Blog Template Theology of the Body: Antony Flew's Conversion

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Antony Flew's Conversion

One of our readers kindly pointed out to me this excellent article in the New York Times Magazine on the recent conversion of atheist philosopher Antony Flew. You can find "The Turning of an Atheist" here.

What's the big deal about Flew? (Bear with me- I am learning to be a theologian, not a philosopher) -he's one of the guys you can blame for retorts to your apologetic efforts that run along the lines of "don't even talk to me about God since you cannot prove that He exists." -Well, to be precise, we have A.J. Ayer to thank for that handy slogan; with his other Logical Positivist cronies, Ayer insisted that the human mind can only deal meaningfully with empirically verifiable stuff, so talk about God is ruled out from educated conversation at the outset.) Ayer’s proposal is that statements may be deemed “meaningful” if and only if they are either true by definition (as we find in logical truths/tautologies, such as “2 + 2 = 4,” or the proposition, “a bachelor is an unmarried man”) or if they are verifiable by observation (at least in principle). So, what you get is the attempt to live in a world where concepts of reality are neatly confined to that which is amenable to the process of gathering empirical data, investigating and critically assessing sense knowledge, and then organizing empirical data in theorems, by means of formal logic.

"What, you cannot do this with God?!- Game over." The Logical Positivist proposal is staunchly opposed to any and all "metaphysics," including statements about God. On Ayer’s model, metaphysical propositions can be considered neither “true” nor “false;” therefore they assert nothing, they “contain neither knowledge nor error,” and thus they lie outside the field of propositional discussion entirely. At best, metaphysical talk may become useful by its expressive property and its capacity to convey emotional or volitional dispositions. Ayer concludes that all metaphysical statements are nonsensical, because every genuine proposition must state either a tautology or an empirical hypothesis, and on Ayer’s terms, metaphysical statements can offer neither. Ayer argued that “the existence of a being having the attributes which define the God of any non-animistic religion cannot be demonstratively proved… there is no possibility of demonstrating the existence of God.” Thus, statements about God are deemed meaningless. When “God” is used as a metaphysical term, such a statement (on Ayer’s terms) can be neither true nor false, and could not even be significantly contradicted. Thus, Ayer urges that theological language has no meaning.

Enter Antony Flew! When he was an atheist, Flew made the generous move of restating Ayer’s criteria, but with a shift of emphasis to the mere "falsifiability" of a given statement; in other words, Flew lessened the burden of proof for religious people somewhat by urging that a statement could meet the standard of a meaningful assertion if a conceivable set of circumstances could demonstrate the statement to be false. (So, you don't have to prove the existence of God; you only have to prove that you have a means of reckognizing the possibility that God does not exist, in the event that He does not. Flew offered a critical set of questions for theological conversation: “just what would have to happen to entitle us to say ‘God does not exist?’ ... what would have to occur to constitute (for you) a disproof of the existence of God?” In other words, is the statement falsifiable? And if the statement is false, how would we know it to be so?

Note: Christians have to readily admit that the discovery of the body of Jesus is one of those things that would absolutely and finally undo our faith. Thus, our faith is falsifiable- and hence, meaningful on Flew's terms.

In the end, however, Flew had despaired of admitting religious statements as meaningful even on this generous criterion, because he reasoned that the believer’s faith would render religious statements immune to falsification; and if nothing could persuade the believer to reject his religious assertions about God, then his religious assertions would be be shown to have no fact content, and would be recognized as cognitively meaningless.

Flew proposed that “a verification of theism…can only be experienced by those who have already entered into an awareness of God by the religious mode of perception that we call faith… if this is so, it has the consequence that only the theistic believer can find vindication of his belief.”

And there you have it. Flew has experienced a verification of theism by the religious mode of perception that we call faith.