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There is grandeur in this view of life…

Another Flew over the cuckoo’s nest #2

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In my previous post I said There is a god1 was ‘quite an odd book’. I didn’t realise quite how odd until I did more research. I even thought of changing the title of the series to One Flew over the hornets’ nest, because there seems to be some controversy2 as to how much of the book is actually Antony Flew‘s own work.

Follows Another Flew over the cuckoo’s nest #1 in a series responding to Antony Flew’s There is a god: How the world’s most notorious atheist changed his mind.

Antony Flew: There is a God

Antony Flew: There is a God

I did certainly find it odd that a British analytical philosopher would produce a book of 200+ pages with no index. Or that a British analytical philosopher in his eighties would illustrate a thought experiment (in Chapter 6: DID THE UNIVERSE KNOW WE WERE COMING?) with references to ‘Your favourite cookies and candy’ and ‘personal care and grooming products’ – or describe Macbeth as ‘one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays’. Then there were the intriguing lapses of modesty about winning the Oxford ‘university prize in philosophy in an exceptionally strong year’ and quoting John Passmore‘s commendation that ‘Any subsequent discussion of Hume‘s secularism will have to begin with Flew.’ I turned back to re-read chapters as if they had been converted from third to first person at the last minute.

Ultimately though, my responses to the book stand or fall regardless of who actually wrote what part of it.

The presumption of atheism

For most of his life, and in particular for most of his philosophical life, Antony Flew was an atheist. In The presumption of atheism (1984) he argued that ‘the onus of proof must lie upon the theist’. In line with the discussion in my previous post, atheism is to be understood:

…not positively but negatively. I want the originally Greek prefix ‘a’ to be read in the same way in ‘atheist’ as it customarily is read in such other Greco-English words as ‘amoral’, ‘atypical’, and ‘asymmetrical’. In this interpretation an atheist becomes: not someone who positively asserts the non-existence of God; but someone who is simply not a theist. Let us … introduce the labels ‘positive atheist’ for the former and ‘negative atheist’ for the latter.3

Flew explains why this ‘negative atheism’ is not the same as agnosticism:

[An] agnostic is one who, having entertained the proposition that God exists, now claims not to know either that it is or that it is not true. To be … an agnostic you have already to have conceded that there is, and that you have, a legitimate concept of God; such that, whether or not this concept does in fact have application, it theoretically could. But the [negative] atheist has not as yet and as such conceded even this.

…What the protagonist of my presumption of [negative] atheism wants to show is that the debate about the existence of God ought to be conducted in a particular way, and that the issue should be seen in a certain perspective. His thesis about the onus of proof involves that it is up to the theist: first, to introduce and to defend his proposed concept of God; and, second, to provide sufficient reason for believing that this concept of his does in fact have an application.

Flew then explains that the presumption of atheism is procedural and methodological, not an indefeasible and substantive assumption. If it was indefeasible and substantive, then no argument proceeding from it could conclude with its opposite. Flew’s presumption of atheism is like the presumption of innocence in English Common Law. The defendant is presumed innocent unless and until proved guilty. Analogously the position of (negative) atheism is presumed unless and until a theist case overturns it:

The presumption of innocence indicates where the court should start and how it must proceed. Yet the prosecution is still able… to bring forward what is in the end accepted as sufficient reason to warrant the verdict ‘Guilty’; which appropriate sufficient reason is properly characterised as a proof of guilt. … Were the indefeasible innocence of all accused persons an assumption of any legal system, then there could not be within that system any provision for any verdict other than ‘Not Guilty’….

The presumption of atheism is similarly defeasible. It lays it down that thorough and systematic inquiry must start from a position of negative atheism, and that the burden of proof lies on the theist proposition. Yet this is not at all the same thing as demanding that the debate should proceed on either a positive or a negative atheist assumption, which must preclude a theist conclusion. Counsel for theism no more betrays his client by accepting the framework determined by this presumption than counsel for the prosecution betrays the state by conceding the legal presumption of innocence.

One of Flew’s principal arguments in favour of the presumption of (negative) atheism concerns the demand for grounds. These would be equivalent to the grounds someone would need to have in order to justify saying ‘I know that x‘ rather than ‘I believe that x‘, even where x happens to be true:

It is by reference to this inescapable demand for grounds that the presumption of atheism is justified. If it is to be established that there is a God, then we have to have good grounds for believing that this is indeed so. Until and unless some such grounds are produced we have literally no reason at all for believing; and in that situation the only reasonable posture must be that of either the negative atheist or the agnostic. So the onus of proof has to rest on the proposition. It must be up to [those proposing the existence of God]: first, to give whatever sense they choose to the word ‘God’, meeting any objection that so defined it would relate only to an incoherent pseudo-concept; and, second, to bring forward sufficient reasons to warrant their claim that, in their present sense of the word ‘God’, there is a God.

That was 1984. In There is a god, Flew now considers the ‘headiest challenge’ to his presumption of (negative) atheism to have come from logician Alvin Plantinga. Plantinga apparently argued:

…that theism is a properly basic belief[,] …that belief in God is similar to belief in other basic truths, such as belief in other minds or perception… or memory… In all these instances, you trust your cognitive faculties, although you cannot prove the truth of the belief in question. Similarly, people take certain propositions (e.g., the existence of the world) as basic and others as derivative from these basic propositions. Believers, it is argued, take the existence of God as a basic proposition.4

Alvin Plantinga

Alvin Plantinga

Interesting use of the word ‘heady’ – assuming this is an accurate summary of Plantinga’s argument.

If there are people who are adamant that their belief in the existence of a god is equivalent to their belief in the existence of other minds, or in the veracity of perception or memory, then reasoned argument may fail to make inroad – into their certainty.

Yes there are some basic beliefs which are preconditions of social communication or human being generally. A Kantian might possibly classify them as synthetic a priori propositions. They are not analytically true, but neither does there seem to be any evidence that could count for or against their truth. A present-day evolutionary psychologist might speculate whether they were either innate beliefs themselves, or beliefs implicit in innate categories (‘person’, ‘animal’, ‘thing’) or innate folk psychology or folk physics.5

They are beliefs which an extreme sceptic could deny, as long as he or she accepts the philosophical consequences of that scepticism. It could be argued for example that extreme scepticism so undermines reason and/or meaning that the case for extreme scepticism itself cannot be coherently stated.

The question here though is not so much whether or not ‘basic beliefs’ like these can be justified, but whether belief in a god truly belongs in that same category.

It is hard to see why it should. To deny the existence of other minds or the reality of the external world is to commit oneself to the consequences of solipsism, including challenges as to whether that solipsism can be coherently stated, or stated in language which does not presuppose the existence of other minds and/or the external world for its very meaning. To deny the existence of a god has no such consequences. It is difficult to know in what direction to go to try to argue that there is something incoherent about the statement that there no god.

In fact it might be more plausible to argue that, for some people at least, belief in a god arises by extrapolating from (or trying to find an explanation for) basic beliefs like those of the existence of other minds or the external world, or of the reality of causation, or of why moral obligation is binding. So for example our discovery that we do believe in the existence of other minds (without quite understanding why we believe this) could lead to the concept of a soul – which then could perhaps survive the death of the body. Or our discovery that we do recognise moral absolutes, or at least the categorical obligation to identify and carry out what is ‘best’, could lead us to postulate a transcendent source of goodness. Or, perhaps more straightforwardly, our basic belief in the reality and universality of causation could lead us towards the idea of a first cause.

This is not to justify these transitions of thought or, conversely, to attack them. My objective is the more modest one of trying to understand why Plantinga could have possibly thought that belief in god was a ‘basic belief’ like these others. And a possible reason could be the assumption that to hypothesise something as the explanation for one or more basic beliefs is to qualify that something as a basic belief itself.

But if so, the assumption seems unsound. If a belief is so ‘basic’ that it is a precondition of thought or of meaningful discourse or of social life, then it does not necessarily stand in need of any separate justification or explanation. Not only that, but even if a god hypothesis is a possible explanation, there could be other hypotheses, which could even be mutually exclusive.

Interim conclusion: I cannot make head nor tail of Plantinga’s argument. So I’ll stop there for now. By chance I did come across this brief interview entitled Theism as a Properly Basic Belief6 in Roy Varghese‘s Truth Journal, but it didn’t seem to make things any clearer.

So I’ll hunt out some of Plantinga’s books so as to get it from the horse’s mouth, and meanwhile carry on with Antony Flew (or maybe ‘Antony Flew’?).


1 Antony Flew (with Roy Abraham Varghese), There is a god: How the world’s most notorious atheist changed his mind, HarperCollins, 2007.

2 See for example:

3 Antony Flew, The presumption of atheism, 1984.

4 Antony Flew, 2007: 1 above.

5 Eg Steven Pinker, The language instinct, 1994.


© Chris Lawrence 2009.


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