Home  |  Department |  Plato's Apology   | Classics  |  Online Forum   | Paper Topics  |  E-mail  me

Philosophy 1A


The Great Debate

Imagine that you are invited to sit on a panel with Antony Flew , an English philosopher. Imagine, too, that you and Flew (pronounced "flu") are scheduled to appear together in a little less than two weeks from now, on Monday, the 8th of October, to be exact. Imagine that you have been invited to comment on what he has to say and through the foresight of and careful planning by the organizers of the panel you are being given the opportunity to see his remarks ahead of time and to prepare your own comments accordingly. Since you are slightly nervous, never having appeared on the same program with such a distinguished guest before, you welcome the opportunity to have an "advance" copy of Flew's remarks. Here then is what Flew plans to say:

Let us begin with a parable. It is a parable developed from a tale told by John Wisdom in his haunting and revelatory article "Gods." 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." 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 . . . . 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 [bark]; yet still the one who believes is not convinced. "But there is a gardener, invisible, intangible, insensible to electric shocks, a gardener who comes secretly to look after the garden which he loves." 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?"

In this parable we can see how what starts as an assertion, that something exists or that there is some analogy between certain complexes of phenomena, may be reduced step by step to an altogether different status, to an expression perhaps of a "picture preference." The Skeptic says there is no gardener. The Believer says there is a gardener (but invisible, etc.). . . .

Take such utterances as "G-d has a plan," "G-d created the world," "G-d loves us . . ." They look at first sight very much like assertions. Of course, this is no sure sign that they either are, or are intended to be, assertions. But let us confine ourselves to the cases where those who utter such sentences intend them to express assertions.

Now to assert that such and such is the case is necessarily equivalent to denying that such and such is not the case. Suppose then that we are in doubt as to what someone who gives vent to an utterance is asserting, or suppose that, more radically, we are skeptical as to whether he is asserting anything at all.

One way of trying to understand (or perhaps it will be to expose) his utterance is to attempt to find what he would regard as counting against it and what he would regard as being compatible with its truth. For if the utterance is indeed an assertion, it will necessarily be equivalent to a denial of the negation of that assertion. And anything which would count against the assertion, or which would induce the speaker to withdraw it and to admit that he had been mistaken, must be part of (or the whole of) the meaning of the negation of that assertion. And to know the meaning of the negation of an assertion is [quite simply] to know the meaning of that assertion. But if there is nothing which a putative assertion denies, then there is nothing which it asserts either: and so it is not really an assertion. When the Skeptic in the parable asked the Believer. "Just how does what you call an invisible, intangible, eternally elusive gardener differ from an imaginary gardener or even from no gardener at all?" he was suggesting that the Believer's earlier statement had been so eroded by qualification that it was no longer an assertion at all.

Now it often seems to people who are not religious as if there was no conceivable event or series of events the occurrence of which would be admitted by sophisticated religious people to be a sufficient reason for conceding "There wasn't a G-d after all" or "G-d does not really love us then." Someone tells us that G-d loves us as a [parent] loves [his or her] children. We are reassured. But then we see a child dying of inoperable cancer of the throat. His earthly [parents] are driven frantic in [their] efforts to help. But his Heavenly [Parent] reveals no obvious sign of concern.

Some qualification is made - G-d's love is not "merely a human love" or it is "an inscrutable love" - and we realize that such sufferings are quite compatible with the truth of the assertion that "G-d loves us as a [parent] (but of course . . . )." We are reassured again. But then perhaps we ask: what is this assurance of G-d's (appropriately qualified) love worth, what is this apparent guarantee really a guarantee against? Just what would have to happen not merely (morally and wrongly) to tempt but also (logically and rightly) to entitle us to say "G-d does not love us" or even "G-d does not exist?" I therefore put to

[. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . ] [Insert your own name here]

the simple central question, "What would have to occur or to have occurred to constitute for you a disproof of the love of, or of the existence of, G-d?"

Antony Flew, University College of
North Staffordshire, England*

*from New Essays in Philosophical Theology,
ed. Antony Flew and Alasdair MacIntyre
(New York: Macmillan, 1955).
Copyright (c) 1955, renewed 1983

Admittedly, you are a bit puzzled why you were chosen to comment on Flew's reasons for apparently being skeptical about G-d's love and existence. You suspect it may have something to do with the fact that you have been taking a course in Philosophy in which you have been doing some reading and listening to a few lectures on God and religion, but that course is introductory and you think to yourself " who are you to go up against such a formidable ally or opponent?" But there is little time to reflect upon this strange coincidence and even less time to waste. Your remarks need to be written in just a shade less than two weeks! You decide to knuckle under.

The main organizer of this event, a Professor Andreas Teuber from Brandeis University, has invited you to put your (recently acquired) philosopher's cap on and respond to Flew. That much is clear. Here in succinct form is the question he, on behalf of the organizing committee, has put to you:

" Drawing on your own reading in the philosophy of religion and your own considered judgment, make an argument or arguments in support of your response to Flew's "simple central question" ("What would have to occur or to have occurred to constitute for you a disproof of the love of, or of the existence of, G-d?"), offer what you think are several powerful objections to your arguments, and respond to them.

Professor Teuber also suggests you give some thought to the following: If, for example, you wish to argue against Flew or against Flew in part, he suggests that you imagine how Flew might best respond on his own behalf, and how you would (then) respond back. If, on the other hand, you elect to defend Flew either in whole or in part, he suggests that you think about what objections might be raised to your position by others, and how you might best meet those objections. In thinking of objections to your position, whether they be Flew-like or someone else's, Professor Teuber suggests that it is often useful to think of the best possible objections that someone with a point of view other than your own might come up with. If you can respond to the other side at its strongest rather than at its weakest point, he has been known to say, that can only help to strengthen your own case and make it that much more persuasive as well as make the subsequent discussion from the floor all the more satisfying.

You know from talking with the organizers that they are hoping for a lively debate, but you are not sure if you agree or disagree with Flew or whether you think he's just plain misguided from beginning to end. You realize that to respond to Flew you first have to sort out in your own mind whether you agree or disagree with him. And this, in turn, seems to require you to figure out what you think. This is what you both love and hate about philosophy. To paraphrase what one very good contemporary philosopher, J. R. Lucas, has said: " Philosophy has to be self-thought, if it is to be thought at all. It is an activity rather than a set of positions. You need to think out the problems and solutions for yourself, and although another person's philosophizing may help you in your own, you cannot accept their conclusions, or even understand their arguments, until you have already argued a lot with yourself."

You decide to look back over some of the reading you have been doing in Philosophy 1A to get yourself thinking. From your own experience of the first few weeks of Philosophy 1A, you have come to the conclusion that, whatever else it may include, philosophy involves constructing and evaluating arguments.

In reading Flew's proposed remarks, however, you are not sure if Flew is making an argument for not believing in God or if he is merely raising a set of concerns or expressing some doubts. You suspect that you may need to spend some time clarifying his reasoning at various points in order to bring his argument, if argument there be, more explicitly to light.

From your own (brief) exposure to philosophy, you have come to notice that philosophers do not just argue with one another - although they do seem to do an awful lot of THAT - they also examine assumptions to determine not only whether those assumptions are rationally defensible but whether they make sense. Yes, yes, philosophers spend a lot of time arguing. But they also spend a lot of time clarifying questions and concepts, so they can understand what they're supposedly talking about as well as seek to uncover the preconceptions of a given argument in order not to be led astray.

But enough of this preliminary talk. It's time to adjust your philosopher's cap, settle in, and deliver the goods. Your remarks should be about five to six pages in length. They are due on Monday, October 8th, in class.


  Back to top


Home  |  Department |  Plato's Apology   | Classics  |  Online Forum   | Paper Topics  |  E-mail  me

Page last edited: February 1, 2000