metals and chemicals produces what seems like human voices, and this means that the voices are simply properties of this device.
But the tribal sage summons the scientists for a discussion. He has thought long and hard on the matter and has reached the following conclusion: the voices coming through the instrument must be coming from people like themselves, people who are living and conscious although speaking in another language. Instead of assuming that the voices are simply properties of the handset, they should investigate the possibility that through some mysterious communication network they are ‘in touch’ with other humans. Perhaps further study along these lines could lead to a greater understanding of the world beyond their island. But the scientists simply laugh at the sage and say, ‘Look, when we damage the instrument, the voices stop coming. So they’re obviously nothing more than sounds produced by a unique combination of lithium and printed circuit boards and light-emitting diodes.
In this parable we see how easy it is to let preconceived theories shape the way we view evidence instead of letting the evidence shape our theories…. And in this, it seems to me, lies the peculiar danger, the endemic evil, of dogmatic atheism. Take such utterances as ‘We should not ask for an explanation of how it is that the world exists; it is here and that’s all’ or “Since we cannot accept a transcendent source of life, we choose to believe the impossible: that life arose spontaneously by chance from matter’ or ‘The laws of physics are “lawless laws” that arise from the void — end of discussion.’ They look at first sight like rational arguments that have a special authority because they have a no-nonsense air about them. Of course, this is no more sign that they are either rational or arguments….
… I therefore put to my former fellow-atheists the simple central question: ‘What would have to occur or to have occurred to constitute for you a reason to at least consider the existence of a superior Mind?
Moving on now from the parable, it’s time for me to lay my cards on the table, to set out my own views and the reasons that support them. I now believe that the universe was brought into existence by an infinite Intelligence. I believe that this universe’s intricate laws manifest what scientists have called the Mind of God. I believe that life and reproduction originate in a divine Source.
Why do I believe this, given that I expounded and defended atheism for more than half a century? The short answer is this: this is the world picture, as I see it, that has emerged from modern science. Science spotlights three dimensions that point to God. The first is the fact that nature obeys laws. The second is the dimension of life, of intelligently organized and purpose-driven beings, which arose from matter. The third is the very existence of nature. But it is not this alone that has guided me. I have also been helped by a renewed study of the classical philosophical arguments.”
It's nice when a prominent atheist comes over from the dark side. But it's particularly gratifying when it's the smartest one they've got.


Anonymous said...

Flew actually converted about two years ago. I wrote about it on a blog with an article entitled "One Flew, out of the Cuckoo's Nest".

Brian Goettl

solarity said...

Although not an essential part of your post, the suggestion that the conversion of an "intelligent" atheist is somehow more satisfying than the conversion of an ordinary atheist implies that belief in a superior being is determined by intellectual debate. Or that such a conversion is more valuable than the conversion of an ordinary atheist. Either way, the scent of a certain strain of elitism is definitely in the air.

The insinuation that faith and intelligence have any relationship whatsoever should be scrupulously avoided.

On the whole, however, an excellent post.

Martin Cothran said...


Flew has not spiritually converted to Christianity; he has only intellectually converted to theism. Therefore, my comment had nothing to do with the kind of "conversion" you are speaking of. It had entirely to do with an intellectual conversion. In that context, it was of more value than the similar act of someone less intelligent.

If or when Flew converts to Christianity, then we will be talking about something much different--and much more important. Then, I will have something very different to say.

solarity said...

It was my intention to reference "conversion" exactly as did you, with no connection to Christianity.

My point still stands. Belief in an omnipotent god or gods is not a position that people generally adopt because of rigorous intellectual analysis. People of low IQ and high IQ come to the understanding of a supreme being by the same means in almost all instances. Regardless of the intellectual effort involved, in the end such a belief is inherently faith-based. Some have argued that the process of arriving at a belief in a supreme being is actually retarded or hampered by a high intellectual capacity that tends to overestimate the problem-solving capacity of the human mind.

Anonymous said...

Whether we believe in God or not, we all live by faith.

Thomas said...

A couple quibbles. I don't think its quite accurate to say that either Hume's treatment of the miraculous or Russell's treatment of Christianity are inconsistent with the rest of their thought.

Hume did argue against a belief in the kind of mechanistic causation that constitute natural laws, so at first glance his opposition to miracles would seem a bit peculiar. However, he didn't argue for any sort of absolute impossibility of miracles, he merely said they aren't plausible, because they contradict ones personal experience. This is something we do all the time when we discount miracles from other religions, and it's not inconsistent with the totality of Hume's thought. Anyway, miracles are not the important part of Hume's rejection of arguments for the existence of God. Dialogues on Natural Religion is the place to go for that. It deals mainly with the design argument, which still seems to be the popular one today. To my mind, it effectively demolishes it.

The case of Russell's "Why I am not a Christian" is a little different. It was written for popular audiences, and isn't particularly rigorous. It is primarily rhetorical. This is not to say that Russel didn't have a more philosophically sophisticated approach to these questions--he is famous for revising Kant's objection to the ontological argument. I don't think he even mentions this in "Why I am not a Christian." In short, "Why I am not a Christian" is not representative of Russell's philosophical approach (which is actually quite sophisticated), it is simply for popular consumption.

The Flew conversion is interesting thought. Hopefully his conversion wasn't based on that analogy (analogies are not arguments), and I'd like to hear more about his assessment of the classical arguments he alluded to.

Thomas said...

>>>My point still stands. Belief in an omnipotent god or gods is not a position that people generally adopt because of rigorous intellectual analysis. People of low IQ and high IQ come to the understanding of a supreme being by the same means in almost all instances.<<<

Solarity, I think you're missing the point. The reason Flew is significant is not because of any innate intelligence, but because of the quality of his arguments (the use of the term smart notwithstanding). IQ tests are really meaningless when they are used on anyone but the mentally handicapped (as the guy who invented them maintained strongly). And really, they don't measure intelligence any more accurately than measuring the size of someone's bran does. Intelligence is not a singular quantifiable entity, and using IQ tests that way commits the fallacy of reification.

Flew's conversion has to be viewed in light of the long philosophical debate over the existence of God. When a prominent philosopher that is highly regarded on one side is convinced by the other, it is a blow to those on whose side he used to fight--however, it does not say anything about the validity of the arguments.

Martin Cothran said...


I meant Hume's treatment of the miraculous in the Equiry Concerning Human Understanding. I think he not only assumed what he had already earlier refuted concerning induction in the argument against miracles, but his argumentation is simply circular. He argues that, since there is "unalterable experience" against miracles, miracles have not therefore occured. That simply begs the question. And then he goes on to say that you can't accept the evidence for the miraculous because miracles are impossible.

Chesterton put the problem with all this very well:

"The whole trick is done by means of leaning alternately on the philosophical and historical objection. If we say miracles are theoretically possible, they say, "Yes, but there is no evidence for them." When we take all the records of the human race and say, "Here is your evidence," they say, "But these people were superstitious, they believed in impossible things."

Anonymous said...

Two comments:

1. I've read that Flew didn't actually pen his last book, and the person that did (someone that Flew knew and trusted for 20 years) actually misinterpreted Flew's opinion on the matter of belief.

2. Flew didn't have internet access (he's like 86 years old) until recently. When he was shown the blogs and discussions and debate surrounding his "conversion" from non-belief, he is quoted to have said (in regard to his newly found religion) "I am still an atheist..."

Martin Cothran said...


I have heard several similar things since the original post, but there is a lot of unfounded speculation on this whole thing. I think your two points go much further than the evidence we have one this. I don't think his newfound theism is in question: he has been saying this for several years now. The chief question seems to be what role he had in the recent book that is attributed to him. Was it really written by him? If not, was it explicitly approved by him? And if the answer to the last question is "yes," is he now in an adequate mental condition to make that kind of decision?

From what I have read, those seem to be the only questions here. In regard to your last point, that is news to me (and I've read around a little). Where does that come from?