Anthony Flew, with Roy Abraham Verghese. There Is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed his Mind. New York: HarperCollins, 2007.

 

While the Cambridge and Oxford educated philosopher, Anthony Flew (1923-2010), may have not have been the word’s most notorious atheist — certainly, since 9-11 that position has been much sought by much more publicity-seeking propagandists — Flew certainly was one of the most long-lived and highly respected.  The son of Methodist clergyman and theologian in the U.K., Flew’s atheism, although for some time disguised from his father, began around age 15 and, after becoming well-publicized in his scholarly books, such as his 1966 God and Philosophy (reprinted three times, most recently in 2005), his 1976 The Presumption of Atheism, and his 1988 God, A Critical Inquiry, continued well into to his 70s.

Flew claims to have always remained true to his determination to follow what he said was his guiding rule throughout life, which was the Socratic dictum that “We must follow the argument (or the evidence) wherever it leads.”  And it was in following this principle that he claimed led him to finally declare, in 2004, that at age 81, strictly as a philosopher and not as a believer in divine revelation or as the result of any personal religious experience, that nevertheless he had, over two decades time, slowly come to the conclusion that there is a God after all.

          I think that this had already in some way become apparent in the debate with the Evangelical theologian William Lane Craig held in 1998 at the University of Wisconsin (Stan W. Wallace, ed. Does God Exist? The Craig-Flew Debate. Ashgate Press, 2003).  In his rejoinder or rebuttal, Flew, who of course was attempting to refute Graig’s claim that God is the necessary being to account for the existence of anything, asserted that:

 

“. . . [W]e have to accept the Big Bang itself as the fundamental brute fact. For it is surely a necessary truth that all systems of scientific explanation have to end in something which explains but which is not itself explained” (p. 201) … Yet this is not, if the system is true, a defect; nor is it one which, granted theism is true, theism can remedy.  For it is not a defect in one particular sort of system, but a logical truth about all explanations of facts.  For precisely the same reason, the ultimate facts about God would have to be equally unexplainable” (p. 202).

 

          Yes, and we might add that in the above admission that Flew in effect precisely  made the same point that caused Aristotle to speak a “a first cause” or as “an unmoved mover”, or Augustine to speak of God as “being (esse) in itself”,

or Aquinas, as a philosopher/theologian to point out that ultimately there must be something that is a “necessary being” from which others receive their being. “This”, Aquinas wrote, is what “all men speak of as God” (ST I, Q.2, a.3). So while it may not be true that all people identify God this way, it makes more logical sense than an infinity of “universes” such as Hawking proposed in his 2010 book, which in effect only begs the ultimate question. And although Flew quotes none of the above-mentioned authorities, it is obvious why, in thinking along the same relentlessly logical lines, eventually, by 2004, Flew was willing to call himself a “Deist”.

          However, by 2007, Flew seems to have moved a little closer to theism — understood as view that attributes a bit more to the concept of God as being not just a first cause or necessary cause, but as a Being having infinite intelligence of such a sort that to Flew’s thinking is necessary to explain the origins of life and perhaps even more of human consciousness.  And perhaps it was these further developments in Flew’s views that made this 2007 book so controversial, or even outrageous in the eyes of his formerly devotedly atheistic disciples.  Indeed, considering that by age 84 he apparently accepted the help of Roy Abraham Varghese in recording and explaining his change of mind, which has caused some more vehement critics to accuse Varghese, a Christian apologist of Indian descent, of exploiting Flew in his dotage, even though in 2008, Flew issued a statement that, although he gladly accepted Varghese’s help in the production of the book, the viewpoints expressed in the book were his own.  But if that was the case, I too think that Varghese should have refrained from adding his lively preface which probably waved some red flags in the face of the opposition and Appendix A, where he gives his own further elaborations of the same lines of argument used by Flew.

          It is, however, these additional arguments (both those of Flew and Varghese) beyond the fundamental one of contingency or why there is something rather than nothing that raise questions in my own mind.  Granted that one might argue that there must be a infinite intelligence behind all the wonders of the natural world — something that Einstein, despite his rejection of 

of the anthropomorphic images of the biblical God — and many other scientists quoted in this book see as being evident in the universe.  But to suggest, as this book — unless I am misreading it — seems to do, that the phenomena of life and human consciousness can only be accounted for by some kind of divine intervention in the processes of evolution, to me appears to be granting a little too much weight to the proponents of the “Intelligent Design” school of Christian apologetics.  Not that the mysteries of the origin of life or the origin of human reflective consciousness have been completely solved already by evolutionary science, but it seems to me that to place ones bets on this is to fall into the “God of the gaps” type of reasoning that has been too often discredited by the continued progress of the natural sciences.  Even the Catholic paleontologist, Teilhard de Chardin, when writing back in the 1930s, treated the crossing of these two critical evolutionary “thresholds” as something that very well may have happened without any supernatural intervention.

          Moreover, there is one more reason that I am less than enthusiastic about this particular aspect of the Flew-Varghese book.  It has to do with the problem of evil, which is the same issue that caused Flew, while still a very young man, to doubt the existence of God to begin with (p. 13).  As Flew still saw it (p. 42, 59, 156) apparently to the end, there are only two routes to solving the problem. One is, as Flew did, to adopt Aristotle’s view of God as a remote first cause who created the world, then left it to its own devices: hence Flew’s self-designation, even after his “conversion”, to “deism” (p.1).  The only other explanation, according to Flew, would be to argue that evil is all the result of the human exercise of free will. But to accept that explanation, involves, according to his way of thinking, reliance on “revelation”— by which, we are left to suppose, he meant the story of Adam and Eve’s original sin as related in the third chapter of Genesis. And this he could not do as a philosopher who had vowed to confine himself to reasoning solely on the basis of scientific evidence.

          However, Flew should have given more weight to the role played by chance or randomness within the evolutionary process, especially in the emergence of free will with its dependence on the human capacity for reflective thought. Thus it seems to me that Flew could have argued that not only are the workings of evolution itself the primary cause of so much that we consider to be evil, such as disastrous floods, earthquakes, epidemics, etc., but that it was only through evolution that creatures like ourselves are capable of the real malice involved in the evils that humans commit. If so, Flew could have admitted a “free will” explanation of evil, albeit through a roundabout route, one argued not on the basis of revelation but on contemporary science. But do so, one would have to argue that God, as the first cause of all this evil, is not indifferent to our plight, but has even gone so far to engage himself in the evolutionary process, and perhaps even reveal himself, as that other British-born philosopher A. N. Whitehead said, as our “fellow sufferer”. 

          It is not that Flew was totally indifferent to claims of revelation. In fact, Appendix B in this, his last book, begins with a rather lengthy statement by Flew which consisted of an invitation to N. Thomas Wright, the noted British scholar, who is an expert on the New Testament and early Christianity, to explain his views concerning “the Self-Revelation of God in Human History” — something that Wright does quite masterfully, with a particular emphasis on the claim of Christ’s resurrection. 

Not that Wright converted Flew back to Christianity. But following up on his earlier statement that if there actually has been any such revelation, it is hard to beat “the combination of a charismatic figure like Jesus and a first-class intellectual like St. Paul” (p.185), Flew ended, like the analytic philosopher he was, by saying that “You cannot limit the possibilities of omnipotence except to produce the logically impossible,” and then, for final emphasis, to what he had called “my last will and testament” (on p.1), he added “Everything else is open to omnipotence” (p. 213). 

 

 

R W Kropf   6/1/14                                          Flew-Varghese.doc