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Discussion 2 to Meditation 291
Informal comments on "There is a God: "How the world's most notorious atheist changed his mind"" by Antony Flew and Roy Abraham Varghese

by Paul W Sharkey

Editor's note: In a recent message to me Paul commented negatively on Flew and Varghese's book, There is a God. I asked him if I could put those comments into discussion for Meditation 291. He agreed, but also mentioned that he had read the book pretty much as a favor for an evangelical friend, and he sent copies of the messages he had sent to his friend while reading the book. I thought those messages would be better to post than his original comments.

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        First email upon receiving the book:

 I received the book in yesterday's mail and have skimmed through it a bit and looked at notes and references -- already see some potential problems (like quoting out of context, misleading inferences etc) and already some serious fallacies of relevance and ambiguity but I will read through it anyway -- pretty short book. 

Having even glanced at it though, it sure doesn't sound like the Antony Flew I was introduced to (both academically and personally) and not just because of the "conclusions" but rather that the sloppy non-rigorous argumentation is not like the A.F. I knew.  BTW Varghese is a "Christian" apologist and has done this sort of thing with others -- I know it has been said that Flew has said the book represents his "position" but just what that position really is as represented by his concluding remarks -- last two paragraphs p. 158 -- makes him sound more like an agnostic than a full-blown theist and the "theism" that there is sounds like that of Einstein, Spinoza (who was condemned as an "atheist"), the Stoics -- i.e., the Universe itself -- Nature.  

Also, the book's subtitle: "How the world's most notorious atheist changed his mind" is certainly over stated, misleading and sounds more like a marketing slogan than any concern for the truth.  Flew certainly could not (nor ever could be) described as the "worlds most notorious atheist."  Most people outside of those few academic types specifically concerned with the philosophy of religion and/or religion and science have probably never heard of him.  Even among that crowd, A.J. Ayer would probably be regarded as the more "notorious."  The "most notorious atheist" of our day surely must be Madalyn Murray O'Hair,  then of course there was David Hume of whom it was said at his death -- "He was an atheist but at least he was an honest man." 

My concern is that Varghese may not be such an honest man but rather one who has taken advantage of a somewhat known but aged academic philosopher to advance his own agenda, not the least of which is selling books!  Anyway, I hate to seem (or be) so negative going into it but I will give it my best objective reading -- but again, as I said, I have already seen enough fallacies to make me very suspicious.

Second email after having read it:

 I've made it to page 120 and am having some difficulty going on -- already many many too many fallacies built on still other fallacies.  In particular, major fallacies of presumption (complex question, petitio principi, false dichotomies...) appeals to authority, ad hominem, ad populum -- even quoting fallacious arguments of "authorities" as support for the "position" which is -- whatever it is -- incredibly ambiguous.  

I find the stuff supposedly written by Flew to be better than that attributed to Varghese (which I find to be nothing more than rhetorical polemics) though even much of that attributed to Flew is full of fallacies and not reflective of a careful, accurate and thoroughgoing education in the history of philosophy, especially many of the "classical figures," some of which are seriously misrepresented (or simply ignored) here.

One interesting personal point so far though -- when Flew proposed his "compatibalist" theory as a "solution" to the problem of free will and determinism (which was all the rage for a while) I immediately saw and pointed out that it was based upon a fallacy (ignored and dismissed by my "colleagues" all caught up in the "new discovery").  Now Flew himself admits to having committed a fallacy in its formulation -- the exact same fallacy I pointed out decades ago -- but then I didn't have a B. Phil from Oxford, only a PhD from Notre Dame!!!    But again, it ain't who you are (or aren't) that determines whether something makes any sense or not -- is fallacious or not -- true or not -- but simply whether the premisses are true, the argument is formally valid, and it commits no informal fallacies -- of which so far the "argument" of this book is entirely composed.  

I will read through the rest of it only because you sent it and said you wanted to discuss it (and there isn't that much left to read) but quite frankly, unless I discover something very different and very significant from what has already been presented, it is one of the worst examples of Flew's work of which I am aware -- and I read a great deal of his stuff in preparation for my dissertation.   The book (I hope not Flew) has even in many cases seriously misrepresented philosophers including but not limited to Plato, Aristotle, Spinoza, Hume, Kant, Davies (not a philosopher though) ... doesn't even mention very relevant other ones such as Liebnitz, Berkeley, Kiekegaard, Sartre, Tillich, Husserl, Heidegger ...  

It is also quite relevant and very interesting that Flew himself makes a point of noting in Part I the fallacy of scientists having anything authoritative (or even relevant) to say on philosophical or theological issues (like sports figures testifying to the virtues of toothpaste) -- all egregious examples of the fallacy of appeal to authority;  but then the entire "argument" (at least so far) of Part II is nothing more than a huge example of exactly that -- a kind of argumentum ad verecundiam ad populum.    Moreover, some (much of) the "science" quoted is also just plain either seriously wrong and/or out of date, especially on such things as quantum theory (let alone observed quantum phenomena) and even the epistemological status of classical Newtonian physics, as well as more recent theories of quantum evolution and quantum consciousness.   Nothing about string theory at all -- the hottest thing in quantum physics these days.  That, together with controversial -- certainly not settled -- issues in genetics, the quantum chemistry of DNA/RNA, and even probability theory -- I can't say this comes anywhere close to being a sound and settled argument for the existence of "God" -- whatever Flew may be meaning to mean by that.

So, in sum -- other than feeling vindicated by my recognition decades ago of the fallacy in Flew's theory of "compatiblism," this has been a very disappointing experience; I had actually hoped for something really novel and significant --  ready to be newly convinced myself.  But --and I know this may sound arrogant -- if this were a graduate paper submitted to me in one of my courses in philosophy of religion, or science and religion, or epistemology -- I would have to give it an "unsatisfactory" and ask the student to come see me about whether s/he should continue on in becoming a professional philosopher.   If someone presented this kind of stuff as evidence of qualifications to be a philosophical practitioner (having been Chair of the Board of Professional Examiners for the American Philosophical Practitioners Association), I would have to say "NO," not because it represents a theist point of view (with which I am not a priori unsympathetic) but because of the egregiously fallacious argumentation used to support it. 

Further comments

The whole "argument" of the book is a huge example of the fallacy of argumentum ad veracundium ad populum (quoting a bunch of carefully selected "scientists" frequently out of context) and fallacies of presumption -- assumes that there is a beginning of existence, therefore it needs a "cause" for it and everything that follows  But if space and time (existence) are not linear, then no such requirement is needed and the "design:" (if there is one) is inherent in the universe and would not need to "precede" it.  

There are so many fallacies committed in this piece that one would have to write a book several times its original length to point them all out and explain them all.  

BTW, I did finally complete the book but did not change my opinion about its "validity" but rather confirmed my worst suspicions.