HABERMAS: What role might your love for the writings of David Hume play
in a discussion about the existence of God? Do you have any new insights on
Hume, given your new belief in God?
FLEW: No, not really.
HABERMAS: Do you think Hume ever answers the question of God?
FLEW: I think of him as, shall we say, an unbeliever. But it’s interesting
to note that he himself was perfectly willing to accept one of the conditions
of his appointment, if he had been appointed to a chair of philosophy at the
University of Edinburgh. That condition was, roughly speaking, to provide
some sort of support and encouragement for people performing prayers and executing
other acts of worship. I believe that Hume thought that the institution of
religious belief could be, and in his day and place was, socially beneficial. (16)
I, too, having been brought up as a Methodist, have always been aware
of this possible and in many times and places actual benefit of objective
religious instruction. It is now several decades since I first tried to draw
attention to the danger of relying on a modest amount of compulsory religious
instruction in schools to meet the need for moral education, especially in
a period of relentlessly declining religious belief. But all such warnings
by individuals were, of course, ignored. So we now have in the UK a situation
in which any mandatory requirements to instruct pupils in state funded schools
in the teachings of the established or any other religion are widely ignored.
The only official attempt to construct a secular substitute was vitiated by
the inability of the moral philosopher on the relevant government committee
to recognize the fundamental difference between justice without prefix or
suffix and the “social” justice of John Rawls’s A Theory
I must some time send you a copy of the final chapter of my latest and
presumably last book, in which I offer a syllabus and a program for moral
education in secular schools. (17) This is relevant and important for both the
US and the UK. To the US because the Supreme Court has utterly misinterpreted
the clause in the Constitution about not establishing a religion: misunderstanding
it as imposing a ban on all official reference to religion. In the UK any
effective program of moral education has to be secular because unbelief is
now very widespread.
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
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
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
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.