Flew’s God

Editor’s note: The subject of this essay, Anthony Flew, is an 84-year old retired philosopher, living in Reading, England. He famously argued against C.S. Lewis’ Christian apologetics and later declared in The Presumption of Atheism that without evidence for God, atheism is the appropriate stance. He has lately indicated, however, that he is more inclined toward deism, and has even endorsed a petition for the teaching of Intelligent Design in the British science curriculum.

On November 4, 2007, Flew was profiled and interviewed by Mark Oppenheimer for The New York Times Magazine, which you can read here.

During the last couple of years a controversy has arisen about Antony Flew, the English philosopher, libertarian, and for a long time avid disbeliever in the God of the major monotheistic religions. Although he has always had some affinity for what he calls an Aristotelian God-the unmoved mover who does nothing after having produced the world-he has generally been identified as an atheist. He had some famous debates with theists in which he argued that the onus of proof of God’s existence lies with them and they haven’t met the burden.

Flew’s disbelief has never been the sort of atheism embraced by many other, more famous, disbelievers.  They not only disbelieve in God but believe that God cannot exist and is, in fact, impossible, given how monotheists conceive of Him. An almighty, omniscient, omni-benevolent, and eternal being involves contradictory attributes and contradictions cannot exist. Flew’s stance was less doctrinaire but, still, he was as famous an atheist as are today’s Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett or Christopher Hitchens. Flew was much closer in his views to Anthony Kenny, another English philosopher with more of an agnostic position (one that denies that one can either prove or disprove the existence of God) than an atheist one (one that see no reason for a belief in God).

But with the advent of the Big Bang, Flew appears to have become more accepting of some limited theistic claims. Maybe something like the Aristotelian God does exist and did create the world.  Of late he is supposed to have found the argument from Intelligent Design powerful enough to lend his name to some people and organizations that pushed that line of argument. Not that Flew has jumped aboard with those who believe in a personal God, one who supposedly intervenes with the world, answers prayers, punishes sinners, etc.  Flew’s God is, after the great creation, inert. Still, he does seem to find the Intelligent Design position powerful.  And I want to show that it isn’t at all.

Intelligent Design holds that some elements of the world are such that their explanation requires an intelligent designer. Otherwise no sense can be made of the existence of these elements. The human eye is often mentioned in this connection, as are some other organic features of the world, ones, usually, that appear to have had to come into being all at once and thus could not have slowly evolved.

The problem is that whatever the best explanation for such aspects of the world, Intelligent Design will not work as an answer.  That’s because intelligence, from the lowest to the highest in evidence, is a function of a living brain.  And God has no such living brain-He is supposed to have created it, not have one initially. So intelligence without the long history of biological evolution that arguably gave rise to living things with and without brains that can be intelligent just isn’t credible, even possible.  

To have such intelligence would be akin to having a third floor of a building without a basement, first and second floor.  On what would such a third floor rest?  Analogously, what faculty or organ would produce intelligent design when it is intelligent design that is supposed to explain such a faculty or organ?

The Russian novelist/philosopher Ayn Rand identified a fallacy of reasoning that is exhibited by the supporters of Intelligent Design: The stolen concept fallacy.  It involves making use of a concept when its foundations in other concepts are denied. Intelligent design is a very good case in point.

What Antony Flew ought to say now is that he just hasn’t found a good account of some elements of the world in biology or some other discipline, not that God amounts to such a good account. God doesn’t. Whatever else might is an entirely different story.

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