Antony Flew

Although his name was no household word, the philosopher Antony Flew, who died recently at the age of 87, was truly one of the most influential thinkers of the twentieth century. As I noted in The American Spectator at the time, Flew’s decision to embrace theism in 2004 was an immensely important event:

Flew has indeed conceded what must be seen as the criticial point. It is this: that atheism has, at its base, a leap of faith exactly identical to that which theists make. Theists look at all the evidence we encounter in the natural world and conclude that it is consonant with belief in an intelligent, all-powerful being behind it, whom we call God. Atheists look at the same evidence and conclude that this cosmos must have all just happened somehow. The critical point is that neither position is provable.

Flew’s great innovation in his 1950 article “Theology and Falsification” was to point out the first half of this formulation: that the belief in God is not scientifically falsifiable and hence not a scientific statement. Well and good. Flew is exactly correct, if we are willing to narrow our concept of science to a concern for only that which is materially provable—a perfectly reasonable position. What Flew failed to do, however, and what is indeed impossible to achieve, was to prove that the atheist case is scientifically falsifiable and hence a truly scientific position. It is neither. What Flew’s clever argument did was to place theists on the defensive by suggesting that their position was uniquely unscientific. It is most decidedly not, and never has been so.

The argument succeeded brilliantly, however, even though it had already been answered by writers such as C. S. Lewis. The great Oxford don Lewis had pointed out, in his book Miracles, published in 1947, that there are only two possible philosophies, or worldviews, in our world: Christianity (under which he which placed all theist orientations) and Hinduism (in which he included all naturalist/materialist philosophies). Lewis’s argument made it clear that contrary to the claims of its adherents, materialist philosophy had no fundamental philosophical advantage over theist positions.

Hard as he tried, Flew’s argument did nothing to change that, although he did succeed in emboldening materialist philosophers and their adherents and in placing Christians on the defensive.

Flew’s original argument was, as noted, extremely favorable to atheism. As the Daily Telegraph aptly put it, “He argued that any philosophical debate about the Almighty must begin by presuming atheism, placing the burden of proof on those who believe that God exists.”

Hence hhis eventual recognition of the argument I outline above was a truly world-changing concession. Flew told the theologian Dr. Gary Habermas, “a knock-down falsification . . . is most certainly not possible in the case of Christianity.”

As I noted in the aforementioned American Spectator article, “It is undeniable that [Flew] has now conceded the main point: that neither atheism nor theism has any special, fundamental, philosophical advantage or disadvantage over the other. That is a huge change.”

It was so important because the very man who had unfairly knocked the pins out from under theism had finally acknowledged his mistake and corrected the record and put theism back on equal footing with materialism:

From a philosophical perspective, that is all that the theists need: to have the argument back on level ground. It is indeed the correct philosophical position and the right scientific one, and Flew is to be commended for his willingness to “go where the evidence leads.” The conclusion is a simple one: Atheists have no greater claim to scientific truth or rationality than theists do. If theists are allowed to argue on the same footing as atheists, it will be better for science and philosophy alike. That makes Antony Flew’s recent change of thinking very important indeed.

Flew was also a great defender of classical liberalism, a position that earned him few friends during the UK’s steady drift into statism throughout the previous century.

I knew Flew only by his writings, but Sean Gabb, director of the Libertarian Alliance in the UK, knew him personally in the philosopher’s later years. Gabb wrote a remembrance of him for the Libertarian Alliance website, which he has kindly given me permission me to reprint:

I came across Antony’s work in the early 1980s, when I first discovered David Hume. I admired Antony without ever supposing I’d meet him. We did eventually meet in June 1992. I was sitting in my office in the Prime Minister’s Palace in Bratislava. The telephone rang. It was one of the guards on the main door. He told me there was a strange old man with him who understood a little German, but no Slovak, and who was unable to make himself understood.

I went down, and found it was the great Professor Flew. He’d arrived at the main railway station to give some lectures for the Jan Hus Foundation, but hadn’t been met. So he’d wandered the streets of a Bratislava where almost no one in those days knew any English. Eventually, for some reason I was never able to discover, he’d been pushed towards the Prime Minister’s Palace. I took him off to his hotel and got him booked in. Before we parted, he asked if I’d like to go with him the following morning to the site of Austerlitz (Slavkov) to inspect the battlefield.

Next day, I went off with him as his interpreter, and spend the day translating all the inscriptions there out of Czech and French and Latin. It was a jolly outing.

Back in England, I found myself bumping into him at an increasing number of libertarian and conservative events. Most people, I regret to say, regarded him as something of an old bore. He liked the fact that I always regarded him with awed admiration and enjoyed discussing his favourite subjects–empirical epistemology and so forth.

I remember walking with him to Charing Cross Railway Station in late 1997. He surprised me then by wishing for a Christian revival to counter what he regarded as the much more malign force of Islam. This did sort of prepare me for his later conversion to theism–though I was always surprised at his acceptance of the argument from design in terms that our common Master, David Hume, had already demolished.

I was too polite in any of our later conversations to press him on this. Instead, I let him talk and talk about the quite irrelevant facts of DNA and its complexities. And, since I’m a sceptic rather than an atheist, I’ve never tried to argue anyone out of a belief in God that might well be correct, even if I don’t feel terribly drawn to it myself.

During his last few years, his mind began to fail him. I met him once while he was wandering lost in London. He recognised me and was grateful that I was able to get him onto the right railway train back to Reading. But he was increasingly vague about everything except philosophical issues on which he’d spent his entire life working, and that were unlikely to leave him even after he’d most much sense of his own identity.

He lived long. He lived well. If there is a God, I don’t think He’ll hold against him the little matter of sixty years of philosophical atheism. I bid farewell to a friend and a guide:

E tenebris tantis tam clarum extollere lumen
qui primus potuisti inlustrans commoda vitae,
te sequor o Graiae gentis decus inque tuis nunc
ficta pedum pono pressis vestigia signis….