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’. 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’. 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). 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. 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. 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?”
 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).
 Cf. J. Wisdom, “Other Minds,” Mind, 1940; reprinted in his Other Minds (Blackwell, 1952).
 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.”]
 For those who prefer symbolism: p = ~~p.
 For by simply negating p we get p: ~~p = p.