Antony Flew’s spiritual journey, Part II

The Gardener Parable is silent about how much either the Believer or the Sceptic actually knows about gardening.

Antony Flew was a philosopher, not a scientist. He could evaluate the impact of empirical evidence upon a philosophical argument, assuming that the findings were true, up-to-date, and well-accepted. Flew wasn’t specially qualified, however, to evaluate those qualities.

Lack of special qualifications didn’t much delay his “following the evidence wherever it led,” at any age. He corrected himself when specialists brought technical lapses to his attention, but didn’t necessarily await permission to proceed nor necessarily abandon a line of inquiry because its factual foundation wasn’t well-accepted.

Scientific arguments may be robust against isolated contrary facts, even well-established facts. In contrast, philosophical arguments may be vulnerable to mere serious possibilities that reveal gaps in reasoning, reliance on insufficiently examined assumptions, or other flaws in construction. False alarms may guide the search for better grounded facts that impeach an argument soundly.

A rational philosopher, then, would be liable to “follow” evidence and argument that a scientist or other specialist might avoid. That was Antony Flew’s style, at all ages of his life.

Aquinas, ESP, NDE’s and Behe

In March 2005, Jane Bakewell of  BBC radio interviewed Flew. Here are the transcript and audio:

Flew told Bakewell about quitting Methodism when he was 15. He had read startling counterarguments to Aquinas’s proofs for God. Flew moved away from Christianity. Later, Flew found out that those startling disproofs were flawed and invalid. That didn’t change his conclusion, since he had discovered other reasons by then for  irreligion.

A longer-term instance of enthusiasm followed by leisurely correction played out in connection with “psychical research” or parapsychology. Flew discusses that both in the BBC interview and in a 2004 interview with Gary Habermas, available here:

Flew had become interested in these phenomena at the margins of scholarship before he formally studied philosophy. His first published book, in 1953, was A New Approach to Psychical Research. As Flew’s career progressed, he would become increasingly viewed as a sceptic on these issues, but he continued to search.

Rick Lewis, the editor of Philosophy Now magazine, reports that Flew phoned him in 2001, asking about a news note reporting an apparently scientific investigation of near death experiences (“NDE”). Lewis checked, learned that the work was poorly received among scientists, and told Flew. Flew did not pursue the matter further with Lewis.

What was at stake philosophically and religiously for Flew in the paranormal and NDE cases was that he disbelieved that human minds could exist apart from functioning brains. Gilbert Ryle, his supervising philosophy professor, had persuaded grad student Flew of this. The view stuck for the rest of Flew’s life, but not for lack of him questioning it.

Later in 2001, Lewis witnessed Flew entertaining a different challenge to his religious opinions. Flew sent Lewis a short favorable review of Michael Behe’s book Darwin’s Black Box. The book argued that some features of living organisms were “irreducibly complex,” and therefore could not plausibly have evolved by natural selection. The obvious alternative was that  organisms were designed.

Flew recognized that he had no special biological expertise, and suggested that Lewis contact Richard Dawkins for comments on Behe’s science. One can only imagine how that went. Apparently, Dawkins and Flew made contact, knowledge was exchanged, and Flew abandoned the review project.

Lewis’ account appears in a brief obituary,

(This is subscribers’ content, however Google distributes a cached version. )

Neither of these excursions to the margins of accepted science in 2001 explains Flew’s adoption of deism a few years later. Flew appraises NDE coolly at page 9 of the Habermas interview. These phenomena took their place alongside all the other paranormal claims that Flew had considered over the decades.

As for Behe, Flew signed a letter in 2002 to the Prime Minister,

The letter endorses the teaching of Darwinian evolution in schools and urges against teaching creationism, of which Behe’s theories are a variety. Ironically, reading Behe may have opened Flew’s eyes to how richly complicated the biosphere actually is. Flew’s lingering wonder may have been not whether some material mechanism can explain its diversity, but rather how such a prodigious mechanism should ever have been launched in the first place.

Back to the garden

One way that belief rationally changes is that new hypotheses come to be recognized as serious possibilities. In Flew’s case, the new hypothesis was that there might be a minimally active god, like Spinoza’s “God or Nature,” or Aristotle’s god who takes little interest in human affairs.

In the Gardener Parable, suppose there is no gardener today, but that once upon a time there was a planter. The planter started the garden, maybe in such a way that the garden could sustain itself without regular maintenance. Thereupon, the planter left the garden. The lingering aftereffects of the planter’s completed project explain the orderliness which the Believer and Sceptic see today.

The planter hypothesis explains the failure to find anyone currently tending the garden. However, the planter hypothesis differs from the special-pleading reactive “stripping down” of the gardener hypothesis by Believer, about which Sceptic complained.

The planter is a different hypothesis. The planter is outrightly absent, not merely currently hard to find. He no longer gardens, rather than gardening in mysterious ways. The planter hypothesis can be investigated differently from the gardener hypothesis. For example, one could search for  features of the garden which promote or impede unsupervised self-maintenance.

The immediate cause of Flew’s deist epiphany will probably never be known. We do know from Lewis that Flew embraced a feature of the real world which was conducive to unsupervised proliferation of living varieties: evolution by natural selection, after life began. Flew’s instructor in Darwinism may well have been none other than Richard Dawkins.

Flew was especially impressed with the last chapter of The Origin of Species, where Darwin placed the boundary of his theory at the emergence of the first reproducing organism. Flew felt in 2004 that that organism may have justified a role for a designer.

He may have thought that his feeling was not in conflict with mainstream science. Perhaps Flew  misunderstood that this first organism being outside the scope of Darwin’s theory (which it is) does not place it beyond all scientific investigation (which it is not).

Flew would also consider Gerald Schroeder’s ideas about cosmology, so-called “fine-tuning” arguments, and mainstream theories like The Big Bang, in which this Universe had a definite and specific beginning. And so the stage was set for Flew’s enthusiasm about the potential philosophical importance of newly encountered ideas to be followed by correction from those who knew something about gardening.

Good fences making good neighbors between science and philosophy

By early 2005, at the time of his interview with Joan Bakewell, Flew realized that he had been in conflict with most scientists about explaining the first organism. Regarding his initial error,

Well Darwin presumably believed himself that [original life] was breathed by the deity, and a great many people – not only me -were shaken by the enormous complexity of DNA, and wondering whether it would ever be possible to produce a naturalistic theory there. I believe that it has now begun to…

… But that starting point is a thing that still needs a naturalistic explanation. And many people after the findings of DNA looked around and wondered whether they’d ever be able to find it, and thought it would simply be impossible to do it. Well it isn’t.

However, correcting that mistake left ample room for an appreciation of less specific natural grandeur, similar to the Spinozan thoughts of Einstein, whom Flew quoted

Certain it is a conviction akin to a religious feeling of the rationality or intelligibility of the world which lies behind all scientific work of a higher order. This firm belief, a belief bound up with the deep feeling in a superior mind that reveals itself in the world of experience, represents my conception of God.

Sources for this quotation and parallel remarks by Einstein appear on the Unlinks page of this blog.

Flew had argued in 2001 for the rational admissibility of  believers’ appraisal of recent “developments in physics” as confirmation of their already adopted beliefs. Expansion of the set of serious possibilities also provides an occasion for rational people to assess, and possibly disagree, how such evidence might bear on the newly considered hypothesis.

Physics did not come to bear the entire weight of Flew’s deism, however. Appreciation of biology would still play a role, but less specific than at first. In a 2007 interview with Benjamin Wiker,

Flew makes an extraordinary statement about the contribution of biological considerations to his turn towards deism.

The difference between life and non-life, it became apparent to me, was ontological and not chemical.

Flew thus announces his opinion that as concerns the beginnings of life, biologists are not the only scholars at the table. The location of the boundary between life and non-living matter is as much a philosophical question (ontology) as it is a scientific one (chemistry).

Anyone can agree or disagree with philosopher Flew about that, of course. But in those few words, he claimed there was a frontier between an exclusively scientific domain and a shared domain of broader scholarly inquiry. Flew erred in 2004 about the location of such a frontier, but could still reasonably insist that where science impinged on non-scientific questions, non-scientists might speak in the midst of scientists.


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