Refuting Antony Flew's Attack on Miracles -- Who is Really Arguing for the Impossible?

In 1950, Antony Flew published a paper that dealt with the notion that for a statement to be a true statement, it must have the possibility of being false. That is, if proposition P contains any truth value, then it must have the possibility of being false. The statement

it is warm outside today" must, Flew contends, have the possibility of not being warm outside that day. This type of argument is intended to be a critique of the very notion of God. For the question that Flew has proposed to the theist from his falsification principle reveals itself in clear sight: "[W]hat would have to occur or to have occurred to constitute for you a disproof of the love of, or of the existence of, God? 10

Flew starts his thesis with a parable:

[O]nce upon a time two explorers came upon a clearing in the jungle. In the clearing were growing many flowers and many weeds.

The tale continues when

[O]ne explorer says: "Some gardener must tend this plot." The other disagrees: "There is no gardener." 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' The Invisible Man could be both smelt and touched though he could not be seen).

Flew's famous parable continues:

[B]ut 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 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."

Finally, the shroud over the Believer's eyes has been taken off and the veil torn. The parable continues:

At last the Skeptic 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?"

Such a powerful critique deserves serious evaluation.
From: "The Reality of Miracles: A Refutation of Antony Flew's Views by Malachi.

It does take serious evaluation, and one of our CADRE members who writes under the pen-name of Malachi has taken on this evaluation. In an essay entitled "The Reality of Miracles: A Refutation of Antony Flew's Views, from which the above-quote was taken, Malachi uses the resurrection of Jesus to refute Flew's claims that the existence of God must be taken on faith in the same way as the believer in his analogy takes on the belief in a gardener on faith. The essay is well worth the time to read.

In the discussion, Malachi makes several observations that show that Flew's falsification argument destroys itself. Consider the following: the argument against miracles requires someone to say that "Event X did not occur because it went against what we ordinarily see and expect given our present situation." Sometimes, the case is stronger that such events could not happen in a regularly structured universe, such as the time that the sun stopped in the sky. (Joshua 10:13) But in other cases, such as Jesus' acts healing the paralytic (Matt. 9:1-8) or feeding the 5,000 (Luke 9: 10-17), the arguments that the miracle was not possible because if violated the laws of nature are less forceful. But in either case, the question isn't whether it could happen in a materialistic universe, but whether it did happen.

This is the same argument that comes up time and time again in the area of intelligent design, but the tables are turned. In the case of intelligent design, the ID advocates argue that some event we see in nature, e.g., the coming into existence of the simplest living cell, could not have occurred by naturalistic processes. In other words, left to purely random chance and material forces, it is impossible that the necessary elements would come together in such a way that a cell could become alive. Rather, the ID advocates argue that it takes a designer. The Darwinists, however, assert that only naturalistic processes can be considered in science, and so they assert that life must have come into existence from non-life through some process we simply have not yet discovered (even though we have no clue as to what that process may have been). Notice, however, that it is the Darwinists who maintain their views of a purely naturalistic beginning despite the increasingly compelling arguments from ID advocates that such processes are not possible.

Flew's argument, however, says that it is impossible that a particular miracle could have happened because it goes against the laws of nature. In doing so, he is using the very argument that Darwinists reject in continuing to argue for a purely naturalistic arising of life -- the argument that a high degree of improbability (to the point of being practically impossible) of one alternative makes a second alternative (the more likely of the two) the preferred alternative.

To clarify, suppose that we have two possible explanations for the accounts of miracles (defined by Flew as "an act that manifests divine power through the suspension or alteration of the normal working laws of nature"): a heavenly God who cannot be shown to the satisfaction of skeptics to exist (Alternative A), or the fabrication of these stories by various devotees to a religion to bolster a belief in their God (Alternative B). By Flew's argument, the better course is to accept Alternative B because the known laws of nature do not permit miracles and we have inadequate evidence for Alternative A.

But consider the same argument where we have two possible explanation for the arising of life: a naturalistic process that cannot be shown to the satisfaction of anyone to actually exist (Alternative A); or the design of the original living cell by someone or something who purposed it to arise (Alternative B). It seems to me that using Flew's argument would lead to Alternative B because we can see and understand how the cell was designed, but we have no evidence that the cell arose naturalisitically if we do not began with a precommitment to materialism and Darwinism.

Of course, Flew now agrees that his argument leads one to conclude that the design of the universe came about as the result of something or someone who purposed it to arise (I don't think he has reached the same conclusion about the design of the cell, and I think he is violating the precepts of his own rationality not to do so). In Flew's case, he has become a Deist -- believing in a clockmaker God who started things up but has had little or nothing to do with creation since then.

What is, of course, interesting is that his belief in the existence of a God (even a deistic God) actually seriously impairs his argument about miracles. If my characterization is correct (and I certainly admit that I don't know Flew's mind or what he was thinking), it appears that what I characterized as Alternative A is no longer valid. In other words, when he accepted deism, he can no longer maintain that miracles cannot have been caused by "a heavenly God who cannot be shown to the satisfaction of skeptics to exist." Obviously, the existence of a God has become sufficiently compelling that he now acknowledges the existence of a limited God. As such, his argument against miracles is substantially weaker because the argument that supposes the accounts of miracles must have been fabricated because there is no evidence that God exists has been admitted by Flew to be false. Instead, he is no longer arguing that God doesn't exist, but that he doesn't perform miracles. One has to ask "why not?"

A hint of Flew's answer can be found in an interview he did with Dr. Gary Habermas for Biola University. On page 5 of the interview, the questioning proceeds as follows:

HABERMAS: You and I have had three dialogues on the resurrection of Jesus. Are you any closer to thinking that the resurrection could have been a historical fact?

FLEW: No, I don't think so. The evidence for the resurrection is better than for claimed miracles in any other religion. It’s outstandingly different in quality and quantity, I think, from the evidence offered for the occurrence of most other supposedly miraculous events. But you must remember that I approached it after considerable reading of reports of psychical research and its criticisms. This showed me how quickly evidence of remarkable and supposedly miraculous events can be discredited.

What the psychical researcher looks for is evidence from witnesses, of the supposedly paranormal events, recorded as soon as possible after their occurrence. What we do not have is evidence from anyone who was in Jerusalem at the time, who witnessed one of the allegedly miraculous events, and recorded his or her testimony immediately after the occurrence of that allegedly miraculous event. In the 1950s and 1960s I heard several suggestions from hard-bitten young Australian and American philosophers of conceivable miracles the actual occurrence of which, it was contended, no one could have overlooked or denied. Why, they asked, if God wanted to be recognized and worshipped, did God not produce a miracle of this unignorable and undeniable kind?

HABERMAS: So you think that, for a miracle, the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection is better than other miracle claims?

FLEW: Oh yes, I think so. It's much better, for example, than that for most if not of the, so to speak, run of the mill Roman Catholic miracles. On this see, for instance, D. J. West. (35)

HABERMAS: You have made numerous comments over the years that Christians are justified in their beliefs such as Jesus' resurrection or other major tenants of their faith. In our last two dialogues I think you even remarked that for someone who is already a Christian there are many good reasons to believe Jesus' resurrection. Would you comment on that?

FLEW: Yes, certainly. This is an important matter about rationality which I have fairly recently come to appreciate. What it is rational for any individual to believe about some matter which is fresh to that individual's consideration depends on what he or she rationally believed before they were confronted with this fresh situation. For suppose they rationally believed in the existence of a God of any revelation, then it would be entirely reasonable for them to see the fine tuning argument as providing substantial confirmation of their belief in the existence of that God.

I am not quite sure where this leaves Flew's original argument. It seems to me that simply because he is not convinced by the resurrection accounts is no reason to discount the reports of miracles such as the resurrection as evidence that God can and does intervene in human affairs through miracles. Certainly, Flew seems to be conceding that a person, if they are convinced by other evidence that God exists, is rational in believing in miracles.

I guess I will look forward to Flew clearing this all up sometime.


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