How Anthony Flew – Flew to God
Among the world’s atheists there was hardly any with the intellectual stature of Anthony Flew. He was a contemporary with C.S. Lewis and has been a thorn in the side of theists for more than fifty years. Quite frankly Anthony Flew’s intellectual stature far transcends the squawking and loud atheists of today like Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, Lewis Wolpert, Victor Stenger or Sam Harris. These men couldn’t stand in the same room with Flew in true rigorous discussion. I will have more on these loud mouths later, but I want to explore the recent book by Anthony Flew entitled There is A God (the A written over a scratched over NO).
First I wish to celebrate the intellect of Anthony Flew because it is to be admired for what path He put himself on that lead to God. In his youth he adhered to the Socratic philosophy of “following the evidence wherever it leads.” This is a powerful idea that most atheists would say that they adhere to, but actually fall far short on. Many just follow the evidence to a pre-decided point and no further.
Anthony Flew was probably one of the most original thinkers in modern times in theological thinking or perhaps a-theological thinking. In “Theology and Falsification”, God and Philosophy and The Presumption of Atheism he raised the question of how religious statements can make meaningful claims. He claimed that no discussion of the concept of God can begin until the coherence of the concept of an omnipresent, omniscient and omnipotent spirit had been established. In The Presumption of Atheism he argued that the burden of proof rests with theism and the atheism is the default position. It was this reorientation of the frames of reference that eventually changed the whole nature of discussion. This changed discussion eventually also lead to a revitalized theism as well.
Son of a Methodist minister he traveled to Germany, as a child, prior to WWII. He remembers the banners and signs outside villages proclaiming “Jews not wanted here”. He saw the march of thousands of brown shirts in Bavaria and saw squads of Waffen-SS in the black uniforms with the skull and crossbones. This was the face of evil and powerfully spoke to him that such evil seemed to preclude an all loving and all powerful God.
Always an avid reader and with no predilection to anything religious the young Flew read science and philosophy and gradually drew away from his religious upbringing. He tried to hide it from His parents, but after service in the War in 1946 the word got out to his parents that he had become an atheist. A brilliant young man, Flew, attended Oxford University in 1942 and graduated with his undergraduate degree in the summer of 1947. He passed with top honors and arranged to pursue post graduate work in philosophy and metaphysical philosophy. During his time at Oxford Flew joined the Socratic Club at Oxford which was headed by C.S. Lewis. He and Lewis locked horns more than once in this club and the Socratic principle of going where the evidence leads became even more important and had a surprising impact in Flew’s a theological thought that even set the stage for his future theism.
What Makes an Atheist?
I wish to inject a truth here about the cause of atheism in our culture and especially in our church culture. Flew is a bit unusual in his atheism direction, but we can see how the church still failed him in this though he never points out that truth. He steps all around that truth saying that the church and religion held no interest for him and that very statement holds a profound truth. In the preface of the book is a statement from Katharine Tait, Bertrand Russell’s daughter, from her book My Father, Bertrand Russell. She indicated that her father would not even talk to her about religion or Christianity, which Katharine had accepted. She said: “I could not even talk to him about religion.” Page XX. She states later: “I would have liked to convince my father that I had found what he had been looking for, the ineffable something he had longed for all his life. I would have liked to persuade him that the search for God does not have to be in vain. But it was hopeless. He had known too many blind Christians, bleak moralists who sucked the joy from life and persecuted their opponents; he would never have been able to see the truth they were hiding.” Page XXI
This is a stunning truth that I have seen in my personal debates with atheists and that I have seen in writings of some atheists. It is that Christians in a mistaken legalistic, judgmental attitude have more to do with engendering and creating atheism than perhaps the secular humanism and the other faith killing philosophies. Many atheists are atheists because of some encounter with a Christian somewhere that hammered the life out of them and hid the glory of a Lord who loved them. We need to look at ourselves and become the person Jesus wants the world to really see.
Anthony Flew’s Early Impact
Flew’s first target in his incisive logic was not theology, but rather an atheistic philosophy called logical positivism. Logical positivism was introduced by a European group called the Vienna Circle and was popularized by A. J. Ayer in his 1936 book Language, Truth and Logic. Logical Positivists believed any statement that was truly meaningful were statements that could be only verified through the sense experience or were true simply by their form and the meaning of the words used. This meant that a statement was only meaningful if it could be verified as true or false by empirical observations or science. This resulted in only statements that were true or verified were statements used in science, logic or mathematics.
Anthony Flow considered his paper Theology and Falsification to be the final argument that sealed the fate of logical positivism. In 1990 Flew stated:
“As an undergraduate I had become increasingly frustrated and exasperated by philosophical debates which always seemed to revert to, and never to move forward from, the logical positivism most brilliantly expounded in . . . Language, Truth and Logic. . . The intentions in both these papers (the versions of “Theology and Falsification” first presented in the Socratic Club and then published in University) was the same. Instead of an arrogant announcement that everything which any believer might choose to say it to be ruled out of consideration a priori as allegedly constituting a violation of the supposedly sacrosanct verification principle – here curiously maintained as a secular revelation – I preferred to offer a more restrained challenge. Let the believers speak for themselves, individually and severally.” Page XIV
I will have to say that Flew’s thinking that logical positivism was utterly defeated is a little premature as the “New Atheism” has brought forth the logical positivism redux in all its illogical and arrogant glory. Even A. J. Ayers has long abandoned logical positivism as anything worth a philosophical breath. But is appears the new atheists have revived this errant philosophy to use in their tomes of unreason and illogic.
50 Years an Atheist
I would have to say that Anthony Flew, while a thorn in the side of Theology, with his impeccable and incisive logic and honorable ways was actually a worthy opponent as well. His life was spent in many and varied places and his academic career spanned the continents. The list of academic organizations at which Flew was a professor is simply astounding. First was the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, he then became professor of philosophy at the University College of North Staffordshire. Later he joined the philosophy department of the University of Keele and then moved to the University of Calgary in Alberta Canada. He joined the University of Reading until the end of 1982, took an early retirement and taught at York University of Toronto. Half way through that assignment he resigned and joined Bowling Green State University to be a part of the Social Philosophy and Policy Center for the next three years. Three years later he retired and lives today in Reading. It was a very long and distinguished career.
Following the Evidence
As I mentioned before the Socratic principle of following the evidence where it leads was a guiding principle of Anthony Flew and to his credit this principle lead him into many changes. In 1966 Flew published God and Philosophy where he attempted to present a case for Christian theism where he challenged the theists to come up with a better idea. Since that time many theists have done just that and in “following the evidence” Flew also changed his views. He later stated: “What do I think about today about the arguments laid out in God and Philosophy? In a 2004 letter to Philosophy Now, I observed that I now consider God and Philosophy to be a historic relic (but of course, one cannot follow the evidence where it leads without giving others the chance to show you new perspectives you had not fully considered).” Page 52
Flew first looked at the concept of free will and determinism as propounded by Hume as the free will defense had often been put forth with the atheist “problem of evil” argument. He tried to maintain a position that even though man could have a will that appeared free, he believed that the free choices were physically caused. He called this system a compatibilism and later rejected this view by examining the idea of Hume’s causes. Hume failed to properly understand the freedom of an independent person to make a choice that was not physically dependent on anything else. Flew defined three notions of identity, one is being an agent, two is having a choice and three is being able to do something other than what we actually do. This necessitated a distinction between the ideas of movings and motions that can explain the equally fundamental concept of action. He states: “The nerve of the distinction between the movings involved in an action and the motions that constitute necessitated behavior is that the latter behavior is physically necessitated, whereas the sense, the direction, and the character of actions as such are that, as a matter of logic, they necessarily cannot be physically necessitated (and as a matter of brute face, they are not). It therefore becomes impossible to maintain the doctrine of universal physically necessitating determinism, the doctrine that says all movement in the universe – including every human bodily movement, the movings as well as motions – area determined by physically necessitating physical causes.” Page 64 – 65 Flew viewed this philosophical change as just as radical as any change he made on the question of God.
Flew was one of the heavy hitters in the atheist world and in 2004 he made the change from atheism to theism, that rocked that world profoundly. It was not a sudden change, but as presented above, a piece by piece revamping of Flew’s philosophy as he followed the evidence.
Flew had been in many debates with theists over the years and some proved to be profound in his later change. Terry Miethe of the Oxford presented a “formidable version of the cosmological argument” in a debate with Flew.
Some limited, changing being(s) exist
The present existence of every limited, changing being is caused by another.
There cannot be an infinite regress of caused of being,
Because an infinite regress of finite beings would
Not cause the existence of anything.
Therefore, there is a first Cause of the present existence of these beings.
The first cause must be infinite, necessary eternal and one
The first uncaused Cause is identical with the God of the Judeo – Christian tradition. Page 70 – 71
This argument by Miethe was based not on the principle of sufficient reason as most cosmological arguments of this type were, but upon the principle of existential causality. Flew rejected this argument but it later came to him again in the idea of design in the universe and nature.
In 2004 Flew came to the last of his long line of public debates in a symposium at New York University. In this debate about science and theology Flew, to the surprise of all announced that he had now accepted the existence of God. This announcement has caused no small stir among those in the atheist world and those in the theist camp as well. Many, harsh and strong statements have risen especially from those aforementioned loud mouthed, new atheists. I will not go into these comments now, but suffice it to say they show no tolerance they so famously shout for their own ideas.
Finding the Divine
Anthony Flew in the above debate made the following statement when asked if the “recent work on the origin of life pointed to the activity of a creative Intelligence . . .
“Yes, I now think it does . . . almost entirely because of DNA investigations. What I think the DNA material has done is that it has shown, by the almost unbelievable complexity of the arrangements which are needed to produce (life), that intelligence must have been involved in getting these extraordinarily 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 the enormous complexity by which the results were achieved, which looked to me like the work of intelligence.” Page 74 – 75
Flew has seen the very same things I and many others have observed to convince him of the divine in all creation and life. Flew has had many writing debates with Richard Dawkins whom he has had some admiration in his earlier days, but drew, and continues to draw distinctions in Dawkin’s selfish-gene school of thought. He says:
“In my book Darwinian Evolution, I pointed out that natural selection dies not positively produce anything. It only eliminates, or tends to eliminate, whatever is not competitive. A variation does not need to bestow any actual competitive advantage in order to avoid elimination; it is sufficient that is does not burden its owner with any competitive disadvantage. To choose a rather silly illustration, suppose I have useless wings tucked away under my suit coat, wings that are too weak to lift my frame off the ground. Useless as they are, these wings to not enable me to escape predators or gather food. But as long as they don’t make me more vulnerable to predators, I will probably survive to reproduce and pass on my wings to my descendants. Darwin’s mistake in drawing too positive an inference with his suggestion that natural selection produces something was perhaps due to his employment of the expressions ‘natural selection’ or ‘survival of the fittest’ rather than his own ultimately preferred alternative, ‘natural preservation.’” Page 78 – 79
He goes on and continues to skewer Dawkins by saying: “Richard Dawkin’s The Selfish Gene was a major exercise in popular mystification.” Page 79 He also states that: “Dawkins on the other hand, labored to discount or depreciate the upshot of fifty or more years’ work in genetics – the discovery that the observable traits of organisms are for the most part conditioned by the interactions of many genes, while most genes have manifold effects on many such traits. For Dawkins, the main means for producing human behavior is to attribute to genes characteristics that can significantly be attributed only to persons. Then after insisting that we are all the choiceless creatures of our genes, he infers that we cannot help but share the unlovely personal characteristics of those all-controlling monads.” Page 79 – 80
Dawkin’s premise is that we are merely robots created by our genes to house them and spread them and we are totally subject to the physical laws of genetics. Flew makes a final deadly thrust at Dawkins when he says: “If any of this were true, it would be no use to go on, as Dawkins does, to preach: ‘Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish.’ No eloquence can move programmed robots. But in fact none if it is true – or even faintly sensible. Genes, as we have seen, do not and cannot necessitate our conduct. Nor are they capable of the calculation and understanding required to plot a course of either ruthless selfishness or sacrificial compassion.” Page 80
Anthony Flew also takes aim at dogmatic atheism and it’s misapplication of science when the atheists let preconceived theories shape the way they see the evidence rather than letting the evidence shape their theories. About this he says: “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 is 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 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.” Page 86 – 87
He also takes umbrage at the continuing effort of dogmatic atheism and militant evolutionists as couching every argument as their “science” confronting our “philosophy, religion and non-science. He states: “You might ask how I, a philosopher, could speak to issues treated by scientists. The best way to answer this is with another question. Are we engaging in science or philosophy here? When you study the interaction of two physical bodies, for instance, two subatomic particles, you are engaged in science. When you ask how it is that those subatomic particles – or anything physical – could exist and why, you are engaged in philosophy. When you draw philosophical conclusions from scientific data, then you are thinking as a philosopher.” Page 89
Flew says that the three domains of scientific inquiry that he as a philosopher feels are especially important are; how did the laws of nature come to be, how did life originate from non-life, and how did the universe (all that is physical) come into being and why. It is in this domain that Flew is so devastating to the pretend philosophers of evolution and atheism.
He goes on to point out that the God Aristotle believe in as presented in David Conway’s book The Recovery of Wisdom: From Here to Antiquity in Quest of Sophia. Conway says and Flew agrees: “In sum, to the Being whom he considered to be the explanation of the world and its broad form, Aristotle ascribed the following attributes: immutability, immateriality, omnipotence, omniscience, oneness or indivisibility, perfect goodness and necessary existence. There is an impressive correspondence between this set of attributes and those traditionally ascribed to God within the Judaeo-Christian tradition. It is one that fully justifies us in viewing Aristotle as having had the same Divine Being in mind as the cause of the world that is the object of worship of these two religions.”
Anthony Flew had correctly perceived that the universe and life itself had to have a vast intelligent designer behind it as it was impossible to have been self caused or uncaused. He looks further into the laws of the universe and the concept of the first cause of all we see. He quotes the physicist Paul Davies: “in his Templeton address, Paul Davies makes the point that ‘science can proceed only if the scientist adopts an essentially theological worldview.’ Nobody asks where the laws of physics come from, but ‘even the most atheistic scientist accepts as an act of faith the existence of a lawlike order in nature that is at least in part incomprehensible to us.” Page 107
Davies in again quoted: “Science is based on the assumption that the universe is thoroughly rational and logical at all levels.’ Writes Paul Davies, arguably the most influential contemporary expositor of modern science. ‘Atheists claim that the laws (of nature) exist reasonlessly and that the universe is absurd. As a scientist, I find this hard to accept. There must be an unchanging rational ground in which the logical, orderly nature of the universe is rooted.” Page 111
Flew examines the finely tuned universe or the idea of a man centered universe called the anthropic universe. It appears that the constants in the universe from the cosmic to the quantum are all finely tuned to cause life to occur. It appears that the universe was waiting for us. Flew says: “In his book Infinite Minds, John Leslie, a leading anthropic theorist, argues that the fine tuning is best explained by divine design. He says that he is impressed not by particular arguments for instances of fine tuning, but by the fact that these arguments exist in such profusion. ‘If, then, there were aspects of nature’s workings that appeared every fortunate and also entirely fundamental,’ he writes, ‘then there might well be seen as evidence specially favoring belief in God.” Page 115
Many physicists have explored the idea of ultra high density physics of multi-verses in hyper dimensions that are truly speculative and very hard to prove. In fact another universe outside of our universe would by our technology and any technology we can envision impossible to examine Very few physicists actually hold to this multi-verse idea with the exception of those who do not want to believe in a intelligent creator. Physicist Davies weighs in again: “It is trivially true that, in an infinite universe, anything that can happen will happen.’ But this is not an explanation at all. If we are trying to understand why the universe if bio-friendly, we are not helped by being told that all possible universes exist. ‘Like a blunderbuss, it explains everything and nothing.” Page 118 Physicist Richard Swineburne rejects the multi-verse and says: “It is crazy to postulate a trillion (causally unconnected) universes to explain the features of one universe, when postulating one entity (God) will do the job.” Page 119 Flew likens the argument to a child coming to his teacher and saying “The dog ate my homework.” When the teacher indicates unbelief the child changes his story to” “A whole pack of dogs ate my homework.” It is an answer waiting for a question as it will not answer any current questions.
Anthony Flew, as mentioned before also saw the idea of biological life and the complex coding necessary for that life to be an insurmountable problem with atheism and evolution. He perceived through is incisive logic that the age of the universe and the current theories of abiogenesis left too little time for life to happen in the random way that it had to occur. He states: “A far more important consideration is the philosophical challenge facing origin-of-life studies. Most studies on the origin of life are carried out by scientists who rarely attend to the philosophical dimension of their findings. Philosophers, on the other hand, have said little on the nature and origin of life. The philosophical question that has not been answered in origin-of- life studies is this: How can a universe of mindless matter produce beings with intrinsic ends, self-replication capabilities, and ‘coded chemistry’? Here we are not dealing with biology, but an entirely different category of problem.” Page 124 Flew understood the deep issues. It is not what the current abiogenesis study is and how maybe a few amino acids can be formed in a test tube, but why does life depend on the hyper complex code even at all and what does it point out in the big picture of causality. Most evolutionists are utterly lost in the details of this missing link or that whale vestigial foot or whatever they can club the creationist over the head with. They never raise their head like Flew did, and look at the big picture this code points too. One of the issues Flew raises is that life is teleological in nature, it posses intrinsic ends, goals and purposes. We are self aware, we think, we plan, we love, we are alive in a profound teleological way. The very origin of this life presents profound problems for the scientist who doesn’t understand the philosophy inherent in his work. Flew says: “The origin of self-reproduction is a second key problem. Distinguished philosopher John Haldane notes that origin-of-life theories ‘do not provide sufficient explanation, since they presuppose the existence at an early stage of self-reproduction, and it has not been shown that this can arise by natural means from a material base.” Page 125 It is the profound problem of the biological scientist who wants to adhere to the evolutionist philosophy. If you cannot start out life by abiogenesis then the rest tends to fall down and become irrelevant. George Wald a Nobel Prize winning physiologist once said: “we choose to believe the impossible: that life arose spontaneously by chance.” But years later he changed his belief to a preexisting mind. He said: “How is it that, with so many other apparent options, we are in a universe that possesses just that peculiar nexus of properties that breeds life? It has occurred to me lately – I must confess with some shock at first to my scientific sensibilities – that both questions might be brought into some degree of congruence. This is with the assumption that mind, rather than emerging as a late outgrowth in the evolution of life, has existed always as the matrix, the source and condition of physical reality – that the stuff of which physical reality is constructed is mind-stuff. It is mind that has composed a physical universe that breeds life, and so eventually evolves creature that know and create: science, art and technology making creatures.” Page 131 – 132.
Flew in his paper The Presumption of Atheism argued that we had to take the universe and its most fundamental laws as ultimate. But you see this is the materialist trap, if all is material and there can be nothing that is not material then God a priori doesn’t exist. It blocks out the possibility of something that can transcend that universe. The idea of the infinite and unending universe was the cosmology of Flew’s early years and that view allowed plenty of time and energy for the atheistic views. But is has been fairly well documented that the universe had a beginning and this had a profound impact on Antony Flew. It reminded him of the first sentence in the Bible: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” He stated that while the universe was assumed to be eternal and unending then it was the ultimate by brute fact. But a beginning postulated another something the caused the beginning. This presented a problem. Cosmologist were also disturbed by this problem and presented many ideas that would allow them to retain their nontheist status quo. We have previously looked at those attempts. But suffice it to know that if one universe requires an explanation for a beginning then multiverses will also require multiple explanations as well. One of the troubles is that science has a severe problem with the cause of the universe. Swineburne arguing about the Humean idea of a beginningless series of nonnecessary existent beings, being the sufficient cause for the universe as a whole said: “The whole infinite series will have no explanation at all, for there will be no causes of members of the series lying outside the series. In that case, the existence of the universe over infinite time will be an inexplicable brute fact. There will be an explanation (in terms of laws) of why, once existent, it continues to exist. But what will be inexplicable is it existence at all throughout infinite time. The existence of a complex physical universe over finite or infinite time is something ‘too big’ for science to explain.” Page 141 So we see that the, now known, finite universe is not the brute fact and ultimate thing and it is also too big for science to explain and certainly they cannot explain away that nothing never creates something.
Anthony Flew in his publications argued that the concept of God was not coherent because it presupposed the idea of an incorporeal omnipresent being. Again this is the materialist trap and Flew finally found his way out. Theologians were busy with their answers. They stated that a body is necessary for being to exist; the condition for a being to be an agent is to be simply capable of intentional action. God is spoken as being a personal being; this is to talk of Him as an agent to intentional action.
God also dwelling outside of space and time was entirely consistent with the theory of special relativity. Brian Leftow in his book Time and Eternity showed that God could be transcendent of the universe and went on to explore what He would be like. It is these studies that showed Flew that an incorporeal spirit could exist and have an impact in our world. He says: “At the very least, the studies and Tracy and Leftow show that idea of an omnipresent Spirit is not intrinsically incoherent if we see such a Spirit as an agent outside space and time that uniquely executed His intentions in the spatio-temporal continuum. The question of whether such a Spirit exists, as we have seen, lies at the heart of the arguments for God’s existence.” Page 154
Flew made the transition from atheist to theist. It was a path of simply following the evidence to where it leads. He says: “Science qua science cannot furnish an argument for God’s existence. But the three items of evidence we have considered in this volume – the laws nature, life with its teleological organization, and the existence of the universe – can only be explained in the light of an Intelligence that explains both its own existence and that of the world. Such a discovery of the Divine does not come through experiments and equations, but through the understanding of the structures they unveil and map.” Page 155 Flew was willing to learn more and connect with others in their thoughts and was open to new ideas. He now believes in an infinitely intelligent mind that created the universe. He knows many who have claimed to have contacted that mind and remains hopeful that that mind may contact him. His final statement is: “I have not (contacted the mind) yet. But who knows what could happen next? Someday I might hear a Voice that says, ‘Can you hear me now?”
I have no doubt that Anthony Flew with his humility will soon hear that wonderful voice of the Lord who loves him.