The Invisible Gardener: Part 2 Flew (Famous Philosophical Thought Experiments 1)

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You can find the full series here.

If you missed part one on the creation of the Parable of the Invisible Gardener by John Wisdom and the problems of subjectivity in gaining knowledge, you can get it here.


Flew objected to Wisdom’s parable because he didn’t believe it was an accurate comparison to how we argue for the existence of God. He didn’t believe that arguments for God’s existence and arguments for his non-existence carried equal validity. It was this mistake which gave the impression of subjectivity. Flew believed that one side would always present better evidence. In order to demonstrate this objection, Flew created his own version of the Parable of the Invisible Gardener in Theory and Falsification:

Two explorers are in a jungle and they stumble across some weeds and flowers. One man argues that there must be a gardener. They set up camp and wait for the gardener to appear. No such gardener appears. The man still maintains that there is a gardener, its just the gardener is invisible. They put up an electric fence and patrol the boundaries with blood hounds. The electric fence isn’t triggered and the blood hounds don’t pick up a scent. The man still maintains that there is a gardener but they are invisible, scentless and do not trigger electric fences. Eventually the companion of the man asks whether there is any difference between the gardener the man believes to exist and an imaginary gardener. 

What Flew attempts to highlight here is that some people hold beliefs that they will not let go, even when evidence is presented against their beliefs. By doing this, their beliefs become meaningless, to the extent that they may as well be imaginary. Therefore, in order for a belief or a proposition to be meaningful, there must be a situation or a qualification where it would be shown to be false.

This theory is known as Falsification, an idea held in the Philosophy of  Religious Language and the Philosophy of Science. In terms of language, it means propositions cannot be meaningful unless there is a qualification that would disprove them. For instance, I may hold it true that a table in my house is red. This is a meaningful statement because there is a qualification which would falsify this statement. If I looked at the table and saw it wasn’t red, the statement would be proved false and I would no longer hold on to the belief that the table is red. However if seeing a blue table didn’t make me no longer believe the table was red,  my belief and the proposition would be meaningless as nothing would be able to falsify it. 

Flew believes this is what happens with religious believers. They have no criteria of evidence that would cause them not to believe in God. They move about what they believe in to fit the new evidence being presented. Eventually, what they believe in has no meaning and dies “a death of a thousand qualifications”. The God they believe in is no different to an imaginary one. 

Evidence that supports this idea is the various reactions to the “God of Gaps” argument. When we didn’t understand science as well as we do know,  religious believers claimed that things we didn’t understand were caused by God. It was clear from this that God existed. This included such things as the cause of illness and why the sun rises every morning. However, as our scientific knowledge developed, it’s explanations replaced those explanations based on God. Pasteur developed germ theory in the 1860s which explained illness in terms of micro-organisms. The sun rises every morning because the Earth rotates around it. However, every time new science developed, religious believers claimed God still exists and could explain what we couldn’t explain, he just had less explanatory power than they had assumed previously. However, as science explains more and more God loses more explanatory power. Soon, there will be no difference between the believers God and an imaginary God. For Flew,  Their lack of ability to give up their belief in God in the face of evidence means their belief is unfalsifiable. It makes their claims meaningless. 

In Flew eyes, he manages to avoid the subjectivity that Wisdom highlights. There are ways we can justify one set of evidence over another by using falsification. If Flew is correct, we can still use empirical evidence to gain knowledge which is correct. However, he does this at the expense of religious believers. If religious believers want to avoid subjectivism without giving up their belief in God, what are they suppose to do?


The third and final part of The Invisible Gardener series looks at Dr. John Frame’s adaption of the parable. You can find it here.


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