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8/1/08

Antony Flew vs. Richard Dawkins

Antony Flew is one of the 20th century's most prolific intellectuals and England's greatest link to the Golden Period of Oxbridge philosophy. He was a witness (and contributor) to the rise and fall of logical positivism and his friends/foes list reads like a who's who in philosophy:

*C.S. Lewis
*Michael Dummett
*Gilbert Ryle
*Richard Swinburne
*Bertrand Russell

I myself have a half-dozen books on my shelf with his name underneath the title, and it is unlikely that any respectable collection of books on philosophy of religion wouldn't include at least a smattering of his work.

+/-

Dick Dawkins, as you all know, published the God Delusion a few years back and the book was an instant success (as far as sales go). Though many on the overtly Christian side have criticized GD for being silly or inflammatory, there have been a few non-Christians to pick on Dawkins.
Add Flew to that list.

Flew claims that Dawkins is a "bigot" in the sense that he does not present the strongest position to attack. This can also be construed as a straw-man argument, but I tend to think that Dawkins has not presented the most charitable reading of his opponents (see here). We see this kind of thing all the time, but it appears to come with fundamentalism of any stripe, whether it be a Christian or Muslim or New Atheist. You see, "fundie" is a human condition, not a theistic one. I believe Flew (who has spent his career presenting his opponents most charitably) has cornered Dawkins. But we all know that a cornered fundie can be a dangerous animal, and I doubt we'll find many atheists paying attention to the wise words of an old gentleman like Antony Flew.
'Tis a shame.

13 comments:

  1. Wait was there a debate or something?

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  2. Oh man, I wish you would leave Flew alone, the old man has clearly entered his dotage. If you have any respect for his legacy you would not exploit him for your agenda now that his mind is compromised by dementia. To see him hijacked like this by the religious lobby is truly sad. This NYTimes article is mandatory reading. Go after Dawkins if you must, but if you have any decency in you, leave Flew out of it.

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  3. well said adonais, they prey on the weak. Plus Flew doesn't advocate their God, so it their minds he's still going to hell.

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  4. I knew that this post would be irrelevant for atheists, as nowadays most of them that I have been in contact with merely dismiss anything said/written by Flew as nothing more than the ravings of a senile old man with significantly diminished mental capacities. I was right.

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  5. Yeah, Adonais...

    Flew actually responded to that article.

    Many of you Atheists only like to read what is favorable for you, huh?

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  6. Stephen:

    Depends how you define debate.

    Adonais:

    There is no evidence that Flew has no idea what he is doing. I've had the pleasure of meeting the old man myself, and while he certainly has lost a step or two in the field he is far from senile. The man knows exactly what he is saying (he has trouble with specifics these days), and Dawkins would be a better person for listening to what Flew says.

    Besides, I am not using Flew to further my own Christian belief system but rather to point out that a non-Christian is going after Dawkins.

    *I second M's suggestion.

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  7. "Flew actually responded to that article."

    Where? (And I mean by Flew, not HarperOne or one of hist ghost-writers.)

    Josh: I think Flew's dementia goes way beyond a "trouble with specifics" or nominal aphasia. He is no longer able to do his own research and find out (or even remember) facts, he does not remember meeting people, or even key concepts of the book he supposedly co-authored. He is relying entirely on the opinions of others, to the point of appealing to authority and being led around by it—an egregious error for a philosopher, were his powers of reason intact.

    Look for instance at these two clips from an interview by Lee Strobel. At around 1.20 in the second interview we have this exchange:

    LS: "If the Christian God exists, what would he have to do, to convince you of that?"
    Long pause.
    AF: "I don't know. After all, I've never thought about this at all."

    And in Oppenheimer's interview we had this:

    I pointed out to him that in his earlier philosophical work he argued that the mere concept of God was incoherent, so if he was now a theist, he must reject huge chunks of his old philosophy. "Yes, maybe there's a major inconsistency there," he said, seeming grateful for my insight.

    It's as if Flew has forgotten the bulk of what he built his career on, and his "reasoning," whatever remains of it, is now all teleological or appeals to authority. On the subject of "integrated complexity" he invokes Einstein, of all people, who of course knew nothing of 21st century biology, and in this befuddled process of arguing for an intelligence behind the universe he also misconstrues Einstein's pantheism as deism.

    His latest "review" of The God Delusion also bears the hallmarks of dementia—which at least establishes that this was probably not a ghost-written piece. His complaint that deism is not defined is falsified by reading chapter 1 of TGD. Flew accuses Dawkins of not being "interested in the truth," but Flew himself appears to be uninterested in the contents of TGD as he spends most of his review talking about himself. It appears as if Flew has based his review on looking up three words in the index of TGD: deism, Einstein, and Flew.

    And at other times, Flew has openly admitted his physical decline, like when he retracted a previous praise for Habermas's book:

    "The statement which I most regret making during the last few months was the one about Habermas's book on the alleged resurrection of Jesus bar Joseph. I completely forgot Hume's to my mind decisive argument against all evidence for the miraculous. A sign of physical decline."

    I honestly don't see what Christians think they have gained by exploiting the weaknesses of old age in a renowned philosopher. In my view, Varghese has essentially ruined Flew's reputation for posterity by getting him to put his name on a standard piece of Christian apologetics, the contents of which Flew appears to be largely ignorant of. This is a shameful affair, reflecting favorably on nobody.

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  8. Josh,

    Great post! It amazes me how Flew can go from an atheistic icon to a man with a "compromised mind" simply because he had the guts to follow the evidence and discovered a Creator.

    However, if I were an atheist, I would want to claim that Flew lost it as well!

    Great work and I love the blog! Keep up the good work!

    Godspeed

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  9. Adonis,

    It is his fellow atheists that are going trying to mold Flew's behavior to fit their agenda. Just look at Carrier trying to get Flew to "hold the line" by writing him multiple letters. Then when Flew suggests that he really feels this way, Carrier implies that he has gone senile.

    How is that for objectivity?

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  10. Dawkins does try to define deism and pantheism in a sense that would conform to his personal use of Einstein-mined-quotes as produced by Jammer. What Dawkins also does is to redefine Einstein's statements to suit his own preferences. He even calls it "Einstein religion" as he tries to differentiate it from transcendent religion. He presumes to know what Einstein "really" meant...and to set us straight. But what he actually does is to attempt to steal Einstein for his own side of the fence, by changing the meanings of what the genius said to suit himself.

    Dawkins did not even read Einstein in order to form his opinion. He read Jammer's book on Einstein. Can Dawkins not read a real book? Can't he do his own research? Is he...senile??

    For those who can read, they should ignore the Dawkinsian redefinitions of Jammerian quote mines and go straight to Einstein, in books like his "Out of My Later Years" where he is explicit in his treatment of his religious thought. Go straight to Einstein and pass up the thieving wannabes. Dawkins is no match for Einstein and he knows it. Or at least he should.

    Einstein makes it clear that there exists a source for the rationality of the universe that is beyond the possibility of man to ever know. That is explicitly stated in the man's own words. It is deism, not pantheism. Read it for yourself.

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  11. stan:

    Is it my imagination, or are you sounding a bit...militant?

    Certainly Einstein expressed views that could be seen as deistic, I'll have to take the blame for formulating that poorly. But he also expressed views from pantheism, agnosticism, and atheism. Personally I tend to think of him in terms of his Spinozaism—but all this is beside the point.

    My point was not to claim Einstein for some particular "-ism" but to point out the error of Flew in doing this, and more importantly in his thinking that there is some authority to derive from it. Where is the logic in relying on the nebulous gut feeling of a long dead physicist who knew nothing of modern biology? Flew is supposed to be a first-rate philosopher! His appeals to Einstein on these matters is simply an abdication of skeptical inquiry which he is no longer able to conduct himself.

    It can hardly be seen as flattering to deism that it was only after losing his powers of skeptical thinking that Flew "found God."

    "Dawkins is no match for Einstein and he knows it. "

    I'm sure he will be really hurt if you tell him that.

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  12. Militant atheists are wrong
    A flurry of literary attacks on God may also be closing the book on imagination.
    By Lee Siegel
    October 7, 2007
    Voltaire famously quipped that if God didn't exist, he would have to be invented. American publishers would enthusiastically agree because God, it turns out, is a consistent moneymaker -- especially, these days, for those who want to attack him.

    In the last few years, so many books have rolled off the presses challenging God, belief and religion itself (by Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, Victor Stenger and Christopher Hitchens, among others) that a visitor from another planet might think America was in the iron throes of priestly repression. You'd never know that we live in the age of Paris Hilton, HBO, Internet porn and flip-flops. The 17th century Catholic Church proscribed Galileo -- just imagine what it would have done with the creators of "Entourage."

    Nor would anyone know from reading the latest rash of anti-God books that promiscuous sex and polymorphous sexuality are taken for granted in modern-day America (let's see a conservative Supreme Court try to roll that back); that the separation of church and state is inscribed in our Constitution; that no priest, minister or rabbi holds any top position in the federal government; and that even the state board of education in Kansas recently forbade the teaching of creationism. The Catholic Church imprisoned Galileo and hounded Voltaire and his fellow philosophers; Harris & Co., meanwhile, are dining out on their self-styled iconoclasm in every corner of the media.

    The anti-God books have appeared in the wake of two developments: the rise of Islamic fundamentalism overseas and the religious right's enormous influence on President Bush's policies here at home. But as responses, the secular jeremiads don't make a whole lot of sense.

    Who, exactly, are they aimed at? Who is the ideal reader of these attacks on belief in God? Not Muslim or Christian fundamentalists, obviously, because one of the engines driving religious fundamentalism today is, precisely, a hostility toward modern science. If anyone thinks that Dawkins' book, "The God Delusion" -- with its "scientific" attempts to refute the existence of God -- is going to persuade today's religious fanatics, here or abroad, to loosen up and enjoy a little MTV, you have to ask yourself just who is "deluded." It's hard to imagine anyone abandoning his faith after reading Harris' condescending polemic, or the science of Dawkins and Dennett, or Hitchens' vitriol.

    The attacks in the books often don't make much sense either. For instance, Bush and his gang preach Christian values while lying us into a slaughterhouse overseas, ransacking our public coffers and ignoring social inequities and iniquities at home -- and so our heroic anti-religionists attack . . . Christian values. But shouldn't they be attacking Bush and Co.'s hypocrisy in betraying Christian values instead? Such polemics are a case of throwing the sacred bathwater out with the baby. The analytic philosophers used to call such arguments that so sorely miss the mark "category mistakes."

    If anything, you could imagine these assaults on religion becoming infamous in the Muslim world, confirming for fundamentalists that the West is every bit as godless -- and hostile to Islam -- as they thought. Hitchens' intemperate invective against Christianity, Judaism and Islam, for its part, will probably strengthen the resolve of fanatics in all three religions. What an intellectual mess.

    Voltaire and his colleagues attacked the dominant values of their day, at great risk to themselves. By almost comical contrast, the new anti-religionists are safely needling the dominant liberal culture's favorite bete noire. They are publishing their books in an atmosphere of complacency and self-congratulation; they preach to the secular converted, who are buying the books in droves. I'm not a particularly religious person. These arguments don't offend me or my beliefs. But they make me concerned nevertheless, because I think they strike a blow against something more important (at least to me) than belief in God. In their contempt for any belief that cannot be scientifically or empirically proved, the anti-God books are attacking our inborn capacity to create value and meaning for ourselves.

    To be sure, the current assault on religious faith is the product of a centuries-long movement, beginning with the Enlightenment, toward the supremacy of science and empiricism and a rejection of unverifiable beliefs. But that campaign against religious faith and superstition triumphed long ago in the West, where we now live in a technological, irreligious age beyond the wildest Enlightenment hopes. When our anti-religionists attack the mechanism of religious faith by demanding that our beliefs be underpinned by science, statistics and cold logic, they are, in effect, attacking our right to believe in unseen, unprovable things at all. Their assault on religious faith amounts to an attack on the human imagination.

    For the imagination is what embodies concepts, ideas and values that cannot be scientifically verified and that have no practical usefulness. Because the existence of God is undemonstrable, unverifiable and the object of an impractical leap of faith, religion, it seems to me, is one of imagination's last strongholds.

    Credo quia absurdum est. I believe because it is absurd. That sentiment -- either a corruption or a paraphrase of the saying of an early church father -- is the essence of religious belief. By taking a leap of faith in God, you create value out of nothingness. The more difficult it is to believe, the stronger the faith that flies in the face of absurdity. Your willingness to stake your life on the possibility of an impossibility makes a fact out of a fantasy.

    You don't have to be a religious person to cherish the idea of faith in the absurd. When artists have an unverifiable, unprovable inspiration, and then seek to convey it in words or images, they take a leap of faith every bit as vertiginous as that of the religious person.

    The leap of faith is really a very ordinary operation. We take it every time we fall in love, expect kindness from someone, impulsively sacrifice some little piece of our self-interest. After all, you cannot prove the existence of truth, beauty, goodness and decency; you cannot prove the dignity of being human, or your obligation to treat people as ends and not just as means. You take a gamble on the existence of these inestimable things. For that reason, when you lay scientific, logical and empirical siege to the leap of faith at the core of the religious impulse, you are not just attacking faith in God. You are attacking the act of faith itself, faith in anything that can't be proved. But it just so happens that the qualities that make life rich, joyful and humane cannot be proved.

    Judging religion by its instances of fanaticism is like judging a democracy by its crime rate. You lose far more than you gain. In the case of Harris & Co., their stingy and narrow-minded anti-God polemics are perhaps having an unintended effect. Far from "enlightening" our benighted (if sizzling and fluorescent) society, they may well be moving us into a new dark age of heartless utilitarianism.

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  13. JB: That article almost had me...up until "Credo...".

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