"I still hope and believe there’s no possibility of an afterlife."
April 17, 2010 6:14 AM   Subscribe

Antony Flew has gone to meet his maker. Or not. Previously, on "the world's most notorious atheist who changed his mind." Flew was a philosopher who was known as the originator of the "No True Scotsman" fallacy. Some doubted the conversion was what it seemed to be. Antony Flew on the afterlife.
posted by availablelight (41 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
(more about Flew's skepticism about an afterlife in the interview linked, starting here.)
posted by availablelight at 6:21 AM on April 17, 2010


the world's most notorious atheist who changed his mind

Just goes to show that he was never a true atheist in the first place.
posted by Syme at 6:30 AM on April 17, 2010 [27 favorites]


In 2004, however, he announced on a DVD titled “Has Science Discovered God?” that research on DNA and what he believed to be inconsistencies in the Darwinian account of evolution had forced him to reconsider his views. DNA research, he said, “has shown, by the almost unbelievable complexity of the arrangements which are needed to produce life, that intelligence must have been involved.”

Reading the post I was genuinely interested in what might have made a world-renowned atheist philosopher change his mind, and was expecting something better than "irreducible complexity". What a let-down.
posted by L.P. Hatecraft at 6:50 AM on April 17, 2010 [5 favorites]


Reading the post I was genuinely interested in what might have made a world-renowned atheist philosopher change his mind, and was expecting something better than "irreducible complexity".

Apparently he later partially retracted his view, going from
"My one and only piece of relevant evidence [for an Aristotelian God] is the apparent impossibility of providing a naturalistic theory of the origin from DNA of the first reproducing species ..."

to

"I now realize that I have made a fool of myself by believing that there were no presentable theories of the development of inanimate matter up to the first living creature capable of reproduction."
posted by martinrebas at 6:57 AM on April 17, 2010


The links (especially the text interview, and his piece in the Philosophy Press) discuss more on his philosophical understanding of a "first cause."
posted by availablelight at 7:38 AM on April 17, 2010


Hooray! He's dead and we can all stop harassing his choices. If only this had a trickle down effect.
posted by parmanparman at 8:01 AM on April 17, 2010


Hooray! He's dead and we can all stop harassing his choices. If only this had a trickle down effect.

People argue with philosophers. Boxers get hit. That's the name of the game. It's part of the job description.
posted by availablelight at 8:35 AM on April 17, 2010 [8 favorites]


Whenever a respected elder atheist says something is explicable by science, s/he is usually right. However, when a respected elder atheist says something is impossible to explain using science, s/he is almost always wrong.

Hooray! He's dead and we can all stop harassing his choices. If only this had a trickle down effect.

What you call "harassment" atheists call defense against a world full of superstition and irrationality.
posted by DU at 8:42 AM on April 17, 2010 [9 favorites]


Hooray! He's dead and we can all stop harassing his choices. If only this had a trickle down effect.

The idea that we go around choosing what to believe is the next frontier of debunking.
posted by Brian B. at 9:08 AM on April 17, 2010


. . .
posted by nola at 9:31 AM on April 17, 2010


The problem with these sorts of arguments is we simply don't have the ability to conceptualize what we're talking about... I call myself an atheist when it comes to personal gods but an agnostic when it comes to deistic gods, mostly because I can't explain how 'life, the universe, & everything' got started, so perhaps there's a cause of some sort, and perhaps that cause deserves to be called god. Hume says deists are really just atheists without knowing it, since they make god too vague to actually be anything, but I wonder if this just shows that in some sense we're all just talking about the same thing. People who believe in god have just come up with a different vocabulary for talking about the mystery of existence. They focus more on what we don't know, where the people who reject god of course note the mystery, but focus on what we've learned.

I hesitate to use the word god, because it carries a lot of baggage, but the more I look into what we think we know, the less convinced I am that we have much figured out. How time began, how life began, without some cause or overarching purpose or intelligence, is not as easy to accept as it seemed in high school (it just did!). It certainly no longer seems necessary to me to get into arguments over whether god exists, because I think the bigger question is, what does someone mean by god, and how is it relevant if he/it exists?

If some cause existed, it wouldn't change anything about afterlives, prayers, or apocalypses, and I still think people who take that sort of thing literally are a bit hard to understand, but I can appreciate the use of metaphors, and on some level I think most of these things are metaphorical (if believers really thought the afterlife was better than this life, they'd hope for death, be thankful for deadly diseases, celebrate at funerals & try to get into fatal accidents... For most, it's a way to soften a very painful blow).

I think the main problem with contemporary religion is a church structure which accentuates difference (saved vs unsaved, e.g.) rather than unity (all god's children, or something). If a church allows for people to meditate on mystery and feel connected to their fellow human beings, then it isn't necessarily a bad thing, & it's probably only children who think "god" is something anthropomorphic. Adults can understand it as that mystery.*

* actually, this reminds me of a conversation i had with a some family once, when my cousin and his wife were talking about taking their kids to church. My family is pretty much atheists, but my cousin's wife was brought up catholic. I said something like this, that I could understand god as the mystery of the world. My cousin's wife said she understood god as the unity of the world. My cousin said he could understand god as the social connection between people, essentially the love of the world. And then his sister said she could understand god as the yin-yang or essential male-female nature of the world. SO basically everyone had a slightly different interpretation but everyone was coming up with a quality or aspect of the world... It's true 3/4 of us never go to church and are basically atheists, but my cousin's wife was only reconsidering the church because she had fond memories of it as a child and thought her kids might benefit socially, not because of any change in belief. In other words, the gap between belief and non-belief almost comes down the arbitrary connotation a word has to you, rather than a deep distinction of philosophical understanding...
posted by mdn at 10:21 AM on April 17, 2010 [4 favorites]


What you call "harassment" atheists call defense against a world full of superstition and irrationality.

Not all atheists. If it doesn't adversely affect me, I say live and let live, and I say that's basic civility.
posted by Astro Zombie at 10:29 AM on April 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


but the more I look into what we think we know, the less convinced I am that we have much figured out. How time began, how life began, without some cause or overarching purpose or intelligence, is not as easy to accept as it seemed in high school (it just did!).

God of the gaps.
posted by Brian B. at 10:31 AM on April 17, 2010 [2 favorites]


it's probably only children who think "god" is something anthropomorphic.

Christians not only believe that God is anthropomorphic, they believe he is an actual man. With fingerprints. Of course, He Himself declared that one needed to become like a child to enter the "Kingdom of Heaven". So it is not unjust to suggest that "only children" could believe in such a god. In any case, belief in this man-god seems to have convinced such disparate characters as Andy Warhol, Darious Milhaud, Flannery O'Conner, Samuel Johnson, Stephen Colbert, C.S. Lewis, Dante, Isaac Newton, Roger McGuinn, Naomi Wolf, Little Richard, and John Updike -- all of whom, except the last, are pretty childlike in their way. I, for my part, think that once one believes in God, there is no reason not to believe that he is a fine old man with a white beard -- like Santa Claus, with muscles, and a temper.
posted by Faze at 11:07 AM on April 17, 2010


Christians not only believe that God is anthropomorphic, they believe he is an actual man. With fingerprints.

Some do. Many don't.

Seriously, if you're gonna go generalizing about what millions of strangers believe, you're gonna need to educate yourself better than that.
posted by nebulawindphone at 11:43 AM on April 17, 2010 [3 favorites]


Christians not only believe that God is anthropomorphic, they believe he is an actual man. With fingerprints.

Hi, I'm a (soft agnostic) Christian. And you're wrong. Also, FYI, Jews don't drink the blood of Christian infants, and Muslims are not exhorted by the Koran to set off bombs along with the trip to Mecca and the daily prayer.
posted by availablelight at 11:53 AM on April 17, 2010


Nebulawindphone and availablelight ... what part of the Incarnation and Resurrection don't you believe in -- the fingerprint part? Why would you guys be so ashamed to hold this perfectly delightful and quite socially acceptable belief? Accusing Christians of believing in the incarnation is hardly slander -- much less a slur on the level of Jews drinking blood or Muslims supporting terrorism. What a weird response!
posted by Faze at 12:02 PM on April 17, 2010


Christians believe in the trinity, so you might want to specify whether you mean God (your "Santa Claus") or Jesus Christ.
posted by availablelight at 12:13 PM on April 17, 2010


Yeah, isn't Christianity, by definition, the belief in Christ-- that Jesus was both an actual man and God? How is that slander?
posted by nath at 12:13 PM on April 17, 2010


Why would you guys be so ashamed to hold this perfectly delightful and quite socially acceptable belief?

Psychology>>Projection>>Shame
posted by Brian B. at 12:15 PM on April 17, 2010


I've always found the idea of an afterlife bothersome because it seems to suppose that I've got a personality that functions beyond the bounds of my brain. Since any significant head trauma is known to alter personality, it follows that the act of dying (brain death) would obliterate my brain housed self. Unless there's some sort of mythical saved-game style me being stored elsewhere. I can believe in eventually extending life by develping a computer interface that plugs into my brain, including a wireless version that reads the electrical impulses of the organ to create a back up, but being that my personality and actions are determined by the limits of my squishy, self altering body that leaves little room for an out-of-body Phalene.

Plus, what would an afterlife involve, without a body to accept input? Self perception needs receptive nerve cells, even primative ones. So in order for there to be an afterlife, something or someone is recording who I am before oxygen deprivation, tumors or so on damages my brain enough to remove my personality and putting this into an interface system that feels things. Who? Why? Where? For that matter is my afterlife happening at the moment of death? I'm certainly not five year old Phalene anymore. For all intents and purposes she's gone. Did she get an afterlife for her personality?
posted by Phalene at 12:19 PM on April 17, 2010 [4 favorites]


I don't have any expectation of an afterlife and think that it's incompatible with our understanding of consciousness, but I will say that until we have any evidence whatsoever of somebody experiencing one and letting us know about it, I don't think anybody can say one way or the other.

Near-death experiences at one point looked interesting, but now we know that an NDE is simply what happens when the brain isn't getting the blood/oxygen it needs.
posted by Pope Guilty at 1:14 PM on April 17, 2010


MeFi's own? :)
posted by defenestration at 1:25 PM on April 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


There are Christians who think the incarnation and resurrection are metaphors. There are Christians who deny that Jesus rose from the dead physically. There are Christians who deny that Jesus was God — the dreaded "well, he was a mighty nice guy" crowd that C.S. Lewis liked to bitch about, including for instance the Unitarians and if I understand correctly also the Jehovah's Witnesses — and ones who think he was only God in the sense that everyone and everything is God. There are agnostic Christians, deist Christians, and straight-up atheist Christians. There are Christians who hold that God is ineffable, unknowable, or inherently abstract, and who therefore refuse to attribute any positive characteristics to him. (You'd be surprised at how mainstream this last one is; it's widespread, for instance, in the Orthodox tradition.) And there are plenty of Christians who just genuinely don't give a shit about the question of God's physical nature, and wouldn't bother to claim any particular beliefs on the subject.

It's a big-ass tent. In my book you're not slandering anyone, but you're definitely glossing over an awful lot of diversity, and the broad-brush LOLXIANS thing gets tiresome.

posted by nebulawindphone at 2:27 PM on April 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


.

And if you're going to complain that belief in the Incarnation isn't a necessary condition for identifying as a Christian, then what you've effectively done is expand that big tent to the point of meaninglessness. I think Buddha was a sensitive, bright guy (sorta how I feel about Yeshua ben Joseph, except in his more wild-eyed, my Dad's going to torture you for all eternity moments) but my high esteem for the Buddha doesn't make me Buddhist. If you're going to argue that anyone with a positive impression of Yeshua ben Joseph is a Christian then it might work wonders (miracles, even) for your mental membership rolls, but it's more a slander to believing Christians than mentioning the Incarnation will ever be. Yes, I'm defending Faze. A miracle, indeed!
posted by joe lisboa at 2:48 PM on April 17, 2010


"Christians believe that God has fingerprints."
"I am a Christian and don't believe this."
"Obviously you are not a true Christian..."
posted by stammer at 8:05 PM on April 17, 2010


I've always found the idea of an afterlife bothersome because it seems to suppose that I've got a personality that functions beyond the bounds of my brain.

But still you presumably hold the belief that your personality is worth more than the meat it resides in. Where does this worth come from and where is it stored?
posted by eeeeeez at 9:09 PM on April 17, 2010


What's so worthless about meat?
posted by Pope Guilty at 9:16 PM on April 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


But still you presumably hold the belief that your personality is worth more than the meat it resides in.

What makes you presume that?

Anyway...

It would be nice if there was an afterlife where bad people got their comeuppance (perhaps Margaret Thatcher can experience the sort of creative torture that her good buddy Pinochet used to inflict on his enemies, although perhaps an eternity of being raped by animals is a bit much. Or perhaps not), and where good people were rewarded; where fathers and mothers of children who died as infants can meet up with them again, where we can apologise for being bad kids or bad parents, or whatever. Pick a happy ending.

But it does sound rather like wish fulfilment.

(It'd be a lot scarier to think we'd *all* get what we deserve)
posted by rodgerd at 9:26 PM on April 17, 2010


Maybe nobody noticed, but that "doubted the conversion" article makes an interesting case that the "conversion" wasn't all it was cracked up to be. Sorry for the long paste, but it seems like one of the most important parts out of all those links, and worthy of a glance if you're in the "tl;dr" camp.
In August, I visited Flew in Reading.
[...]

In “There Is a God,” Flew quotes extensively from a conversation he had with Leftow, a professor at Oxford. So I asked Flew, “Do you know Brian Leftow?”

“No,” he said. “I don’t think I do.”

“Do you know the work of the philosopher John Leslie?” Leslie is discussed extensively in the book.

Flew paused, seeming unsure. “I think he’s quite good.” But he said he did not remember the specifics of Leslie’s work.

“Have you ever run across the philosopher Paul Davies?” In his book, Flew calls Paul Davies “arguably the most influential contemporary expositor of modern science.”

“I’m afraid this is a spectacle of my not remembering!”

He said this with a laugh. When we began the interview, he warned me, with merry self-deprecation, that he suffers from “nominal aphasia,” or the inability to reproduce names. But he forgot more than names. He didn’t remember talking with Paul Kurtz about his introduction to “God and Philosophy” just two years ago. There were words in his book, like “abiogenesis,” that now he could not define. When I asked about Gary Habermas, who told me that he and Flew had been friends for 22 years and exchanged “dozens” of letters, Flew said, “He and I met at a debate, I think.” I pointed out to him that in his earlier philosophical work he argued that the mere concept of God was incoherent, so if he was now a theist, he must reject huge chunks of his old philosophy. “Yes, maybe there’s a major inconsistency there,” he said, seeming grateful for my insight. And he seemed generally uninterested in the content of his book — he spent far more time talking about the dangers of unchecked Muslim immigration and his embrace of the anti-E.U. United Kingdom Independence Party.

As he himself conceded, he had not written his book.
Poor old guy. I hope the fog that his intellect faded into in his later years was, at least, peaceful for him. Kind of mean that the fundies decided to pounce on him in that state. I hope I wouldn't do something like that to an aging and senile Christian just to strengthen my case for atheism (but I suppose you never know what nastiness you're capable of until you're in that position).
posted by Xezlec at 9:36 PM on April 17, 2010


But still you presumably hold the belief that your personality is worth more than the meat it resides in.

What makes you presume that?


When you die, the meat is still there.
posted by mdn at 7:38 AM on April 18, 2010


To be clear, I'm not saying that means the meat isn't the source of you, just that it's a confusing relationship, and overly simplistic to equate them with no remainder. Somehow you are the activity of the meat, but what makes the meat active is only explicable in an infinite regress sort of way (food provides energy, etc). All I'm saying is, let's not pretend we've got it all figured out.
posted by mdn at 7:43 AM on April 18, 2010


hi Pope - What's so worthless about meat?

I don't know, but it goes for about €3 per kilo. That's a pretty low value in my book.
posted by eeeeeez at 10:14 AM on April 18, 2010


You're not distinguishing between the processed, edible, nutritious remains of cows, chickens, pigs, and the like and the living matter which gives rise to the consciousness of human beings.

I mean, that's just silly.
posted by Pope Guilty at 10:16 AM on April 18, 2010


"Christians believe that God has fingerprints."
"I am a Christian and don't believe this."
"Obviously you are not a true Christian..."


If you say you're a Christian and don't believe that Jesus Christ was divinity incarnated as a man, then you're not actually a Christian, you've just got some crap you've cobbled together yourself and are just calling yourself that. You can't be a Christian without believing in the central tenet of the Christian religion, sorry.
posted by DecemberBoy at 10:24 AM on April 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


Is this what non-atheists mean when they say they hate "organized religion"? Like, the actual religion sucks, but this random collection of beliefs that I'm calling by the same name is OK?
posted by DecemberBoy at 10:25 AM on April 18, 2010


I've always been of the impression that it's like people who say "I'm not religious, I'm spiritual", which is the rough equivalent of "I like all kinds of music except country and metal".
posted by Pope Guilty at 11:01 AM on April 18, 2010


You're not distinguishing between the processed, edible, nutritious remains of cows, chickens, pigs, and the like and the living matter which gives rise to the consciousness of human beings.

hi Pope - So what is the difference? How can there be a difference? If anything, the processed product should cost more (and actually does).
posted by eeeeeez at 4:28 PM on April 18, 2010


All I'm saying is, let's not pretend we've got it all figured out.

No, but the more we understand, it sure seems like conciousness is a product of the meat, not something that wafts about independent of it.

If you say you're a Christian and don't believe that Jesus Christ was divinity incarnated as a man, then you're not actually a Christian, you've just got some crap you've cobbled together yourself and are just calling yourself that.

The Docetics would like a word with you. Actually, they wouldn't, because they were wiped out, but you never know when you'll see a revival of adoptionism, and you should probably read up on Chalcedonian churches (the ones you know) and their still-extant detractors if you want a clear understanding of the whole mess (Arians! Nestorians!) of the the debates around the nature of Jesus.
posted by rodgerd at 2:48 AM on April 19, 2010


Unless there's some sort of mythical saved-game style me being stored elsewhere.

Can someone post some cheat-codes? I'm stuck on this level. KTHX bye!
posted by cairnish at 11:20 AM on April 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


You're not distinguishing between the processed, edible, nutritious remains of cows, chickens, pigs, and the like and the living matter which gives rise to the consciousness of human beings.

what about the living matter that gives rise to the consciousness of cows, chickens and pigs? Or the processed, edible, nutritious remains of human beings?

It's not hard to say that meat is what produces consciousness (and this claim has been made since the ancients), but it's still hard to say how.
posted by mdn at 9:05 PM on April 19, 2010


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