Does Antony Flew Have Alzheimer's Disease?
Psychologist Valerie Tarico in Two Liars for Jesus and an Aging Philosopher. speculates that Antony Flew has Alzheimer's Disease. Admittedly, it is a diagnosis based on other people's accounts of their interactions with him, which has its limits. And I've seen insinuations that Antony Flew's detractors have been talking about his mental decline in order to explain away his "conversion". But if his mental faculties have indeed declined, then it may be hard for him to do what a philosopher is supposed to do: make arguments for his position. And ideas and arguments are supposed to stand and fall by their merits, not by name-dropping. The people who complain about his detractors' discussing his mental state are often the sort of people who say what a superior philosopher he is, implying that we ought to accept his arguments on that basis.
She starts out by noting that his handlers may believe that the end justifies the means, that one cannot make an omelet without breaking eggs; "For Evangelical Christians, the greatest good in the world is winning converts. A Christian who wins a convert saves a soul that would otherwise be condemned to eternal torture." And "The problem isn’t that Evangelicals, like the rest of us, weigh alternatives on a sort of moral balance. The problem is that fundamentalist dogmas simply outweigh normal moral constraints on behavior."
Getting back to his condition, she claims that it is evident in Oppenheimer's New York Times article:
The article reads like a mental status exam:
- Memory impairment: could not recall the identities of old colleagues (e.g. Brian Leftow, Paul Davies) when given their names, could not recall the content of his earlier books (John Leslie), forgot and then remembered timeless philosophical arguments—conclusions were swayed back and forth in beliefs by most recent conversations or changes in recall.
- Aphasia: halting diction, loss of technical vocabulary (e.g. abiogenesis) self-described “nominal aphasia.”
- Disturbance in executive functioning: manifest confusion responding to abstract argumentation--demurring, passive assent, contradictory statements, didn’t write and couldn’t maintain content awareness of book published in his name.
With this level of observable dementia, and with a decrement of 3-4 IQ points per year, one might hypothesize that Flew is nearing that decade mark. In fact, having begun with a particularly robust mind and level of mental activity, it is possible that he has been fending off debilitation even longer. Symptoms such as those described by Oppenhiemer, even if they are currently patchy and inconsistent, let us know what to expect in coming years. Apraxia means losing the ability to carry out motor activities. Agnosia means losing the ability to recognize or identify objects, including people you love. Alzheimer's is a fate no-one would wish on anyone but an enemy and few would seek to exploit to their own advantage.
She speculates that Varghese and Hostetler might be honestly mistaken, afflicted with will to believe, rather than pious fakers. They might be thinking that they have found a great prize: an eminent philosopher who changed from opposing their side to supporting their side.
Ed Babinski has suspected something similar; he has written about Anthony Flew's Conversion, wondering why it is such big news while the numerous conversions the other way have not been. Steve Locks has also noticed this one-way conversion direction among the knowledgable in Asymmetry of Conversion, as has Brian Holtz in Atheist Deconversion.