Thursday, November 08, 2007

Flew and the Burden of Proof, or the Presumption of Competence

A good deal of the book's material is clearly based on experiences that Varghese could not have know about unless he heard it from Flew. Varghese was how old when the Lewis-Anscombe debate took place? Was he even born?

We have to distinguish first of all between criticisms of Varghese and criticisms of anyone else. It seems like a lot of people are getting tarred with this brush. There are accusations almost at evangelical Christians as a whole which are disturbing to me. Is Habermas' longtime friendship and discussion with Flew after their debate ghoulish? I was even called giddy by someone.

I'm not giddy about Flew. Since I am a theist, I am pleased that he has discovered that theism in some form is true. It is also commendable that Flew is willing to re-examine long-defended positions. I would be glad to know the story of his journey. But I'm not sure we can expect him to be a leading spokesperson for the arguments he accepts and to engage the philosophical debate on those arguments. I can understand Flew's coming intuitively to accept certain arguments without necessarily being able to be the "point man" on those arguments. If I am right, the arguments he provides are those also defended by people like Robin Collins and Richard Swinburne, and it would be worth hearing from them to see if Flew has competent versions of those arguments. I would know, for example, if Flew were to have an AFR section in his book, whether it made a real contribution to the discussion or not. A charge of incompetence from a dismissive opponent doesn't do much for me.

Most atheists today don't defend atheism the way Flew did. The nonsense charge and the logical problem of evil have been supplanted in the literature by other arguments.

"This is really Roy's doing." A lot is going to depend on the antecedent of "this." Is it the book's content as a whole, or its being put together. If Flew provides the content, Varghese writes it up, and Flew reads it 10 freaking times to make sure that it really does reflect what he believes, and it is marketed as a co-authored work, I don't see that this is fraudulent. I don't understand the "ghoulishness" charge, but I think the real issue is a charge of fraud.

Everyone agrees that some impairment is at work in Flew. The question is whether that impairment has affected his ability to understand and defend philosophical arguments, or is it just trouble remembering names. Or something in between. Medical professionals don't use the term "senility" anymore. Not everything collapses at once and in the same way. Mental abilities are lost in pieces, and short-term memory goes first. Alzheimer's produces a general intellectual collapse, but I see no good reason to believe that Flew has Alzheimer's.

People look at it and say "Oh, same old theist stuff" but that "same old theist stuff" is being debated in the philosophy of religion.

The fact that Flew isn't inclined to enter into pitched debate with the Richard Carriers of the world does not mean that he doesn't hold his convictions for intellectual reasons. (In particular his unwillingness to get into a point-for-point debate with Carrier is, uh er, kind of understandable). It does mean that we should not look to him as the "point man" for the relevant arguments. The fact that you, as an atheist, think poorly of these arguments does not prove fraud.

Has Flew been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease? If yes, then I would say this is fraud. If no, then we still do get a glimpse of the mind of Tony Flew.

So I say: Christians, don't overestimate the apologetic value of Flew's conversion. Arguments have to be assessed on their merits. The book may be an account of an interesting intellectual journey but may have limited value as apologetics. Atheists, don't accuse people of fraud unless you really do have good evidence for fraud. So far, I'd have to say with Bertrand Russell, "not enough evidence, guys, not enough evidence."

12 comments:

Daniel Wesley said...

Excellent point. It's a bit disconcerting to see Flew's statements pulled this-way and that-way in some philosophical tug-of-war.

hans said...

In a recent video, plastered all over You Tube, Flew talks about the doctrine of eternal torture.

Of course, Flew's new book does not discuss this.

Flew's book shies away from discussing things close to the heart of Flew - such as deism, and the Christian doctrine of eternal torture.

Don't buy Varghese's book. Watch the video of Flew if you want to know Flew's views.

Victor Reppert said...

Flew has always found the doctrine of everlasting punishment abhorrent, and he still does. So do universalist Christians like Tom Talbott. Why would Flew's views on everlasting punishment have anything to do with his views on whether the universe was designed?

hans said...

Why would Flew's views have anything to do with what was written in 'Flews' book?

Tricky question. I might have to think about that before answering.

mattghg said...

*Sigh* Yeah, why doesn't Flew tell us his views about Reading F.C.'s chances of staying in the Premier League this season, if he really wrote the book?

John W. Loftus said...

The story that Flew changed his mind has already been published. What more was there to be said? If Flew was competent to write something more on the issue he should've at least done so in a journal or magazine of some type. If he wasn't, then why would Varghese want to do so? I think I have a partial answer. Varghese wanted to make some money off a best selling book. I just hope Flew gets his share.

Now we are left with applying the same types of higher criticism toward that book as we must do with Plato's Dialogues and the gospels. Who said what and why? Such an exercise isn't worth it to me. If I want to read the arguments on behalf of the issues pro or con there are better books.

So I hope you'll pardon me if I pass on this book. I cannot tell who wrote what and who didn't. Besides what Flew believes makes no difference to me about what I should believe. People have been changing their minds on the God question down through history, and most of the changes have been from belief to non-belief since the Enlightenment. No wonder Christians want to parade one important success through the streets, since such a parade is so small to begin with.

Cheers.

Jim Lippard said...

See Richard Carrier's blog on evidence that much of the book is neither by Flew nor Varghese, but by Bob Hostetler.

Carrier's evidence seems to solidly establish that parts of the book were either not written by Flew or that Flew has completely lost his memory of the relevant events involving interactions with Carrier.

Bad said...

"The fact that you, as an atheist, think poorly of these arguments does not prove fraud."

The fact that FLEW thought poorly of some of those arguments AFTER his conversion, but then seems to have forgotten this when he wrote "his" book, however, does. The fact that he does not counter or even mention obvious counter-arguments made against the arguments made in the book, despite the fact that the real Flew knew of them and talked about them, does. And so on.

Anonymous said...

'Yeah, why doesn't Flew tell us his views about Reading F.C.'s chances of staying in the Premier League this season, if he really wrote the book?'

Was there space after Flew put in the baseball anecdotes?

William Hawthorne said...

"See Richard Carrier's blog on evidence that much of the book is neither by Flew nor Varghese, but by Bob Hostetler.

Carrier's evidence seems to solidly establish that parts of the book were either not written by Flew or that Flew has completely lost his memory of the relevant events involving interactions with Carrier."


Of course, Carrier is a popular atheist apologist with a strong agenda to push. His blog entry amounts to one big whopping speculation without a shred of evidence, and the claims therein have turned out to be factually incorrect, given that Flew has just released the following statement in response the NYT article:

The idea that someone manipulated me because I'm old is exactly wrong. I may be old but it is hard to manipulate me. This is my book and it represents my thinking.

From the publisher’s office. Thanks to Steve Laube, the Literary Agent for the project. amazon.com/review/RU8MI4LZBIH4W/ref=cm_cr_rdp_perm/

Hans said...

'"See Richard Carrier's blog on evidence that much of the book is neither by Flew nor Varghese, but by Bob Hostetler.'

Varghese said it was.

The proof of the pudding will be when Victor decides that he simply cannot recommend Flew's book to his students, as it is so badly written.

Anonymous said...

Here is the Harper Collins press release site for doubters everywhere to look at

Press Releases

Let us see the atheists try to wriggle out of that!