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My Pilgrimage from Atheism to Theism - Page 3

Habermas: In God and Philosophy, and in many other places in our discussions, too, it seems that your primary motivation for rejecting theistic arguments used to be the problem of evil. In terms of your new belief in God, how do you now conceptualise God's relationship to the reality of evil in the world?

Flew: Well, absent Revelation, why should we perceive anything as objectively evil? The problem of evil is a problem only for Christians. For Muslims everything which human beings perceive as evil, just as much as everything we perceive as good, has to be obediently accepted as produced by the will of Allah. I suppose that the moment when, as a schoolboy of fifteen years, it first appeared to me that the thesis that the Universe was created and is sustained by a Being of infinite power and goodness is flatly incompatible with the occurrence of massive undeniable and undenied evils in that Universe, was the first step towards my future career as a philosopher!  It was, of course, very much later that I learned of the philosophical identification of goodness with existence!

Habermas: In your view, then, God hasn't done anything about evil.

Flew: No, not at all, other than producing a lot of it.

Habermas: Given your theism, what about mind-body issues?

Flew: I think those who want to speak about an afterlife have got to meet the difficulty of formulating a concept of an incorporeal person. Here I have again to refer back to my year as a graduate student supervised by Gilbert Ryle, in the year in which he published The Concept of Mind.

At that time there was considerable comment, usually hostile, in the serious British press, on what was called "Oxford Linguistic Philosophy." The objection was usually that this involved a trivialization of a very profound and important discipline.

I was by this moved to give a talk to the Philosophy Postgraduates Club under the title "Matter which Matters." In it I argued that, so far from ignoring what Immanuel Kant described as the three great problems of philosophers - God, Freedom and Immortality - the linguistic approach promised substantial progress towards their solution.

I myself always intended to make contributions in all those three areas. Indeed my first philosophical publication was relevant to the third.18 Indeed it was not very long after I got my first job as a professional philosopher that I confessed to Ryle that if ever I was asked to deliver the Gifford Lectures I would give them under the title The Logic of Mortality.19 They were an extensive argument to the conclusion that it is simply impossible to create a concept of an incorporeal spirit.

Habermas: Is such a concept necessarily required for the notion of an afterlife?

Flew: Dr. Johnson's dictionary defines death as the soul leaving the body. If the soul is to be, as Dr. Johnson and almost if perhaps not quite everyone else in his day believed it to be, something which can sensibly be said to leave its present residence and to take up or be forced to take up residence elsewhere, then a soul must be, in the philosophical sense, a substance rather than merely a characteristic of something else.

My Gifford Lectures were published after Richard Swinburne published his, on The Evolution of the Soul.20 So when mine were reprinted under the title Merely Mortal? Can You Survive Your Own Death?21 I might have been expected to respond to any criticisms which Swinburne had made of my earlier publications in the same area. But the embarrassing truth is that he had taken no notice of any previous relevant writings either by me or by anyone published since World War II. There would not have been much point in searching for books or articles before that date since Swinburne and I had been the only Gifford lecturers to treat the question of a future life for the sixty years past. Even more remarkably, Swinburne in his Gifford Lectures ignored Bishop Butler's decisive observation: "Memory may reveal but cannot constitute personal identity."

Habermas:   On several occasions, you and I have dialogued regarding the subject of near death experiences, especially the specific sort where people have reported verifiable data from a distance away from themselves. Sometimes these reports even occur during the absence of heartbeat or brain waves.22 After our second dialogue you wrote me a letter and said that, "I find the materials about near death experiences so challenging. . . . this evidence equally certainly weakens if it does not completely refute my argument against doctrines of a future life . . . ."23 In light of these evidential near death cases, what do you think about the possibility of an afterlife, especially given your theism?

Flew: An incorporeal being may be hypothesized, and hypothesized to possess a memory. But before we could rely on its memory even of its own experiences we should need to be able to provide an account of how this hypothesized incorporeal being could be identified in the first place and then - after what lawyers call an affluxion of time - reidentified even by himself or herself as one and the same individual spiritual being. Until we have evidence that we have been and presumably - as Dr. Johnson and so many lesser men have believed - are to be identified with such incorporeal spirits I do not see why near-death experiences should be taken as evidence for the conclusion that human beings will enjoy a future life - or more likely if either of the two great revealed religions is true - suffer eternal torment.

Habermas: I agree that near death experiences do not evidence the doctrines of either heaven or hell.  But do you think these evidential cases increase the possibility of some sort of an afterlife, again, given your theism?

Flew: I still hope and believe there's no possibility of an afterlife.

Habermas: Even though you hope there's no afterlife, what do you think of the evidence that there might be such, as perhaps indicated by these evidential near death cases? And even if there is no clear notion of what sort of body might be implied here, do you find this evidence helpful in any way? In other words, apart from the form in which a potential afterlife might take, do you still find these to be evidence for something?

Flew: It's puzzling to offer an interpretation of these experiences. But I presume it has got to be taken as extrasensory perceiving by the flesh and blood person who is the subject of the experiences in question. What it cannot be is the hypothesized incorporeal spirit which you would wish to identify with the person who nearly died, but actually did not. For this concept of an incorporeal spirit cannot properly be assumed to have been given sense until and unless some means has been provided for identifying such spirits in the first place and re-identifying them as one and the same individual incorporeal spirits after the affluxion of time. Until and unless this has been done we have always to remember Bishop Butler's objection: "Memory may reveal but cannot constitute personal identity."24

Perhaps I should here point out that, long before I took my first university course in philosophy, I was much interested in what in the UK, where it began, is still called psychical research although the term "parapsychology" is now used almost everywhere else. Perhaps I ought here to confess that my first book was brashly entitled A New Approach to Psychical Research,25 and my interest in this subject continued for many years thereafter.

Habermas: Actually you have also written to me that these near death experiences "certainly constitute impressive evidence for the possibility of the occurrence of human consciousness independent of any occurrences in the human brain."26

Flew: When I came to consider what seemed to me the most impressive of these near death cases I asked myself what is the traditional first question to ask about "psychic" phenomena. It is, "When, where, and by whom were the phenomena first reported?" Some people seem to confuse near death experiences with after death experiences. Where any such near death experiences become relevant to the question of a future life is when and only when they appear to show "the occurrence of human consciousness independent of any occurrences in the human brain."

Habermas: Elsewhere, you again very kindly noted my influence on your thinking here, regarding these data being decent evidence for human consciousness independent of "electrical activity in the brain."27 If some near death experiences are evidenced, independently confirmed experiences during a near death state, even in persons whose heart or brain may not be functioning, isn't that quite impressive evidence? Are near death experiences, then, the best evidence for an afterlife?

Flew: Oh, yes, certainly.  They are basically the only evidence.


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