Celebrating the Platinum Jubilee of Antony Flew’s “Theology and Falsification” with a Response

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The man himself. (Photo: John Lawrence)

This year we celebrate the 70th anniversary of Antony Flew’s article titled “Theology and Falsification” published in Philosophy Now. Even to this day it remains a standard must-read article in university philosophy of religion programs. Although short (you can read the Golden Jubilee republication here), it marked a watershed moment in Anglo-American philosophical discourse because it applied developments in the philosophy of science to the philosophy of religion. The specific development was the falsifiability criterion, which was Karl Popper’s attempt to not only solve the problem of induction, but to also identify the difference between legitimate scientific inquiry and pseudoscience or superstition. In Popper’s own words, from The Logic of Scientific Discovery:

But I shall certainly admit a system as empirical or scientific only if it is capable of being tested by experience. These considerations suggest that not the verifiability but the falsifiability of a system is to be taken as a criterion of demarcation. In other words: I shall not require of a scientific system that it shall be capable of being singled out, once and for all, in a positive sense; but I shall require that its logical form shall be such that it can be singled out, by means of empirical tests, in a negative sense: it must be possible for an empirical scientific system to be refuted by experience. (p.18)

Popper’s views influenced the philosophy of science in such a powerful way, that many today consider the falsifiability criterion to be an institution of science — dogma that cannot be questioned. However, the criterion was not and is not without its critics. Nicolae Sfetcu penned an essay last year titled “Criticism of Falsifiability” which brilliantly summarized the historical players and points, but more prominently it was Sean Carroll who in 2014 received some flack for criticizing falsifiability as well (which you can read about on his blog here).

Despite the criterion’s shortcomings, it is worth considering as a basic rule of thumb which asks: if you are wrong about something, how would you know? On this point, it is easy to appreciate how significant Flew’s application of the falsifiability criterion was to theological inquiry. In “Theology and Falsification,” he characterized theological and religious claims as assertions which could not be proven false, or worse, caught up in a maelstrom of competing theological and religious assertions which could not also be proven false. Flew ended his article with a profound and central question:

Flew’s question poses a serious challenge. If after all a religious person believes that God really exists, then what could challenge that belief? If God does not exist, then how would you know? If you cannot be proven wrong, then how do you know you are right? In my previous article (“In Defense of Philosophers”), I noted how questions like these are within the bounds of good philosophy because the questions are concerned about how we build and justify knowledge, which is the discipline of epistemology. And so both casual religious believers and professional theologians need to take Flew’s question seriously if they want to tell us that their faith is standing on solid epistemological ground.

However, I think Flew’s question misconstrues the way believers justify theological claims in at least one meaningful way. In this article I hope to provide a survey of some of the issues surrounding the epistemology of religion, and in doing so set the stage for what I think is a very reasonable answer that even Flew himself might have accepted.

For starters, knowledge justification can occur in many different ways, but for the most part people tend to conform to the thesis of empiricism, which says that observation and experience are required to build and justify knowledge. Flew relied on this thesis later in 1972 when he published an article titled “The Presumption of Atheism.” In this article, he argued that atheism should be the default position when conducting theological inquiry, much like the innocence of a person who is on trial. The idea is that we should investigate the existence of God ‘from scratch’ so to speak, and not take any theological assertions for granted at the outset.

“If it is to be established that there is a God, then we have to have good grounds for believing that this is indeed so. Until and unless some such grounds are produced we have literally no reason at all for believing; and in that situation the only reasonable posture must be that of either the negative atheist or the agnostic. So the onus of proof has to rest on the proposition” (p.38).

Flew’s position here is very agreeable. If the prosecution must argue for the guilt of the accused, then a religious believer must argue for the existence of God. If there is no evidence to justify the proposition that God exists, then it need not be believed. If there is nothing that could disprove the existence of God, then his existence is meaningless. It is on these two points alone that the proposition ‘God does not exist’ can be rationally justified (and by that I mean, having sufficient reasons to believe some proposition is the case); which is to say nothing of arguments from evil or from divine hiddenness that seek to establish that ‘God does not love us.’

The problems with the presumption of atheism are numerous, as even atheist philosophers such as Kai Nielsen were not warm to the idea in its day (having wrote a critical review of it in Religious Studies Review). Specifically, in presuming atheism at the outset of an inquiry into the existence of God, one also presumes that their presumption is the most reasonable one — which is an unjustifiable perspective. In order to do this one would have to argue that their perspective is capable of determining which of the numerous presumptions one may take at the outset of an inquiry is any more reasonable than the next. Good luck with that. Because to be honest, it could be equally argued that a presumption of theism is just as ‘innocent until proven guilty’ given how widespread religious belief is!

To be fair, Flew probably would not take kindly to a presumption of theism, but there are other candidates for the default position, such as agnostic theism or skeptical theism, that are also reasonable. If so, I think it is worth briefly touching on how both an agnostic theist and skeptical theist might answer Flew.

I dare say that the agnostic theist need not provide an answer to Flew, because for her the existence of God is not possible to know one way or another, because by definition God is transcendent and beyond the probative powers of the human mind. But here we could imagine a devotee to Flew saying ‘and that’s why theism is unfalsifiable!’ but such a statement misses the point — which is that theism is unverifiable. The agnostic theist could maintain that fideism (faith) is the only ground we can stand on to justify claims about God one way or another, as well as their religious practice (or lack thereof). However, that same devotee to Flew would say ‘but when you have faith you cannot know if you are wrong!’ And unfortunately for the agnostic, we could not fault this devotee for missing the point this time. But more on fideism later.

The skeptical theist on the other hand would likely reject the notion that God is beyond all inquiry, but rather can be known by the power of Reason. Although we cannot inspect God (as we might some physical object) or interview God (as we might some physical person), that should not preclude us from being able to comprehend God. As a parallel, we scarcely comprehend how quantum physics work, but that has not stopped us from developing working theories around what know in part. What a skeptical theology looks like in practice is refraining from making claims about God, either of his properties or intentions, until those claims can be justified. So it would seem that there is a lot of overlap between skeptical theism and the presumption of atheism that I think Flew would have appreciated. This is why I will be incorporating aspects of skeptical theism into the response I will be giving to Flew.

Another aspect of Flew’s question (more so the article as a whole) seems to imply that religious beliefs are not valuable, or that we should not live as though God exists, because they are meaningless. Said differently — if God does not exist or does not love us, then we should not live as though God exists or as though God loves us. We only have so much time and energy in this life that we can invest to pursue the ends we desire, and if our investments are predicated on false ideas, then all of that time and energy is a waste. Simple enough. Is that true though?

The notion that a religious believer would be wasting their time and energy participating in religious activities is of course an opinion. Although to be fair it is not hard to imagine doing something different (such as sleeping in on Sunday mornings as opposed to going to church) that might feel like a better use of time. However, numerous studies have been done about the impact of religiosity on well-being, and many (such as this one) typically find some positive correlation. Despite these studies, I think it would be reasonable for religious practitioners to answer a reformulation of Flew’s question stated as thus: what would have to occur for you to give up practicing your religion?

The reformulated question has the same connotation as the original, so I am not sure recasting it in the light of religious practice as opposed to religious belief would make that much of a difference. But supposing that it did, one could perhaps take a page from the Pensées of Blaise Pascal to respond to the reformulated question. If as an agnostic or skeptic I found myself believing there was an equal probability that God exists or not, then on the chance that God does exist, I would not only stand to gain all the benefits of religiosity but also the presumed benefits of an afterlife in Heaven. “Wager, then, without hesitation that He is” (III, 233), as Pascal admonishes us. So it would seem that one would have to convince me that religious practice has no benefits whatsoever before I would give it up. If I were irreligious, I would incur the risk of missing out on the benefits of religiosity as well as the presumed risk of Hell. (If you’re interested in reading a contemporary defense of Pascal’s Wager from a Decision Theory perspective, click here.)

While Pascal’s Wager provides a rebuttal to the idea that religious believers are wasting their time and energy by being religious, it does not rebut the broader implication of living as though a falsehood is true. One could argue that pursuing truth, no matter what consequences may come from it and no matter how uncomfortable it might be, is a far more noble enterprise to embark on as opposed to practicing a religion just because it is comfortable given your lifestyle, or that it makes you feel good. We might even suppose that if God exists, then he would reward honest and earnest truth-seeking as opposed to self-serving religiosity (see Matthew 7:21–23). So it would seem that even if one were to take Pascal’s Wager, they would not be excused from the burden of providing an answer to Flew.

Returning to the original and central question, I think Flew left us a clue in the question itself in terms of what a successful answer might look like. Notably, a key word in the question is disproof, which we may contrast with proof. These are fairly strong words to throw around in epistemological discourse, because when you prove or disprove a proposition, it is implied that you are certain that the proposition is true or false.

Certainty is somewhat of a scandalous concept in the world of philosophy, but suffice to say we could describe a certain belief as having the following conditions: (a) justified, (b) undefeated, and (c) incorrigible. Said differently, you may express certainty in a belief if and when (a) you have justification that it is true, (b) there is presently nothing that you know of that defeats it, and (c) that you would find it extremely difficult to disbelieve.

If I am correct in associating proof and disproof with certainty, then it would be fair to reformulate Flew’s question as asking: what would have to occur for you to be certain that God does not exist or loves you? If I am not correct in associating proof and disproof with certainty, then perhaps Flew might have meant ‘disproof’ as an expression of probability (i.e. something is disproven when it is very likely to be false, and very unlikely to be true). However, I think most people would agree that proof implies certainty (to a feasible extent), and so I am comfortable continuing on that assumption.

As an intellectual exercise then, I think it would be fair to ask a religious believer to compare a non-theological belief they are certain about with a religious belief they are certain about. The reason for this exercise should be fairly clear, but the goal is establish some sort of baseline by which proof and disproof is assessed for that believer. Once this baseline is established, we can bring forth both proofs and disproofs for the existence of God.

I would suspect that for most religious believers, the famous dictum of Descartes — cogito ergo sum — would be the one non-religious belief they are the most certain about. Our subjective experience seems undeniable, because the act of denying subjective experience requires a subject to engage in denial. However, there is nothing more immediate to us than our own thoughts, so perhaps cogito ergo sum is too strong of a belief to compare to the belief that God exists. It may be best then to shift to the external world and conduct a comparison there.

Something even a blind and deaf person would know to be true is the feeling of the Earth’s gravitational pull. This feeling of gravity is universal and unceasing, and so denying this feeling would be to deny the reality of their own perceptions. It seems fairly straightforward to me that we could mark this feeling as the basis for our certainty that gravity is real. To what extent then does our certainty in gravity compare to certainty in the existence of God?

If a religious believer is as certain in gravity that they are that God exists, then I would characterize their belief that God exists as being of the properly basic kind. Properly basic beliefs are inferences about the world which to a subject seem obvious; they are plainly apparent, and require no additional argument and evidence to believe. As an illustration, if you were in a poker game with somebody and they put down a Royal Flush, you would not need to be convinced by some additional presentation of evidence or some additional argument that this person indeed had a Royal Flush. Your belief that they have a Royal Flush could be considered properly basic in this case.

In his classic essay — “Is Belief in God Properly Basic?” — Alvin Plantinga defended the position that belief in God could be grounded in normal everyday experiences and inferences. Given that our certainty that gravity exists is also grounded in normal everyday experiences and inferences, it would seem that we have a good baseline to assess various proofs and disproofs that we might also consider to be properly basic. But take careful notice of the Royal Flush illustration. The belief itself is being proved by an initial presentation that invites prima facie credulity, so we would have to ask what sort of similar proof the belief in God has. I think this points to an interesting question, which is what normally occurs that leads people to believe (with a degree of certainty) that God exists?

Consider the religious believer ‘Rick’ who says ‘I believe that God exists because I was taught that God exists.’ Then also consider the religious believer ‘Rebecca’ who says ‘it seems to me that everyday cases of cause and effect imply the existence of a first cause — something that got everything going — and from this I have inferred the existence of God.’

Both Rick and Rebecca are providing some initial demonstration that they believe invites prima facie credulity, but between them I think we would agree that Rebecca is in a much stronger position. As it happens, Rick is appealing to tradition, culture, and expertise (to only mention a few) to justify his beliefs, and so we might criticize him for this. But we could imagine Rick rebutting our criticism by saying ‘there are a great deal of other beliefs that I have received via instruction that I am fairly certain are true, so if I were to doubt the existence of God, I would have to doubt all of these other beliefs, as well as doubt the manner in which they came to me — the instruction itself.’

What Rick is saying is that since we normally accept claims being made about our world without looking into the evidence supporting those claims, why should we treat religious claims any more differently than historical or scientific claims? No doubt Rick’s point is deeply offensive to anyone who has embraced the Enlightenment, as we could imagine Kant himself saying ‘my goodness Rick! Can you not learn to think for yourself!?’ But the irony here is that in all likelihood, those who were taught about the Enlightenment and came to embrace its virtues probably did not not look into the veracity of the historical facts which surround it. How do you know ‘Kant’ was a real historical person, as opposed to just a pseudonym used by a some random dude named ‘Hans Gruber’? So it would seem that Rick could easily flip the criticism we give him back onto us.

However, I think even Rick would realize that religious claims are different than mundane historical claims, and he would probably also realize that on balance Rebecca had a much stronger initial demonstration that invites prima facie credulity. Unlike historical claims taught in school which could be researched and corroborated, no such research or corroboration is required to accept everyday instances of cause and effect.

Unfortunately for Rebecca there is a slight chink in her armor. While it is certainly the case that everyday instances of cause and effect imply the existence of a first cause (which in turn implies the existence of God), we have to remember that a properly basic belief is something that seems obvious to us. Therefore, what Rebecca is really claiming is that ‘it is obvious there is a first cause,’ which as opposed to inviting credulity actually invites skepticism. So while it is theoretically possible that theism could be a properly basic belief, in practice it appears to be like most other beliefs that are proven by normal philosophical argument. What can we make of a disproof then?

Composing a philosophical argument is a lot like working your way through a complex mathematical equation with multiple variables. Instead of using numbers though, philosophers use intuitions and observations. Next they try to express these intuitions and observations in the form of premises, which can be understood as propositions or assertions. These premises, when summed together, are meant to provide justification for a conclusion that was not obvious before hearing the argument. Usually, if one is obliged to accept the premises in an argument, then one should also be obliged to accept the conclusion that those premises entail. If one is obliged to reject any premise in an argument, then one is not obliged to accept the conclusion. Hmmm…

Drum roll please.

With all this in mind, I think religious believers have a solid answer to Flew, as perhaps one could say: if someone were to present an argument with premises that I accept and a conclusion that I agree is entailed by those premises, and that conclusion posed serious conceptual problems for the existence of God or his love for me, then such an occurrence would for me constitute a sufficient disproof of the existence of God or his love for me.

For example, most concepts of God seem to be predicated on an affirmation that minds or persons can exist immaterially. If someone presented an argument that refuted this possibility, then God’s existence would be placed in jeopardy. Another example pertains to God’s love. Most religious concepts of God portray God as being benevolent, and as a parent who loves their children unconditionally. It is for this reason that most people see a contradiction between a loving God and all of the pain, suffering, and loneliness we experience. It is much easier to deal with pain, suffering, and loneliness in the abstract, and so I should think that, in order to provide a satisfactory answer to Flew, I would need to experience some degree of pain, suffering, or loneliness that I could not make sense out of. If such a thing were to occur, I would question and perhaps reject the assertion that God loves me.

No doubt some will take issue with the answer I’ve provided here to Flew. They might say my religious beliefs were never formed as a result of philosophical argumentation in the first place, and thus no argument could ever persuade me to reject the existence of God or his love for me. However, I think such a criticism makes a very substantial category error, which is that the circumstances surrounding belief formation often have nothing to do with belief justification or belief revision. Just because somebody came to a religious faith one way does not mean they cannot leave it via some other way, and vice versa.

Lurking beneath this sort of criticism is perhaps another category error, of treating fideism to mean what I callwilly-nillyism.’ I think of ‘willy-nillyism’ as believing anything you want for no reason whatsoever, as opposed to fideism which (for me anyhow) is believing in something according to arbitrary reasons. In these terms, fideism is really just an extension or variation of rationalism. So even if a religious believer came to accept the claim that ‘God created the Universe’ on fideistic grounds, it does not mean they were being irrational in doing so, or cannot justify that belief.

Bear in mind, fideism as I see it responds to the question of why I believe IN God, not how I prove to myself THAT God exists or that God loves me. But in a situation in which I found myself believing all of my previous proofs were fallacious or wrong, and I was still holding onto my religious beliefs with a fideistic thread, it would probably take a fairly powerful experience or argument to convince me that Christianity was no longer worth living as though it were true. Someone or something would have to persuade me that the time and energy I could invest in living a religious life was not worth it, and that I would be better off for abandoning the faith.

Consider as a parallel case what would have to occur for a secular person to abandon the scientific methodology as a way of discovering truths about reality. At a 2013 conference, Richard Dawkins famously said, “How do we justify, as it were, that science would give us the truth? It works.” Now consider also if I were to give a similar answer about my religious beliefs: Why do I continue to believe, as it were, that my faith is the truth? It works. No doubt I would be accused of drawing a false comparison, but at the very least, the argument that Dawkins is relying on is a philosophical one. He’s not defending the self-justification of science by pointing to incontrovertible evidence, he’s defending it by pointing out its pragmatic virtue.

To a large extent I think we all hold on to some truths simply because they work, if for no other reason. I am certain about the truth of some beliefs because I am certain they work — they help me navigate not only my own internal narrative, but also my narrative about the external world. Although now we’re entering into the realm of the ethical and psychological aspects of belief, which are not at all empirical scientific systems (to echo Popper), and thus have nothing to do with falsifiability. For a rather poignant example, what business would Flew have at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, asking folks in recovery what would have to occur for them to disprove the existence of a Higher Power or any of the Twelve Steps? Now, does pragmatic value alone make something true? Of course not! But on some level that is all we might ever have to work with.

Perhaps this is why many have offered their own take on the supposed conflict between science and religion as a way of discussing this issue, such as Stephen Gould’s Nonoverlapping Magisteria (NOMA) criterion: “…each subject has a legitimate magisterium, or domain of teaching authority — and these magisteria do not overlap” (Natural History 106, 1997). Gould paints a picture that science and religion tell two different kinds of stories that do not share the same assumptions nor genre.

Rejecting the NOMA criterion and reaffirming the scope of science as the only way to navigate reality, or positing science as the gatekeeper of truth, is known as “scientism” and it’s nothing more than a rebranding of logical positivism from the previous century. Consider A.J. Ayer’s description of the verifiability criterion that he wrote in 1936: “The criterion which we use to test the genuineness of apparent statements of fact is the criterion of verifiability. We say that a sentence is factually significant to any given person, if, and only if, he knows how to verify the proposition which it purports to express — that is, if he knows what observations would lead him, under certain conditions, to accept the proposition as true, or reject it as being false” (Language, Truth, and Meaning, p.35).

My point in bringing these issues up is that if we’re going to criticize religious believers for standing on pragmatic grounds that cannot be falsified or verified, we should also criticize the subscribers of these criteria for doing the same. The verifiability criterion cannot be verified; the falsifiability criterion cannot be falsified; the NOMA criterion assumes its own arbitrary magisterium which stands in judgment over both science and religion; there is no objective method that we can use to objectively determine what is objectively true. So to paraphrase Flew, what would have to occur or to have occurred for a secular person to abandon these criteria that they rely on to explore reality?

It seems to me that the foundations of our doxastic systems are determined arbitrarily for non-evidential reasons, and that we explore reality by testing these systems. We accept what works for us personally and what fits with our perspective of reality, and we reject what doesn’t. But as an analogy, some systems are like sandals (easy to slide on and off, and go for a walk in) while others are like boots (requiring some effort to put on and uncomfortable initially). If something like the existence of God is deeply ingrained in my own doxastic system, then there probably is not going to be any singular ‘occurrence’ that would constitute a disproof of my theism, because my theism was never formed or proved by any singular ‘occurrence’ in the first place. So perhaps on some level, Flew’s central question is misconceiving theological and religious assertions entirely, in which case, a different kind of answer is required.

I believe Descartes had a different kind of answer. In Meditations on First Philosophy, he wrote “If you would be a real seeker after truth, it is necessary that at least once in your life you doubt, as far as possible, all things.” I think if a religious believer did this activity, and attempted to reconstruct their faith from the ground up after rejecting all of their theological propositions, then this religious believer would be doing right by Flew (because swallowing the pill of doubt entails the presumption of atheism).

“For now,” as the apostle Paul aptly wrote, “…we see through a glass darkly…” (1 Corinthians 13:12a, KJV). At most, the probative scope of human experience and the various methods and means we have devised to explore reality only produce shades of truth. And the poetic irony with Flew’s central question is that given his acceptance of some theological assertions later in his life, we should suspect that — if he was consistent with his own position — he would have been able to give himself an answer to his question that was satisfactory. But perhaps the answers I have offered here do not satisfy you. Perhaps you knew Flew very well and could speak to whether or not he would accept my answers. In either case, I think my answers are intellectually honest, fair, and reasonable, and I think even you might admit are much, much better than no answer at all.

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Clear and critical thinking-out-loud about philosophical and theological topics from the perspective of a Christian pastor.

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