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Pragmatism and Deism

The dynamic duo of Capps and Sanchez take atheism backslider Anthony Flew back to school for a little Philosophy 101 (or, as we say at Harvard, "Philosophy 3") for his sins. From my perspective, the most noteworthy thing about Flew's neo-Deism is that this is a belief with no cash value. Obviously, the origins of life on earth are somewhat mysterious given our current state of empirical science. Nevertheless, nothing follows from believing that, in some mysterious way, a Higher Power created life as opposed to believing that the origins of life fit into the naturalistic scheme somehow but that how, exactly, it fits in is a bit mysterious. The entire apparent significance of Flew's change of heart rests on the fact that the "God" concept is, in contemporary society, deeply resonant of associations with Christian, Jewish, Islamic, etc. theology. But the stance Flew is advocating actually has nothing whatsoever in common with the world's great religions. Instead, its upshot is, for all intents and purposes, the same as the upshot of atheism. If I decided that Flew was right, I wouldn't start behaving differently in any way, or even need to modify my beliefs about any other subject.

December 15, 2004 | Permalink


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People will do the darndest things to be able to say they believe in God. What's the big whoop? I really don't see the attraction. Any conceivable God -- other than the basically property-free Deist God -- is, simply by virtue of the logical structure of the concept, risible. A being that can help and doesn't is morally repugnant, no matter your mental gymnastics.

Posted by: Realish | Dec 15, 2004 2:48:10 AM

I really don't care for the weird Ayn-Randian quality of Flewian atheists. I read where that contingent was all discombobulated on account of his attending some Quaker meetings, or whatever, which seems totally gay to me (no offense gays). His new found whatever-it-is sounds equally tedious.

Posted by: spacetoast | Dec 15, 2004 2:52:06 AM

Flew's right but for the wrong reasons.

Agnosticism is the most rational stance, not aethism, and certainly not belief, unless your belief is a result of a felt personal experience or revelation.


There is not an aethist in the world who can even pretend to explain the beginning of existence (cosmos). How did something emerge from nothing? It can't. Not in any rational sense. So you're left with two options: 1) existence (cosmos) has always been and will always be (is infinite for all intents and purposes in terms of duration); 2) existence emerged from non-existence, at some primal point in time, something miraculously emerged out of nothing, out of no energy or substance, which begs the question of how much we should rely on our own sense of rationalism.

To me it's obvious that #1 is the answer. We may be able to find a beginning of our own solar system, our own galaxy, our own universe, but we will never be able to discern the beginning of all that is, because there is no reason to believe there is a beginning or end of all that is.

Absent such a reasonable belief or conception, we are left with what can best be described as a miracle, this 'what is' that we have become conscious within. 'Tis a matter of style whether you choose to liken 'what is and will always be' as God, or just as 'what is and will always be' without further designation.

To insist, however, that there is no God is to either insist that 'what is and will always be' is not the case, which by necessity will have to be an irrational argument, or you will have specify that in rejecting God you are only rejecting the idea of a Creator (which ought to be rejected).

The best stance is not to argue about this at all. There is no rational position.

Further, if one wants to argue about whether life and DNA have a creator, that is a separate argument in many cases from an argument about the existence of God, unless you're debating the existence of a God or god who is not the end-all be-all of existence (which would not be debating the biblical God).

Posted by: Jimm | Dec 15, 2004 4:19:33 AM

In other words, to correct a few errors there, there is no rational argument for or against the existence of God (here defined as 'what is and will always be').

There may be rational arguments, depending on the available information, about the existence of a god or alien that is a Creator of humanity and DNA, but they are not germane to normal arguments between believers and aethists.

Agnosticism is the most rational stance in a debate that shouldn't be taking place. Since there is no rational position, there ought be no debate, at least no debate wearing pretensions of being rational (which believers do not wear, and do not need to).

If you believe, more power to you. But realize that this is a miracle that you have personally experienced, in coming to a realization of and faith in the majesty of the greater miracle of which we are a part.

For you aethists, try to keep in mind that something cannot come from nothing, and that is especially germane to arguments and debates that do not agree upon or can even postulate the initial premises.

Posted by: Jimm | Dec 15, 2004 4:31:06 AM

What reason is there to believe that "nothing" (whatever that might be) is a more rational starting place than "something"?

If you have to reduce God down to the "something out of nothing" button and leave it at that, what point is there in calling that Agnosticism?

Posted by: Gabriel Rocklin | Dec 15, 2004 5:02:32 AM

Shoot, whatever helps you become a compassionate and humble person who lives life with integrity and awarness, thumbs up from me.

You could call it God, Creator, the Jolly Green Giant, or your own damn character for all I care so long as it gets the "job" done.

Posted by: A. Moses | Dec 15, 2004 6:03:29 AM

>Philosophy 101 (or, as we say at Harvard, "Philosophy 3")

? Shouldn't that be Philosophy 5?

Just askin'.

['1001001 SOS.']

Posted by: ash | Dec 15, 2004 7:31:55 AM

There is not an aethist in the world who can even pretend to explain the beginning of existence (cosmos). How did something emerge from nothing? It can't. Not in any rational sense.


Modern physics allows for the spontaneous generation of pairs of "virtual" particles, so that even a perfect vacuum is seething with the constant birth and annihilation of particles - all of this out of nothing, as it were.

This has lead more than one cosmologist to hypothesize that the universe as we know it is nothing but one supersized vacuum fluctuation which is only allowed to exist because it is destined to cancel itself out.

In other words, our universe lives on borrowed time.

Few religions would feel good about Creation being a little more than a phenomenon of the Void's bookkeeping - maybe Buddhism? - but there it is.

Posted by: oodja | Dec 15, 2004 8:19:47 AM

The whole Flew report is possibly mistaken, read this piece, in which Flew professes not to have changed his mind:

Tyler Cowen

Posted by: Tyler Cowen | Dec 15, 2004 8:26:57 AM

As I see it, science clashes with religious belief in three areas: 1) the nature of the cosmos, 2) evolution and 3) the mind (consciousness). The first great battle invovled Copernacus and Gallileo; the second Darwin and his followers. The third started slowly with Descartes, who framed the issue, but is reaching melting point with the development of Neuroscience, Cognitive Psychology and a bit of philosophy.

Fry's and others' speculations on the origins of the universe are fascinating, but theoretical. It's all history and doesn't touch everyday life. The advancement of human thought where we can begin to describe a purely biological, testable model for consciousness and the mind touch everyone much more directly. We are still at the early stages, but the behavior-biology identity is seeping into popular culture. People on the street talk about brain regions involved in certain behaviors and the brain-basis for diseases such as Alzhiemer's, Parkinsons' disease, schizophrenia, hyperactivity, depression and autism.

Scientific studies into the biological basis of the mind remain at early stages, but the questions are begining to be framed properly. Important thinkers in the field are framing the question well, and, impressively, addressing the God issue. For example, read the recent work by the philosopher Patricia Churchland and the Cognitive Scientist Daniel Dennet.

These conflicts create real social tension. Currently, the dominant powers are politically and intellectually reactionary. Hopefully, this won't last.

Posted by: j kubie | Dec 15, 2004 8:28:44 AM

I think that you atheists need to refuse to do interviews.

A similar sort of thing happened to Daniel Dennett:



Posted by: David | Dec 15, 2004 8:52:09 AM

nothing follows from believing that, in some mysterious way, a Higher Power created life

The avoidance of nihilism follows from such a belief.

While I can easily conceive of a universe without a Creator, my first argument is that such a universe would be nothing more than a meaningless (if fortuitous) accident. Accidents by definition have no meaning or purpose. Only a universe fashioned by a Creator with a particular purpose in mind has meaning. This is grand nihilism of an absurd universe that occurs unavoidably if there were no God. And yes, a Creator is necessary to give the universe meaning since a "meaningful accident" is an oxymoron.

"However", says the atheist, "each individual may through their own effort create their own meaning and carve out their own niche of purpose in an inherently meaningless universe. Therefore nihilism is avoided."

Someone argue that in an inherently meaningless universe, any attempts by individuals to create their own meaning would be doomed to failure. For in an absurd world there are absolutely no guidelines, no external point of fixed reference, and any course of action is problematic. Passionate commitment, be it to conquest, creation, or whatever, is itself meaningless. In an inherently meaningless universe, each of us is like a traveler lost in a featureless desert - each direction is as good as any other, and equally pointless.

Though I agree that such attempts would be futile, that is not my second argument. What I do is run with the assertion made by Pinker, Dennet, Dawkins, etc. that the mind and free will do not really exist, they are merely illusions - and take this belief to its logical conclusions. Furthermore, they claim that we are nothing more than pre-programmed automata following the dictates of our genes and memes without true volition or ability to show initiative. These claims stem from the assumption that dualism is false and the immaterial soul does not exist.

However, if we are mindless automata without free will, initiative and volition we lack the mental prerequisites for the creation of meaning and purpose. The result is a petite nihilism of the meaningless individual.

Combining both a lack of God and the lack of the soul results in an overarching and inescapable nihilism.

Now some consider nihilism to be trivial or even liberating. Others consider it to be an abject evil. But these are separate arguments.

Posted by: Dan Duffy | Dec 15, 2004 9:02:13 AM

I agree with Tyler -- I think the report is most likely mistaken. Here is Flew from a few days ago, stating his own case:

"Those rumours speak false. I remain still what I have been now for over fifty years, a negative atheist. By this I mean that I construe the initial letter in the word 'atheist' in the way in which everyone construes the same initial letter in such words as 'atypical' and 'amoral'. For I still believe that it is impossible either to verify or to falsify - to show to be false - what David Hume in his Dialogues concerning Natural Religion happily described as "the religious hypothesis." The more I contemplate the eschatological teachings of Christianity and Islam the more I wish I could demonstrate their falsity.

... We negative atheists are bound to see the Big Bang cosmology as requiring a physical explanation; and that one which, in the nature of the case, may nevertheless be forever inaccessible to human beings. But believers may, equally reasonably, welcome the Big Bang cosmology as tending to confirm their prior belief that "in the beginning" the Universe was created by God.

Again, negative atheists meeting the argument that the fundamental constants of physics would seem to have been 'fine tuned' to make the emergence of mankind possible will first object to the application of either the frequency or the propensity theory of probability 'outside' the Universe, and then go on to ask why omnipotence should have been satisfied to produce a Universe in which the origin and rise of the human race was merely possible rather than absolutely inevitable. But believers are equally bound and, on their opposite assumptions, equally justified in seeing the Fine Tuning Argument as providing impressive confirmation of a fundamental belief shared by all the three great systems of revealed theistic religion - Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. For all three are agreed that we human beings are members of a special kind of creatures, made in the image of God and for a purpose intended by God.

In short, I recognize that developments in physics coming on the last twenty or thirty years can reasonably be seen as in some degree confirmatory of a previously faith-based belief in god, even though they still provide no sufficient reason for unbelievers to change their minds. They certainly have not persuaded me."

Prof. Flew is a somewhat frequent poster on Rationalist International.

Posted by: Zach | Dec 15, 2004 9:05:28 AM

'Yet biologists' investigation of DNA "has shown, by the almost unbelievable complexity of the arrangements which are needed to produce (life), that intelligence must have been involved," Flew says in the new video, "Has Science Discovered God?"' -from the link

This is a question of biochemistry and probability. I have not seen a consensus of experts coming to this conclusion. Flew doesn't have the chops in the proper field to make this assertion. He is out of his field.

If Albert Einstein had stated that he recently discovered that Bach and Beethoven had actually been very poor composers, would you take him seriously?

Posted by: Njorl | Dec 15, 2004 9:16:53 AM

Well, on the Flew question, you also need to consider what's reported in this interview (early 2004):


Posted by: David | Dec 15, 2004 9:17:20 AM

Jimm: "Agnosticism is the most rational stance, not aethism..."

Agnoticism and atheism are not mutually exclusive. In the strict sense, "atheism" is lack of god belief. Don't believe in any gods? You're an atheist by definition. Does your lack of belief derive from your view that God is unprovable or unknown? You're an agnostic atheist.

My advice to agnostics: get rid of the top hat and embrace your lack of god-belief.

Posted by: Grumpy | Dec 15, 2004 9:39:41 AM

Please keep quibbling among yourselves: we are greatly amused.

Posted by: Omniscient Angel | Dec 15, 2004 9:57:37 AM


Not quite. An atheist doesn't merely lack belief in god(s), he disbelieves in such a supernatural existence.

Unless I'm feeling particularly antagonistc, I prefer to think of myself as agnostic, because although I suspect that there is no God/gods/Force, I'm neither certain nor do I believe it's possible to have a justified true belief on the matter.

Posted by: Bragan | Dec 15, 2004 10:15:49 AM

From my perspective, the most noteworthy thing about Flew's neo-Deism is that this is a belief with no cash value.

Old news; see Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion.

Posted by: Abu Frank | Dec 15, 2004 10:20:29 AM

Matt, spoken like a true Humean. Dan Duffy, my advice to you is to read Beckett, especially Endgame.

Posted by: Jeff L. | Dec 15, 2004 10:21:26 AM

Not quite. An atheist doesn't merely lack belief in god(s), he disbelieves in such a supernatural existence.

Incorrect. A strong atheist is one who actively believes that God(s) do not exist.

A weak atheist is one who lacks belief in God.

They're both atheists.

I'm a weak one myself. I see no reason to believe in God, therefore I don't. I don't believe, however, that God can't exist. But until I have reason to suspect one does, I'm not about to go believing in it. There'd be no end of the things I'd have to believe if I went down that path.

A strong atheist, however, believes God cannot exist or specifically does not exist. (Generally through fun philosophical proofs!).

It's quite possible to be a mix of all things. For example, I'm a strong atheist when it comes to the Greek and Roman Gods. I'm a weak atheist in terms of deism and most modern religions and because I'm of the opinion that "God" as defined by most modern religions is thoroughly untestable (by design) I'm also agnostic.

In short: The Judeo-Christian God concept has been carefully designed to be untestable. Therefore, there's no way to prove that the sucker doesn't exist. (Agnostic). However, lacking any evidence that he does (Which God, being God, could easily provide), I don't believe in him for the same reason I don't believe in Invisible Pink Unicorns. (Weak atheism).

The Greek Gods, however, are said to live on top of Mount Olypmus and spend their time wandering around pissing people off. And while there is no shortage of pissed off people in the area, the top of Mount Olympus is quite empty. Therefore I'm a strong atheist (and not agnostic) about the Greek Gods. Their existence can be tested, it's failed, ergo they don't exist.

As for Matt's post: I love the argument "I don't know, therefore God did it, therefore God exists". It's a classic. Stupid, but a classic.

Posted by: Morat | Dec 15, 2004 10:40:24 AM

I am glad Prof Flew mentioned Hume, who dealt with this definitively. There is a good quote somewhere, but the wispy deism of scientists and philosophers is an entirely useless speculation. I believe Kant was attempting to move deism to theism, and then showing that theism (or the transcendant) was a logical necessity for reason or knowledge, but boy that is a long and difficult argument.
I dislike agnosticism, on two grounds. 1) There may be unicorns on the dark side of the moon, I cannot prove there are not. However, with the total lack of positive evidence, to derive anything positive from ignorance is a betrayal of reason.

More importantly, one simply cannot call the word "God" meaningless. We live in a world of religion, and discussion of God's existence or not is a religious argument. Atheism is an active decision to disbelieve, and as W Kaufmann said, a profession of alienation from the society at large. Kierkeggaard describes it well, the atheist's complaint that his disbelief somehow proves God's non-existence or incompetence.

The agnostic's demand for proof from a God that only requests faith, not certainty, is even more arrogant, confused, and disingenuous.

To the gentleman above who requires a meaningful world. Sorry. The atheist has abandoned meaning. There remains value, choosing, doing, having.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Dec 15, 2004 10:44:14 AM

Mr. Duffy's contention that "The avoidance of nihilism follows from such a belief." (in a "Higher Power"--aka God) is an example of a fallacy called "argumentum ad consequentionum", argument by appeal to the consequences. It does nothing to address the truth or falsity of the belief in question.

To be sure, philosophers from Plato, to Machiavelli, to Leo Strauss have argued that the masses must believe in an all-seeing God or they will run amok. (Essentially these arguments are elaborations of Voltaire's cautioning of his guests not to discuss atheism while the servants were still in the room or the silverware might be stolen.) I can sympathize with this view, depending on how I feel upon waking up on a given day and what is in the news. But these are separate arguments.

Posted by: T. Lucretius Carus | Dec 15, 2004 10:53:20 AM

Having attended Catholic schools through university level, I was, at some point in my young adult life, astonished to learn that some religious folk did not believe in Darwinism. In science classes in my Catholic schools, we learned evolution. We also learned that God started the whole Darwinian process. But we learned that in RELIGION class. The Catholic Church may have had its problems with Copernicus and Galileo, but by the time I went to school in the 40's and 50's, they had wised up. I was never taught that there was a conflict between faith and evolution. There are lots of us believers who have no problem with Darwinism.

Now the folks who believe that every word in the Bible is literally true, that the earth is 6000 years old, and that the earth and its creatures were made from the void in seven days, are in a different category altogether. Frankly, I don't have a solution for them, but I surely am against changing science in public schools to please them. They can teach what they want in their Sunday schools and religious schools.

Posted by: janeboatler | Dec 15, 2004 10:59:09 AM

There is not an aethist in the world who can even pretend to explain the beginning of existence (cosmos). How did something emerge from nothing? It can't. Not in any rational sense.

How does the sun go across the sky every day? It isn't rational! I can't see gravity, therefore it must be Apollo in his chariot flying across the sky.

What is that thunder sound? And the lightning! I can't explain why that happens. must be Thor and his hammer!

Posted by: Chance the Gardener | Dec 15, 2004 11:07:33 AM

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