Thursday, June 23, 2005

Flew and Frame on Theology and Falsification

In 1950 philosopher Antony Flew wrote a paper entitled “Theology and Falsification,” which has been reprinted (and presumably read) more times than any other philosophical work of the late 20th century. Flew originally delivered the paper at the Socratic Club at Oxford, chaired at the time by C.S. Lewis.

Here is Flew’s famous parable intended to show that God-language resists falsification and therefore does not make a meaningful difference:

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.’ 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 be 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?’

John Frame, in an excellent article entitled “God and Biblical Language: Transcendence and Immanence” [not yet available online—published in God’s Inerrant Word, ed. John Warwick Montgomery (Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship, 1974)], writes:

What is Antony Flew’s “basic commitment”? To reason? To “academic integrity” of some sort? To a secular ethic? To religious agnosticism? I don’t know, but I would assume that he has one, since he does not seem like the sort of person who accepts values unreflectively. And more can be said: If with the Bible we divide the human race into Christian and non-Christian, those who know God and those who don’t, those who love God and those who oppose him, clearly Flew by his writings has identified himself with the God-opposing group. If this self-identification truly represents his heart commitment, then according to Scripture Flew is committed to “hindering the truth” of God, “exchanging the truth of God for a lie.” According to Scripture, he is committed at a basic level to opposing, contradicting, resisting the truth of God which in some sense he nevertheless “knows.” This commitment too will be unfalsifiable and yet self-verifying, for it is a basic commitment; and for all its irreligiosity it is logically like a religious commitment. Let us illustrate by a parody on Flew’s parable:

Once upon a time two explorers came upon a clearing in the jungle. A man was there, pulling weeds, applying fertilizer, trimming branches. The man turned to the explorers and introduced himself as the royal gardener. One explorer shook his hand and exchanged pleasantries. The other ignored the gardener and turned away: “There can be no gardener in this part of the jungle,” he said; “this must be some trick. Someone is trying to discredit our previous findings.” They pitch camp. Every day the gardener arrives, tends the plot. Soon the plot is bursting with perfectly arranged blooms. “He’s only doing it because we’re here-to fool us into thinking this is a royal garden.” The gardener takes them to a royal palace, introduces the explorers to a score of officials who verify the gardener’s status. Then the sceptic tries a last resort: “Our senses are deceiving us. There is no gardener, no blooms, no palace, no officials. It’s still a hoax!” Finally the believer despairs: “But what remains of your original assertion? Just how does this mirage, as you call it, differ from a real gardener?”

Some of you may recall, by the way, that Flew famously converted to deism/theism in 2004.