Saturday, November 03, 2007


Heartstrings and Other Ties

It's no particular secret that I am, as this blog demonstrates I think, straightforwardly opposed to theists who would confuse their theological beliefs with science. Perhaps less obvious here, but still well known in some circles, I find atheists who would equally confuse their philosophical (one might say "theological") beliefs with science just as objectionable. In short, I am a fairly aggressive agnostic (as those things go). In that light, I find the long article by Mark Oppenheimer in the New York Times Sunday Magazine about Anthony Flew and the unseemly tug-of-war over his failing body and mind more than a little sad.

Flew may not be well known outside academic philosophy circles but, as John Wilkins said earlier today on the newsgroup, "he was, and remains, a crucial thinker in mid-century discussions of philosophical theology." As the Times article notes, he is particularly famous for his short article, "Theology and Falsification," which had much more influence than its length might lead you to suspect.

In any event, Flew has become a "big deal" among certain evangelical Christians beginning a few years ago because of his supposed conversion away from atheism to ... well, some form of theism. In turn, he became equally a big deal in some atheist circles, more because he was big to the evangelicals than anything else. Now the temperature will go up a notch or two with the publication of the book, There Is a God: How the World's Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind, attributed to Flew and a co-author, the Christian apologist Roy Abraham Varghese. The tale of his conversion, if that's what it is, is a convoluted one that Oppenheimer tells at length. In brief outline:

... Flew never considered himself a dogmatic atheist. Even when he traveled the world arguing against religious belief, he was never an angry polemicist ... Always respectful of his opponents, he exhibited an unusual curiosity about their beliefs. ... Flew also had a longstanding affinity for conservative politics -- he was an adviser to Margaret Thatcher -- that made him unusually approachable for some Christians. ...
Then came

... a May 2004 conversation, held in a television studio at New York University, between Flew and two popular advocates of theism, the Orthodox Jewish physicist Gerald Schroeder and the Christian philosopher John Haldane. [In a DVD of the event] there are long stretches of Schroeder ... lecturing an attentive Flew on matters like the unlikelihood that an infinite number of monkeys typing randomly would ever produce a Shakespearean sonnet. ... Schroeder also talks about the Cambrian explosion ... Haldane chimes in to argue that certain human capabilities, like language and reproduction, can be explained only by a higher intelligence. ...

When at last Flew speaks, his diction is halting, in stark contrast to Schroeder and Haldane, both younger men, forceful and assured. Under their prodding, Flew concedes that the Big Bang could be described in Genesis; that the complexity of DNA strongly points to an "intelligence"; and that the existence of evil is not an insurmountable problem for the existence of God. In short, Flew retracts decades' worth of conclusions on which he built his career. At one point, Haldane is noticeably smiling, embarrassed (or pleased) by Flew's acquiesence. After one brief lecture from Schroeder, arguing that the origin of life can be seen as a form of revelation, Flew says, "I don't see any way to meet that argument at the moment."
However, Schroeder, Haldane and Flew's "co-author" Varghese (an American business consultant of Indian ancestry, a practitioner of the Eastern Catholic Syro-Malankara rite and, through his Institute for MetaScientific Research, a financial backer of those who believe that scientific research helps verify the existence of God) have not had Flew to themselves:

Richard Carrier, a 37-year-old doctoral student in ancient history at Columbia, is a type recognizable to anyone who has spent much time at a chess tournament or a sci-fi convention or a skeptics' conference. He is young, male and brilliant, with an obsessive streak both admirable and a little debilitating. In the time that he hasn't finished his dissertation, Carrier has self-published a 444-page magnum opus called "Sense and Goodness Without God: A Defense of Metaphysical Naturalism." ... [I]n August 2004 Carrier turned his formidable intellect, and sense of purpose, toward Flew. ...

In a long letter, Carrier asked Flew to confirm or deny what he hoped were calumnies on Flew's good name, and he provided a Web address for his own article refuting Schroeder.
Flew replied that he had for "a long time been inclined to believe in an Aristotelian God" and noted he did not have access to the internet.

Carrier was not satisfied. He replied immediately, helpfully enclosing "a lot of reading material for your benefit," including his Web article on Schroeder, a more scholarly article that he wrote for the journal Biology & Philosophy and — the pièce de chutzpah — a four-page questionnaire for Flew to fill out. ...

After much "epistolary pummeling," as Oppenheimer puts it:

Flew wrote back [saying] he had changed his mind. "I simply but apparently mistakenly believed that Schroeder — a man whom I was told had taught at M.I.T. and was now working at the Weizmann Institute in Jerusalem — would be up to date. Clearly he was not." ...
While "[f]urther letters brought further backpedaling," some of it was:

... truly odd: Flew says he believes that since {Richard] Dawkins failed to cite the graduate student Richard Carrier attacking Schroeder, then Schroeder's scholarship is likely sound. In other words, if Flew was misled, he can blame Dawkins, who holds an Oxford professorship in the "public understanding of science" yet failed to inform his public that Schroeder was a crank.
Flew then announces his intention "to make no more statements about religion for publication" and, as a purported parting shot:

Flew retracts, rather poignantly, praise he had offered for one of Gary Habermas's books: "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."
So why does Flew do a book now?

Two years later, Flew's doubts have disappeared, and the philosopher has a reinvigorated faith in his theistic friends. In his new book, he freely cites Schroeder, Haldane and Varghese. And the author who two years ago was forgetting his Hume is, in the forthcoming volume, deeply read in many philosophers — John Leslie, John Foster, Thomas Tracy, Brian Leftow — rarely if ever mentioned in his letters, articles or books. It's as if he's a new man.
Indeed, when Oppenheimer went to interview Flew:

When we began the interview, he warned me, with merry self-deprecation, that he suffers from "nominal aphasia," or the inability to reproduce names. But he forgot more than names. ... There were words in his book, like "abiogenesis," that now he could not define. When I asked about Gary Habermas, who told me that he and Flew had been friends for 22 years and exchanged "dozens" of letters, Flew said, "He and I met at a debate, I think." ...

As he himself conceded, he had not written his book.

"This is really Roy's doing," he said, before I had even figured out a polite way to ask. "He showed it to me, and I said O.K. I'm too old for this kind of work!"
All this in furtherance of arguments that cannot be decided on the information available to human beings and on which we each will have an answer of some sort all too soon. Oppenheimer has some wise things to say at this point, I think:

To believe that Flew has been exploited is not to conclude that his exploiters acted with malice. If Flew in his dotage was a bit gullible, Varghese had a gullibility of his own. An autodidact with no academic credentials, Varghese was clearly thrilled to be taken seriously by an Oxford-trained philosopher ...

Intellectuals, even more than the rest of us, like to believe that they reach conclusions solely through study and reflection. But like the rest of us, they sometimes choose their opinions to suit their friends rather than the other way around. Which means that Flew is likely to remain a theist, for just as the Christians drew him close, the atheists gave him up for lost. "He once was a great philosopher," Richard Dawkins, the Oxford biologist and author of "The God Delusion," told a Virginia audience last year. "It's very sad."
It is. But perhaps not in the way that Dawkins thinks.

Very interesting post. I had heard of the situation with Flew but I wasn't aware of the details.
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