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Source link: http://archive.mises.org/12471/antony-flew-r-i-p/

Antony Flew, R.I.P.

April 14, 2010 by

I met Antony Flew at a Mises Institute conference in 2001. He did not share the admiration common among philosophers for John Rawls. For him, The Theory of Justice was a travesty: Rawls’s failure to define justice until late in the book especially upset him. His vehemence, combined as it was with great charm, made an unforgettable impression. After my own talk, also an attack on Rawls, I said to him, “You’ll probably say I was too easy on Rawls.” “Well, you were rather”, he replied.

Readers of this blog will probably know Flew best for his trenchant books and essays in defense of classical liberalism, such as Equality in Liberty and Justice; but political philosophy was only one of his many interests. He was one of the foremost ordinary language philosophers. Like his teacher Gilbert Ryle, he thought that philosophical problems often stemmed from “systematically misleading expressions.” He applied his great skill at clarification of concepts to a wide variety of topics, including personal identity, causation, free will, psychoanalysis, and ESP. He was also an outstanding philosophical scholar and one of the world’s foremost authorities on David Hume. He was probably most famous for his defense of atheism, a position he came to abandon in his last years. In part, his volte face was due to the influence of David Conway, whose The Rediscovery of Wisdom had much impressed him. His willingness to abandon a view held for decades because he thought that reason required this showed his great intellectual courage.


Matt April 14, 2010 at 1:08 pm


Could you elaborate more on his volte face? That is quite fascinating; yet I am yearning for more details – specifically on the reason that required him to abandon his views.


Greg Ransom April 14, 2010 at 1:53 pm

Late in his book Rawls explicitly endorses Hume’s account of the central significance of the “sense of justice” — something which evolves as Hume explains. Rawls’ whole first 100 page program falls apart with this admission — something Rawls effectively admitted in his later books.

Note well — most professional moral philosophers for the longest time read only the first 100 pages of Rawls ..

PirateRothbard April 14, 2010 at 5:30 pm

I think the summary of the his abandoning of atheism is a little off, I would have said

“In recent years, Flew attracted notoriety due to his abandoning of atheism and the subsequent allegations that he was either senile or being manipulated by Christians within his inner circle. Whatever the case, as a proponent of liberty he should be admired.”

Matt April 14, 2010 at 6:00 pm

Ah, yes. Well, that sounds more like a dogmatic summary to me.

Bill Green April 15, 2010 at 6:18 am

wikipedia has some interesting stuff about his conversion. It doesn’t seem disputable to me. Although he could always be accused of senility or “foxhole” conversion, I suppose. I don’t know why atheists like Carrier seem to rely so much on authority–they seem at least as desparate as the Christians to explain it away when one of their own jumps ship, as if the apostasy of one casts doubt on the faith itself. I guess maybe it is out of their respect for Flew and faith in his intellect.


Matt April 15, 2010 at 11:33 am

Thanks Bill.

PirateRothbard April 15, 2010 at 4:33 pm

Can’t say I’m against religion, I think it makes people happy. Rather I’m just bewildered by the fact that Christians have made so much hay over the conversion of this pathetic old man.

But I really shouldn’t be shocked, the cause of religion really is nothing more than wishful thinking, in my opinion. People have a strong capacity to latch onto anything that reinforces their attempts to bring meaning to life. Why do people see the Virgin Mary on a tortilla? Why do they see God’s work everytime something good happens and try to explain anything bad that happens as “part of his mysterious ways”. So some Christians see Anthony Flew’s conversion as somehow validating their beliefs, whatever you have to do to deal with our universe of death and decay, go for it.

Matt April 15, 2010 at 5:35 pm

I have yet to see any group that wasn’t deeply entrenched in dogmatism – including atheists. Since we are just speculating, I assume atheists feel like intelligent design must be disproved because intelligent design somehow validates religion. Of course, It does nothing of the sort. Flew said that he followed the policy of Plato’s Socrates: We must follow the argument wherever it leads. I suspect Flew, proceeding from a presupposition of atheism, didn’t see intelligent design as validating religion. Hence, an unimpeded path to the most plausible theory of genesis.

Josh April 15, 2010 at 7:11 pm

What a sloppy post. Atheism is, by definition, rejection of any theological and/or religious claims. There is absolutely nothing dogmatic about rejecting claims which hold no evidence. Atheists reject intelligent design because it has no evidence at all behind it; ID was put forward by a group of creationists who had already been defeated in the courts and needed a new name.

Your assumption, in other words, is flat out incorrect.

Matt April 15, 2010 at 10:57 pm

After reading that post, you leave me wondering if you even know what dogmatism is. Nobody is exempt from dogmatism – including atheists. Your need to equate ID with religion merely confirms my assumption.

Barry Loberfeld April 15, 2010 at 9:07 am
Matt April 15, 2010 at 11:30 am

“In other words, if the frigate bird has weird feet, it means only that that (for whatever reason) is the design. Those feet no more disprove the existence of a Creator than the Mona Lisa’s queer smile disproves the existence of a painter.”

Good point Barry.

Barry Loberfeld April 15, 2010 at 11:46 am

That is , of course, my paraphrase of an argument that I immediately proceed to reject …

Matt April 15, 2010 at 12:21 pm

Indeed. I enjoyed your piece, but it actually convinced me more of Intelligent Design than it dissuaded me. In other words, I saw your paraphrasing of the argument as the logical crown jewel of the piece.

Matt April 15, 2010 at 11:03 pm

Barry ~
I have been perusing your essays and I am quite impressed. You have a highly structured yet fascinating prose which I am really enjoying.

PirateRothbard April 15, 2010 at 4:47 pm

Barry, didn’t read your article. You can’t convince religious people by any sort of article. People become atheists because they can’t stamp out the doubt anymore. At a certain point, reality wears down on people’s ability to rationalize their own worldview.

People go the other direction because they can’t deal with their own mortality, and I suspect that’s what happened with Anthony Flew. Some others just can’t deal with the evil in society, and they find religion to take some kind comfort. (And what is a mother supposed to do when her daughter is brutally killed?)

Tony Flood April 15, 2010 at 9:48 am

Nil nisi bonum and all that (and Flew’s aphorism on the human desire to be deceived enhances the value of my home page), but a movement that bestows its highest honors upon Thomist realists, Humean skeptics, and neo-Kantian subjectivists alike (a nonexhaustive list) bears within it a cognitive dissonance that must one day be addressed and resolved, which will move libertarianism philosophically beyond its current ambiguous stage. (I have little use for Objectivism, but Rand seems to have been correct, at least formally, on this one criticism of libertarianism.) To assume that disparate metaphysical outlooks imply harmonious ideas of the human good, and so of liberty–after all, they use the same symbol, “liberty,” don’t they?–seems to have been our long-standing “gentlemen’s agreement” (i.e., different travelers on different roads are allegedly converging onthe same destination). We may be naive enough to entertain such innocent thoughts. Our enemies are not.

Libs October 28, 2010 at 1:59 pm

Well, he didn’t become Christian, he became a deist. Deism has no dogma.

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