How reason may be ignored and ideologies embraced or discarded

Robert Henderson

The English philosopher Tony Flew  died in 2010. The academic subject around which he wove his life  should have made him less vulnerable to false reasoning. That in turn should have armour plated him against being captured by ideologies.  In fact he was a sucker for ideologies and twice threw  over ideological beliefs for other ideological beliefs.  His intelligence and erudition did not prove any guard against folly.

I knew  Flew when he was still comparatively young when I was a student of Keele  U in the late sixties and early seventies. At that time he  was in his late forties  and held the Chair of Philosophy at the university.

Perhaps the most important guide to his character is the fact that he twice performed a volte-face on fundamental beliefs, the first being his political shift.  Strangely, his mainstream obits  made very little of the fact that he was a man well to the left of centre until his early thirties, one of the original “Angry Young Men” in fact.  I dare say that will come as a great shock to many of those who only knew him as an old man.

The second ideological shift came late in his life when having been a fervent atheist in the Richard Dawkins’ mould throughout his adult life, he suddenly announced in 2004 that he believed there were solid grounds for believing there was a God. There was a considerable irony in this because of his devotion to David Hume, a man who scandalised many on his deathbed, including that old rake Boswell, by maintaining his unbelief.

There have been suggestions that he was not entirely compos mentis at that stage of his life and that he may have been exploited by Christian groups. However, judged by his public announcements, writing and public appearances,  he seemed to have enough about him mentally at the time (2004) when he announced his move from atheism to a form of deism to remove any concern that he was a senile old man having his name used by others.  Whether he was still mentally sharp is another matter, for his reliance on the argument from design because of the revelations of DNA research was frankly feeble for  DNA provides no greater difficulty for doubters of an undirected or created universe than for example does the complexity of the human eye. Its use suggested someone borrowing an idea because they no longer had the mental vitality to argue a matter through.

Tony Flew’s position on atheism was intellectually unsound because like the religious he was being dogmatic without adequate grounds for his dogmatism.  The strongest philosophical position on whether there is a being we might call God is agnosticism.

While it is reasonable to dismiss all religions as man-made artefacts because (1) they all rely on the supernatural, something  for which there is no objective evidence, (2) particular varieties of religious belief tend to pass from parents to children, for example, Roman Catholic parents will tend to have children of the same faith, (3) religions tend to congregate in specific territories and (4) religions tend to reflect the cultures from which they arose.

What is not reasonable is to assert is that there is definitely not a being with the attributes of a God. This is so for a beautifully simple reason: the very fact of existence.  That fact demolishes the argument that it is up to the believers to prove there is a God for the fact of existence creates the possibility of one, a possibility which has the same status as the possibility that there is not a God.

The question of whether there is a God is unanswerable rationally. We could in principle discover if our universe had been created by an active intelligence, but that would not answer the question ultimately for  the problem would then arise of who created the creator and so on ad infinitum: the problem of infinite vicious regression.

There are further problems: while it might be possible to prove that the universe had an immediate creator, it would be impossible to prove that it had no beginning or end or that it came into existence at a particular point through no directed agency, that is, it simply arose. The former case would fail because it would involve proving that the universe had lasted for an infinite period and the infinite cannot be measured, and in the latter case,  no proof could be produced which would rule out the possibility of a creator, because there would be no way of demonstrating that what was perceived to be the spontaneous and undirected production of the universe was not in fact the result of a creator whose existence was as yet hidden.

Because of these considerations the rational position is that the universe may or may not have been the result of active creation by an intelligence with the attributes we assign to the concept of a God.

As an academic philosopher, I think it would fair to say that his strength lay in explication rather than original thought.

Prof Flew is frequently described as a libertarian. Well, libertarianism is a house with many rooms. The judgement that he is a libertarian is almost entirely, perhaps entirely, based on his commitment to laissez faire economics and a small state along Hayekian lines. Whether that makes a person a libertarian is a matter of debate. What is certain is that on some central liberation issues – freedom of expression (you either have complete freedom or a range of permitted opinion), the legalisation of drugs and the right of the citizen to own and carry weapons – he was definitely not a libertarian.

On others, such as education, one must decide whether a strict educational regime is compatible with libertarian ideals or whether the true libertarian should favour something more akin to what used to be called progressive schools which adopt a policy of  laissez faire.  It is worth adding that his hero as a political philosopher was Hobbes, one of the most authoritarian of philosophers in the modern period, a rather strange philosophical guide for a libertarian.

Another great irony of his life was his failure to see the incongruity of  wholeheartedly embracing laissez faire economics and the small state,  whilst spending almost all his working life working for taxpayer funded institutions and drawing a pension, which ultimately funded by the taxpayer.

Sadly, by the time I reached Keele in 1969 Prof Flew’s life there was a far from happy one. He found it difficult going on impossible to come to terms with the much freer academic atmosphere of the sixties.

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