Monday, November 05, 2007

The Sad Case of Antony Flew

A fairly well-known philosophical atheist turns semi-hemi-demi-religious in his dotage, and the evangelical God industry is all over him. Sad story. Flew was a good, solid philosopher--not extraordinary, not "the world's most famous atheist" by far. Now 81, he's started saying that he's an "Aristotelian deist" and nodding along while Christian marketing men make terrible arguments in favor of the existence of God in his presence...and the God Squad is spinning it for all it's worth.

Jeez, I'm not even hostile to sufficiently vague and abstract hypotheses about intelligence as a real force in the universe. I think it's a hypothesis that's eminently in play. But there's light-years' worth of conceptual space between that and anything about, say, "the resurrection" and all the other details of Christian mythology.

And this would be a lot more exciting if we were talking about a change of mind based on clear and cogent reasons when Flew was at the height of his intellectual powers... As it is, much of this is just sad and wrong.

[HT: Canis Major]


Blogger Tracie said...

After reading this post and a bit of the article from the link, I was reminded of a quote from Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, which invariably pops up into my mind whenever someone mentions intelligent design:

Now it is such a bizarrely impossible coincidence that anything so mind-bogglingly useful could have evolved purely by chance that some thinkers have chosen to see it as a final and clinching proof of the nonexistence of God. The argument goes something like this:

"I refuse to prove that I exist," says God, "for proof denies faith, and without faith I am nothing."
"But," says Man, "the Babel fish is a dead giveaway, isn't it? It could not have evolved by chance. It proves you exist, and so therefore, by your own arguments, you don't. QED."
"Oh dear," says God, "I hadn't though of that" and promptly vanishes in a puff of logic.

Unfortunately, I have nothing useful to contribute aside from the above amusing quote.

1:44 AM  
Blogger Buzzardbilly said...

Seriously. WTF is an "Aristotelean deist"? One who thinks Aristotle was the only god?

11:34 AM  
Blogger Tom Van Dyke said...

Deism conceives of a remote God uninvolved in human affairs. He might have created the whole thing back in the day, and may or may not check back with us in a few gazillion years to see how it all played out.

(Interestingly, among the Founders, only the peripheral Tom Paine was a true deist, and he was ostracized for it. Even Jefferson, the least orthodox of them all, believed in Providence [he wrote that he feared Providence would punish America for slavery, and it appears It did, with the Civil War].

It's popular to say Jefferson was a deist these days, but this is not accurate.)

But I think the biggest light-year gap isn't between Aristotle and, say, Thomas Aquinas, but between those who believe/reason that God is possible and those who believe/reason He is not.

Of course, if He is possible, then nothing is impossible, even Christianity. The strict Aristotelian places limits on God, but this need not be so.

1:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have never heard of most of these jokers around Flew, but John Haldane at least should be tossed in a cesspit for the intellectual dishonesty he displayed by participating in that DVD "debate", and for treating a fellow philosopher in such a dispicable fashion when vulnerable. I know that sounds harsh, but I'm pretty pissed about this. Besides, if I were to manipulate a senile Alvin Plantinga into renouncing God with frisbee golf at the old folks home, I think that would count as a damnable offence in the eyes of many Christians, which makes the cesspit pretty light punishment comparatively.

I don't want to think that this kind of behavior tells me anything about the character of theists. A senile Russell was goaded into presiding over a set of Soviet propanda war crimes tribunals by a commie from California, so maybe this just tells us something about the character of particular kinds of zealots.

5:31 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Yeah, theism is a big includes everybody from folks as kind and good as a human can be to those as evil as a human can be. Guys like those in this story are the good theists' worst enemy, IMHO. They're half the reason I ejected from Christianity ca. the age of 15.

As for the Founding Fathers...well, there's a blurry line between theism and deism...hard question. I'm not expert, but the most important FF, Madison, seems--to a non-expert like me, anyway--to be mostly deist. I've heard it said that some of the FFs believed in an intervening god of some kind. I doubt that any of them would count as Christians by most contemporary American definitions. The Jefferson Bible alone would get TJ beat up or shot in much of 21st-century America.

I'd say that there are lots of big dividing lines. One big line comes between fideists and non-fideists, another comes between those who think that the existence of a god is *certain* and those who don't...which line is most important seems to be to some extent a matter of perspective.

Or maybe the most important line is between those who think that, if God exists, then everything is possible (e.g. DesCartes), and those who think that, even if God exists, some things are STILL impossible (almost everybody other than DesCartes, including Aquinas). The central question THERE is "could an omnipotent God change the laws of logic?"

Now THAT'S an interesting question...

5:53 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Found this about Tom:

He was also influenced by English Deists and has often been identified by historians as a Deist. He held many beliefs in common with Unitarians of the time period, and sometimes wrote that he thought the whole country would become Unitarian. He wrote that the teachings of Jesus contain the "outlines of a system of the most sublime morality which has ever fallen from the lips of man." Wrote: "I am of a sect by myself, as far as I know." Source: "Jefferson's Religious Beliefs", by Rebecca Bowman,Monticello Research Department, August 1997

Jefferson was never a member of the Unitarian denomination nor was he ever active in a Unitarian congregation. However, he did once write that he would have liked to be a member of a Unitarian church, but he was not because there were no Unitarian churches in Virginia. It is not unreasonable to identify Jefferson as a Unitarian (with the caveat that, technically speaking, he was not actually one). However, it is a mistake to extrapolate from Jefferson's stated admiration for Unitarianism the notion that he was somehow "un-Christian" or "non-Christian." It is true that contemporary Unitarian-Universalists now classify their denomination as a distinct religion not confined as a subset of Christianity (although a large proportion of individual Unitarian-Universalists do indeed identify themselves as Christians). However, in Jefferson's day, Unitarianism was considerably different from its present form, and there was no concept that it was a non-Christian religion. Unitarianism in Jefferson's time was regarded as one liberal Protestant denomination among many other Protestant denominations extant in America. Virtually nobody thought of Jefferson as a non-Christian (or even non-Protestant) president.

By some of the more narrowly-conceived definitions of the word "Christian" which are in use today, particularly among Evangelicals since the 1940s, it is entirely possible that Jefferson's beliefs would mark him as a "non-Christian." Defining Jefferson as a non-Christian must be done purely on contemporary theological grounds, because he was clearly a Christian with regards to his ethics, conduct, upbringing, and culture. Furthermore, to define Jefferson as a "non-Christian" requires using definitions retroactively to classify Jefferson counter to his own self-concept and the commonly understood meanings of words during his own time.

Adherents of other religious groups, including atheists and agnostics, also point to various writings of Jefferson which are in harmony with their positions. The difficulty in classifying Jefferson using a single word for religious affiliation does not stem from a lack of information, but rather a wealth of writing -- which can be interpreted differently depending on a person's perspective. Jefferson left a considerable amount of writing on political and philosophical issues, as well as writing about religion, including the "Jefferson Bible."

In a practical sense, classifying Jefferson as a "Deist" with regards to religious affiliation is misleading and meaningless. Jefferson was never affiliated with any organized Deist movement. This is a word that describes a theological position more than an actual religious affiliation, and as such it is of limited use from a sociological perspective. If one defines the term "Deist" broadly enough, then the writing of nearly every U.S. president or prominent historical figure could be used to classify them as a "Deist," so classifying people as such without at least some evidence of nominal self-identification is not very useful.

Although Jefferson's specific denominational and congregational ties were limited in his adulthood and his ever-evolving theological beliefs were distinctively his own, he was without a doubt a Protestant. One should keep in mind that despite his later self-stated non-affiliation with any specific denomination, he was raised as an Episcopalian, attended Episcopalian services many times as an adult and as President, and he expressed a clear affinity for Unitarianism. However these denominations may be classified now, during Jefferson's lifetime, the Episcopal Church and the Unitarian Church were both considered to be Protestant denominations.

8:19 PM  
Blogger Tom Van Dyke said...

Thanks, Professor. That gibes with my own research, religion and the Founding being a special interest of mine. I'm not an expert, but I've given several experts some well-regarded trouble. ;-)

Jefferson corresponds well to Universalist Unitarianism, altho that sect didn't exist until the 1800s. [See the mutation of Harvard from mainstream Protestant to Unitarian.]

By (orthodox) "Christian," we might mean Trinitarian. None of the first four presidents were recognizably Trinitarians. [They always tried to pin Washington down, but he always slipped the noose. The elderly Ben Franklin, too, who answered that he'd find out soon enough.]

Now, I don't think Jesus' divinity was or is relevant to the Founding, but my pal Jonathan Rowe does, because the Christian Nation crowd has been making inroads in the public discussion, and they are indeed wrong.


To WS: Christianity claims "In the beginning was the logos." The Gospel of John was written in Greek, and translating logos merely as The Word misses the point. Are miracles illogical? I don't think so, and I think neither did CS Peirce, altho I'm no expert on him.

Christianity stakes a claim to the miraculous, but does not require the suspension of reason. In fact, that was Thomas Aquinas' life project, and the truer sense of logos makes reason and the divine all of a fabric, if not one in the same.

Kudos to Anthony Flew, who not only engages the theists [revelationists!], but familiarizes himself with their thinking. The mark of an educated mind, per Aristotle, to entertain thoughts without accepting them, which Flew does not.

He's a deist [which still leaves the door open to the existence of the natural law, but you get mad when I mention it, so I won't], like Tom Paine, the dividing line being the belief in Divine Providence, which the first three presidents had. James Madison was impenetrable on his religious beliefs--I think it was because of his ambition, but regardless, I think of him as the Founding's contract lawyer more than a real leader. It was Washington's assent that sealed the deal.

On a personal note, I would never claim Christianity is true, but would argue on a purely philosophical or metaphysical level that it is possible. I'm not *certain* enough myself to argue any further, and even if I were, it would be inappropriate to this forum.

12:58 AM  
Blogger Tom Van Dyke said...

Late Add---Jefferson's Bible cuts out Jesus' miracles, and the I Am the Way, the Truth and the Light stuff. What I found most interesting is that he leaves in The Lord's Prayer, which I think is probative re Jefferson's mind and attitude.

For a deist, saying the Our Father is pointless---He's not listening and neither gives us our daily bread nor gives a good goddamn about our trespasses.

1:35 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Thanks for the facts, DA!

Well, I'm using 'Christian' like we use 'Christian,' of course, not like they might have in TJ's time. (That's the way language works, unless one explicitly stipulates that one is doing otherwise.) So I just want to point out that my position seems very close to that of the MRD (correcting for the terminology): there's a fuzzy line b/w theism and deism, Jefferson wasn't on either end of the spectrum, and by today's standards he wouldn't count as a Christian--but, at most (or least) a Unitarian.

Not that I'm obsessed with being right, but it happens to rarely that I like to revel in it a bit...

Well, I'm *agreeing* with those Christians who say that God can't violate the laws of logic. I'm well aware of the ambiguity of *logos*, of course. As for natural law--well, I don't get mad when you mention it, I get frustrated when you think that straight-forward version of NLT can ground morality. Lots of smart people agree with you, but I'm pretty sure it just won't work. Now, Kant is right about lots of important things, and he lies in the NLT tradition...though not in any way that's going to make theists happy if they want God to be instrumental in creating/shaping morality.

The important point:
God can't create moral obligations by fiat, anymore than he can create logical laws by fiat. (He CAN, however, if he exists, create laws of nature by fiat.)

As for the founders generally...well, again: they varied. Some deists, some non-christian theists, some inclination toward Christianity...all mixed up...fortunately.

Washington was crucial to the founding, but not intellectually. Intellectually, Madison and TJ, probably in that order, were the men.

8:47 AM  
Blogger Tom Van Dyke said...

Quite so. The role of the Bible in our polity is what I think underlies your reservations. Aquinas would say that revelation merely echoes and completes the natural law, that they cannot contradict each other.

Similarly, my own view of the Founding is that it was philosophically Christian, Jesus' divinity not being germane. As for the Bible, the Founding principles would not be in conflict with it, or else the orthodox Christians among the Framers and Ratifiers [and there were many] couldn't have signed on. But neither are we a "Christian Nation" except in the bland "Judeo-Christian" sense, a neologism that remains helpful.

Jon Rowe, on Deism and Unitarianism in the Founding milieu, an area that was given much thought and discussion, Rowe excellent as always:

3:09 PM  
Blogger Tom Van Dyke said...

With your permission, I'll hog the floor a bit with some stuff that I think addresses your reservations and explains where I'm going with "philosophically" Christian.

Unitarian Universalism at its heart believes the religions of man pretty much lead to the same place. And there's copious and easily googlable correspondence between Jefferson and John Adams [especially on the latter's part] endorsing that view.

However, in my view the philosophy of the Founding comes down to the essence of the individual, something unique to what we must call "Judeo-Christianity."

In a roundabout way, via Asia Times' Spengler on Franz Rosenzweig, the 20th century Jewish theologian-philosopher, on Islam. Now Rosenzweig may be right or wrong about Islam, but this seems precisely what you would object to in any religion:

Allah's creation for Rosenzweig is a mere act of "magic". Muslim theology "presumes that Allah creates every isolated thing at every moment. Providence thus is shattered into infinitely many individual acts of creation, with no connection to each other, each of which has the importance of the entire creation. That has been the doctrine of the ruling orthodox philosophy in Islam. Every individual thing is created from scratch at every moment."

God is illogical whenever He wishes to be, or more accurately, transcends logic.

Spengler continues:

"The individual does not stand in relation to the state in the way that a part stands in relation to the whole. On the contrary, the state is all, and its electricity pulses through the veins of every individual."

In another location...I cited Rosenzweig on the subject of divine humility, the attribute of the Judeo-Christian God that requires the state to respect the humblest individual citizen. That is what Americans want, and in its arrogance and condescension, the United States presumes that everyone else wants the same thing. But do the people of the Islamic countries want the sort of freedom the US beneficently offers them? Do they want freedom for their children to experiment with sex and drugs after the Western fashion? Would they in fact prefer the all-embracing Islamic state, which orders the lives of its subject and tolerates no such deviancy? That is what Germany chose in 1933..."

Well, that starts to get off our track, but we begin to see a worldview that obviates the individual and the individual conscience, which you would certainly object to, and so would Jefferson, Adams, et al.

Likewise, Rosenzweig also takes a swipe at Kant:

Rosenzweig writes [Spengler's rendering---he is complaining about a mistranslation from a philosophically-minded fellow who does not follow Rosenzweig's theology], "However much Ethics wished to give the [individual] act a fundamentally unique position [Sonderstellung] against the whole of Being, in carrying this out, Ethics grabbed the act right back into the circle of the knowable All as a matter of necessity. All Ethics ends up as a piece of Being within the doctrine of the community." Rosenzweig refers here to Kant's Categorical Imperative, an attempt to derive ethical behavior from pure logic ("What if everybody did?"). The individual act is a unique event with respect to all of being, Rosenzweig argues, but Ethics grabs the individual's act of will out of his hands, and returns it as a piece of being to the impersonal All, destroying its unique and redeeming character. That is the nub of Rosenzweig's rejection of philosophy: the individual's redeeming act is not a logical decision, but an affirmation of faith."

Now this has a uniquely Jewish character, emphasizing the individual free expression of the will toward morality and good works over Christ's Atonement for sin, but carries a theological dimension into the centrality of the individual over metaphysical "oneness of all things" schemes. [We might include Buddhism here.]

Which, to my mind, is why Jefferson couldn't get around a Creator endowing man with rights. Without individuality as central to the view of man, and a rationale for individuality, rights become a secondary issue.

So, I say "philosophically" Christian because to use "theologically" gets us into Trinitarianism, and confuses the issue more than clarifies it. The essence of the nature of man and his inherent dignity is theological, but what follows through Aquinas and Locke and Jefferson is philosophical, we might even say Talmudic and rabbinical.

[As for Madison, I still see him as the lawyer. The biggest concern at the Founding wasn't religion, but sectarianism, specifically the Presbyterians getting political control over the rest. Madison, who positioned himself to have no dog in the fight, was a properly honest broker.]

John Adams, 1812:

The National Fast, recommended by me turned me out of office. It was connected with the general assembly of the Presbyterian Church, which I had no concern in. That assembly has allarmed and alienated Quakers, Anabaptists, Mennonists, Moravians, Swedenborgians, Methodists, Catholicks, protestant Episcopalians, Arians, Socinians, Armenians, & & &, Atheists and Deists might be added. A general Suspicon prevailed that the Presbyterian Church was ambitious and aimed at an Establishment of a National Church. I was represented as a Presbyterian and at the head of this political and ecclesiastical Project. The secret whisper ran through them “Let us have Jefferson, Madison, Burr, any body, whether they be Philosophers, Deists, or even Atheists, rather than a Presbyterian President.” This principle is at the bottom of the unpopularity of national Fasts and Thanksgivings. Nothing is more dreaded than the National Government meddling with Religion.

By religion, we should take him as referring to sectarianism, by separation of church and state, "sect and state" may be more accurate.

Sorry for the ramble in a comments section, but we seemed to be finished anyway, and in the least I wanted to show that the facile Catholicism = Aquinas = natural law = truth is not where I'm coming from.

4:11 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your welcome, WS and TVD.

I think you're a bit too reductive on Kant, Legate Van Dyke:

The categorical imperative is the central philosophical concept of the moral philosophy of Immanuel Kant, and of modern deontological ethics. Kant introduced this concept in Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals. Here, the categorical imperative is outlined according to the arguments found in his work.

Kant thought that human beings occupy a special place in creation and that morality can be summed up in one, ultimate commandment of reason, or imperative, from which all duties and obligations derive. He defined an imperative as any proposition that declares a certain action (or inaction) to be necessary. A hypothetical imperative would compel action in a given circumstance: If I wish to satisfy my thirst, then I must drink something. A categorical imperative would denote an absolute, unconditional requirement that exerts its authority in all circumstances, both required and justified as an end in itself. It is best known in its first formulation:

"Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law." [1]

He expressed extreme dissatisfaction with the moral philosophy of his day because he believed it could never surpass the level of hypothetical imperatives. For example, a consequentialist standard may indicate that murder is wrong because it does not maximize good for the greatest number; but this would be irrelevant to someone who is not interested in maximizing the good. Consequently, Kant argued, hypothetical moral systems cannot persuade moral action or be regarded as bases for moral judgments against others, because the imperatives they are based on rely too heavily on subjective considerations. A deontological moral system based on the demands of the categorical imperative was presented as an alternative.

My own problem with Kant is that he doesn't allow for civil disobedience in his worldview.

I had a Philosophy professor who was a Kantian and a Conservative rabbi at the same time, he was an interesting fellow even when he admitted that he differed on human rights(in terms of tactics) with the cellist Dmitri Rostropovitch whom I heard some 28 years ago.
Time marxes on........

6:58 PM  
Blogger Tom Van Dyke said...

That wasn't me, remember, it was Rosenzweig, or at least Spengler's account of him. Rosenzweig is operating on another plane. [He's also an existentialist, if that's helpful.]

He's not discussing Kant in any practical sense, but in the more abstract sphere of the intelligibility of action. If I read Spengler's Rosenzweig correctly, the categorical imperative seems antithetical to free will, without which action has no meaning or value.

Me, I don't know enough about Kant to argue him intelligently, altho I'm sure someone around here does. But, hey, I'm always willing to argue unintelligently on any topic.

Is civil disobedience problematic to Kant? Dunno, if we embrace fallibilism---some people think that all rules of civilization are off if we're fighting evil, but truth claims about evil [and good] compete.

I would think that means we're always going to be at war in some fashion or another, whether it's with guns and bombs and planes or you and me jawing at each other.

What if we were all civilly disobedient?

On the other hand, Les Miserables maintains it could be fine and moral to steal a loaf of bread, but surely it wouldn't be for a rich man. Exceptions can be made due to circumstances, one would believe.

And although Mr. Jimbales writes "Torture is torture" in another discussion, our beloved host WS wrote, in a fit of clarity,

We KNOW that the prisoner knows how to stop a disaster, and we know of no more efficient and humane way to extract the information from him. That means--ignoring a few details--that we are obligated to torture him IN CASE we can extract the information that way.

So, torture may be torture, but some tortures are better than others. Sometimes they're even morally imperative.

What if everybody tortured al-Qaeders? Well, that's an interesting thought...

7:49 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

I can't really follow that last comment on one reading, Tom...lots of controversial stuff crammed in there...

As for Kant and civil disobedience, DA:
One of my old profs, the distinguished Kantian Tom Hill (Jr., not Sr.), says: Kant was pretty bad at applying his own theory...

I know little about his political philosophy, but he might just have been trying to avoid trouble with the Powers What Was...

He certainly doesn't get everything right. For example, he thought that masturbation ("carnal self-abuse") was morally wrong...

8:01 PM  
Blogger The Mystic said...

So really, what you're saying is that, according to Kant, anyway..

Masturbation is immoral. But, living without sex OR masturbation would be entirely miserable for me. Given that, if a woman refuses to have sex with me, she puts me in the horrible situation of either being reduced to immoral acts or misery. I'd say that doing that voluntarily to someone would have to be immoral.

Therefore... Kant thinks it's immoral if women don't have sex with me.

Ipso. Facto.

I'm using that.

8:10 PM  
Blogger The Mystic said...

*awaits the barrage of* "But one isn't obliged to do something if its moral cost exceeds its moral benefits."

Yes, yes, we're ALL utilitarians when it comes to making fun of people.

8:16 PM  
Blogger Tom Van Dyke said...

Well, WS, if you're going to pick one, I'd prefer it be Rosenzweig on Kant, and to get the hell out of the way.

5:01 AM  
Blogger Tom Van Dyke said...

Altho The Mystic's proposition is interesting, and far more useful.

5:02 AM  

Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home