There Is a God -- Anthony Flew

I've spent the last few days in a blog conversation that really culminated in the realization of just how hubristic and self-centered the whole art (or practice) of blogging can be.  In the course of the conversation, we were discussing matters that had occupied the great minds of three centuries and attempting to conclude a debate that was and continues to rage--all within this isolated bubble chamber of exchanged comments. In this case, the question of whether or not theology is a valid means for knowing and exploring the world and coming to a deeper understanding about reality.  I, for one, was humbled at the thought of my own arrogance in (A) even approaching the matter, given my weak grasp of the salient tools; and (B) the thought that I would have anything at all significant to add to the conversation.  Once again, roundly put in my place, I've made a resolution that has become all too frequent with me to not darken the doors of such a conversation every again.  "The wise man lets the world think him a fool, the fool opens his mouth and removes all doubt."  However, I do so in full knowledge that the next time someone throws down the gauntlet, I will charged in again, as unarmed as I was in this match.

But, this conversation had its usual salutary upside.  Realizing that I knew nothing whatsoever of the matter, except what I know and cannot express, I went immediately to find where better minds than mind has gone in search of answers.  This book more or less fell into my hands as I was looking through an array of interesting, though largely unhelpful theological and devotional guides.  I was unacquainted with Mr. Flew and with the history and profound depth of the nature of the conversation we were having.  (Hubris has a way of removing perspective.)

Mr. Flew evidently wrote several of the important philosophical works that the New Atheist movement at once is based upon and repudiates (if only unconsciously).  Mr. Flew's earliest work was presented at a club that had been started by C. S. Lewis and existed precisely to debate these matters.  This initial paper, "Theology and Falsification" was at once an atheist apology and a strong attack on the logical positivist stance on religious discussion.  From this point, Mr. Flew went on to present any number of defenses of the atheist standpoint including the now well-known, The Presumption of Atheism which basically states that atheism is the valid null hypothesis and it is up to the theists to support their case.

I give this background for those who know nothing of Mr. Flew's work.  Well, one must admire a philosopher's dedication to his calling, and Mr. Flew, in following the evidence and the argument, late in life announced that he was no longer an atheist.  In the book he refers to himself as a deist, saying that while he has come to understand that there is a God, he has no reason to believe that this God is personal. 

The book is the story of this change of mind--and as such it is most impressive.  For many of us, myself included, the story would have been shrouded in lots of " then this happened, and I change my mind," sort of dialogue.  What Mr. Flew does for us, however, is provide a sketch of his early career and work, outlining the principles from which he drew his atheistic conclusion.  He follows this with a section that presents three or four arguments that he details that seemed to him sufficient proof of the existence of God for him to reverse a stand he had publicly held for more than 50 years.

I am not well versed enough in the mode of philosophy and its reasoning even to outline these for you.  If you're interested, you'll need to engage with the book yourself and follow the arguments.  Being a believer, I can only say that I found the reasoning compelling.  But one approaching from another perspective would likely more easily see the flaws that I have overlooked.

There were a million different passages I wanted to share, and which I may go back and pluck out here and there, but for the moment, I wanted to address just one of these--one that went straight to the heart of the discussion I had been having (in some ways) and clarified for me some of the terms of engagement.

from There Is a God
Anthony Flew

My departure from atheism was no occasioned by any new phenomenon or argument. Over the last two decades, my whole framework of thought has been in a state of migration. This was a consequence of my continuing assessment of the evidence of nature. When I finally came to recognize the existence of a God, it was not a paradigm shift, because my paradigm remains, as Plato in his Republic scripted his Socrates to insist: "We most follow the argument wherever it leads."

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.

And so the answer to my dilemma--need something be a science to contribute in a lasting and important way to comprehension of reality?  Absolutely not.  Indeed, in some ways, Science may be the weaker of the sisters in this debate, reflecting merely upon material reality.  As Mr. Flew shows throughout the book, that are realities of an immaterial nature--consciousness, self, and thought, that all present a series of exceedingly difficult and problematic questions for those who would hew too closely to the materialist agenda.  I have not sufficient wit to express this myself, but if you would like to see its expression and engage with the thought and argument behind it, I could not recommend a more plainly written, coherent, and clear an exposition.  Not having trained in philosophy, I was nevertheless able to follow the argumentation throughout.  What I regret is that I do not have the wherewithal to know how these points might have been addressed by someone holding the opposing view.

But I can say that Mr. Flew speaks for me and articulates what I have believed far better than I find it in myself to do.  And perhaps that is the difference between a poet/scientist and a philosopher. 

Comments

  1. Thank you for discussing Flew. I'm off to check out the book.

    And as for the embarrassment of arguing, don't worry. How else can we test the strength of our beliefs any other way? There needs to be more public discussions like this, instead of less (I'm thinking particularly when I see the political speech on cable. Very hot, but not bright).

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  2. Dear Mr. Peschel,

    Thank you for the kind words. You're so right about arguing. My problem is that I can't seem to recall how poorly suited I am for it. My argument really needs to be my way of life, not my words--others are better suited to that arena--more cogent, more coherent, more generous, less reactive.

    But I really appreciate the support. Thank you.

    shalom,

    Steven

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