This is not your normal review. I set aside my copy of Flew’s “God and Philosophy” to re-read for the purposes of writing this review and it has disappeared. 10 to 1, a certain other adult in the house ‘put it where it belong’ which is why I can no longer find it. So, I will be writing from memory. I had already read the book twice, so I have something to go on, but that was awhile back. So, on to it, but perhaps less thorough than I had wanted to do.
It might be argued that Flew has come to think otherwise in many ways. That is true, and it is a bit fun to watch atheists who used to swear by him now swear at him. Still, it is also true that just because Flew has abandoned them it doesn’t follow that the arguments are false or inadequate. So, despite his approaching theism, a review of this book and addressing the arguments it contains still has value.
Flew’s book aims to survey arguments for Christian theism and show how they do not overcome the ‘presumption of atheism’ (or, ‘Straticonian atheism’). It was his view that our analysis ought to begin by assuming- or at least operating on the view- that by default, there is no God, and if the evidence can be interpreted well enough that way, or there is no positive evidence to call us to think otherwise, the idea of God can simply be set aside. He might say, “Not untrue, perhaps, but not worthy of one’s time, either.”
Such an important epistemological position surely requires significant discussion but I am afraid that this is very poorly done. In fact, I don’t think it can be done. Especially when the very question you are investigating is “Is there a God” making the argument that one must assume “false” until proven otherwise really teeters on the edge of circular reasoning and question begging. Most people would say that a more neutral posture would be more reasonable. I often encounter atheists arguing along the lines of a ‘presumption of atheism’ but ultimately it is almost always exposed that they take this view by simple, raw, brute choice. We need not follow them.
Flew begins his analysis of the definition of ‘God’ put forth by theologians to see if any definitions has any ‘applicability.’ He points out that it is very difficult to find a definition of God that anyone can agree on and that most treatments are not in depth enough to use in philosophical work. He says that starting with the definition is very important; ‘one must start at the beginning of the beginning.’
And here, at the beginning, the rest of the book unravels. I certainly agree that one must start at the beginning of the beginning but do not believe that a definition of God is the proper beginning. Nor do I think that Straticonian atheism would have been the proper beginning. The proper beginning is not how we know there is a God, but how we know anything! Much to my surprise, this question of basic epistemology doesn’t arise until many chapters later and even then only in response to theists arguing from personal experience. Of course, the personal experience of another is not likely going to have epistemological weight for someone else, I am not denying that. I am saying that he should have started out by speaking to just what kind of information and evidence ought to be compelling on another. On this, he is silent.
I believe that the question is entirely transformed when one starts out with basic epistemological considerations. “I think therefore I am.” Before we concern ourselves with the existence of God, do we not all struggle to fathom our own existence? Why should we trust our senses to give us reliable data? Why should we trust our minds to reliably interpret that data? Atheists are always telling us about how our minds and senses can trick us (usually in an attempt to discredit the testimony of those who witnessed Jesus’ deeds). If that is the case, how do we know that in revealing the trickery we have not been tricked?
To this, the answer is often, “We trust our minds and our senses because we have to!” There is no doubt that we have to, but doesn’t it make sense that any proper worldview, any proper ‘theory of everything’ will explain and account for… everything? Why exempt out own senses, interpretive abilities, and existence, from our account just because we must take them for granted? When I consider the question, I find that it makes much more sense to infer a presumption of theism rather than a presumption of atheism.
I don’t plan on defending or debating that here. I’m just explaining how starting at the real beginning has the potential to re-frame the entire issue.
By failing to truly begin at the beginning, I believe Flew’s book becomes ineffectual. It raises some interesting challenges at times but as a comprehensive analysis and rebuttal of Christian theism, I believe it does not come close to succeeding.
“I think therefore I am” is a much better starting point. While this is an undeniable piece of evidence for believing we really exist, there is still much more to be said. For example, I can also say “There was a time when I was not.” If anything, this suggests that I am a contingent agent. Ought contingency regress infinitely? Or does it not make a certain amount of sense to suggest that there is, ultimately, a Thinker that is the last stop in the chain, a Final Thinker who is in fact, non-contingent… meeting one of the primary agreed upon criteria in a definition of God as Christians understand him.