Monday, November 05, 2007

Varghese reponds via Gary Habermas

I asked Gary Habermas about this business with Flew and he passed along this letter to the editor that Varghese wrote in reply to Oppenheimer's piece.

I personally thought that the Oppenheimer piece was pretty clearly biased, in that it sounded as if he had talked to the people on the atheist side (like Carrier), but had not spoken to anybody on the theist side.

I just sometimes wonder if Flew doesn't think that there's been a nasty turn in atheist polemics that was not present when he was atheism's leading representative. I don't recall people like Flew or even Mackie referring to people who believe in an intelligent designer is IDiots.

Vic:
Thanks. I have permission to forward to you the response & letter to the editor sent by Roy Varghese:

Among those who have personally been most influential in Tony Flew’s pilgrimage of reason is Professor Gary Habermas. Both intellectually and at a personal level Gary has become one of Tony’s closest friends and advisors. I know this from discussing the matter with Tony. As is their wont, the freethinking blogaholics (with their single digit audiences and gnat-sized attention spans) have turned their guns on all those (including Gary) who are associated with Tony. Since they have no interest in truth or even serious debate, there’s no point spending time or energy on their daily diet of diatribe. The Constitution guarantees freedom of speech. These folks interpret this as a continuous obligation. But that’s no reason for the rest of us to share their fate.

Roy Abraham Varghese

November 3, 2007.

Letters to the Editor

Magazine, The New York Times

620 Eight Avenue

New York, NY 10018

magazine@nytimes.com

Dear Editor:

First the good news: Antony Flew is alive and well (physically and mentally) contrary to what readers might assume from Mark Oppenheimer’s article, “The Turning of an Atheist” (New York Times magazine, November 4, 2007). Second, the bad news (for his former fellow atheists): he has not retracted his change of position on the question of God, this despite three years of efforts of malign his mental capabilities and the motives of any theists affiliated with him.

I would like to answer three questions raised by Mr. Oppenheimer’s article:

Did Tony Flew write There is a God? Well, as the cover specifically states, it is written by Flew with yours truly. Oppenheimer says I “made the book sound like more of a joint effort – slightly more, anyway” implying thereby it was a sorta kinda joint effort but, come now, no one seriously believes this. But, as I had told him, the substantive portions of the book came from a combination of Tony’s published and unpublished writings (and by the way he still does write) as well as extensive correspondence and numerous interviews with him. I would be happy to share these with any investigative journalist. The cute sub-titles and the enchanting anecdotes, I’m afraid, did not originate with Tony although he OKed them. Oppenheimer asks “if it was ethical to publish a book under Flew’s name that cites sources Flew doesn’t know well enough to discuss.” Well, I specifically told Oppenheimer that several of these quotes were taken from my previous book and that There is a God dutifully documents this (“For the most part, these quotations are taken from Roy Abraham Varghese, The Wonder of the World …”, p.218). Moreover, Tony edited, corrected and approved at least ten versions of the manuscript.

It should also be noted that Tony didn’t stumble on to his answers to the question at hand overnight – or with this book. As the article rightly notes, the journey began over twenty years ago. Tony, in fact, was a contributor to a book I co-edited in 1992 (Cosmos, Bios, Theos) in which he explored these issues from the other side of the table – but taking the very same approach that he does here.

Does Tony Flew actually believe in a Creator/Intelligence/God? The article’s lead-in states, “But his change of heart may not be what it seems.” Let me be blunt about this (as I was with Oppenheimer). For three years, assorted skeptics and freethinkers have hounded the poor man trying to get him to recant. Believe me, if there was the slightest indication, the remotest suspicion, that he had retracted his new-found belief in God, it would be plastered all across the worldwide web (and beyond). Instead, Tony has taken it on himself to respond to every attack on his intellectual integrity in contributions to publications ranging from a rationalist journal in New Zealand to the latest issue of Skeptic magazine in the UK. The attacks on him are always highlighted on the Internet – his responses are never to be found unless you happen to get hold of the print editions. Not without reason, he now refers to several of the apostles of reason as “bigots”. A key point missed by the article is that it is not just or even mainly the evidence from science that led Flew to change his mind. The single greatest influence on him was philosophical – specifically the book The Rediscovery of Wisdom by David Conway. It was not a tug of war between, on the one hand Paul Kurtz and Richard Carrier, and on the other, the theist scientists, with the data from science as the rope. The rope was a philosophical one and here Conway, Richard Swinburne, Gerald Schroeder (in his exploration of the philosophical implications of science in The Hidden Face of God), et al were decisive.

Is Tony Flew “all there” mentally? Oppenheimer asks if he is “a senescent scholar” with a “failing” memory. As he himself notes, Tony cheerfully volunteered the fact that he has “nominal aphasia”, the inability to reproduce names. Now, starting at the age of forty, the average human being progressively forgets recent names, events and the like. So nothing out of the ordinary there. Is Tony slower to respond when asked a question than a younger person? No question about that – age certainly leaves a mark with each passing year and he is now eighty-four. But then again there are numerous scholars in their seventies and eighties who have trouble remembering recent names and events. And yet in most such cases, the thinkers concerned have been clear and consistent in their reasoning whether or not we agree with their conclusions. The same holds true for Tony. When he sets pen to paper (as will be seen in the most recent issue of Skeptic), he is as cogent and coherent as you could want (and also as terse as he was in his 1950 article). The only reason why people ask questions about his mental faculties is because he dared to change his mind. But let’s not forget that his new view of the world is one embraced by many of today’s leading philosophers in the Anglo-American world as well as most of the pioneers of modern science. This is the dirty little secret that the “new atheists” and their drum-beaters never talk about. It’s so much easier to shoot the messenger!

Roy Abraham Varghese


22 comments:

philip m said...

Oh what a tangled web we weave. It's pretty sticky, but I think the bottom line is this: "Moreover, Tony edited, corrected and approved at least ten versions of the manuscript."

Pyschoanalyzing Flew is a counterproductive red herring that we could spend all day on. The fact is, Flew reviewed the book ten times and approves of its content, so it would make more sense to deal with the book and make our conclusions from that, instead of self-generated speculations.

I suppose it's just much easier to criticize a person than discuss arguments.

Victor Reppert said...

It's called the ad hominem fallacy.

Victor Reppert said...

Steve Hays also tells me that there is a discussion of the Lewis-Anscombe controversy which undermines the Anscombe Legend.

Mark K. Sprengel said...

Victor,

Didn't you already undermine the Anscombe Legend? At least you did for me, when I read your book :)

exapologist said...

I just read the NY Times article, and compared it to Varghese's posted remarks here, and I can't say I'm confident that nothing creepy is going on here.

None of this affects the epistemic status of theism, of course, but it leaves me with a bad taste in my mouth.

I'd like to hear from Victor whether he's read the NY Time article carefully, and whether, assuming he has, Varghese's remarks have removed all of his concerns on this matter.

Alex Dalton said...

I'd say the NY Times article's praise for Richard Carrier and his "magnum opus" leave a worse taste in my mouth.

Anonymous said...

'I don't recall people like Flew or even Mackie referring to people who believe in an intelligent designer is IDiots.'

The party line is that the theory of intelligent design was only developed long after Mackie's death.

Of course, this is not so, as it is just Paleyism, but the party line is that Mackie could not have called people who believe in an intelligent designer anything, as he died before people said such things.

Varhese writes 'Oppenheimer says I “made the book sound like more of a joint effort – slightly more, anyway”'

Baffling. Because Reppert has clearly pronouncted that Oppenheimer '.. had not spoken to anybody on the theist side.'

Why would Varghese lie about Oppenheimer speaking to him?

The mystery deepens....

Anonymous said...

'Moreover, Tony edited, corrected and approved at least ten versions of the manuscript.'

In other words, Flew wrote not one word of the book, or else Varghese would tell us 'This sentence was written by Tony', or 'That sentence was written by Tony'.

Flew did not write one original sentence for the book he 'authored'!

Anonymous said...

One thing is certain.

Vargeshe will change the cover of the book to read 'edited' by Antony Flew.

The guy is so honest, that he is bound to make that change. You can bet your house on it!

Victor Reppert said...

Well, I guess Oppenheimer didn't quote anyone from the other side, unless I missed something when I read it. He might have talked some people. But that makes it worse instead of better.

The way to do the jounralism here would be to contact people on both sides of the issue and get a fair statement of each side of the coin. Having heard Habermas talk about his relationship with Flew I seriously doubt that there is anything creepy going on on his part. I've never met Varghese, so I can't say anything about that.

It seems to me as if Flew has changed his mind, so far no one is saying that he has become a Christian, just a deist, and his advanced age is making it difficult for him to give the kind of full-dress defense of his own position that he might have been able to give, say 20 years ago. And that is too bad. Under the circumstances, insofar as his ability to defend his position has been impaired, it limits the apologetic value of the conversion. It can serve as a rebuttal against the kind of view that says that atheism is some kind of intellectual slam dunk.

Bjørn Are said...

Anonymous said ...
"'Moreover, Tony edited, corrected and approved at least ten versions of the manuscript.'

In other words, Flew wrote not one word of the book".

Possible of course, though not definite. I have just delivered the final version of a book manuscript written 100 % by myself, after having edited, corrected and approved at least ten versions of it...

Buridan said...

Another take on the dismissive allegation that "Flew wrote not one word of the book"...

I find this a rather wise move of Flew. As I commented on another blog, he is 84 years old. To expect someone of that age to sit down and write a book by his own hands is a bit far fetched. It is also doubtfull whether Flew ever embraced modern technology like PC, not to mention word processing.

For most of his professional life, many authors - and professors - had secretaries or others who wrote down what were delivered by notes, dictate or plain "telling the story" as it is/was. Sometimes they were given rather free hands to polish and elaborate, depending on talent and trust.

The autor then went through all the text, editing and correcting. In the end the author took full responsibility (and honour/blame) for what was written.

We see the same today in many autobiographies by politicians or sport stars.

It should not come at all as a surprise if Flew as an oldtimer (and rather old man) has chosen to follow this wise and well proven method.

Anonymous said...

It may well be the ipsissima vox and just not the ipsissima verba of Flew. :-)

mattghg said...

the substantive portions of the book came from a combination of Tony’s published and unpublished writings (and by the way he still does write) as well as extensive correspondence and numerous interviews with him

This somehow gets interpreted as

Flew wrote not one word of the book

Yes, Steven, whoops I mean Anonymous, Flew wrote not one word of his own writings. I believe this is what is called an oxymoron.

Bad said...

"It can serve as a rebuttal against the kind of view that says that atheism is some kind of intellectual slam dunk."

Uh, not when the arguments are so flimsy that they need to be written for someone else to sign off on as sort of PR firgurehead.

The reason the arguments are less interesting than the seeming exploitation is that the arguments are unconvincing and old news: the reasons cited are things I've heard a million times and aren't any more convincing just because Flew has decided that they make sense (even though, apparently, he himself says that he really does have the time or acuity to consider them in depth or read counterarguments anymore)

Given that, all that's left is the bizarre spectacle of a bunch of people sort of ghoulishly crowing about a convert.

Heraplem said...

Bad,

I think you're being conveniently unspecific. Which theistic arguments do you think are flimsy, and why? Please explain.

Jim Lippard said...

Richard Carrier's blog sheds some light on evidence that neither Flew nor Varghese wrote much of this book.

Bad said...

heraplem: I've covered my reasons and rebuttals to various theistic arguments elsewhere, and you can find some of my thinking on my blog.

But in this case, it is really mostly only relevant to note that the arguments that are here presented as Flew's, and presented as if they were some grand new insights everyone was unaware of, are in fact all things that have been argued to death between believers and non-believers for decades if not centuries (ever since, you know, you allowed us to argue with you without killing or imprisoning us outright).

Everything from fine tuning to abiogenesis being supposedly impossible (which, interestingly, as Carrier notes, is one of the few arguments Flew ever actually said prior to this book, and also happens to be one which he publicaly retracted his support for... which "Flew" in this book seems to be completely unaware of) I've heard before, and never found convincing even when theist philosophers working at the top of their game, like Alvin Plantinga, made them. Why should they be any more convincing to me because someone has decided to write a book claiming that Flew, who demonstrably and BY HIS OWN ADMISSION, does not really have the capacity to really study or rigorously consider them, believes them?

So, given that, what other subject is there than the sad saga of making Flew into a sort of trophy and puppet, exploiting his inability to really remember anything anyone (himself included) has previously argued, let alone seriously participate in scholarship and debate.

Valerie Tarico said...

The DSM-IV, the diagnostic manual used by psychiatrists has this to say about Alzheimer’s: The course of Dementia of the Alzheimer’s Type tends to be slowly progressive, with a loss of 3-4 points per year on a standard assessment instrument. Various patterns of deficits are seen. A common pattern is an insidious onset, with early deficits in recent memory followed by the development of aphasia, apraxia, and agnosia after several years (any one of the three is sufficient to make the diagnosis). . . The average duration of the illness from onset of symptoms to death is 8-10 years.

Oppenheimer interviewed Flew, offering no diagnosis but simply reporting what he saw. If his observations are reported accurately, the characteristic symptoms of Alzheimer’s are present in interviews, Flew’s recent public appearances, and written conversations between Flew and atheist author, Richard Carrier. The article reads like a mental status exam:

• Memory impairment: could not recall the identities of old colleagues (e.g. Brian Leftow, Paul Davies) when given their names, could not recall the content of his earlier books (John Leslie), forgot and then remembered timeless philosophical arguments—conclusions were swayed back and forth in beliefs by most recent conversations or changes in recall.
• Aphasia: halting diction, loss of technical vocabulary (e.g. abiogenesis) self-described “nominal aphasia.”
• Disturbance in executive functioning: manifest confusion responding to abstract argumentation--demurring, passive assent, contradictory statements, didn’t write and couldn’t maintain content awareness of book published in his name.

For me, the real curiosity in the Flew story is the fascinating psychological question the story raises: Why would men who earnestly care about god concepts and goodness engage in the shameful behavior of manipulating and then speaking on behalf of an elder with diminished capacity?

Excerpted from Nov 11 www.debunkingchristianity.blogspot.org. Valerie Tarico, Ph.D. is a psychologist and former evangelical. She is the author of The Dark Side: How Evangelical Teachings Corrupt Love and Truth

Anonymous said...

Re: exapologist and alex: Actually, the article didn't let Carrier off scott-free. It was pretty critical of the way he hounded Flew. (I loved the "piece de chutzpah".)

Many people (see Valerie's post) have commented on his being taken advantage of - well, Carrier didn't exactly leave him be, either.

Finally, some of Carrier's supporters ask why the believers need him so much, and why can't they argue based on the evidence. Well, I would ask the same thing: why was it so important for Carrier to hound Flew?

Doug said...

Why would men who earnestly care about god concepts and goodness engage in the shameful behavior of manipulating and then speaking on behalf of an elder with diminished capacity?

Valerie,
did you bother to read the article that you are commenting on?
This is reassuring seeing someone with a Ph.D appear as confused as you do... it gives hope to us with lowly BAs that if 'so & so' was able to get their Ph.D, then I'm a shoe-in.

For me, the real curiosity is why you didn't try even a tad harder to hide your agenda.

Doug said...

Finally, some of Carrier's supporters ask why the believers need him so much, and why can't they argue based on the evidence.

Odd you're unable to wrap your mind around. Does it really elude your cognitive faculities that the turning of a very prominent atheist would spark interest? Especially when he claims to be following the evidence where it leads, while your camp (valerie included) attempts to waive away any significance.
You know, maybe it's your reaction that is making this such a big story. Your inability to accept and desire to contort - compounded with (at least in valerie's case) your unwillingness to read and listen.