Warren-Flew Debate, Part 1

In my post "On the Knowledge of God", I wrote: "I have come to the conclusion that neither side [theist and atheist] has any arguments that aren't in some way fundamentally flawed. One day, I will make this case in writing." I guess today is the day to get started (but not, yet, to finish). One problem, of course, is which side to address first and which arguments within each side to address. I could, for example, consider the debate between Richard Dawkins, the author of The God Delusion, and John Lennox of which a transcript of the debate is here. I could, for example, cover Feser's "Five Proofs of the Existence of God". I could review "On the Existence of Gods" by Saltarelli and Day. I could ignore what everyone else is saying and present my own case. But even when I do get around to that, I'll still want to include answers to objections, which means covering the traditional arguments.

Somewhere, in a place that I can no longer find
1, I remember reading that Antony Flew was the "most important atheist you've never heard of." On the other hand, Flew may have abandoned atheism in favor of deism in 2004, six years before his death. One side says the switch may have been the result of senility - a charge which Flew denied2. Still, up until that point, he had an impressive pedigree. And in 1976, he debated Thomas Warren over a period of four nights in Denton, Texas where he argued for the affirmative position that there is no God. The debate is available on Youtube and in print.

My primary goal will be to examine Flew's arguments. My secondary goal will be to dissect Warren's responses to Flew. I have to admit that my sympathies -- but not my worldview -- are with Flew in the debate. My impression is that, of the two debaters, he is the more careful craftsman. He is trying to paint a picture with careful brush strokes while Warren is firing a paint gun. Flew is wielding a scalpel, while Warren is using a chain saw. Both have their uses, even though Flew removes the wrong organ and Warren cuts down the wrong tree.

Because my sympathy is with Flew I will deal with his arguments last. First, I want to show where Warren's responses to Flew fall flat. First, Warren makes the claim that Flew has to hurdle seven walls; escape seven cages, to "know" that God does not exist. Warren presents his chart number 9 (manually recreated with minor edits):

Note that, with one exception, Warren is in the same place. Where Flew must show the eternality of matter, Warren must show the creation of matter. After that, at least according to Christianity, Warren must answer the same questions. Genesis says that we are made from "rocks and dirt" (Gen 2:7). Since the "dust of the earth" is unconscious, the same transition must be made. Conscience, i.e. morality, must also enter into the picture. And so on. If Warren could go back in time, what would he see? Would he see dust forming into a human shape which then begins to move? If so, what would intermediate shapes, if any, look like? How long would it take? Would it happen in an instant? Would it happen in minutes? Would it happen over millions of years? How long would the operation to make Eve take? Seconds? Minutes? Hours? What does Warren think he would see? The only difference between Warren and Flew's position on "life from rocks and dirt" is time scale and the presence, or lack thereof, of agency. Since Warren can't go back in time, how does he know what he claims to know? He may answer, "because the Bible says so," but that is an appeal to authority which, in any other undertaking, would require additional support.

And this leads to a fundamental problem. Neither side addresses what it means "to know". There is no mutual groundwork on the nature and limits of reason, empiricism, or self-evident knowledge. Warren has a way that he escapes the mutual prison cells, but I suspect he wouldn't permit Flew to use the same kind of tools. Warren says:

...the only way he can arrive at atheism is to come through all of these walls.

This simply isn't true. We know that knowledge obtained by empiricism is incomplete, if only because we can't experience everything. Thanks to Kurt G
ödel, we know that knowledge obtained by reason, if it is consistent, is incomplete3. Both Warren and Flew need to address what it means to know in the face of uncertainty.

There are some things that we just can't know. And some of the things we claim to know by reason are built upon statements that are taken to be true for no other reason than they are assumed to be true. These axioms, these presuppositions, these self-evident truths may, or may not, conform to external reality (whatever that turns out to be
4.) So while something might be logically true, it may not correspond to a correct description of Nature (cf. the "Stoddard" portion of the Spock-Stoddard Test).

Too, each system may give different answers to the same questions
5, and a question that has an answer in one system might not have an answer in another. It's important to watch for mental sleight of hand when someone argues the superiority of one system over another because their system has an answer to something the other does not. That's not necessarily a virtue. Their system will have unanswerable questions that might be answered in their opponents system.

Warren will use this technique ("my worldview has an explanation, but Flew's does not") as if this settles the matter. As above, it does not. Furthermore, wittingly or unwittingly, this leads to "God of the gaps" thinking. That is, the idea God has nothing better to do than to be an explanation for things where our knowledge is incomplete. While our knowledge will always be incomplete, the moment a particular gap in our knowledge closes, the need for God in that particular instance goes away. So much for an unchanging God.

Warren also seemed to refuse to accept the problem of the
Sorites paradox, that is, the lack of bright lines of demarcation between some objects. How many grains of sand comprise a pile? How many hairs on a head make the difference between bald and hirsute? In the theory of evolution, where did the difference between human and non-human occur? Warren states:

The truth of the matter is, the theist, who believes in Almighty God, has absolutely no trouble with the question of which was first--a woman or a baby.

Sure, but this is because Genesis gives an account where this question is answered. But, as stated before, just because there is an answer doesn't mean it corresponds to reality. The existence of an explanation is not evidence of the truth of the explanation. Warren then asks:

Have you ever seen anything that was neither human nor non-human?

Here, Warren is begging the question. What, exactly, does it mean to be human? That we have the form of a human? Clearly, the Sorites paradox comes into play, since a person who is missing limbs isn't less human than than someone who isn't. Is it based on behavior? If I lose my mind to dementia, does my humanity gradually fade? If something passes the Turing Test, can it be said to be human? Is humanity based on genetics? Neanderthal and modern humans apparently had a common ancestry. In practice, we find that the definition of human is fluid. It depends on form -- except when it doesn't. It depends on behavior -- except when it doesn't. It depends on genetics -- except when it doesn't. Warren ought to admit that our humanity is rooted in our being in the image of God -- but this has to be something non-physical. And since it's non-physical, it's hard to define. Warren is using a sharp line which his own theology has to affirm is actually ineffable.

To be continued...

[1] Possibly "
Did Jesus Rise from the Dead?: The Resurrection Debate", Habermas and Flew.
[2] Asking the senile if they're senile is like asking a drunkard if he's drunk, or an insane person if he's insane.
[3] G
ödel's first incompleteness theorem.
The Matrix
[5] Compare
Euclidean and non-Euclidean geometries.
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