Saturday, December 11, 2004

Anthony Flew's newfound belief in God

The word is that Professor Antony Flew (pictured right), the former champion of Humean skepticism and philosophical atheism, now believes in God. Flew, whose teaching career has led him from philosophy professorships in Britain at Oxford, Aberdeen, Keel, Reading, and York, to posts in North America in Toronto, Calgary, San Diego, and Los Angeles, is author of numerous books offering philosophical arguments against theism as well as naturalistic alternatives to theistically-based theories of human nature, cognition, belief, and ethics. Representative are his books:
  • Hume's Philosophy of Belief (1961)
  • God and Philosophy (1966)
  • Evolutionary Ethics (1967)
  • The Presumption of Atheism, and other philosophical essays on God, Freedom and Immortality (1976)
  • A Raional Animal: Philosophical Essays on the Nature of Man (1978)
  • Darwinian Evolution (1984)
  • Atheistic Humanism (1993)
I can remember being assigned books by Flew when I was beginning my undergraduate classes in philosophy in the 1970s. His perspective was consistently imbued with an unequivocal opposition to what he regarded as nonsense quite typical of the tradition British empiricism, which had invested all its stock in the "sensible." His arguments and illustrations against theistic belief seemed, at least within the framework of that mindset, devastating. (This, of course, was before Alvin Plantinga [pictured left] injected new enthusiasm among theistic philosophers for a counter-offensive beginning in the late sixties and early seventies.)

Philosophical debates between philosophers about the existence of God, of course, have a venerable tradition. I remember reading as an undergraduate the famous BBC Copleston-Russell debate of 1944 beween Fr. F.C. Copleston, J.S. (pictured right), the great Catholic historian of philosophy, and Bertrand Russell (pictured left), the author of Why I Am Not a Christian (Amazon link)--a book, which, I've heard it said, has ironically nudged more than one disappointed atheistic reader in the direction of theistic belief! More recently the same tradition of debate has been continued by William Lane Craig, Professor of Philosophy at Talbot School of Theology, and Walter Sinnot-Armstrong, Philosophy Professor at Dartmouth College, in their book God?: A Debate Between a Christian and an Atheist (Point/Counterpoint Series, Oxford, England) (Amazon link). Antony Flew himself has been involved in such debates. One famous debate, published back in 1977, was that between Flew and Thomas B. Warren, under the title: The Warren-Flew Debate on the Existence of God (Amazon link). Another, more recent debate was that between Flew and William Lane Craig (pictured left), under the 2003 title: Does God Exist: The Craig-Flew Debate (Amazon link) In the same year (2003), a debate between Flew and Gary Habermas, a prolific philosopher and historian from Liberty University, was published under the title of Did Jesus Rise from the Dead?: The Resurrection Debate (Amazon link)

The Winter 2004 issue of Philosophia Christi features an exclusive interview with the former atheist Antony Flew, conducted by Gary Habermas (pictured right). Flew, who is eighty-one years old, says that he doesn't yet believe in the God of a "revelatory system," although he's "open to that." It will be interesting to see where his newfound theism leads. Flew is hardly the first philosopher, of course, to find his way from atheism and agnosticism to theism. Many have pushed beyond that to explicit belief in the "revelatory God" of Judaism or Christianity. Examples that come to mind include Alasdair MacIntyre (pictured below right), who converted from sexular Marxism to Catholicism some years ago, as well as Mordimer J. Adler (pictured left), who converted from a secular Jewish background to theistic belief, then to Christianity, becoming a member, first, of the Episcopal Church in 1986, then the Catholic Church in 1999. MacIntyre, whose book After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (1984) brought him international attention, is now Professor of Philosophy at Notre Dame. Adler, who chaired the Board of Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica, founded the Great Books program and authored many books, including Aristotle for Everybody and How to Think About God, died on June 28, 2001. Edward T. Oakes has written an account of MacIntyre's career and conversion in "The Achievement of Alasdair MacIntyre" (First Things, August/September, 1996). An account of Adler's conversion is available in the Wikipedia article, "Mortimer Jerome Adler," as well as a humorous remembrance by his secretary, "Nancy Olson Remembers."

For a detailed academic curriculum vitae of Antony Flew, listing his educational background, teaching posts and publications, see a Brief Biography of Antony Flew.

Link to publications by Antony Flew:

Link to publications by Alasdair MacIntyre:

Link to publications by Mortimer J. Adler:

[Credits: Thanks to Christopher Blosser for the tip regarding the Habermas interview in Philosophia Christi.]


Mark Oppenheimer, The Turning of an Atheist (New York Times, November 4, 2007).

Friday, December 10, 2004

Feminism, psychology, & metaphor

I respect any woman's choice to be a stay-at-home mom. I think it's hilarious when women have decided to be stay-at-home moms before they've even found boyfriends, which was the case with the two female students I mentioned in my last, just so they won't be called feminists. To me, it's sort of like saying you want to be president--sure, if you can get everyone to vote for you, then you can be president. If you can find someone who can afford you, then you can stay at home, and maybe you'll find someone. Personally, the idea makes my skin crawl, but it's a question of taste, I guess. As I have said, if someone in my family were to be the stay-at-home person, I'd rather that it be me, just as, if me or my brother had to go to war, I'd rather it be me. But not because I see anything wonderful about it in either case.
You know, when Sarah Degenhart asked John Kerry in the third (town meeting style) debate whether he could provide her with any assurance that he wouldn't use tax dollars to support abortion, he replied by professing his "respect" for her question. [For two accounts, click here and here.] I think I echo the opinion of others when I say that words are cheap. But that's a detail.

I wonder at all this derisiveness you share with so many feminists towards the traditional notion of home. A Freudian might have a field day with this one. Perhaps it's the mother thing-- when we say of women that we can't live with them and can't live without them ... Is it that we long for the warm, soft, comfortableness of mommy's arms, but when we find ourselves enfolded in them we feel claustrophobic, like our identities are somehow going to be swallowed up and lost? For all the ways in which you find that the idea of staying at home makes your "skin crawl," I really can't find in myself what is so oppressive about it. But maybe that difference is simply a function of different childhoods or something. I really wouldn't know. All I can do is testify to the fact that in my experience, home has almost always been a place I'd much rather be than out somewhere else. Someone might be tempted to say that this is because we moved nearly every other hear-- around the world, different parts of Asia, China, Japan, and different States in the U.S.- but I wouldn't make much of that. If there is such a thing as a "homebody," that would be me, I suppose. I'd love nothing much more than staying home, cooking, reading stories to the kids, and doing my own reading and writing as time allowed. So much of jetting about the country and attending conferences to take turns listening to professors quack in front of an audience strikes me as such a colossal waste of time, if not a disease. Touring is something else, perhaps. I enjoy traveling, especially to Spain and Italy and Switzerland where I spent a year. But there's nowhere like home and family, even if it's in Hickory, in my opinion.
I also think it's hilarious the way we pick and choose which feminists we want to base our notion of feminism on--we do so to project our version of politics on the world around us, not out of any regard for statistical accuracy.
I don't know that there's a "hard science" to any of this, but it doesn't take much--it seems to me--to stick one's finger up and see which way the wind's blowing, as Dylan says. I wonder what you mean by "statistical accuracy." Do you trust the polls? Have you ever seen their questionnaires? Do you think they mean anything? Is there a meaning in this text? (pace Kevin J. Vanhoozer)
I don't smile at all, by the way, to think of you or the Pope as a feminist.
Well, that's reassuring.
I'm very interested in the question of identity--well, it's not that I've read anything about it, really, but I've thought a lot about it. I don't think, for example, that a person identifies as a Christian, a Lutheran, an English major, or a homosexual because one fits the definition.
The word "because" here is ambiguous. It can mean either (1) a subjective psychological motive, something that pushes from the inside, or (2) an objective logical reason, something that pulls from the outside. Before it would make sense to talk about any sort of agreement or disagreement here, it would be necessary to distinguish which sense was your authorial intention, I suppose.
I think one may do so for a variety of reasons, and probably the same basic set of reasons in each of the above cases. (I suspect that converting to a religion is very much like discovering a sexual orientation, for example.) Furthermore, I think that one never identifies as any of these things with a sense of fully understanding what the identification means. In other words, I bet few homosexuals would pretend to have fully considered all the theories and all the possibilities and all the data and made a rational decision that they are homosexual--rather, I bet that for a homosexual life is a never-ending journey of discovery of what it means to be a homosexual. I bet it is the same for a Lutheran and the same for a feminist. So I congratulate you, and I wish you well on your feminist journey.
Ahem ... [caugh, caugh] Why, thank you. Why yes ... thank you very much indeed ...
My advice, though, would be to let it unfold naturally before you and not to be too hasty to decide what your feminism is to mean or where it is to take you. The idea that, as a feminist, you somehow either do fit or can rightly be taken to fit into some narrow stereotype of what a feminist is, is of course propaganda propagated by those who want to use you as a foil to define and exalt their own political agenda, so just ignore them. Also, shave your head, out of solidarity--long hippy hair like yours just perpetuates the oppression of all women. But above all, be patient with yourself. Developing a political identity is like learning a language--it takes time, and practice, and open discussion with others who so identify. Your courage inspires me--perhaps I'll shave my head, too.
Now let's not get too solemn and serious about all this. I prefer to just let my hair fall out, as it surely will soon enough.

I forget whether we've discussed Sartre's St. Genet: Actor and Martyr. Sartre raised these questions precisely about identity. The question is, Who is Jean Genet? A voice once publicly declared of him: "You're a thief." He had indeed been caught in the act of stealing something. But the question is: is this his identity? Does this define him? Is this who he is? If anything, Sartre is interesting to read, because he's so French-- so extreme in his declarations. Makes him fascinating. Even where one thinks he's dead wrong--just like, perhaps, you apparently thought your father was. Does the fact that reality is more complicated than any theory about it, just as a person is more complex than any identifying label that may be applied by himself or by others to him, mean that it's utterly meaningless to say of a white Anglo-American Protestant male professor here that he is a "White, Anglo-Saxon Protestant male" as opposed to a "Black Muslim Lesbian"? One of Confucius' doctrines is called the "Rectification of Names," which involves the conviction that "language be in accordance with the truth of things," that "the names a person uses be spoken appropriately," and so on. Confucius is simply dogmatic about this, as he is in his whole social ethic. With good reason: if he called for a metaphysical grounding, the only thing available might have been some form or another of the monistic dogma which says that ultimately everything is mind and mind is nothing, which wouldn't work very well. But he lived during a period of anarchy, and people required a sense of order so they wouldn't go on slaughtering one another and forcing their relatives to drink the soup they made of them. As finite and foolish as we human beings are, I find little to fault Confucius in his notion that generally (perhaps with some exceptions like Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck) people ought to say what they mean and mean what they say and avoid using words in irresponsible ways. I know that may grate. But language can be horribly dishonest, can't it-- as so much of it is these days.
Your question about metonymy--why it is preferable to metaphor--is the crucial one. I'm not sure I know the answer, or whether it's the same for everyone. I will send you a description, if I can find it--it's a good one, I think (hope), a close reading of a couple of pages of Lacan that sort of beaches him on the strand of deconstruction--I'm sure you'll admire it's subtlety.
I would admire it if I could understand it. We'll have to see.
Here's one way to generalize an answer. Metaphor basically works by equation--by equating one thing like another. But the old, wrinkled truth, to quote this guy I met quoting Shopenhour (sp?), ...
... is, that things aren't equal to other things--they simply aren't.
Well, now there's a capital generalization. Is that really so? Fichte would enjoy a conversation with you on that subject. He would state that principle of logical non-contradiction rests upon an underlying assumption of a principle of identity. A = A. But that's a discussion for another day. But maybe you mean something else: that two or more different things are never equal (identical). I would agree. But isn't the principle involved in metaphors, like "Red is a loud color" something different still, a kind of cross-modal similarity (betweeen a color and a sound) with respect to something else? If I compare a fast car with a slow one, I'm comparing them with respect to their speed. We could call that an intra-modal comparison. But when I use a metaphor creating an innately ambiguous (that's what makes it interesting) "identity synthesis" between a color and a sound, one finds it hard (at first) to answer the question: "With respect to WHAT are these two things being compared"? Some psychologists (including one named Osgood) in the 1950s did experiments using the "Osgood antonymn scale" and "Osgood semantic differential technique" on samples of Navajos, Mexicans, Japanese, and Anglo-Americans and found a 90% uniformity of responses (identifications like ping is to pong, as ice cream is to warm pea soup, as young girl is to old matron, as Mozart is to Beethoven, and so on). When they tabulated the results, they found that the metaphorical equasions clustered around three discernable categories: (1) potency, (2) activity, and (3) preference. In other words, on their view, if I say that a "Red is a loud color," I'm comparing something in the visual modality with something in the audible modality with respect to "activity" or "potency." Interesting. I just reviewed a Festschrift for a brillian philosopher in his sixties (Robert Sokolowski) which contained an interesting essay on metaphor based on one of Sokolowski's books written some twenty years ago, Husserlian Mediations: How Words Present Things. Fascinating. I'll grant you that this kind of identity isn't simple identity, but I think it's one of the most interesting, meaning-disclosing kind of identity locutions can yield: Red is a very hot color indeed! Red hot!
(Case in point: when I call you on your generalizations about feminists, you subdivide them, and generalize about "radical" feminists, but that doesn't work, either--they don't all agree, and they identify out of a yearning for solidarity, not out of allegiance to some set of principles. Why do they need solidarity? Could it be because, without it, they'll just magically, coincidentally, wind up stuck at home doing someone's laundry? Hmm--yes, maybe that's it.) Okay--let's go with that, provisionally, of course.
Now that's so cute I could wrap it up in swaddling close and stick a bottle in its mouth. Of course-- with apologies to Clinton -- that depends on what "that" means. Provisionally I'll agree with you about that, where "that" means that the identity-through-solidarity of "feminists" is found through their relief at not winding up stuck at home doing someone's laundary? Sheeesh. I love the sound of a washmachine, and the smell of clothes in the dryer. I'd make someone such a fine house-husband--as long as it wasn't a "feminazi" !

Friday, December 03, 2004

Pascal's Wager revisited

Pascal's wager is well known. It assumes everyone is betting on whether God exists by how they are living. But since there are good arguments either way, nobody generally decides which way to wager based on the arguments, but on personal desires. So is there any prudent way of deciding which way to wager? Pascal basically says that if you place your bet on the truth of Christianity and it turns out to be untrue, you end up the same as the atheist: dead. But if you bet on the truth of atheism and it turns out to be false (and Christianity true), you have all eternity to think about what you missed out on.

People often find this wager silly, or just plain stupid. On one level, I would agree that it seems so-- at least IF you take it as an argument intended to persuade anyone to change their views about God. Even if it only convinced you that you had a vested interest in believing that God exists and that you had good reason to submit to Him, it couldn't achieve the goal of getting you to change your beliefs. Pascal knew that our beliefs are, on some level, beyond our volitional control. I can't get you to believe the moon is made of blue cheese by offering you a $1000 to believe it, even if you'd like to. Pascal understood all this.

He also understood that the traditional metaphysical proofs, though valid as arguments, were generally ineffective except for the most exceptional philosopher-types, since they are far too abstract and complicated for most people, and even if it were effective for them, it would be only during the demonstration, because the moment it was completed, they would wonder whether a mistake could have been made somewhere and they were just being credulous.

So Pascal took a different approach, which his gambling and skeptical friends couldn't wriggle out of--an approach which couldn't help engage their wills: he pointed out to them by his "wager" that they were involved in gambling with their lives and eternal destinies by the little decisions they were already making every day-- whether or not to take prayer and moral integrity seriously, whether or not to take truth seriously and respond honestly to the light that each of them already had, and so forth. In other words, he put the onus on THEM by showing that some of the most important kinds of knowledge in the world (including religious knowledge) has attitudinal, moral, and dispositional prerequisites, and that if they hadn't already engaged in a serious and sincere investigation of the claims of religion, their dismissal of things religious couldn't be taken seriously as having any intellectual or moral integrity.

Hence, the wager wasn't intended to get anyone to directly change their beliefs. Pascal knew he couldn't achieve that. He also knew that if people chose to "become religious" simply on the basis of "fire insurance," this would be one of the most self-centered and unworthy motives in the world. Rather, his wager was intended to get people to consider how they were in fact already wagering their lives, and to consider those areas which, unlike their beliefs, are under their volitional control: their decisions about how to live, whether to take their moral lives seriously, along with things like prayer and search after truth, etc. The wager, thus, was intended to launch people in a new direction in their lives, by beginning to change those areas of their lives where they could do so-- their actions: keeping their promises, treating their neighbors with respect, caring about moral integrity, caring about truth where they could see it. I'm guessing that Pascal calculated that this would lead people eventually see things as "evident" to which they had previously been blinded, much as Max Scheler says (in The Nature of Sympathy) that love, far from being blind, opens the eyes of the lover to qualities in the beloved that others are blind to. Eventually, then, the person to whom the world looked devoid of any ultimate purpose or meaning might come to view the same data as replete with the handiwork of God and as saturated with His presence.

Something like that.