About Rationally Speaking
Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.
Tuesday, November 13, 2007
The irrelevance of Antony Flew
Who is Antony Flew, and why should we care what he thinks? Flew used to be a good philosopher, author of a short classic paper entitled “Theology and Falsification,” in which he made the very good argument that if god's attributes include things like invisibility, intangibility and inscrutability, then the whole concept of god is hopelessly vague and it doesn't make sense even to talk about his existence or lack thereof.
But now, after a few years of rumors about his change of heart about the god question, Flew has co-authored a book entitled “There is a God: How the World's Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind.” If this sounds like an obvious piece of Christian propaganda, it's because that's exactly what it is. A detailed article by Mark Oppenheimer in the New York Times reveals some of the troubling background to the story.
To begin with, Flew is apparently both largely uninterested in the god question and intellectually incapable of writing sensible things about it. Even according to HarperCollins' editor for the book, Cynthia DiTiberio, “it is hard to tell at this point how much is him getting older,” which however didn't stop her from claiming that “it would do the world a disservice not to have the book out there, regardless of how it was made.”
I didn't make up the latter sentence, check out the NYT article. Why the defensiveness? Because Oppenheimer actually went to see Flew in his house in Reading, England, and asked some probing questions. He got embarrassing answers:
In the book, Flew quotes repeatedly from Christian theologian Brian Leftow. “Did you know Brian Leftow?” asked Oppenheimer. “No. I don't think so.”
“Do you know the work of the philosopher John Leslie?” (another source often cited in the book). “I think he's quite good,” said Flew, but then failed to remember at exactly what Leslie was allegedly so good.
Flew in the book calls cosmologist Paul Davies “arguably the most influential contemporary expositor of modern science” (he ain't). But when asked “Have you ever run across the philosopher [sic] Paul Davies?” he replied “I'm afraid this is a spectacle of my not remembering!”
And a spectacle it is, unfortunately. Flew has admitted to not writing the book at all. It turns out that the opus in question was penned by Roy Varghese, an American businessman who personally finances Christian evangelical enterprises such as the “Institute for MetaScientific Research” (whatever that is). Varghese, who at least officially co-authored Flew's book, was helped by an unacknowledged ghost writer, Bob Hostetler, an evangelical pastor from Ohio.
In other words, “There is a God” has little if anything of Flew, and has been written by people who have no credible background in either science or philosophy. It is a sad story of ideological exploitation that reveals more about the base motives and questionable modus operandi of true believers than anything about religion and atheism.
So, no, we really shouldn't care what the eighty-four year old Flew thinks. If you want to benefit from his insight, you are better off asking the 27-year philosopher who wrote that classic paper back in 1950. “There is a God” will soon enter the dustbin of intellectual history, while “Theology and Falsification” will remain a landmark and a testament to the man who wrote it while in full possession of his faculties.