The Debate of the Century: Part 1
The Warren/Flew Debate on the Existence of God
Part #1 – An Interview with Dr. Flew
Radio Script #258 (1976)
Hello, I’m Ray Mooney. This is part one of a three part series of one of the most important debates of this century, the Warren/Flew debate held recently on the campus of North Texas State University in Denton, TX. Dr. Anthony Flew of Reading University in England is an atheist. He signed the proposition, “I know God does not exist.” Dr. Thomas Warren of the Harding Graduate School of Religion in Memphis, TN, signed the proposition, “I know God does exist.” For four consecutive nights before television cameras and an audience of thousands these men argued their positions. This program is an interview with Dr. Flew who says, “I know God does not exist.” I’ll be back with my guest in just a moment.
ANNOUNCER: This is “Insight,” a program examining current issues that affect our lives and offering practical solutions for your consideration. And now your host, Ray Mooney.
RM: Dr. Anthony Flew is well-known and respected in academic circles worldwide. He's the author of numerous books and contributes articles regularly to philosophic journals. He's the head of the philosophy department of Reading University near London. He is an atheist and has written and spoken widely concerning his belief that God does not exist. The Warren/Flew debate, in my judgment, was one of the most important events dealing with this issue in this century. Next week our guest will be Dr. Thomas Warren, the other participant in this historic confrontation. I ask Dr. Flew why he didn't take a more agnostic position rather than the dogmatic atheistic one.
ANTHONY FLEW: I think that's a very fair question. It is a thing that has worried me. I've found it difficult to make the decision. The reasons why I've made it this way are like this. I think that it's evasive and inaccurate to describe the position that most of the people who call themselves or are called agnostic take. I think it inaccurate and evasive to describe this as agnostic. After all, to talk about someone being agnostic about something surely suggests that he thinks it's a question that can be and, perhaps, one day will be decisively settled by an accumulation of evidence and he's waiting on that evidence expecting it to come up.
RM: Dr. Warren mentioned in the debate, in one of his speeches, that you sound more like an agnostic than an atheist. I believe that you expressed, was it last evening, that you had difficulty in deciding whether you wanted to take an agnostic position or the atheistic position.
AF: Yes, I have and I do think it is difficult to see what is the most straight forward way of describing the situation as I see it. I appraise all of these things from an acceptance of the things are agreed by everyone of every religion or of none, you know - matters of common sense, common experience, of everyday observation and the accumulating scientific knowledge of the hidden mechanisms behind all the familiar things. The problem, then, is that there are those many, many people with suggestions about something that lies behind all this. Besides all the actual people there are innumerable possibilities that no one has ever seriously considered. It's a vast range of things and not only one. Now some of these views are testable and they can be tested. Consider those priests of Baal. They said that if their views about what was behind nature were true, such and such a thing would happen and it didn't. Well, that's that. Most of these views now have been made, as most Christianity has been made today, untestable. Nowadays people would think it was rather uneducated to suggest the sort of test described in the Old Testament. I believe that recently some Muslim spokesman in Nairobi challenged Dr. Billy Graham to a similar test. You know, take thirty sick people duly attested and the Muslim would try to cure fifteen with the help of his god and Billy Graham would try to cure fifteen. Well, apparently Billy Graham didn't even reply to this. Certainly he didn't accept the challenge because it was felt inappropriate. Making this inappropriate has a price. The whole thing is being made untestable rather like the existence of fairies, you know. If people say that this is testable if you put the saucer out with milk in it you'll actually be able to see them, well and fine. But if you say, well, no, you mustn't expect to test it because the fairies don't like us to make tests, you make it untestable.
RM: I recall in Matthew's biography of Christ in His temptation, Satan took Him up into the mountains and tempted Him in various ways. One of His temptations was, "If you are the Son of God, then cast yourself down (He was on the pinnacle of the temple), because your father has promised to take care of you." Paraphrasing, Jesus said, "We're not going to get into such a bargaining situation as this. God doesn't have to prove Himself to you." Would it not be in the same category today? Has not God proven Himself enough? He's not in the business of constantly, constantly proving that He exists.
AF: I think this is a very good example to raise. It seems to me it's exactly, because what is said in the Gospels is said that the situation becomes as I see it. After all, with any ordinary theory to explain what's going on, constant tests is possible. We're not told with regard to any scientific theory, "Well, that's been tested enough." Every time you work on it in technology, every time you want to test it you can. Well, okay. Say that this particular religious view has been adequately tested and that all further tests are inappropriate, but there is this price to be paid for it. You make it something that's in principle beyond testing and then if you haven't got - and I don't believe any such system has and this rather negative thing is an important part of my positive case - if it doesn't have any positive reasons for it, there are unlimited range of untestable alternatives. What can one say about this other than it's an open issue and we are waiting for more evidence. I can well see that some one might still want to describe this position as agnostic but it seems to me that it's more straightforward and honest to incur the odium of being an atheist because, in fact, like most of the people who are calling themselves agnostics, it's an atheist that I'm living as not regarding any particular view as a live option on the evidence for which may come in the future.
RM: You mentioned something there that caused me to think that there are many of us who wish to be Christians who in essence so many times fall short in our lives, we live as though God didn't exist. So oftentimes, it is the practical atheism whether we admit it or not. The Scriptures do teach that we are to prove that which is good, to prove all things and hold fast to that which is good. So we do need to keep assessing the information and studying and reevaluating because there is plenty of evidence for us to spend a lifetime, many lifetimes ascertaining what's available proving the existence of God. Let me take an argumentative stance in some of my questions, if you will Dr. Flew. Before anyone could logically say, "I know God does not exist," would you not have to possess the three attributes of deity -omnipresence, omnipotence and omniscience? Let me explain what I mean. Would you not have to be omnipresent or everywhere or the one place you might not be would be where God is? Would you not have to be omnipotent or having all power or the one thing you would not be able to do would be to prove that God doesn't exist? Would you not have to be omniscient or all knowing or the one thing you might not know would be that God does exist?
AF: I'm trying to take this one up exactly as you've put it. I think this is upside down. I think in order to know that an omnipresent, you might have to be everywhere to check it but you'd be in a position to know that it wasn't true if you were anywhere that that being was not. And of course, if it's invisible and incorporeal all the rest you can't test it. Suppose a claim is made that there's something to be found everywhere. This claim can be shown to be false by finding anywhere where there isn't that something. Of course, it can't be decisively shown to be true except by checking it everywhere and this is a stark point about all scientific generalizations, they can't be conclusively shown to be true. But if they're forced, they can be shown to be conclusively false.
RM: Dr. Flew, would it be impossible for you to believe in God? What would be a conceivable circumstance or circumstances that would cause you to believe?
AF: This would depend on which god. I think the thing that is worth emphasizing which is, of course, naturally concealed by the whole framework of the Warren/Flew confrontation and this is nobody's fault, is that there is an infinity of possible views about what is outside, beyond and so on the universe. And there are a vast number of different gods for consideration. When Dr. Warren talks about an atheist he's always thinking of, and understandably, someone who denies his beliefs. It's worth remembering here that the early Christians were quite correctly described as atheists by their pagan contemporaries. We're all-in respect to all possible religions other than one at most, atheists. What could lead me to believe in God would depend very much on which one. I cannot know what would lead me to believe the sophisticated Christian God of today because I can't see what evidence there could be for this.
RM: This is the God I'm speaking of.
AF: Yes. My difficulty here is to see what sort of positive evidence there could be. I suppose there are a lot of reasons that have been put forward in the past but they don't seem to me any good. Failing this what could there be? Dr. Warren said one evening with suggesting, you know, suppose a voice came from the heavens and said something was going to happen in north Texas next year, etc. Yes, but no one's actually claiming that this is contact which could be inferred from their idea of God and the non-occurrence of which would show it to be false. No one is saying this. You were referring to these temptations in the Gospels but exactly these things that you might have inferred from some rather ancient Old Testament God, that if so and so, He'll act. We're not allowed to infer from the present concept of God and this does make it very difficult, if not impossible to say what would lead one to be required to believe in this.
RM: This is a very basic question and maybe we should have gotten into it a little earlier. But I recall hearing this story that I think illustrates the point. This man was walking along the road and he saw a turtle sitting on a fence post. He surveyed the situation for a moment somewhat dismayed and he said to the turtle, "How did you get up there?" The turtle said, "Well, I don't know. But I know I didn't get here by myself." It seems to me, Dr. Flew, that we're somewhat like the turtle. Where did we come from? How did we get on this ‘fence post’? Now what we're doing here and how well we're living up here, of course, is a different question. But how did we get here?
AF: Well, the answer to any straightforward and secular question about how we got to where we are is to be found first in the study of human history, the study of evolutionary biology, and before that I suppose in the study of geology. This isn't enough and it's not what we were really asking about. How did the universe come to exist and have the fundamental characteristics that it does have? I really think there's no answer to this. I think that the existence of the universe and its most fundamental characteristics cannot be explained. I think it's worth going on immediately from this. Someone will say, "Ah, but in terms of my religion I can explain it." Now he may be right but let no one think that he avoids having some things he leaves unexplained. He'll leave the existence of God, God's nature, and man's fundamental nature unexplained. This is brought out by his insistence that it seems appropriate to ask who made God. Now clearly he may be right in thinking that is a better explanation. We can argue about that but he would be quite wrong to think that the edge he's got over me is that he explains everything whereas I leave the existence of the universe and its fundamental characteristics unexplained. No one explains everything. It’s against the nature of explanation that everything should be explained because every explanation has to be in terms of something left unexplained. The dispute between us and where he has an edge, if he has, is that he's right about there being a god with the fundamental characteristics. He's not right in thinking that he explains everything whereas I leave a great big gap.
RM: Do you reject the view that there are objective laws of what is right and what is wrong that are beyond our subjective assessment of what is moral and immoral?
AF: No I think it makes perfectly good sense to talk of what's right and wrong independent of the wishes, desires and so on of any individual or any particular group. But it seems to me that, nevertheless, these standards, independent of any particular individual or group preference are in some sense a function of human desire. That is to say, it wouldn't make sense to talk of value in the world with no conscious beings. It's a tricky situation here but I don't think it's the sort of situation from which the theist can get any comfort as opposed to the atheist. Because it seems to me we both presuppose, and I think rightly presuppose, some standards independent of our desires and so on. It's only by reference to these standards that the theist can describe his own god as good, just, and so on. It's not because the true standards are just what God says. It's that they're independent and capable of assessing God as well as man.
RM: The origin of these standards is really the point of my question. Could they be totally human derived? Do they not have to have a point of existence beyond the capacity of the human mind merely to derive these standards, our conscience is really what I mean?
AF: My position is that there are great problems here which no one has solved. Just to go on to things that seem to me to be clearly established, I do believe there would not have been any values or standards of value without conscious beings. On the other hand, I don't think these standards of value are just a matter of the say so of any individuals or groups. But then I don't think they are or could be a matter of the say so of God because if you're to be able to say that God is just, and mean more by this than He does what He likes, or there are certain things that He says are just on His say so, you've got to have an aid of justice which is logically independent of God's will and I think everyone who praises their god thinks they're saying something does have this and that it's independent of the Will of God and man, at least, it's independent of the direct say so.
RM: Dr. Warren made much of the fact you didn't or haven't presented a logical, sound argument when you were speaking in the affirmative. What empirical evidence do you have that God doesn't exist?
AF: I don't see how with many systems of god there could be such evidence because they've been so formulated so they can't be testable. In the case of Dr. Warren's views, I would say that they were inconsistent. Because I think what he thinks and says about Hell is flat inconsistent with the most minimal concept of Divine justice.
RM: I still am feeling a longing to hear your reasons. When you say I know God does not exist, I would really like to hear you say here's why I don't believe God exists. Here's the evidence. If I may, I haven't heard those.
AF: I don't have any difficulty in understanding your dissatisfaction but all I can do to meet it, I think, is to describe the features of the situation which make it different from that which I think you have in mind as an ideal. If we were dealing with the religion of Baal, then one could offer you what you have in mind. I could say, "Well, they are saying this sort of thing. It is a clear consequence of what they're saying that if we do such and such, this will happen. We did and it didn't." There we have a decisive falsification of that religion. But if you carefully qualified or have introduced a religion which just isn't testable in this way at all, then one can't reject it on the basis of saying that it carries these consequences which are not true. One could only reject it by pointing out that it is a degenerate theory.
RM: It's one thing to say, "I don't like God. I don't like His view of justice. I recognize His existence but I don't like Him." I think of the book of Romans. The apostle Paul writing to the Church of Rome in the first chapter of that epistle, he described a number of people who had abandoned God. He lists many characteristics of their lives. They were haters, back-biters and turned to all kinds if perversions. One of the things was "they sought not to retain God in their knowledge." In other words, they didn't deny His existence but they just said, "God get away from me. I don't want anything to do with you. I don't like you." Well, that's of course something altogether different than saying that they didn't believe that God exists. Would you be taking the position, if God exists, you don't like Him?
AF: Yes, but I am certainly not offering any of these moral considerations as sufficient or even good reasons for saying that there isn't such a being. There are sufficient reasons for saying that there isn't a being who can correctly be described, A., as having done these things and B., as being infinitely good. Now there are not sufficient reasons for saying that the universe isn't like that. Now I think it's actually wrong to offer these reasons of morality or even reasons of personal taste as reasons for believing that things aren't as are. This is a most deluded thing to do.
The above interview aired following the Warren-Flew Debate conducted September 20-23, 1976.