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A Refutation of Antony Flew’s “Gardener Parable.”

With the upcoming release of Antony Flew’s book documenting his abandonment of atheism and explanation of where he currently stands, There Is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind, I thought it would be fun to trot out some of my own material responding to Antony Flew’s arguments when he was yet in the atheistic camp. Obviously, I don’t know if arguments such as the ones I have were what helped him, but I have strong suspicions that when we read his book we’ll see that something like them did the trick. Below is an essay I modified from a forum version located here.

Antony Flew argues essentially that theists have the burden of proof whereas atheists have no obligation of their own, with the implication then that atheism is a negative position, a denial of a position and not a position in itself, rather than a positive one.

It goes without saying, but as this aims to be brief, you’ll need to read the links below in order to adequately follow the arguments in the essay.




The Flew-Wisdom “Gardner Parable” emerged in Flew’s famous work, “Theology and Falsification.” The idea is that one can invent all sorts of entities that cannot in principle be detected, and God is not much different than any of them. This is why we have illustrations like ‘Invisible Pink Unicorn,” the “Dragon in the Garage” and Dawkins’s current favorite, the “Flying Spaghetti Monster,” all put forward by ‘free-thinkers’ guided in their thinking by the concepts in Flew’s parable.

The Flew-Wisdom “Gardener Parable” not only presents the ‘presumption of atheism’ argument in a potent form but also provides the argument’s Achilles Heel.

In the Wisdom-Flew Gardener Parable two men, a believer and a skeptic happen upon a clearing where there was “growing many flowers and many weeds.” The believer posits a gardener, the skeptic disagrees. Through various contrivances the believer’s gardener, if it is to exist, must exist in such a qualified form as to be indistinguishable from no gardener at all. But what this parable illustrates in crystalline form is that it is not the definition of the gardener that we begin with at all, but rather a clearing “growing many flowers and many weeds.”

One supposes from the parable that there is something about this particular clearing that gives us the impression that this clearing is, in fact, a garden. In other words, what meets both men’s senses is that they are in the presence of a garden, with the intuition that where there is a garden, there is a gardener. Our believer need not go any further then he is portrayed as going. He could simply point to the ‘garden’ as prima facie evidence of a ‘gardener.’

Our skeptic has an obligation to show how whatever peculiarities gave rise to the suspicion that it was a garden in the first place are better explained via processes that don’t intuitively call for an intelligent agent. Unless, of course, our supposition is wrong and there is nothing in the clearing to suggest a gardener from the beginning.

Consider the difference in the argument if the scene that you arrived at was this one:


or if it was this one:


Which ‘clearing’ did our two explorers stumble upon?

Our parable does not say, and therefore we do not know whether or not there are suitable reasons for describing this clearing as a garden in the first place. Surely if the clearing is the first one above, it is the atheist that has a ‘burden’ to show that the prima facie inference is wrong. If it is the second, it is the theist. And if it is the second, and the theist meets his burden by invoking ad hoc explanations, clearly the theist’s arguments are tenuous at best. But we must first know which ‘garden’ we’re looking at.

Because of this fact, I think it is reasonable to say that Flew’s argument, so far as it goes, is valid. But it is based on some assumptions about the ‘clearing in the jungle’ that his parable is silent on. Perhaps the reason why Flew has abandoned atheism is not because he has found his argument to be logically flawed, but rather logically fulfilled. That is, he may have determined that the nature of the ‘clearing’ in front of his eyes really is best explained by invoking a ‘gardener’ and no longer finds such a conclusion as groundless.

We shall have to see, but I think it is safe to say that this is exactly the case for most theists therefore their position does not fall into the ‘jurisdiction’ of Flew’s argument.

Does the argument really reduce to a simple disagreement about whether or not the universe does or does not bear prima facie marks of a ‘designer’? Not quite, but that is not a fact that speaks well of atheism. For example, some atheists might allow that there are such prima facie marks but choose to interpret them in naturalistic terms under the very spurious assumption that they must do so (here they will invoke things like ‘Occam’s Razor’). Or, they might say- again allowing that the marks of the gardener might really exist- suggest that there is no difference between and no way to distinguish between a transcendent gardener and a super-powerful and technologically advanced alien.

Arguments like these show the real difference between atheists. Some are atheists because they simply choose to prefer naturalistic interpretations. Some are atheists that ‘follow the evidence, wherever it leads.’ Flew is in the latter category. Can it really be so that it is the theists who derive their views on evidences while the atheists generate theirs by presupposition?

Yes, it really can.



1 ping

    • Stephe on February 24, 2008 at 10:46 am

    I think your argument is a non-sequitur. It does not follow that from Flew’s lack of clarity on the type of garden, his argument is flawed. The principle of charity would ask that you assume the garden is one, which could appear to have a gardener. Now, I do not adhere to Flew’s strict epistemology; I think justified belief can be had even if glaring evidence (self evident, incorrigible or sense perceptive) is not present and that is the heart of the argument, not whether or not Flew’s garden is one type or another. Parables do not have to have a one-to-one correlation to the reality to which they point. The issue of the parable is epistemology, not horticulture.

    • Anthony on February 24, 2008 at 12:26 pm

    Thanks for your comments, Stephe. I see you had to wade through some strange code which I have now taken the opportunity to clean up.

    About your points… what is at issue is not the notion of a need for a ‘one-to-one’ correlation but rather a very important preliminary condition that is completely absent. Reading his parable charitably as it seems you would suggest is frankly to beg a very important question along with him. The problem is if there are no reasons to infer a gardener in the first place- or an intelligent agent, to strip away the horticulture- then there is no argument. Theists, intelligent design theorists, etc, don’t for a minute believe it is reasonable to infer an agent willy nilly.

    If there is no prima facie reason to infer an intelligent agent or some other reasonable line of evidence to suggest one, then the religionist joins Flew in rejecting a ‘death by a thousand qualifications.’ Who then would the argument be directed at? Theists can readily join him. Isn’t it clear, though, that the argument is directed at theists?

    The nature of the object to be explained is not just a minor point, it is a fundamental one. It also helps lay the groundwork for who has the burden of demonstration. If you come across the proverbial clearing and there is a sign that says “this garden maintained by Jim” then the most reasonable starting position is that there is an agent, presumably named Jim, at work, even if the ‘garden’ is unkempt. Jim might just be a bad gardner. The skeptic has a burden to show why it isn’t reasonable to infer an agent.

    On the other hand, with no reason to infer an agent, the person proposing that there is nonetheless an agent needs to show why despite appearances it is reasonable to infer an agent.

    A case in point might be fine tuning arguments. What kind of universe are we face to face with? The universe appears to be ‘fine tuned.’ Fine tuning is prima facie evidence of an intelligent agent. It is justified to infer the existence of such an agent and the skeptic has the burden of showing that the fine-tuning is an illusion. In the meantime, a person who wishes to infer the existence of an agent is perfectly justified in doing so as his initial starting position.

    It is another example of why the nature of the thing being examined (in this case, the universe) is a fundamental component to whether or not the conclusions illustrated in his parable apply.

    • Alex on June 22, 2009 at 4:47 am

    I think your argument is confused by attempting to specify gardens rather than looking at the basic points.

    Let’s strip away the garden for a moment.

    Two men, a believer and a sceptic, come across something which appears to be designed. Two opposing theories arise – the believer thinks of a designer specifically tuning the thing in order for it to be such, whereas the sceptic evokes something similar to the anthropic principle – they just happened to be as they are. No matter how low the probability of such an event, it must necessarily have happened once otherwise the thing would not be as it was.

    The gathering of evidence is the crucial part here, not the nature of gardens. You continue the line of ‘prima facie’ proofs and the burden of proof, but the important part of Flew’s fable would be the electrified fences, blood hounds and so on which would demonstrate the existence of a gardener, if only by the barks of the dogs or the shout as he touches a fence.

    A key example is the origin of the Universe and its constants. It’s tempting to ascribe a designer as a ‘divine knob-twiddler’, but that requires a greater explanation than the thing it’s explaining. The anthropic principle, on the other hand, ascribes the constants to arising by chance, or even not being alterable at all. No matter how low the probability of the constants being exactly as they are, it must necessarily have happened once or we wouldn’t be around to wonder about it.

  1. […] Readers of this blog know that I have an interest in Antony Flew, having even had the honor of corresponded with him.   Click here for a list of posts I’ve written regarding Dr. Flew.  The short story below may be understood better by some if you read this particular post of mine where I discuss the Flew-Wisdom parable. […]

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