Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Atheist converts to Aristotle...

This has been going around the internet for some time now, but recently got picked up at the Corner. Antony Flew, for decades perhaps the most influential and distinguished atheist in contemporary philosophy, announced in December 2004 that he now believes in God. To those who have followed his career, this is rather on a level with Michael Moore announcing that he has become Republican.

HABERMAS: Tony, you recently told me that you have come to believe in the existence of God. Would you comment on that?
FLEW: Well, I don’t believe in the God of any revelatory system, although I am open to that. But it seems to me that the case for an Aristotelian God who has the characteristics of power and also intelligence, is now much stronger than it ever was before. And it was from Aristotle that Aquinas drew the materials for producing his five ways of, hopefully, proving the existence of his God. Aquinas took them, reasonably enough, to prove, if they proved anything, the existence of the God of the Christian revelation. But Aristotle himself never produced a definition of the word “God,” which is a curious fact. But this concept still led to the basic outline of the five ways. It seems to me, that from the existence of Aristotle’s God, you can’t infer anything about human behaviour. So what Aristotle had to say about justice (justice, of course, as conceived by the Founding Fathers of the American republic as opposed to the “social” justice of John Rawls (9)) was very much a human idea, and he thought that this idea of justice was what ought to govern the behaviour of individual human beings in their relations with others.
HABERMAS: Once you mentioned to me that your view might be called Deism. Do you think that would be a fair designation?
FLEW: Yes, absolutely right. What Deists, such as the Mr. Jefferson who drafted the American Declaration of Independence, believed was that, while reason, mainly in the form of arguments to design, assures us that there is a God, there is no room either for any supernatural revelation of that God or for any transactions between that God and individual human beings.

Flew throws out any number of things that would call for comment. I want here to focus on just a few:

1. Flew focusses on the power of the argument from design, an argument that has had increasing influence since the work of Tipler and Barrow on the anthropic principle in the 1980s. In nutshell, this work shows that the laws of physics have been designed to allow the evolution of intelligent life with a precision that is all but inexplicable unless we allow an intelligent mind as the fundamental force behind the universe. This does not deny Darwin, but rather reframes his theory: evolution produces intelligent life because the cosmic dice are loaded.
2. This fundamentally Aristotelian approach to human civilization was the centerpiece of Vaclav Havel's celebrated address in 1994. Delivered at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, the president of the newly liberated Czech Republic declared: "The Declaration of Independence states that the Creator gave man the right to liberty. It seems man can realize that liberty only if he does not forget the One who endowed him with it." Here Havel concurs with Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Thomas Jefferson on belief in God as foundational for democracy and human rights.
3. This renewed philosophical commitment to God as the source of human rights--what we might call postmodern Aristotelianism--is diametrically opposed to the current values of key leaders of the Democratic party. Thus when Clarence Thomas was hailed for his commitment to interpreting the Constituion in keeping with the principles of the Declaration of Independence, The Washington Monthly dismissed him as an embarrassment: "Coming from a priest or a preacher, this would be fine. Coming from a Supreme Court justice who's supposed to interpret the constitution on secular grounds, it's an embarrassment."
4. This fierce opposition to the basic principles of the Declaration of Independence shows how far Democrats have come in the space of a generation. Here is Democratic party hero John F Kennedy's Inaugural Address in 1961:
[We] observe today not a victory of party, but a celebration of freedom—symbolizing an end, as well as a beginning—signifying renewal, as well as change. For I have sworn before you and Almighty God the same solemn oath our forebears prescribed nearly a century and three quarters ago.
The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life. And yet the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe—the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God.
We dare not forget today that we are the heirs of that first revolution.

But of course, it is precisely this that the new leaders of the Democratic party no longer believe. If you say in 2005 what JFK said in 1961, you will be accused of being a theocrat. Or more mildly: "an embarrassment."
6. The key issue here is not religious and it is not theological. It does not have to do with any religious faith--it is precisely about reason, not faith. It is about the power of human reason to know that there is a god and that violations of human rights are an assault on the fabric of the cosmos.
7. As such it is diametrically to the false dichotomy of "Conservatism of faith" vs. "Conservatism of doubt" that has recently provoked some discussion. What Aristotle provides, (and through him the Thomistic tradition) is a public policy of God, reason, and democratic values. Thomas Jefferson understood this clearly. Our current generation of leaders would do well to understand that as clearly as Vaclav Havel has.


At Tuesday, 10 May, 2005, Blogger LargeBill said...

Where is C.S. Lewis when you need him?


At Wednesday, 11 May, 2005, Blogger Shaun said...

Well, actually, Habermas has had a huge amount of influence in Flew's life. And he's more than capable of addressing any of the issues....I hate to say it (being a huge fan of Lewis), but probably better equipped than Lewis was.

At Wednesday, 11 May, 2005, Blogger GrenfellHunt said...

One of the odd things about CSL is that he was a Berkleyan idealist (!). He was intensely critical of the Thomistic tradition--which surprises me because much of his best work restated key parts of the Thomistic tradition, such as his defense of natural law in The Abolition of Man. CSL was also a deep admirer of GK Chesterton, but never was won over to GKC's enthusiasm for St Thomas.

At Thursday, 12 May, 2005, Blogger Shaun said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At Thursday, 12 May, 2005, Blogger Shaun said...

You wouldn't happen to have a reference sourdce for that info. would you? Particularly something linking him to Berkleyan idealism and any of his critiques of Thomas. I would love to read up on that.

At Monday, 16 May, 2005, Blogger GrenfellHunt said...

Dear Shaun:

Yes, you can find this in the second volume of CS Lewis's letters by Walter Hooper. I don't have the exact citations on me, but check the index for Berkeley.


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