on December 14, 2007
Several years ago I read Antony Flew's book, "Thinking about Thinking" in its American incarnation (titled "How to Think Straight"). I immediately discerned three things. Flew was (1) a profound thinker, (2) an atheist, and (3) a decent human being. I was so impressed by his intellect that when I reached the last page, I turned back to page one and immediately read the book again.
I have since bought "God and Science" and "Merely Mortal". In "God and Science", Flew weighed the case for the Christian God and found it wanting, and in "Merely Mortal" he decided that there was no life after death. As I understand "There is a God", Flew sticks to both those positions. Flew has found God, but he has found Aristotle's god, the impersonal Unmoved Mover which, like God in Hobbes' "Leviathan" was the first cause of every subsequent effect. Aristotle's god is so ungodly that I have always considered him (Aristotle) the functional equivalent of an atheist. Flew's take on the Christian view of God seems to be as follows: God hasn't been proven to be like that, but it would be nice if he were. I can't say for sure, but I don't think Flew's assessment of the Christian God was any different before he renounced atheism. Flew has always been somewhat of an anomaly among atheists--an atheist who was polite to theists. A wit once said that an evangelical Christian was a fundamentalist with good manners. Flew was an atheist with good manners.
I've read a lot of atheist polemic, and I'm turned off by the ad hominem character of most of their arguments. It puts me in mind of Cicero's old dictum, "When you have no case, abuse the plaintiff". I've also read a lot of fundamentalist polemic which turns me off for the same reason. When an argument generates more heat than light, you have cause to suspect the bona fides of the person making the argument.
A New York Times article maligned Flew's book as the pseudo-scientific product of a "senescent scholar". Flew never claims that his book is science. He says it is philosophy which has been guided by scientific discovery made after he announced his atheism in 1950. I will admit that I had to look "senescent" up in the dictionary. It means "old". Okay. Are we to presume that all Social Security recipients are too dumb to be listened to? The terms "pseudo-science" and "senescent" are examples of subtle ad hominem arguments, designed to appeal to emotion rather than logic. The article engages in several other ad hominem arguments under the guise of factual reporting. I'll mention only one other.
The article suggests that a friend of Flew's, Ray Varghese, is a Christian "autodidact" who exploited poor old senescent Flew in the writing of the book. (I looked up "autodidact". It's a self-educated person. Shame on Varghese for teaching himself). It says on the cover of the book that the two collaborated. How did Varghese exploit Flew? By writing too much of the book? Varghese rebutted the article by admitting that he was responsible for the colorful anecdotes and witty section headings, but maintained that the core thought was through-and-through Flew.
I found this book yesterday afternoon and read it yesterday evening, blissfully ignorant of the controversy. These are the impressions I formed before I became aware of the controversy (I haven't changed them after reading about the controversy):
1. The work is not as rigorously reasoned as previous work by Flew. This was both good and bad. It was easier to read, but not as challenging.
2. The work repeated some recent arguments made by theists (such as the "fine tuning" argument) without subjecting them to the searching inquiry characteristic of Flew's earlier work.
3. The heart and soul of the book is Flew, and it is not that different from the Flew who was an atheist. Flew was always willing to change his mind if someone could show him through rational argument that there was a God. Someone did, and he changed his mind--but not much.
Most people come to God through faith, not reason. Flew has taken the road less traveled by, and that has made quite a difference. He has only approached Theism. You might say that he has come to the strait gate, but he has yet to enter thereby. I respected Flew from my first encounter with him, and this book has increased my respect.
on November 6, 2007
Call me old-fashioned, but I thought the POINT of reviewing books--even books on Amazon--was to review the actual book that one has actually READ. It seems now that it has become a place to "spike" books that you haven't read, and don't want others to read.
Unlike other pseudo-reviewers, I've actually read Flew's There is a God (and interviewed Flew as well). Anyone who has actually read it--and I wonder if Mark Oppenheimer did, given the inattention to the substance of the book in his infamous NYT piece--understands that it is a terse description of Flew's long, drawn out intellectual journey toward God--a journey of two decades. Twenty years; not twenty minutes or twenty days. Flew wasn't struck by God on his way to Damascus like St. Paul; he was slowly, ever so slowly brought to intellectual assent to a Deism (about the thinnest belief in God one can have).
Thus, the entire focus of a reader of Flew's There is a God SHOULD be on the list of books Flew cites as definitive in the slow changing of his mind, not on niggling debates about the slowness of Flew's mind at this precise point.
Roy Varghese (his co-author) has been with him for a good part of that journey (as have other believers), and was instrumental in helping Flew gather together his twenty year sojourn to God. IF there were some kind of a Christian conspiracy to use Flew as a mouthpiece, certainly Varghese et al would have made Flew's "conversion" far more exciting, and even more, would have him become a card-carrying Christian rather than, as he adamantly maintains, a Deist (not even a Theist!--Flew corrected me on this point in an interview with him). To read Varghese's full response to Oppenheimer, see [...]
In regard to Varghese's The Wonder of the World (one of the books that helped convince Flew of the scientific case for an intelligent Creator God), Oppenheimer characterizes it as scientific hack work. Interesting! Why does it also come recommended by TWO Nobel Prize Winners (Charles Townes, inventor of the laser; and Arno Penzias, who co-discovered Cosmic Microwave Bacground Radiation), and also physicist (and non-believer) Robert Jastrow? Are they also senile? Come on, folks!
As even Oppenheimer admits, the kind of arguments that Flew cites as demonstrating that the latest science leads (at least) to Deism, are those used by a whole host of other eminent scientists and philosophers. Is Paul Davies senile?
The simple truth is that there are all too many who don't want the scientific and philosophic arguments that convinced Flew of God's existence to receive any recognition. They will do anything to stop others from reading Flew's book. Perhaps they should read it themselves?
on November 10, 2008
Antony Flew opened up a firestorm of controversy when he publicly announced his conversion from atheism to deism in late 2004. As one of the most influential atheists of the 20th century, his change in mind was stunning. Many atheists were quick to denounce Flew- claiming that he was losing touch with reality in his old age. Flew, however, stood his ground, insisting that his conversion was real, thoughtful, and based on compelling evidence for the existence of a Creator.
In "There is a God", Flew recounts his life leading up to his conversion. Starting from his humble beginnings as the son of a preacher and leading to his persuasive defense of atheism as an academic, Flew gives us a brief glimpse into his life and work. Along the way, he points out that he has had many radical `conversions' in thinking. In his view, switching from atheism to deism is no particularly big deal. He just followed the evidence where it led.
The second part of the book offers a brief discussion of this evidence. Remarkably, in sharp distinction to the numerous atheist authors writing today, Flew contends that scientific discoveries (buttressed, of course, by philosophical arguments) have vindicated the existence of God. He mentions three areas where this is starkly the case. The first is the fact that nature obeys laws. The second is the existence of intelligently organized life. The third is the very existence of nature.
Unfortunately, Flew's discussion of these issues is rather cursory. Those looking for a detailed exposition need to explore elsewhere. Nevertheless, Flew's treatment is a welcome departure from the terrible philosophical treatment of scientific issues found in many of the new atheist books. Flew rightly calls out those scientists who offer philosophical arguments concerning the implications of the scientific facts. While they are perfectly within their rights to offer their philosophical opinion, these opinions must be judged by the canons of philosophy, not science. All too often, folks like Richard Dawkins assume that their scientific expertise entails that their philosophical views should be taken as authoritative. Flew rightly points out the distinction here.
Flew's "There is a God" is a quick and easy read. If you are interested in the life and work of Antony Flew, then this book will prove useful. Those looking for an extensive discussion of the arguments for the existence of God or for a refutation of atheism must look elsewhere.
on June 7, 2008
It's the rare intellectual--and especially the rare philosopher (I speak as a member of that strange tribe, by the way)--who's courageous enough to publicly admit error. In his old age, Augustine famously penned a series of Retractions that pruned and corrected his earlier writings. The twentieth century philosopher Wittgenstein eventually repudiated his first work, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. But for every Augustine and Wittgenstein, there are scores of philosophers who become wedded to their systems and simply can't bring themselves to doubt--much less repudiate--cherished conclusions.
That's one reason why Antony Flew's There Is a God is a remarkable work. Whether or not one buys his argument, one can't but admire his insistence on "following the argument where it leads," a bit of Socratic advice which Flew has made his professional motto, even when it leads him to reject positions he earlier championed. The positions which he now rejects are, specifically, that there is no God; that causation is best understood in Humean terms; and that compatibilism is the best way to navigate the free will/determinism debate.
Flew's purpose in There Is a God is to present arguments for his new conclusion that there's evidence to suppose the existence of a divine First Cause. Ultimately, his point is that in the absence of a God, one must settle for mystifying and implausible conceptual leaps. His critics might say that he's simply appealing to a "God of the gaps" move, and perhaps they're correct. But Flew would respond by challenging them to explain, in non-question begging ways, (1) why nature is lawlike (did laws emerge, or did they have to be existent for cosmological events to occur in the first place?), (2) how end-directed and self-replicating life emerged from matter (Flew accepts a neo-Aristotelian understanding of telos), and (3) how nature itself came into being (why is there something rather than nothing?). These, Flew argues, are the types of questions that must be addressed philosophically. Cosmological and biological data are relevant in their investigation, but the questions themselves can't be adequately answered by addressing them as "hows," but rather only as "whys."
Flew's book has generated an enormous amount of heated and sometimes ugly controversy. The militant New Atheists, led by Richard Dawkins, claim that Flew is senile and that the book was ghost written by Roy Abraham Varghese. Christians insist that the book shows that Flew has converted to their faith. Flew, while acknowledging that he's old and that Varghese did much of the actual writing, insists that the book contains his own ideas. To Christian enthusiasts, he insists that he's a deist rather than a theist, and that he hasn't converted to Christianity. How unfortunate that the current theism/atheism debate has become so polemical and recriminatory that all sides have great difficulty following the argument where it leads with civility and grace. The goal seems to be winning a debate rather than discovering truth.
on November 2, 2007
This book, with the ever catchy subtitle "How the World's Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind" is sure to infuriate most dogmatic atheists and capture the heart of zealous Christians. Both would be making a mistake. First, Flew has never been known as the most notorious - maybe the most brilliant or most influential of the last century, but he was almost always gracious and unlike Dawkins, Dennet, and Hitchens, he was not overly polemic; but instead, he focused on sharpening his logical arguments. Flew was one of the few atheists philosophers I enjoyed reading and watching. He also always demonstrated great respect for those whom he disagreed, a true demonstration of grace and honor.
Second, many modern atheists, more concerned with their zealotry (mention in the book) than properly constructed arguments are sure to hate this book; Dawkins, Dennet, and Harris, et al, are sure to resort to fallacious rebuttals (like Dawkins did at a lecture several months ago calling Anthony Flew a "once" great mind who is now suffering from old age - where is the argument Dawkins?). One will notice these people by the one star reviews - they cannot evaluate a text on its own terms, but must hate it regardless of any merits it may have.
Third, many Christians may overly praise the book. The book, while interesting, does not produce so much a tightly constructed argument as much as shows the journey and the arguments he encountered that changed his mind (DNA, Physics, etc) and he takes pains to show that many other thinking people can be theists, etc. I may be mistaken, but I think he would prefer people investigate the matter further and hence, his arguments are brief and interwoven with a biographical sketch. The arguments still uphold pretty well, but probably not as sophisticated as they could have been or in other books elsewhere.
There is a good appendix section involving a brief encounter with theologian NT Wright and Roy Abraham Varghese provides a nice preface and appendix section as well. All in all a fun, quick, and easy read. The book is delightful in some respects; but, in other respects, I wanted just a little more argument.
Lastly, I have added this edition to my original review to also provide a quick response to many atheists who are so enamored with the NYT
article and claim it is proof that the zealot Christian right and others have taken advantage of an old senile man. First, Oppenheimer's article has been rebutted by Varghese and many inconsistencies have been noted by others as well. Further, Flew himself has provided an interview claiming the book is his "last will and testament" on these things. Furthermore, did ABC and other mass media take advantage of Flew when he said he was no longer an atheists?
It is an embarrassment to all that some people who are so dogmatic about their atheism (or whatever ism it is) that they appeal to a sloppily developed article. Wiker's review provides the address to his website that has the Flew interview.
So you want to know how an atheist changes his mind and becomes a deist? This book sheds some light on the subject although I found the book to be very complex. It is challenging because it introduces a lot of philosophy. The arguments presented as to why Antony Flew decided to believe in God are at least logical. It seems the problem of evil was what caused him to not believe in God in the first place. It seems he honestly changed his mind because he found new scientific evidence that there was a intelligent mind behind creation. So really this is about going from denial to discovery. So if you like philosophy or thinking about DNA, this book may interest you.
~The Rebecca Review
on December 31, 2008
This book was quite different than I expected. I thought it would be arguments for the existence of God, and its notoriety due to the fact that they were being posed by someone who once made arguments against. But no, it's not really that. Then I thought it would be a sort of conversion story, with the bells and whistles toned down since the author was a philosopher-- a sort of muted, boring conversion story. But no, wrong again. And there was the question if it was going to be on the philosophical level of "If P then Q" or "The unexamined life is not worth living" sort of philosophy. But it's not really on either.
All these disclaimers are necessary because this book really didn't fit my general reading list, nor any of my preconceptions about it. Anyone who wants arguments for the existence of God, generally known as "apologetics" can certainly find easier to read books. Anyone who wants involved philosophical proofs won't find those either. This is a sort of middle-ground book which is not really casual reading, but at the same time, anyone interested in the topic or with background in the subject will find it a significant contribution to the discussion.
The subtitle is "How the world's most notorious atheist changed his mind". It sounds like more "New Atheist" hype, but it's actually the case that since the 1950s, beginning with a widely reprinted article, "Theology and Falsification", Antony Flew has been a leading atheist philosopher. The irony is that the above mentioned article was first read at the Socratic Club at Oxford, a debating society chaired by C.S. Lewis, known for writing works of Christian apologetics, although he also converted from atheism, largely through the influence of J.R. R. Tolkien.
Part one of this book, titled "My Denial of the Dvine", gives a brief biographical sketch of Flew's embrace of atheism and the climate of philosophy in the '50s, then dominated by logical positivism. Part two is entitled "My Discovery of the Divine", and reconsiders many of the questions and ideas of part one. Along the way Flew provides answers to Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, as well as Daniel Dennet and other atheist scientists. He also shows how Dawkins incorrectly bills Einstein as an atheist, and considers the views of many scientists who would call themselves theists.
That takes up about 150 pages. The book is introduced by Roy Abraham Varghese, who also provides, in Appendix One, a critical appraisal of the "New Atheism". Appendix Two is by New Testament scholar, N.T. Wright, who challenged some of Flew's views in the past, and whose own calm consideration of the case for "The Self- Revelation of God in Human History" forms the topic for this dialogue with the author.
Those expecting a dumbed-down popular approach to the big questions will not find it here. Especially in considering the origin of the universe, what is generally called the Anthropic or fine-tuning principle, and the Cosmological Argument, Flew's determination to "follow the evidence wherever it leads" leads him to find evidences of design in recent scientific discoveries, and philosophical arguments for the existence of a Designer. Anyone with more than a passing interest in these arguments will find in Flew's pilgrimage of the last sixty years, points to ponder and food for thought-- and irresistable reading.
on April 15, 2011
I am an athiest and I really enjoyed reading this book. I enjoy any book that is both well reasoned and well written. I have two comments to make about this book:
1. He now believes in "god" - but I do not think it is the kind of belief or the kind of "god" that most Christians would recognize. He goes out of his way early on to make it clear that he does not believe in life after death. He also goes out of his way to make it clear that he believes in what he calls "god" only kicked off the universe and then left it to its own devices. He does not intervene or even pay any attention to what is happening with his "creation."
2. I do not believe there is one single reference to the bible in the entire main part of the book (there is in the appendix written by a priest). So here is a guy who bellieves the the classic thiest "first cause" "god" not the god of the bible and who clearly does not believe anything in or about the bible itself and does not believe in life after death.
The kind of conversion only a philosopher can conduct.
on November 20, 2007
In 2004 the atheist world was rocked by the news of one of the most important defections from its ranks in recent times. The world's leading atheist, Antony Flew, announced that he was no longer an atheist, but a theist. This of course sent shock waves through the anti-theist camp, since they had long been claiming that rational and reasonable people only choose unbelief, whereas believers can only be regarded as stupid, gullible and deluded. It is pretty hard to describe Antony Flew in those terms.
Indeed, given his credentials, this is an amazing book about an amazing intellectual about-face. For over 50 years Flew was the number one proponent of atheism. And as a world class scholar with over 30 books on philosophy in print, he was one of the twentieth century's most imposing intellectual figures.
In this book we hear about the reasons why he has abandoned atheism and embraced its counterpart. The significance of this turnaround can be seen in part by the ugly attacks and bitter responses by fellow atheists. They have made it perfectly clear that Flew has committed the unpardonable sin here. Their crude and ugly attacks on him and his decision is a telling commentary on the intellectual shallowness, bigoted fundamentalism, and narrow-minded intolerance that characterises so much of the new atheism.
The first half of this book is a brief intellectual biography of Flew. Here we learn about how he was raised in a Christian home; his decision to embrace atheism at age 15; his career as a professional philosopher; his numerous important works on philosophy; his time as a Marxist; his encounters with such intellectual heavyweights as C.S. Lewis, A.J. Ayer, Gilbert Ryle, Wittgenstein, and others; his debates with Christian theists such as Lewis, Alvin Plantinga, Richard Swinburne, William Lane Craig; his debates with fellow atheists such as Richard Dawkins; and his six decades as a dogmatic atheist.
The second half of the book deals with why he finally felt compelled to abandon his atheism and embrace theism. He offers three main reasons for his defection, (or apostasy, as many fellow atheists regard his move). The first bit of evidence he cites is the fact that nature obeys rational and ordered laws. The second is the fact that we are intelligently organised and purpose-driven beings. The third is the very existence of nature itself. The brute evidence of nature, in others words, has led Flew to recognise that "the universe was brought into existence by an infinite Intelligence".
He expands these three points in some detail, and demonstrates how any open-minded examination of recent scientific discoveries can only point in one direction: that matter alone is not all there is, and a supreme intelligence must be directing what we observe in nature.
All the reasons offered in this book are based on an honest assessment of the evidence. Flew had made it a life habit to follow the command of Plato attributed to Socrates, "We must follow the argument wherever it leads".
Flew rightly complains that so many atheists are simply stuck in a narrow box, where prior faith commitments to naturalism preclude an honest evaluation of the evidence. It is so easy "to let preconceived theories shape the way we view evidence," he says, "instead of letting the evidence shape our theories". Flew's willingness as an honest atheist to follow the evidence where it leads finally led him out of the barren sands of atheism into the refreshing oasis of theism.
He notes that many leading scientists today "have built a philosophically compelling vision of a rational universe that sprang from a divine mind". Eminent scientists and scientific thinkers such as Max Planck, Erwin Schrodinger, Werner Heisenberg, Paul Davies, Francis Collins, John Polkinghorne, Roger Penrose and Stephen Hawking all acknowledge that there must be more to reality than what is offered in the materialist worldview.
The various new discoveries - be they in astronomy, physics, cosmology, genetics or molecular biology - all demonstrate intelligence, purpose, order, design and complexity, the most obvious explanation of which is an intelligent designer.
Flew of course takes on all the various challenges to such thinking, be it the multiverse scenarios, the functionalism of Dennett, Stenger's notion of symmetry, or Dawkins' idea of selfish genes. Concerning the last of these, Flew had long been a critique of this idea. "Genes, of course, can be neither selfish nor unselfish," he says, "any more than they or any other nonconscious entities can engage in competition or make selections". Indeed, natural selection "does not positively produce anything. It only eliminates, or tends to eliminate, whatever is not competitive".
Even though this is a brief book of just 200 pages, the cumulative case for the inadequacies of atheism and the necessity of theism is here very nicely and compellingly made. And given the one making the case - the world's leading atheist for six decades - this book needs to be seriously read by everyone.
Flew makes it clear that he is not a Christian - at least as yet - but is basically a deist. Deism says that there is a creator God, but such a God has no ongoing relationship with the created order - a bit like an absentee landlord. He says his journey to theism was based on reason alone, not faith, and he has yet to decide about revealed religion.
He does inform us however that if he were to embrace a revelational religion, Christianity would be the best choice. Indeed, he finds the arguments for Christianity persuasive, and is now exploring the evidence for this as well. He is even impressed with the central truth claim of Christianity, the resurrection of Jesus. In fact, he allows New Testament scholar N.T. Wright to have a concluding chapter in this book, making the case for the resurrection.
So as an honest seeker, he is more than willing to consider the claims of Christ. But for the honest atheist, this book offers a persuasive case for the claims of theism. As Roy Abraham Varghese argues in another appendix to this book, "we have all the evidence we need in our immediate experience" for theism, and the only reason why people remain in atheism is a refusal to look at this evidence.
In this hugely important book Antony Flew challenges all of us - atheists especially - to honestly and sincerely examine the evidence, without preconceived biases and agendas. Genuine intellectual honesty demands that we indeed follow the evidence wherever it may lead.
on October 26, 2007
Ignore the negative review; it misrepresnts Flew's argument, which is far more subtle than it suggests.
The argument is perhaps too much concerned with the intricacy of cosmic order, and ought perhaps to consider more the ontological question of the *existence* of that order, which is a problem that analytic philosophy has traditionally failed to address convincingly.
Flew, as an atheist, was far brighter than the disappointingly banal new atheists (Harris, Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett), who have yet to produce one distinguished argument. As a theist, Flew is still brighter. And both his atheist and his theist arguments are worth reading.