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Anthony Flew, neism, and elitism - Elf M. Sternberg
Anthony Flew, neism, and elitism
Antony Flew came out of the closet yesterday as a deist, and over on the more erudite radical Christian websites you can positively hear the saliva hitting to the floor. They're positively wetting themselves over the opportunity to beat those of us with solid naturalistic metaphysics over the head with the drumbeat of "See? SEE? If Flew believes in God, you have to as well!"

Well, no.

First, Flew's argument is simply wrong. He's buying into the intelligent design argument while admitting up front that he has not kept up with the literature, knows nothing of genetic algorithms, has no idea what recent discoveries in protobiotics indicate, and is basically incredulous that the messiness of our genetic code is the process of mere stochastic evolution fed by entropic principles. Flew says, "It has become extraordinarily difficult to think about constructing a naturalistic theory of the evolution of that first reproducing organism." In the words of Daniel Dennett, Flew should try harder; biologists are having no such difficulties. Flew is arguing from incredulity, a common and usually easily-spotted fallacy.

Secondly, and this is the most important point, arguments from authority hold no weight with me. Flew's approach is essentially similar to Paul Davies, another deist who argues from the anthropic principle: we exist, therefore the universe must support us. Well, duh, that's a bit like a puddle being amazed that the hole it fills supports it. From the wide and vast universe, we're pretty insignificant. So far. The anthropic principle in its basic form is tautological, and you cannot use a tautology to support an argument. So I'm not interested in what Flew's position is, I'm interested in how he arrived at it.

And thirdly, Flew has been quoted (I haven't read his own material) as being sympathetic to the "intelligent design" movement. I don't believe that for a second; Paul Davies isn't an "intelligent design" proponent, and neither is Flew. Davies, like most theologians, doesn't like ID because it gives God the wrong job-- tinkering with a universe that ought to have not required tinkering in the first place. (The "error of misplaced concreteness," as it is put in Catholic philosophy; why a Catholic reporter should crow about Flew's alleged embrace of ID is beyond me, except that "misplaced concreteness" is one of those big phrases the masses are expected to not know too much about. Of course I'm cynical about this sort of thing.) As long as the philosophical underpinnings of ID require a (I'll be kind) indeterminate and (deliberately) indeterminable agent, it won't be science, and it won't provide evidence.

None of this is stopping the religious punditry, which is thrilled at the idea that science might finally be wrested away from naturalistic underpinnings and infused with something one of them weirdly calls "neism," or naturalistic deism. Anything, anything, they beg, that moves science closer to the day when labs are overseen by priests and the church decides what truths should be disseminated to the masses.

We have to remember that truly traditional religious conservatives come from the Irving Kristol / Russell Kirk line, who want "sureties of prejudice" and believe that the ideal populace is as contented cattle, huddling together under English oaks, deaf to the buzzing of contentious ideas (to paraphrase Kirk). Kristol once infamously said of evolutionary theory,

There are different kinds of truths for different kinds of people. There are truths appropriate for children; truths that are appropriate for students; truths that are appropriate for educated adults; and truths that are appropriate for highly educated adults, and the notion that there should be one set of truths available to everyone is a modern democratic fallacy. It doesn't work.

Flew's consideration of deism gives these people a brief flame of hope that this aristocratic elitism will someday once again rule the world, with their particular family of aristocrats in charge. (Contrast this with meritocratic elitism, where through open competition and the market of ideas in a truly free environment, the best ideas float to the top and the worst die off.)

It is my job to crush that hope. Because this will blow over. Flew wasn't a leader, and in meritocracies we don't take orders from above anyway unless they ''make sense''. Flew admits that he doesn't have a coherent tale from first principles through evidence, a classic example worked out from beginning to end, that supports his position. Without it, his "deism", if that's really what it is, is still just wishful thinking.

And naturalism will remain the dominant paradigm in science. Because through the process of elimination, an a posteriori condition, naturalism has replaced all a priori assumptions about how the universe has worked; of all the assumptions we could hold, the one that natural phenomena arise from natural causes has produced the most spectacular (indeed, the only successful) results.

(I'm indebted to John Holbo at Crooked Timber for reminding me about Russell Kirk's work; I hadn't encountered or considered it in almost a decade. I'm also indebted to Brian Lieter for pointing out the difference between a priori supposition and a posteriori conclusions about choosing methodologies.)

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3 comments or Leave a comment
From: (Anonymous) Date: December 13th, 2004 03:21 pm (UTC) (Link)
Looks like some deliberate misquoting of Flew, to me. See here:

Sorry to Disappoint, but I'm Still an Atheist!

Richard C. Carrier, current Editor in Chief of the Secular Web, tells me that "the internet has now become awash with rumors" that I "have converted to Christianity, or am at least no longer an atheist." Perhaps because I was born too soon to be involved in the internet world I had heard nothing of this rumour. So Mr. Carrier asks me to explain myself in cyberspace. This, with the help of the Internet Infidels, I now attempt.
elfs From: elfs Date: December 13th, 2004 06:13 pm (UTC) (Link)
The problem with this post is that it's from 2001. It was from the last time rumour tossed about the Internet that Flew had "found god." I suspect Flew is the target of choice because, unlike Martin or Dawkins, Flew doesn't use the Internet and it takes much longer for the truth to get its shoes on in such a case.

In a letter dated October 19th, 2004, Flew more or less puts the position clear: he's tempted by the notion of god, for reasons of incredulity, but one should not mistake his temptation for an embrasure of Christianity or any other supposed "special revelation" religion.
From: (Anonymous) Date: December 29th, 2004 09:40 pm (UTC) (Link)
How does a clown fish acquire an immunity to the poison of a sea anemone through evolution? How many clown fish die before this mechanism magically appears in a new-born clown fish? Shouldn't there be billions of "missing links"?
3 comments or Leave a comment