Saturday, November 15, 2008

Friday Night Frozen Dinner And An Intellectual: "There Is A God:How The World's Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind" by Antony Flew. Part I

Last Friday evening, I had a chicken burrito at Taco Bell and then went to a coffee house to consume coffee while alternative music on XM radio filled the air. In those hours, I read the first part of Antony Flew's account of his journey from Atheism to Deism, a belief in God. This account is entitled "There Is A God: How The World's Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind."

Flew, an only child, grew up in a Christian household. His father was a prominent Methodist minister and teacher. Despite Antony's later atheism, his fathers scholarly methods had a life long impact on Antony's method of intellectual inquiry. When searching for the meaning of an Old Testament concept, instead of just thinking the concept through on their own, Flew's father and his students investigated all the contemporary examples concerning the use of the relevant Hebrew word. The example of his father encouraged Flew to gather and consider in context all the relevant data on a subject. Flew commented on this example from his father:

"It is ironic, perhaps, that the household in which I grew up very likely instilled in me the enthusiasm for critical investigation that would lead me to reject my father's faith." (Flew, p. 12)

Flew grew up in 1930's England. His father spoke German, so the family took vacations and attended Church conferences in Germany as the Nazi threat was developing. It was during this time that Flew came face to face with the twin evils of anti-Semitism and totalitarianism. He began to question why an all loving God would allow such evils to exist. By the time he turned fifteen, without informing his parents, he had become a convinced atheist.

At Oxford, Flew became a member of the Socratic Club which was chaired at that time by C.S. Lewis. It was at a Socratic Club meeting in 1950 that Flew presented an essay entitled "Theology and Falsification", which was the most widely printed philosophical essay in the latter half of the Twentieth Century. Flew explains the purpose of the essay in "There Is A God":

"My primary purpose in 'Theology and Falsification' was to spice up the bland dialogue between logical positivism and the Christian religion and to set discussion between belief and unbelief upon different and more fruitful lines. I was not offering any comprehensive doctrine about all religious belief or all religious language. I was not saying that statements of religious belief were meaningless. I simply challenged religious believers to explain how their statements are to be understood, especially in the light of conflicting data." (Flew, p. 44-45)

According to Flew, the most radical response came from an Oxford professor, R.M. Hare. Hare believed that religious utterances were not statements but what Hare called "blik." A blik is an interpretation of an experience that cannot be verified or proven false. This includes all experiences, including religious ones. In other words, religious experiences lack any rational basis to belief. (Flew, p. 45) This view has its roots in Descarte's belief, shared by Locke, Berkeley, Hume and Kant that "that a person was an incorporeal subject who had only private experience." However, Flew had immersed himself in what was called "The New Philosophy" which had a great following at Oxford while he was there. The "New Philosophy" rejected Descartes view of man and experience. Flew sided with the "New" approach:

"This belief (Descartes) was inconsistent with the assumption in our regular speech that we know by acquaintance both the physical world and other people." (Flew, p.39)

So while an Atheist, Flew was not willing to attribute all religious experience to private experience.

Later in Flew's career, Flew wrote "The Presumption of Atheism." In this work Flew argued that in the debate concerning the existence of God, the burden of proof rests with those who try argue for God's existence. If no legitimate grounds for God's existence can be provided, according to Flew, then one had no real choice than to consider one's self an atheist. Flew stated that he was not acting out of hostility to religion; he was simply introducing a procedural principle identifying which party has the burden of proof. (Flew, 53-54) He explains this position further:

"I contended that in any properly systematic apologetic the propounder of a God hypothesis must begin, as would the propounder of any existential hypothesis, by first explaining the particular concept of God to be employed and then indicating how the corresponding object is to be identified. Only when and if these two essential preliminary tasks have been satisfactorily completed can it become sensible to begin deploying evidence intended to show that the concept does apply." (Flew, p. 54)

Before Flew changed his mind concerning the existence of God, he underwent two philosophical shifts. The one concerned the validity of human experience discussed above. The other shift concerned his view of human freedom; Flew rejected determinism in favor of human free will. Flew maintains that in philosophy the concepts of entities and agents have been confused. Entities are unconscious agents that have no choice but to be subject to physical laws, while agents (such as human beings) have the capacity to determine their own reaction. The designation by Flew of humans as agents instead of entities was an important one for Flew; according to Flew the question of human free will is connected with all human religions. This is explained further in the chapter entitled "Where The Evidence Leads." Flew's siding with the notion of human freedom put him at odds with Christians who follow Calvin's theology of predestination. Once Flew realized while debating Christians that Calvin's theology of predestination was not the default position of the Bible or the Church, Flew's view of the truth of God's existence began to shift. The fact that John Wesley, whom Flew has a high opinion of, challenged Calvin on predestination helped to shift Flews thinking. (Flew, p. 73)

In 2004, Flew announced that he now accepted the existence of God, though he has not become a believer in Jesus Christ. Flew pointed to discoveries concerning DNA as a factor in his shift in thinking that the origin of life was the work of a creative Intelligence:

"Yes, I now think it does...almost entirely because of the DNA investigations. 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 in getting those extraordinary diverse elements to work together. It's the enormous complexity of the number of elements and the enormous subtlety of the ways they work together. The meeting of these two parts at the right time by chance is simply minute. It is all a matter of enormous complexity by which the results were achieved, which looked to me like the work of intelligence." (Flew, p. 74-75)

"There Is A God", published by HarperOne, a division of HarperCollins Publishers, is written for the general audience; anyone can follow Flew's chain of thought. The second half of the book is called "My Discovery of the Divine." My review will cover this next section and will probably appear next week.

No comments: