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Antony Flew (1923-2010)
by Piers Benn
Antony Garrard Newton Flew was an analytical philosopher whose formative years were influenced by the ‘linguistic philosophy’ prevalent in English-speaking philosophy in the 1950s and 1960s. He was educated at Kingswood School, Bath and St John’s College Oxford. He taught briefly at Christ Church Oxford, and later was Professor of Philosophy at the University of Keele, and finally at Reading. His work was influenced by his early teachers, in particular Gilbert Ryle. Flew’s own work continued to be informed by Ryle’s approach, though his main intellectual mentor was David Hume (1711-1776), whom he followed both in his critique of natural theology and also, to some extent, his political sympathies.
Flew was known for his longstanding involvement in the humanist movement and his philosophical defence of ‘negative atheism’. One of his earliest and most discussed works was a short essay on ‘Theology and Falsification’ (1950). Applying, in effect, Karl Popper’s account of scientific method to theology, Flew attempted to show that the hypothesis of an almighty and perfectly benevolent God was unfalsifiable and therefore empty. On this view, scientific hypotheses gradually gain credibility by surviving attempts to falsify them. This pre-supposes that we know what would count against an hypothesis, and therefore could declare the hypothesis false if such a situation obtained. But for Flew, theology was more slippery: however terrible the world, religious folk continued to say that it was run by a deity such as Christians believed in; nothing – not even children dying in agony of cancer – was allowed to count against this claim.
These ideas were developed in his God and Philosophy (1966), which included a discussion of the credentials of revelation, particularly miracles, that owed much to Hume. Indeed, Flew seemed fascinated by the possibility of empirical evidence for theological claims. He maintained an interest not only in miracle claims but in paranormal phenomena more generally, but for largely Humean reasons, he rejected them, regarding the inductive evidence against them, drawn from our general experience, as more powerful than any supposed testimony or personal experience in their favour.
However, in about 2004, newspapers reported that Flew had abandoned his atheism and had come to believe in some kind of God. He had said in a video entitled Has Science Discovered God? that the intricate structure of DNA suggested that intelligent design was at work. He later published a book, with Roy Abraham Varghese, entitled There is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind (2007). However, there is an ongoing dispute about Flew’s contribution to this work, especially after he apparently admitted that due to his old age, he had not done much of the physical writing. It is not entirely clear what he really thought in the end. Perhaps he arrived at some form of Deism, but claims that he re-discovered his childhood Christian faith may well be exaggerated.
It would be lopsided to consider Flew’s contribution to philosophy as being mainly about religion. He wrote prolifically on many issues. He was known as a Hume scholar, but also wrote on crime, education, and critical thinking, among other issues. In his 1975 book Thinking About Thinking he attempted to expose a number of commonly accepted fallacies, including what he called the ‘No True Scotsman’ move. (To paraphrase: “No Scotsman ever puts sugar on his porridge oats”; “But Angus McSporran does!” “Ah, then he’s not a true Scotsman!”)
Flew engaged in some fascinating debates on the possibility of backwards causation. He also wrote a great deal in defence of the idea of human free will, eventually abandoning his original conviction that it was compatible with determinism.
He was interested in political philosophy too, and was an ardent defender of conservatism (somewhat taboo in the academic world at the time). In the 1970s and 80s he was a controversial figure. He was accused of racism after he defended the right to free speech of an American psychologist who had suggested that statistical IQ differences between American blacks and whites could have a partly genetic explanation. When teaching in San Diego, he attracted demonstrations against ‘Racist Flew’. Flew often wrote of the intolerance of some aspects of anti-racist ideology, but he also expressly condemned racism. In fact, his putting himself in the firing line was probably a combination of intellectual integrity, and perhaps innocence.
Flew’s conservatism had a libertarian streak. In the 1960s he took a liberal line on abortion and homosexual law reform. He was known as an excellent teacher, and former students have spoken of him as a man of high standards and high principles.
© Dr Piers Benn 2010
Piers Benn is the author of Ethics (Fundamentals of Philosophy series).