Antony Flew and his famous atheist article

July 6, 2011 • 7:07 am

In my recent post on why I was reading theology,  commenter Gavin Phillipson called my attention to a very short article by Antony Flew.  Many of you know that Flew, who died last year at 87, was a British philosopher famous for his defense of atheism.  Later in life he appeared to renounce this stand, publishing a book, There Is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind, announcing that he was a theist. There is some dispute about whether Flew’s mental faculties were degenerating at the time, but from what I’ve read his mind seemed sound enough to attest to the genuineness of his “conversion.”

At any rate, Gavin noted that Flew’s piece, “Theology and Falsification”, was perhaps the most widely-read bit of philosophy in the latter twentieth century (the link also has a short account by Flew, written in 200o, describing its reception and the circumstances of its composition (it was first published in a book in 1955).  The piece itself is short enough that I’m reprinting it below; you can find it widely distributed on the internet.

I’m actually surprised that this piece, which is quite good (albeit written in academic-speak) was so popular, for what it says seems self evident.  The entire content can be succinctly expressed in Flew’s last sentence: “What would have to occur or to have occurred to constitute for you a disproof of the love of, or of the existence of, God?”  His point is that there is nothing, and that therefore the “God hypothesis” cannot be, as Flew puts it, an assertion “that such and such is the case”—the “case” being that God not only exists but is a loving being.

I’ve made precisely the same point many times (but without Flew’s philosophical panache or credibility) as in this New Republic article:

Most scientists can tell you what observations would convince them of God’s existence, but I have never met a religious person who could tell me what would disprove it. And what could possibly convince people to abandon their belief that the deity is, as Giberson asserts, good, loving, and just? If the Holocaust cannot do it, then nothing will.

Little did I know that I was walking in the footsteps of a famous philosophical Popperian!  But it seems to me that you needn’t be an Einstein to realize that if you take “the God hypothesis” as an existence claim, then the complete resistance of its supporters to entertaining notions of disproof renders that hypothesis unworthy of consideration.

Perhaps some readers can explain to me why the piece was so famous and influential.  Flew gives his take in the preface:

At the time when the paper from which ‘Theology and Falsification’ was distilled was presented to the Socratic Club its discussions about God were tending to become sterile confrontations between Logical Positivists, claiming that what pretend to be assertions about God are in truth utterances, without literal significance, and the various opponents of Logical Positivists, who found that conclusion unconscionable. I wanted to set these discussions off onto new and hopefully more fruitful lines.

Perhaps, but were philosophers so blinkered at that time by their adherence to logical positivism or its negation that they didn’t realize the simple fact that existence claims require evidence?  Or, as Hitchens says, “What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.”

Theology and Falsification

Let us begin with a parable. It is a parable developed from a tale told by John Wisdom in his haunting and revelatory article ‘Gods’.[1] Once upon a time two explorers came upon a clearing in the jungle. In the clearing were growing many flowers and many weeds. One explorer says, “some gardener must tend this plot.” The other disagrees, “There is no gardener.” So they pitch their tents and set a watch. No gardener is ever seen. “But perhaps he is an invisible gardener.” So they, set up a barbed-wire fence. They electrify it. They patrol with bloodhounds. (For they remember how H.G. Wells’s The Invisible Man could be both smelt and touched though he could not he seen.) But no shrieks ever suggest that some intruder has received a shock. No movements of the wire ever betray an invisible climber. The bloodhounds never give cry. Yet still the Believer is not convinced. “But there is a gardener, invisible, intangible, insensible to electric shocks, a gardener who has no scent and makes no sound, a gardener who comes secretly to look after the garden which he loves.” At last the Sceptic despairs, “But what remains of your original assertion? Just how does what you call an invisible, intangible, eternally elusive gardener differ from an imaginary gardener or even from no gardener at all?”

In this parable we can see how what starts as an assertion that something exists or that there is some analogy between certain complexes of phenomena, may be reduced step by step to an altogether different status, to an expression perhaps of a ‘picture preference’.[2] The Sceptic says there is no gardener. The Believer says there is a gardener (but invisible, etc.) One man talks about sexual behaviour. Another man prefers to talk of Aphrodite (but knows that there is not really a superhuman person additional to, and somehow responsible for, all sexual phenomena).[3] The process of qualification may be checked at any point before the original assertion is completely withdrawn and something of that first assertion will remain (Tautology). Mr. Wells’s invisible man could not, admittedly, be seen, but in all other respects he was a man like the rest of us. But though the process of qualification may be, and of course usually is, checked in time, it is not always judiciously so halted. Someone may dissipate his assertion completely without noticing that he has done so. A fine brash hypothesis may thus be killed by inches, the death by a thousand qualifications.

And in this, it seems to me, lies the peculiar danger, the endemic evil, of theological utterance. Take such utterances as “God has a plan,” “God created the world,” “God loves us as a father loves his children.” They look at first sight very much like assertions, vast cosmological assertions. Of course, this is no sure sign that they either are, or are intended to be assertions. But let us confine ourselves to the cases where those who utter such sentences intend them to express assertions. (Merely remarking parenthetically, that those who intend or interpret such utterances as crypto-commands, expressions of wishes, disguised ejaculations, concealed ethics, or as anything else but assertions, are unlikely to succeed in making them either properly orthodox or practically effective.)

Now to assert that such and such is the case is necessarily equivalent to denying that such and such is not the case.[4] Suppose then that we are in doubt as to what someone who gives vent to an utterance is asserting, or suppose that, more radically, we are sceptical as to whether he is really asserting anything at all, one way of trying to understand (or perhaps it will be to expose) his utterance is to attempt to find what he would regard as counting against, or as being incompatible with, its truth. For if the utterance is indeed an assertion, it will necessarily be equivalent to a denial of the negation of that assertion.[5] And anything which would count against the assertion, or which would induce the speaker to withdraw it and to admit that it had been mistaken, must be part of (or the whole of) the meaning of the negation of that assertion. And to know the meaning of the negation of an assertion, is near as makes no matter, to know the meaning of that assertion. And if there is nothing which a putative assertion denies then there is nothing which it asserts either; and so it is not really an assertion. When the Sceptic in the parable asked the Believer, “just how does what you call an invisible, intangible, eternally elusive gardener differ from an imaginary gardener or even from no gardener at all?” he was suggesting that the Believer’s earlier statement had been so eroded by qualification that it was no longer an assertion at all.

Now it often seems to people who are not religious as if there was no conceivable event or series of events the occurrence of which would be admitted by sophisticated religious people to be a sufficient reason for conceding “There wasn’t a God after all” or “God does not really love us then.” Someone tells us that God loves us as a father loves his children. We are reassured. But then we see a child dying of inoperable cancer of the throat. His earthly father is driven frantic in his efforts to help, but his Heavenly Father reveals no obvious sign of concern. Some qualification is made — God’s love is “not a merely human love” or it is “an inscrutable love,” perhaps — and we realise that such sufferings are quite compatible with the truth of the assertion that “God loves us as a father (but, of course, …).” We are reassured again. But then perhaps we ask: what is this assurance of God’s (appropriately qualified) love worth, what is this apparent guarantee really a guarantee against? Just what would have to happen not merely (morally and wrongly) to tempt but also (logically and rightly) to entitle us to say “God does not love us” or even “God does not exist”? I therefore put to the succeeding symposiasts the simple central questions, “What would have to occur or to have occurred to constitute for you a disproof of the love of, or of the existence of, God?”

See also Sorry to Disappoint, but I’m Still an Atheist!.

[1] Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 1944-5, reprinted as Chap. X of Antony Flew, ed., Essays in Logic and Language, First Series (Blackwell, 1951), and in Wisdom’s own Philosophy and Psychoanalysis (Blackwell, 1953).

[2] Cf. J. Wisdom, “Other Minds,” Mind, 1940; reprinted in his Other Minds (Blackwell, 1952).

[3] Cf. Lucretius, De Rerum Natura, II, 655-60.

Hic siquis mare Neptunurn Cereremque vocare

Constituet fruges et Bacchi nomine abuti

Mavolat quam laticis proprium proferre vocamen

Concedamus ut hic terrarum dictitet orbem

Esse deum matrem dum vera re tamen ipse

Religione animum turpi contingere parcat.

[Translation: “Here if anyone decides to call the sea Neptune, and corn Ceres and to misapply the name of Bacchus rather than the title that is proper to that liquor, let us allow him to dub the round world Mother of the Gods, so long as he forebears in reality to infect his mind with base superstition.”]

[4] For those who prefer symbolism: p = ~~p.

[5] For by simply negating p we get p: ~~p = p.

75 thoughts on “Antony Flew and his famous atheist article

  1. I think it’s important to note that when someone says that faith in god can’t be falsified, that often comes across to theists as a concession on the part of atheists. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard, “Well, of COURSE it can’t be falsified, because it’s true!” Then when you explain what falsification means, they mistakenly take their faith as a kind of “analytic truth” — something that is “true, come what may” as Quine says — BECAUSE there is no state of the world that is incompatible with it.

    In any case, we should always be aware that words like “theory” and “falsifiable” have technical meanings that aren’t necessarily shared by popular culture or aren’t necessarily inferable from the word itself; this is sad to me, but maybe we should concede this and try to come up with other words to use when engaging in popular discussion.

    1. there is no words you can find to “engage” someone who does not want to be engaged

      words have no meanings in themselves
      words merely denote a meaning that reflects concensus of thinking prevailent at any given time in the population of thinkers

      this is why if integrity of learning was not addressed during formative years the individual will never realize his/her potential to think scientifically and understand what scientific method is

      it does not mean that we should stop trying to talk “believers” out of “believing”

      it means that there is a more important activity to that: to connect with those who _can_ think scientifically in _all_ areas and in _every_ moment of their lives

      once proper scientists constitute a connected group they will pronmptly see that science and scientific thinking is the only vehicle for survival of homo species and they will have no other choice but subspaciate from those who cannot “graduate”

      this is why we should not lose our focus on gathering the scientists around the science first and foremost and only as a byproduct of that activity onto conversion of “believers” into “scientists”

      “believer” – someone who does not notice when his brain forms “beliefs” – statements that stop being questioned

      “scientist” – someone who is aware of the brain/mind propensity to form “beliefs” and has implemented continuos mental habit whereby the statements that exhibit “belief”-like regidity are subjected to re-evalution _regularly_ based on the _available complete body of science_

    2. Maybe saying that faith in god isn’t falsifiable gets far enough from idiomatic terms that that error creeps in. Otherwise… confuted/confutability?

      Or may just say it in plain terms in the first case. And make clear from the outset that unfalsifiability is bad thing.


  2. “…were philosophers so blinkered by their adherence to “logical positivism” or its negation that they didn’t realize the simple fact that existence claims require evidence?”

    Supernaturalists will reply they have plenty of evidence for the existence of something beyond nature, so then the question becomes: what counts as *good* evidence? What are the criteria for it? Are these criteria worldview neutral, such that both naturalists and supernaturalists could (and should) agree about them?

    Seems to me all parties agree that we must distinguish between appearance and reality, between how things seem and how they really are, between subjectivity and objectivity – in other words, we all agree that our conceptual models of reality can be mistaken. What we suppose might be the case might not be. Generally the way we test a model is to make observational predictions that either get confirmed or not, and if not we adjust the model. This is the basic empiricist paradigm.

    Supernaturalists often make the claim there’s an alternative to intersubjective empiricism as a route to reliable factual knowledge that demonstrates the existence of something beyond nature. If you could pin them down on this, then perhaps they’d agree that belief in God could be falsified. But thus far I haven’t seen this claim substantiated. As Sidney Hook once asked: “Is there a different kind of knowledge that makes … [the supernatural] an accessible object of knowledge in a manner inaccessible by the only reliable method we have so far successfully employed to establish truths about other facts? Are there other than empirical facts, say spiritual or transcendent facts? Show them to us…”

    1. Yes, the concept of “good evidence” comes up a lot. I’ll ask the believer, “Is your evidence the type of evidence that would convince an outsider– could someone else make a similar claim to get you to believe in a supernatural thing that you currently don’t believe in?” Is the thing you believe in distinguishable from an illusion or misperception when tested? (Does praying produce better results than wishing on a star?)

      Millions of people believe in Santa… these people get Christmas presents under their tree on Christmas morning– proof that Santa exists!

      This is how believers sound to me.

      As for Antony Flew’s conversion to deism– Richard Carrier had a good article on that:

    2. I think articulett is correct (as I usually do) and want to add:
      The United States population is illiterate by design of the very wealthy empire builders and christian leaders. Stupid is much easier to manipulate.

      I used to pal around with a guy that was very wealthy from his own grandmother (very high class madame) but also married into mega wealth. It isn’t so much that they don’t feel sorry for the urchins it is just that the wealthy need their tools so they can acquire more wealth. But, you don’t even need that personal account to come to the same conclusion, just look at what happens which, of course, isn’t the same as what is said.

      The reason I point this out Tom, is that the problem is larger than that they don’t understand, I think, its more like they don’t want to understand or don’t want to admit they understand. That’s why they are going to need -at least- the added shovel that the Gnus provide.

      1. I would tend to agree. I would also suggest that it is possible that not all people are even capable of critical thinking, and will always be followers…

  3. This hit it out of the ballpark while not even playing in the game. I love it. Theology is a non starter.

  4. Part of the problem with theology and the philosophy of religion is the difference between two meanings of belief (or faith)–religious belief is trust and not the same as opinion.

    Opinions are judgements that are sometimes based on evidence and sometimes not. But religious belief is no such judgement, it is foregoing judgement altogether and placing faith or trust in the judgement of others.

    Hence why all theology or philosophy of religion are disciplines that treat religion seriously as a matter of judgement and therefore a matter of reason, when in fact it is the very opposite.

    1. Lies can illuminate truth.

      That is your point? Nothing in what Flew said was not known before; more specifically it leads up to testing.

    1. The link doesn’t seem to work. If you reply with the URL I’ll put it in your comment so it connects properly (plus I want to read it), and then delete the URL you send.

  5. “What would have to occur or to have occurred to constitute for you a disproof of the love of, or of the existence of, God?”

    I’ve tried this out on some believers who say “there is NOTHING that would disprove the existence of God.” Even when it would get to the point where it appeared that God was willfully committing acts of evil to people. Such believers don’t realize how stupid they look at this point, so there’s no “winning” the argument.

    1. A while ago, I watched a NatGeo documentary about the Hajj, and I was surprised that it was mostly a recapitulation of the story of Abraham almost murdering his child for God. And the stone throwing at the devil ritual? It represented Abraham driving off the devil’s temptations *not to kill his child*.

      The worship of a god beyond reason seems to be quite basal in all the Abrahamic religions. You could just as easily retell the story with the Devil pretending to be God and Abraham stubbornly going, convinced that he knew which infinitely powerful supernatural entity was which, until an Angel bodily intervened. And people look up to Abraham! Its messed up.

      1. “The worship of a god beyond reason seems to be quite basal in all the Abrahamic religions.”

        That’s because the thesis of Abrahamic religion is obedience. Reason is just one of the impulses that must be broken to obedience; compassion, curiosity, and joy are some of the others.

      2. re: god beyond reason

        I wonder if that wasn’t built in by the ruler so that the masses wouldn’t freak out when the ruler required the god to make unpopular demands for the ruler’s pleasure.

    2. “it appeared that God was willfully committing acts of evil to people. Such believers don’t realize how stupid they look at this point”
      It appears you’re the one who doesn’t realize how stupid you look, you don’t want to understand that God does no evil, and saying that God is evil is claiming to have higher morality than the creator of morality itself.
      God can destroy his creations and not be evil, pain and suffering are in the world because of us, God simply made it possible for us to make it that way so if you want someone to blame then blame us.

  6. I’ve always enjoyed Sagan’s “The Dragon In My Garage” and have passed it on to others. But fair to say it was inspired by the “Parable of the Garden”?

  7. “What would have to occur or to have occurred to constitute for you a disproof of the love of, or of the existence of, God?”
    Disproving the ‘love of’ someone is in my mind a different problem (truth category) than disproving the ‘existence’ of that person. The former must first assume the latter is true. Atheists deal with whether god does/does not exist. It is a personal judgement call as to whether a being is loving or a being is cruel (without a fixed moral baseline for these concepts.) Hitchens struggled with this in the Turek debate if I recall.

    1. Probably haven’t seen the debate but the christian’s seem to require loving gods so either part of the question should be sufficient, I would think.

      Cruelty to animals laws are common. I think drowning animals would probably net a conviction, if the violators only defense was a legitimate claim that the people who were also drowned had the evil in them.

  8. I think most commonly theists do not take their beliefs to be based on external evidence of any kind, but on their own personal, subjective feelings. Like one’s subjective experience, or qualia, of red, it is not available to external observers for evaluation (at least not yet, perhaps someday fMRI will tell that my experience of red = your experience of yellow). It is, pure an simple, personal experience, a feeling, an unsupported belief. There’s no reason that I should take your beliefe seriously based solely on your say so, of course. But I think my more intelligent theist friends wouldn’t expect me to. They expect the theist sentiment to simply infect me at some point, for God to somehow touch me so that I “get it”, as a sort of base existential awareness, as they claim to. I can at least respect that a little more than claiming that external evidence supports it, which it manifestly does not.

    1. The answer to this that I’ve usually gotten is that “God’s love [or whatever] is already written on your heart” and that it’s up to you to perceive and pursue it. They say it’s like suddenly becoming aware of a background noise that was there all along but that you’ve just been ignoring. In their minds this makes experience of God’s presence “intersubjective” and not just plain old subjective.

      1. Incidentally, this is why people who grew up never having heard of Jesus are still responsible for their salvation under evangelical theology, because “Jesus was already written on their hearts.” Don’t underestimate the power of the “this is self-evident” meme in Christian circles.

        1. the meme of “self-evident” is powerful not only in Christian circles

          it is what “goo of institutionalized ignorance is made of”

          if each of us critically reviewes his/her own beliifs we are guaranteed to find many statements that we consider “sacred” and never properly question


          “morality” is “good”

          neither “good” nor “morality” have intrinsic meaning in themselves because they are merely lables to ambiguity collectively defined by “goo of institutionalized ignorance” which, in the absence of proper institutionalization of “belief-free -science” we breeze, eat and regurgitate back

          “our way of living is the only “right” way of living”

          “belief” that each of us holds regardless of whether we are atheist or theist ( in the meaning that is distilled from “goo of institutionalized ignorance”)

          the proper scientist should ask a different question:

          “how things came the way they are and where are they going?”

          “what is the etiology of human condition?”

          “what inferences we can make about science and human condition?”

    2. what you have described effectively blocks communication between “theists” and “atheist” and focuses attention on “differences” or “specialness” of either

      i would observe that “belief-free science” (*) has no basis for “specialness” of anything or any kind

      “belief-free science” is manifestation of purely physical property of our species which i identify as “deliberative capability”

      “deliberative capability” is what made one strain of hominids into homo sapiens and put it on top of food chain and ended “classical evolutionary process”

      “deliberative capability” is inevitably useful to our lifeform and it is only a matter of time when evolution of deliberative capability makes science the one and only shepherd of human condition

      over the long enough horizon of deep time religion vestigialize and homo sapiens will subspeciate and be superceeded by homo cogitans – the _thinking_ man as opposed to _arogantly knowing_ man

      “scientist” practicing “belief-free science” is someone who is aware of the brain/mind propensity to form “beliefs” and has implemented continuos mental habit whereby the statements that exhibit “belief”-like regidity are subjected to re-evalution _regularly_ based on the _available complete body of science_

      DELIBERATIVE CAPABILITY -‘registering and assimilating various stimuli into increasingly complex, hierarchic cogitation’, is a property we typically associate with humans and certain primates. Perhaps best identified with our relatively open-ended capacity for mentation and, eventually, reification -‘making the abstract concrete’, it is this property that distinguishes us by our ‘humanity and generation of things human’ thru which we are able, in effect, to ‘consider these such items and their consequences and implications’. It is in this respect -humans having this capability, that we ‘might do better’ to advantage ourselves of information we have regarding the physicality of ‘how we are constituted’ and ‘how we have come to be this way’: that the existence of any and every organism has come about solely thru the evolution of ‘a form more primitive than itself’, a consequence of the solely physical properties, circumstances and juxtapositions of matter.


      1. Who cares if the communication between theists and atheists is “block”ed???

        Theists are not interested in changing their belief. Ever find someone teetering on the edge of belief in the supernatural, gods, etc?

        So rarely, it cannot be considered even a “special case”. If a person is questioning the existence of the supernatural, they have given up their faith (i.e. they have become a “unfaithful”).

        As for atheists, most well-attuned atheists will be resistant to any “examples” proffered to them as examples of supernatural evidence, as they have been destroyed numerous times.

        So what is the “block”???

        The whole exercise is moot. Memory requires a vast array of physical enzymes, sodium ions, calcium ions. They stay in your physical body when you die, so how will “you” and the memories that make “you” transfer to any other realm? It’s like going to a drugstore and unrolling the rolls of undeveloped film, looking for a copy of “Gone With the Wind”. I can tell you, despite never visiting the store, or knowing the number of rolls of film, that the film, “Gone With The Wind” will be on ZERO of those rolls. As well, I know that ZERO of your memories stored in your brain are available anywhere after you die.

        When you turn off a lightbulb, the photons do not travel metaphysically to some other supernatural realm. They simply cease to be generated on the tungsten filament. And when you die, your constantly-generated enzymes and neural circuitry stop generating consciousness and memory.

        1. The answer I’ve heard from theists lately acknowledges this. A lot of them are now saying “but God will remember how to put me back together. It’s regeneration of the pattern that matters, as with teleportation — there needn’t be any soul substance.”

          1. So how do they distinguish themselves from a photograph? As long as the pixel count is correct they’re good to go?

        2. Theists are not interested in changing their belief.

          Given the number of ex-theists among such atheist communities as this, some evidently are — or at least that interest can be kindled.


        3. [Owwie!

          Just to scratch an itch: photons don’t “cease to be generated” from a tungsten filament because you turn its temperature down (stop the resistive current through it).

          The filament is for our purpose effectively a black body emitter. It will continue to emit thermal radiation as all bodies. That radiation just isn’t visible at sufficiently low temperature. (And it will eventually be in equilibrium with absorbed thermal radiation.)


            1. Thermal radiation is electromagnetic radiation generated by the thermal motion of charged particles in matter. All matter with a temperature greater than absolute zero (0K) emits thermal radiation.

              All electromagnetic radiation “can be termed” – really, is made up of – strictly, is quantised as – photons.

              A photon carries energy proportional to the radiation frequency. The hotter the matter (e.g., the filament), the higher the frequency of the radiation (photons) – from radio, through microwave, to infrared, then visible light, ultraviolet, X-rays and γ-rays.

              A portion of the photons emitted by a tungsten light bulb filament at 3000K are in the visible spectrum. However, most of the energy is associated with photons of longer wavelengths (mostly infrared). At room temperature (around 300K), it’s still emitting photons, but at longer wavelengths still, and with about one ten-thousandth of the total energy.

              Whenever electromagnetic radiation is emitted and then absorbed, heat is transferred. This principle is used in laser cutting (visible light; 405-790 THz), microwave ovens (around 30 GHz), and radio-frequency hair removal (thermolysis; 13.56 MHz).


              1. Thanks! Very clear. For some reason, I’d regarded photons as some particular subset of E-M radiation…(Would it be fair to say that in practice the term is mostly reserved for radiation of shorter wavelengths?)

              2. Not “restricted”, but probably more often used. “Photon” does, after all, comes from Greek φως (phōs) ‘light’, so it certainly tends to be used for the infrared to ultraviolet range (spanning the visible spectrum). This is also where interesting things like the photoelectric effect occur, in which light behaves like a classical particle rather than like a wave. And this usage does continue to smaller wavelengths, e.g., during molecular, atomic or nuclear transitions to a lower energy level, photons of various energy will be emitted, from infrared light to γ-rays. But in, say, astronomical bursts of γ-rays, the quantum nature might not be so important. So, really, usage is context sensitive.


                * Note that in particle physics, γ is used to represent any photon, not just a γ-ray!

              3. Thanks again!

                This is also where interesting things like the photoelectric effect occur…

                Not to mention, photosynthesis…


        4. To Scott near Berkley

          We should care about “blok” because we all share the same configuration space

          The planet is already OVERpopulated and things will get worse.

          The “believers” are easily manipulated into “action” that is “justified” by their belief

          Scientists as sceptics can only gather around science but they only scientists in the lab and outside they are “belivers” too – you know they have wives to please and kids to feed.

          My post was mainly about gathering scientists around science and making sure they can _live_ science not only “professionally” but “privately”

          We should never forget that we do not have that much time – one , two, three generartions before overpopulation and overconsumption will lead to the collapse of civilization as we know it

          Science will survive civilization collapse – that is for sure, but homo species as organism-whole could have spared itself big headache if it started to think about what really matters instead of quabllling about religion, economics and other matters that make up “goo of institutionalized ignorance”

  9. “that they didn’t realize the simple fact that existence claims require evidence? ”

    That’s a metaphysical *assumption* upon which science is based; if someone doesn’t hold it, merely telling them they don’t have evidence is an invalid criticism in their eyes.

    1. Right. The problem is that in rejecting that premise that existence claims require evidence, theists unintentionally give warrant to a whole host of unintended conclusions, most of which they fail to admit or acknowledge. They don’t really live their lives as if evidence doesn’t matter, they only give lip service to the idea when it suits them. So their philosophical inconsistency and intellectual hypocrisy should still be thrown in their faces.

      1. yes we should throw it in their faces

        but we ourselves are “non-believers” very selectively

        we _regularly_ exclude certain statements from scrutiny of scientific method

        fore example think about a statement

        “our way of living is “the right way” of living” – isn’t it what is asserted collectively by _every_ group of people starting from family and progressivly to a nation?

        subspeciation thru the way we think is inevitable

        the major and primary division is along the line scientific/non-scientific but scientists are yet to start living their “science” because they only “pure scientists” in their labs

        when they step out of the labs they are swalowwed by the “goo of institutionalized ignorance” and behave in the way that does not distinguish them from “believers”

        but the time will come when homo sapiens will have to be superceeded by homo cogitans and “scientists” will be those who realize inevitability of it and implement it

        1. “we _regularly_ exclude certain statements from scrutiny of scientific method”

          Speak for yourself.

          ““our way of living is “the right way” of living” – isn’t it what is asserted collectively by _every_ group of people starting from family and progressivly to a nation”

          No. Some families don’t assert that at all, and many nation-states don’t. The nation I live in, unfortunately, does.

          1. your “Speak for yourself” tells me that belive that you are “different” from me and you probably also think that you are “special”

            And I say that science does not support “differences” or “specialness” of any human when compared to any other human.

            This why I said “we” regularly exlude certain statements from scrutiny of scientific method

            I know I do it all the time even if I try to watch myself and I have just shown you how you did it when you typed your reply to my comment

            The completely scientific reply would be to ask me a clarifying question of the kind:

            “what do you mean by your words? My immediate reaction is that you are wrong but I am open to here your clarification. Will you provide one?”

            Instead you naturally assumed that my words have only one interpretation and that your interpretation is the “right” interpretation.

            What you did is normal and natural – that is how our brains work – we regularly form “beliefs” which are “shortcuts” and that is especially true for words and what we mean by them.

            But science continuosly accumulates knowledge and in the relm of anthropology and “human condition” science has not made much impact yet – you don’t have to go far – evolution is not yet universally accepted

            This is why I say that we should watch what we are saying and how we are saying and strive for _forensic integrity_ of the discussion – a very good mental habit to work on.


      2. “They don’t really live their lives as if evidence doesn’t matter, they only give lip service to the idea when it suits them.”

        True, and that’s enough to make them look silly, but it’s not really a refutation of their beliefs. For instance, if I believed that smoking caused cancer and people shouldn’t smoke, yet I smoked myself, I would be a hypocrite, but that wouldn’t make my belief less true.

        The overall point I was making is that for people who reject evidence, you need some means of convincing them that evidence matters. Merely showing them evidence probably won’t do it, any more than showing me a verse in the Bible would convince me that there is a god.

        1. Roy Sablosky has written a short book entitled “No one believes in god”. It’s available as a pdf from his website. You need to look a bit, it’s under Nov 2009. Very interesting book, far more salient than theology!

          1. i have read royès book and sent him an e-mail – if you are interested in a copyof my e-mail let me know

        2. one cannot convince anybody of anything – especially that “evidence matters”

          peope who are convinced that “evifdence matters” are automatically “atheists”

          as i said in my other comments: if during formative years an individual did not have experiences that addressed integrity of learning he/she will not be able to graduate to science and scientific method when adult

          or rather the statistical probity suggests that as the time pass and people’s brains age the likelihood of them becoming “atheist” and “scientists” decreases because brain plasticity decreases and brain is cooked in the “goo of institutionalized ignorance”

          each of us is born in ignorance and “atheist”

          then we learn how to ask questions

          then we ask all sorts of questions including non-sensical questins like “does god exist” or “does she/he loves me?”

          and the likelyhood of us hearing “science answer” is very small because we are surrounded by people who are to one degree or another are _NOT_ scientists

          to become “scientist” we have to stay afloat in the “goo of institutionalized ignorance” until we are strong enough psychologically (maturity time) to be able to push the”goo” away and take care of our own mental health

          remember that barain does not have any “beliefs” – brain is a machine that runs a “movie oof the mind”

          brain does not care what “movie” it runs

          brain’s function is only one: to guarantee that the body it resides in is kept alive

          this is why the brain will run any “movie” that will serve the function of keeping the body alive

          and given the fact that “human condition” is made up of “the goo of institutionalized ignorance” the movie that brain would _learn_ to run would be something that iss in line with “goo”

          this is what is called “success”

          tjhis is why politicians are almost never “scientists” – they are smart enough to understand the “pecking order sstructure” underlying the “goo” and they know who to swim the goo to the top of the structure – this is what life is about

          kids learn it as they grow

          this is why “pure science” is a “luxury” some brains are “enjoying”

          and because the “goo” is resident in so many heads it is very hard to find a community that is “goo-free”

          even “most pure scientists” when they come back from their labs are talking to their wifes and kids who are first and foremost are carriers of the “goo”

          this is why the graduation to “science” and “atheism” is profoundly personal matter and requires strength – we are surrounded by “goo”

          My mom was all her life very snobby about church goers and those who “pray” – this is why i never really was “brainwashed” in childhood

          but when my mom got glioblastoma and had terrible headaches before she died she started pray and was looking for a “miricale”

          this is why i will always say that the most important task is for “scientist” to seek out other “scientist” and stay together and have a _scientific_ discourse on _all _ matters in _public_ and _private_ life

          tjhis is the only way we can contribute to proper institutionalization of science and the eventual science takeover of human condition

    2. A method is by definition not based on assumption but on procedure. I believe you mean something else, like “philosophy of science”.

      And that is bull; science isn’t axiomatized as of yet.

      As for observing existence, we need some definition of realism, such as embodied in classical or quantum mechanics, and observations testing that. Observation (simplest form of evidence) isn’t enough, and the article just told us so.

      1. “And that is bull; science isn’t axiomatized as of yet.”

        If you mean that there are no assumptions underlying the practice of science, that isn’t true at all and I don’t think you’ll find any philosopher of science who says that it is.

  10. “And if there is nothing which a putative assertion denies then there is nothing which it asserts either; and so it is not really an assertion.”

    This is such an important point, and one I consistently fail to get theists to understand. Put another way, if your theory explains every possible state of affairs, then your theory explains nothing.

    “God did it” explains nothing.

    1. And it explains even less why I should go to church/temple/mosque every Sunday and give money to the priest/rabbi/imam!

  11. Perhaps some readers can explain to me why the piece was so famous and influential. Flew gives his take in the preface:

    At the time when the paper from which ‘Theology and Falsification’ was distilled was presented to the Socratic Club its discussions about God were tending to become sterile confrontations between Logical Positivists, claiming that what pretend to be assertions about God are in truth utterances, without literal significance, and the various opponents of Logical Positivists, who found that conclusion unconscionable. I wanted to set these discussions off onto new and hopefully more fruitful lines.

    I thought Flew’s article was considered to be another example of positivism — e.g. he says basically if the claim isn’t empirically testable it doesn’t really have meaning. So I wonder what the new contribution was supposed to be. It is a good expression of the give-me-evidence-please position nonetheless.

  12. “What would have to occur or to have occurred to constitute for you a disproof of the love of, or of the existence of, God?”

    Sometimes when I’ve asked this question I get a response along the lines of “I’d have to stop believing that I exist — because God’s presence and love is just soooo much a part of me that I can’t really wrap my mind around the possibility that there is no God.” This is often offered as if it were an apologetic, a convincing and persuasive way to impress the non-believer with just how obvious the existence of God really is … once one has opened their mind and heart “to” Him.

    I think one of the things happening here is a deliberate obscuring of what it is to have a direct, unmitigated sense experience — and what it is to then filter and interpret this direct experience into a hypothesis about what it is, how it’s caused. It’s as if you’re trying to tell someone who has a headache that they may not have a brain tumor, and they keep translating your argument into “your head doesn’t hurt.” “But the brain tumor does hurt! I can feel it! You can’t make me deny what I can know for myself!” And they won’t look at the mirror you’re holding and see that they’ve actually got an ice pick sticking out of their scalp — because the cause of their pain must be as subjective as their pain itself. Running on instincts.

    The other thing that’s happening with the “I’m as sure that there’s a God as I am sure that there’s a me” assertion is that this is supposed to be a modest form of bragging, a meek, humble way of merging with divinity so tightly that you seem to disappear. Now they’re conflating their feeling that God exists with their feelings about God: I am so sensitive, so in love, so enchanted and connected and enraptured. Wouldn’t you want to feel this way? Wouldn’t you like to be the kind of person who feels this way? Don’t you want something to inspire this sort of unshakeable loyalty and certainty?

    It’s supposed to incite envy. Or wonder.

    Instead, it just makes me want to turn them over my knee and give them a sound spanking. Grow up. I mean, epistemically, this is just beyond pathetic.

    1. At the heart of every woo lies the presumption of personal infallibility.

      “I feel it; therefore it must be so.”

      Not only do empiricists recognize that conclusions drawn from experience might be mistaken, but they also recognize that experience might be mistaken. You can be wrong about what you feel.

      Horror movies create this effect all the time. First they show you sex to get you sexually aroused; then they show monsters to make you afraid. Because fear and sex both operate off of arousal, just with different affects. The horror movie confuses you about how you feel.

    2. It’s supposed to incite envy. Or wonder.

      Oh it incites wonder all right, I wonder how anyone can be so deluded and stupid and still be able to function in the world. Envy, not so much.

    1. H0w woUld We Kn0W? wE caN’t teSt sinGle eVentZ.

      But FWIW ‘o’ is next to ‘0’ on a standard keyboard.

  13. There is one category of assertion that is not subject to verification and does not admit of falsification, namely “definitions”. I don’t see any particular problem with postulating whatever definition and looking for examples of it in the world… no logical problem, I mean.

    Sometimes the journey is just about the journeying. Like French word as “jour”, I believe: maybe you never arrive, but you might find something interesting along the way. Or not.

  14. Logical Positivism implies that statements may be true, false or meaningless.

    I think Flew’s point is that the problem with the zeitgeist in which he wrote is that an argument over whether God is meaningless isn’t the question that is important to most folks.

    Your debates with PZ show this. He appears to be someone who takes the logical positivist position. God could never be proved, because it isn’t in a category that true or false can apply to. You, obviously, feel otherwise.

  15. This is all going to go into a book right Jerry? Because I’ll need to refer to this brilliancy later on. Please please please coalesce and publish these blog posts which I will otherwise lose track of.

  16. It was Flew’s article that played a role in my becoming an atheist. I was an evangelical Christian attending Bethany College of Missions in Bloomington, MN., and preparing for the ministry. During a lecture in my Philosophy of Religion class the professor, Mr. Brooks, referred to a portion of the essay, Theology and Falsification. He presented a paraphrased version of the invisible gardener experiment that Flew describes. Mr. Brooks’ subsequent commentary on the subject was intended to refute Flew, although I don’t recall exactly what was said. Anyway, I approaced my teacher after the lecture to ask about the example he used in class, and that is when I first heard the name Antony Flew. It did not immediately shatter my faith; but it did mark the beginning of the end. Flew’s logic seemed more persuasive than the refutation. I began to realize that I had known the invisible gardener all along, hiding always in obfuscated mental gymnastics, and sneaking around, ever unseen, in the topiary labyrinth that is Christian apologetics. The invisible gardener was me! I was not having a relationship with God, but a relationship with the voice inside my own head. The whole process took another few years, but Flew’s esaay played an important role. Thank god for that (ha! Einstein’s god maybe).

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