Book Review - Anthony Flew, There is No/A God - How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind, (New York: HarperOne, 2007) 222 pp.
People love testimonies; we also love reading biography. Particularly we really love stories of how someone’s life or ideas radically change from their previous orientation. For those who have been interested in the analytic philosophy of religion over certainly had their eyebrows raised when Anthony Flew, one of the prominent anti-theistic philosophers of the last half century, announced in 2004 that he had changed his mind on a very important issue. He had come to believe in God.
There is No/A God - How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind is the recounting of the life and intellectual journey of Anthony Flew, written in a rather autobiographical manner by the man himself. The book has a great introduction where Flew lays out the content of the book and the journey it will entail. Part I is comprised of three chapters chronicling his experience growing up in the house of his Father, a thoughtful Methodist minister and biblical scholar. It traces his growing interest in critical thinking and following a method put forth in the writing of Plato; like Socrates, he would be dedicated to following the evidence in life wherever it leads. His development as a student, his growth as a philosopher and his profound and influential contributions to the philosophy of religion are all covered in this section. It is not an understatement to say that Flew’s work literally set the stage for the last 60 years of discussion from the point of view of those who disbelieved in God.
Part II of the book covers several lines of evidence, mainly located in the new discoveries of modern science, which brought him to his new conclusion that God exists. The book concludes with two useful appendices, one on existential reasons for belief in a divine mind by Roy Abraham Varghese and the second a treatment by NT Wright on the historical Christian view of God revealing himself in Jesus Christ. In this review I will cover some strengths of the book categorizing them under the headers of Biography, History, Philosophy and Science. I will then cover a few small weakness I found with this volume and then give some concluding thoughts on the helpfulness (or lack thereof) of a book of this sort.
One more issue needs to be addressed before launching into the review. As one can imagine the book has been surrounded by some vitriol and controversy. On the atheistic side you read a recounting of a senile old man being duped by eager evangelicals to see things their way (See Mark Oppenheimer’s lengthy treatment in the New York Times Magazine for a good look at this). On the theistic side you see a heartfelt narrative of friendship and the honest intellectual journey (see Christian philosopher Gary Habermas’ thoughts in his book review here) of an intellectually honest scholar and gentlemen. What is the truth of the matter? One is hard pressed to know. The book’s publisher, HarperOne, is standing fully behind the book and that Flew, although assisted in its writing, stood fully behind it content. The bottom line is that Anthony Flew’s journey is now deeply affected by dementia - in his last years his mind is fading. So we have two sides to this story and many have much to gain from it. The truth of all matters may not be known but clearly Anthony Flew did indeed change his mind and it is a process that began decades ago. I’ll let the reader sort through the realities of this controversy - but as always, there are two sides to every story and these two sides are philosophers debating God - a virtual bee hive of passion, erudition and arrogance. The full truth about the story of Anthony Flew may only be known in the Divine Mind, yet the book is out in the world with his name fully behind it. So on to the review.
Strengths of the Book
Some of the most pleasant portions of the book were the human contours on display of Flew’s own life and intellectual journey. The beginning pages feature Flew as a young boarding school student using the intellectual tools given to him by his critical thinking Christian father. He clearly said the tools which his father gave him were those which turned him away from his father’s faith. He is very clear that by the time he left boarding school he had left belief in God behind. He attempted to keep it on the down low for several years and seemed to succeed but by the time his parents were aware of the change he was far down an anti-theistic road. One story that really grabbed me was his experience in pre World War II Europe and his witness of harsh Antisemitism and the rise of totalitarianism; two things which were the object of his disdain. Rightly so. Overall, I enjoyed reading his story as life and philosophical career unfolded. It is quite a who’s who in 20th century philosophy and that history seemed alive to me and leads me to the second strength I enjoyed in the book.
For those interested in the history of 20th century philosophy will not find a historical introduction or tour de force in this volume. Yet those who are acquainted with the history of philosophy will love the narrative found in Part I of the book. From his membership and participation in CS Lewis’ Socratic club (22-24) at Oxford where theist and atheist would enter into cage matches together to his publishing of his early paper Theology and Falsification which would set the tone of late 20th century debates in analytic philosophy of religion. Wittgenstein, AJ Ayer and logical positivism, Bertrand Russell, Richard Swinburne, Alvin Plantinga and many others are discussed in the narrative. Those uninitiated with philosophical schools and ideas may feel a bit left out but those familiar will find much in the narrative to wax nostalgic about. There is even Flew’s recounting of several debates over the decades with various theists even one that is positioned as a team debate showdown at the OK Corral (69, 70)
Now this book is written at a popular and not a technical level of philosophy. Yet the volume still affords some helpful insights which are found more fully in other works. For instance, the discussion on the burden of proof in the question of God (who has to prove her claims, the theist or the agnostic?) is helpful. Flew is well known for placing the burden of proof on the one who believes in God in the mid 20th century. This provoked some really excellent scholarship and discussion about who must prove what in order to be rational. The work of Alvin Plantinga, in his discussions of Warrant and Proper Function, come to mind. Plantinga argues that it is completely rational and basic to believe in God without proof save that the person is willing to address rational challenges to faith (defeater beliefs). There is also a great quote summarizing the work of Anthony Kenny which puts the agnostic back in the debate to argue FOR something and not just put the burden on the theist.
But he said this does not let agnostics off the hook; a candidate for an examination may be able to justify the claim that he or she does not know the answer to one of the questions, but this does not enable the person to pass the examination. (54, emphasis mine)
So the agnostic must also argue his case and attempt to show reasons why he knows that others do not know about the issue of God. I have always been amazed by people who confidently think that others do not know about God, while claiming they do not personally know either.
There is also a discussion of Hume that philosophically minded people will enjoy even if you do not agree with the conclusions made. I tend to agree with the book that Hume’s skepticism about causation, the reality of the external world and the persistent self are all unlivable intellectual games that Hume himself did not adhere.
The final strength I found in the book was the basic and popular treatment of some scientific developments of the 20th century. Schroeder’s refutation of the popular illustration that “if you give monkeys a typewriter and enough time they will eventually bang out the works of Shakespeare” to be wonderfully persuasive (see pages 74-78). Additionally, Chapter 7’s treatment of codes, DNA information transfer and mapping was very engaging. The treatment of self directed, self replicating and encoded biological systems does seem to create massive problems if it is only the work of mindless matter.
While I really enjoyed the book there were a few drawbacks which did seem to leer out at me as well. I’ll cover them briefly in this order. First, the denseness of some philosophical ideas was not ameliorated for the popular level reader. Second, his distinction between physical and human causes in wrestling with determinism brought up some serious problems for me. Third, a few chapters in the latter part of the book were just anemic and underdeveloped. I’ll cover each in turn.
A Few Weaknesses
The Philosophical Shroud
As a book written for a popular audience I found a few times some dense stuff that philosophers enjoy left dangling before the reader in a rather obfuscated manner. One quick beauty from Richard Swinburne will illustrate nicely why freshman in college can end up hating philosophy (or loving it - smile)
He reasoned that the fact that only O’s we have ever seen are X does not simply imply that it is not coherent to suppose that there are O’s that are not X. He said that no one has any business arguing that, just because all so-and-so’s with which they happen themselves to have been acquainted were such-and-such, therefore such-and-suchness must be an essential characteristic of anything that is to be properly related to a so-and-so. (51)
Yeah, sometimes philosophy rolls that way…and it is a good point if you take the time to think it through…but most folks will read that and become cross-eyed and wonder what is the point.
A second area of weakness was his bifurcation of causes presented in his wrestling with the idea of free-will and determinism. A little background. Most all atheists are determinists. They see the world as a closed system of cause and effect which is the result of matter operating according to natural law. All things we see are the result of matter interacting. This includes human actions, thoughts, decisions etc. Therefore free-will, in this view, is an illusion for it is just the bumping of matter in specialized patterns in your brain. Of course this is very counter intuitive as we make a myriad of choices every day whereby we can “choose” action A or B. Flew’s solution was to make a distinction between physical causes and human causes. Physical causes are those that must happen according to natural laws and physics and human choices are a different sort of agent caused events which do not necessitate A or B but rather incline a person towards a choice (see 60,61)
Now, I have no problem in distinguishing causes this way but one who rejects a spiritual view of persons, that we are only one substance/matter, have a hard time finding where to get such “agents” from. If there is nothing but a body/brain, then there is nothing else happening. There is no metaphysical “YOU” who can make choices (whether free choices or those compatible with other factors). Later in the book he indeed repudiates the type of mind/body anthropology which would make his cause distinction possible (see 150). So I found his rejection of materialistic determinism to be weak in light of his physicalist anthropology. Now for those who maintain a psychosomatic soul-body dualism do have a embodied person who can make choices. For those who do not hold this view, such causal distinctions are nonsense and determinism seems to hold.
Less than Strong Chapters
Finally, I found chapter 6 of the anthropic principle to be underdeveloped and chapter 9 on how a incorporeal spirit can act in the world unsatisfying. The latter would have been greatly aided by a discussion of speech acts, how an agent actually accomplishes things by speaking and decreeing which to me seems to be how God immediately acts within space time. Speech Act theory is of great interest as we see it in human affairs in the act of declaring a party guilty or pronouncing a couple husband and wife. Though God’s speech acts are of a different species in that they actually do things that are “godlike” create matter, raise the dead etc. studies in speech act theory give us an understanding how God might accomplish things by his Word.
In conclusion I will say only a few things. First, I really enjoyed the subject matter, history and discussions found in There is a God. Second, my question is whether the controversy surrounding the volume make it useful as an apologetic for God with the general public. My answer is yes and no. Those who are from the camp of philosophical atheism, those who read Skeptic magazine and have read Flew’s previous works as gospel, will be unmoved by this book. Yet for those who do not believe “the old senile Flew was duped by theists” story the volume is very helpful in showing that some people do change their minds and find good reasons to do so. So with that in mind I do recommend There is a God for use with those who are wrestling with the question of God. Recommended.