Thursday, August 27, 2015

Two Parables and the Question of Falsifiability

Famed British philosopher of religion Antony Flew (1923-2010), writing as an atheist in 1955, expanded upon a parable designed to show that there is no difference between God as an “invisible gardener” and there being “no gardener at all.” To give an idea of the extent of Antony Flew's influence consider this: His books were used as standard texts for those wishing to engage in the study of Christian Apologetics at a tertiary level. Towards the end of his life, Flew, who maintained that he would go wherever the evidence leads him, gave up his atheism and embraced the idea that God exists.

"Throughout the last half of that century, Professor Flew was recognized as one of the most significant philosophical advocates of atheism, eventually writing at least 35 works, many arguing for the non-existence of God. Then, at age 81, Antony Flew changed his mind. God, he explained, probably does exist." Al Mohler

PARABLE ONE (Antony Flew):

 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. (For they remember how H. G. Well’s The Invisible Man could be both smelt and touched though he could not be seen.) 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 give cry. Yet still 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.” 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?”

John Frame counters with a parable of his own. John M. Frame is an American philosopher and Calvinist theologian especially noted for his work in epistemology and presuppositional apologetics, systematic theology, and ethics:

PARABLE TWO (John Frame):

 Once upon a time two explorers came upon a clearing in the jungle. A man was there, pulling weeds, applying fertilizer, trimming branches. The man turned to the explorers and introduced himself as the royal gardener. One explorer shook his hand and exchanged pleasantries. The other ignored the gardener and turned away: “There can be no gardener in this part of the jungle,” he said; “this must be some trick.” They pitch camp. Every day the gardener arrives, tends the plot. Soon the plot is bursting with perfectly arranged blooms. “He’s only doing it because we’re here—to fool us into thinking this is a royal garden.” The gardener takes them to a royal palace, introduces the explorers to a score of officials who verify the gardener’s status. Then the skeptic tries a last resort: “Our senses are deceiving us. There is no gardener, no blooms, no palace, no officials. It’s still a hoax!” Finally the believer despairs: “But what remains of your original assertion? Just how does this mirage, as you call it, differ from a real gardener?” —John M. Frame, “God and Biblical Language: Transcendence and Immanence,” God’s Inerrant Word,

In the first parable by an atheist it is pointed out how the theistic view of the world cannot be falsified. After all if the senses are generally reliable and you cannot find any evidence through the senses, there is just as much reason to say there is in reality no gardener at all. So the story of the gardener is resisted on the basis there should be some sense verification of the presence of the gardner. In the retold story by the theist, the same story is resisted on the basis that just because you can see and feel and touch a gardener you shouldn't believe because as we all know the senses can be fooled, it is just a mirage. What this shows is that there is a prior commitment at a deep level not to acknowledge the gardener no matter what the evidence shows, one way or the other.

‘As apologist John Frame shows, however, Flew’s argument only tells part of the story….systems of thought that resist falsification are not necessarily invalid, for all philosophical systems resist falsification at their most fundamental level. Consider the man who thinks that making money is the most important thing in life. He will strive his hardest to gain wealth, perhaps even neglecting to care for his own health or for his family in the process. It will be difficult to convince him that wealth is not as important as he thinks it is. He will reject any arguments his friends bring against him, believing that his friends are mistaken, no matter how well formed those arguments are or how strong his friends’ evidence is. His belief in the value of money is a “basic commitment,” or a “presupposition.” He will interpret everything he sees and hears such that it will form a consistent system of thought built upon this basic commitment. Only when he finds that his commitment leads to irreconcilable claims or when he senses that his commitment fails to account for the world he experiences will he have cause to doubt it. His basic commitment thus resists all falsification. This same reliance on basic commitments applies to the rationalist, the modernist, the post-modernist, the atheist, and the Christian. The commitments will naturally take different forms; some will hold that sense perception is the only way to test claims, others will rely on logical deduction, still others will rely on gut instinct. Each of these resists falsification. If you try to reason with the man who relies on instinct, he will say his gut tells him that you are wrong and will dismiss your claims. If the Christian tells a man who relies on sense perception that he believes in an invisible, intangible God, that man will likewise outright dismiss the Christian’s claims. Each system is valuable to the one who believes it, but each system nevertheless will resist falsification. The Christian and the atheist, each an outsider to the other’s belief system, will find that system strange, indefensible, and invalid. Since all systems resist falsification at their most basic level, we cannot reject Christianity purely on the grounds that it resists falsification. Instead, we must examine it from within. We must see if it is internally consistent. In the words of C. S. Lewis, we must step inside Christianity and look “along” it,rather than stand from the outside and look “at” it. What I think you will find is a system that is consistent, that can account for any evidence you bring against it, and that is of great value. Christianity makes a greater difference in the life of the believer than anything else ever could. In closing, consider John Frame’s clever version of the Parable of the Invisible Gardener, in which he rewrites Flew’s version to show the resistance to falsification that lies within atheistic modernism:’ (From Tolle Lege- The Blog of the Dartmouth Apologia, written by Nathaniel Schmucker.)