Divine Simplicity and Simpletons

simpleton-universityRichard Dawkins abandoned Christianity at the age of nine. And, by all accounts, he hasn’t learned anything new about what Christians believe since then.

This is to say that his “Boeing 747 Gambit” is an excellent case study in why one should read on a topic before making vast declarations on it in print.

What is the Boeing 747 Gambit? For those that don’t already know, it could be summarized as follows:

1. Because God has control over the universe, he would have to be an extremely complex being.

2. Complex beings always evolve from simpler beings.

3. The probability that something this complex could evolve is vanishingly small.

4. Therefore, God almost certainly does not exist.

I first picked up “The God Delusion” looking for a real challenge to my faith, and was very disappointed to find, among other things, this being presented as the book’s central argument. Not only are these claims dubious at best, but I had to rewrite it just to make it coherent. Dawkins’ own summary was, demonstrably, logically invalid. If this was the best the New Atheists could present, it is no wonder theologians didn’t feel that books like this one were worth attention.

But theologians should pay attention, and not only because a post-graduate student could write a doctoral thesis on everything that is wrong with this argument. By stirring up controversy, Dawkins has given theologians the perfect excuse to discuss, say, divine simplicity.

That is the problem with Dawkins’ first statement here. God has traditionally understood as a simple being (not as in “easy to understand” but as in “not composed of parts”). As spirit, this is rather straight-forward. Dawkins misses this point, presumably because he believes that God has successive thoughts like we do (rather than holding all knowledge simultaneously), and otherwise thinks that a mind’s knowledge counts has adding to its physical complexity.

But this is nonsense. The only way to say that a mind’s thoughts make it more physically complex is to assume that there can’t be a mind without a brain. But this is, of course, the very thing Dawkins should be trying to prove. To assume it here would be to argue in a circle.

This is one of many reasons why experts don’t take the argument seriously. The real debate among theologians is whether God has metaphysical “parts” (as many Protestant theologians claim) or not (as Catholic and Orthodox theologians claim).

I think many would be interested in reading “Personalists” and “Classical Theists” defend their respective concepts of God. Why think God would be simple? How is the concept of the trinity explained if God is simple? How is God’s unity described without simplicity? This is a great way to deepen one’s own understanding of the divine.

But Dawkins simply isn’t interested. He “knows” this thing called “God” doesn’t exist, so he doesn’t have to bother learning what the word “God” actually means. But, if he had bothered, he would have noticed that his argument doesn’t disprove the God that monotheists believe in, but only the sort of God’s believed in by the ancient Pagans.

I’d say that Dawkins is a bit late to be proving that Zeus doesn’t exist (and there are far better arguments, even then). Really, his “central argument” has nothing to say about a God who is above nature, rather than part of it.

In the words of Stephen Barr, “Paley finds a watch and asks how such a thing could have come to be there by chance. Dawkins finds an immense automated factory that blindly constructs watches, and feels that he has completely answered Paley’s point.”

21 responses to “Divine Simplicity and Simpletons

  • chicagoja

    Richard Dawkins logic is flawed, at best. I don’t know why people pay so much attention to him.

    • Debilis

      Yes, when he’s willfully ignorant by his own admission, it seems completely strange to take him as an authority on the subject.

      But a friend recently told me that working out the specific problems with his reasoning and theology could be a great learning tool. I had to admit that it was a good point.

  • danielwalldammit

    I’d have to say the argument as you present it here wouldn’tbnecessarily prove the pagan gods don’t exist either. It is at best a proof that no God could have evolved into existence as other species do. How one rules out any other possibilities would seem to be beyond the scope of anything that could reasonably be inferred from the premises of this argument.

    Haven’t read Dawkins book myself, so I am accepting your account.

    • Debilis

      I suppose you’re right about that. At least, establishing premise 2 in context of a debate over Pagan gods seems problematic.

      But, if you’re curious (and don’t have time to read the book just now), Dawkins has written his own six-point summary of the argument.

  • Openobserver

    Well, I certainly agree with your points of Dawkin’s arguments being weak and insubstantial against Intelligent Design and even made a recent post on my blog where I attempt to prove by deductive reasoning the existence of Intelligent Design. However, that in itself doesn’t prove or even add credence to a particular belief. if you’re looking for “reasons to challenge your faith” in Christianity you will not have to go far. I think I can give you all you care to entertain by simply pointing out the almost endless contradictions of the belief. I would begin with the very foundation, that love could condemn that which it created and go from there if you really wish to engage in friendly conversation on the subject.

    • Debilis

      I’ll have a look around, then.
      Yes, I agree that Dawkins’ failure here does not support theism. I really was just using that as an excuse to talk about divine simplicity.

      I don’t yet see a reason why a loving God wouldn’t condemn evil actions, though. It seems distinctly unloving to fail to condemn evil.

      Perhaps I’ll understand better after I’ve read the full argument.

      Best to you until then.

      • Openobserver

        “I don’t yet see a reason why a loving God wouldn’t condemn evil actions, though. It seems distinctly unloving to fail to condemn evil.”

        Those two sentences say a great deal more than appears on the surface. Let’s look deeper. First, what is love and secondly, what is evil? In my mind, love is acceptance and un-love or hate is rejection. They are opposites and cannot possibly coexist in perfection. The closest comparison to love we experience as humans is the love between a parent and child. However, according to Christianity, even that pails compared to God’s love for His creation. Can you imagine a loving parent condemning a child for any reason whatsoever? Would a loving parent even think of bringing a child into a world where there was even the slightest possibility of such a dreadful thing occurring? Would a loving creator see his creation failing terribly and heading to eternal suffering and just keep right on pumping millions more each month into the same horribly boiling pot? Is this the way we define love, omniscience or perfection?

        What is evil? Of course, when we think of evil we think of murder and abuse of one another. But according to Christianity, evil is simply not accepting God’s plan which only they have defined. I have had some say to me, God does not condemn anyone, each person chooses hell. I say, who do you know who has made a choice for eternal hell? They say, well they may not realize it but they are making that choice by refusing to listen. I say, you mean, listen to you? Maybe they have other ideas. If what they say is true, God is condemning people because of a lack of understanding or because they have not been fully advised of some extremely crucial information because absolutely no one would willfully make such a decision. That could only be obvious from simply observing the world around us. If God is condemning that casually, He is the most dreadful, callus, unloving and distorted creator imaginable. He is creating far more misery, suffering and agony every day than did Hitler in his entire life.

        How can this be viewed as anything other than blatant contradiction? Thank God, He really is love and love does not condemn!

        Furthermore, the belief says that evil is sin. The Bible says that man is incapable of living sinless so we can only conclude that God created man a sinner and will only accept him after he asks for forgiveness for his sinful nature. Who gave man his nature? Must man ask his creator for forgiveness for the way he was created? I could go on and on but too lengthy already. Sorry.

    • Debilis


      This is a very thoughtful response. I’ll try to answer it carefully (apologies if that makes it a bit long).
      That said, I think the disagreement we have is twofold:

      1. I don’t see condemnation as hate and rejection, but simply the acknowledgement of wrong doing.

      2. I don’t see hell as a literal torture-chamber, but the torment that happens naturally when people are separated from the source of all goodness.

      This would explain that “everyone chooses hell” it is not that people go to hell for “not listening”, but that God doesn’t force people to be with him. He simply warns people that this is a very bad idea.

      This makes more sense out of condemnation as well. When a child hits his sibling, a good parent makes it clear that this is wrong. The child may not understand that, and feel entirely justified (even to the point of thinking that the parent is being mean). But it is precisely the parent’s love that brings the judgment.

      Biblically, it is humans that are given choice, and have chosen poorly. To again refer to the parental analogy, it is not loving to refuse to allow your child to have any decision making powers at all because you know that a bad choice will be made somewhere.

      Or, in more philosophical terms, the logical version of the problem of evil has been abandoned precisely on the grounds that no one has been able to show that it is feasible to create free creatures who are also sinless.

      Okay, that’s the shortest I could manage.

      Best to you in any case.

      • Openobserver

        Thank you for your response. I must point out that the correction of a child by the parent is indeed out of love in trying to guide and direct. However, there is no way condemnation could be considered a loving act. They are totally different and no way comparable. One is love and the other the opposite. Do you believe a loving parent would condemn a child to eternal suffering for any reason whatsoever? Or even a mad dog, for that matter?

        The whole belief just makes no sense. If God gave man freedom, then man would be able to make whatever choices without retribution. If God says do this or be damned, that is coercion. Now, man actually does have freedom, and man does indeed, condemn himself by his actions but not eternally. If I harm or do “evil” I will pay the price but that explanation gets too lengthy. In a nutshell, in my opinion, the belief has just completely misunderstood what God is all about and terribly desecrated both God and love. Cheers!

        • Mark Hamilton

          “If God says do this or be damned, that is coercion.”
          Perhaps, but it depends on the context. If I say to you “Don’t eat hemlock or you’ll die” I’m not trying to coerce you. Some actions have natural consequences, and I believe that God only commands us not to do things that would damage and hurt us. Often times we can’t see how such actions would hurt us, just a child might not be able to see why eating some plants is good and eating other plants (like hemlock) is bad. They might believe that their parents are just trying to coerce them into doing things their way if they were told not to eat hemlock. But in reality the parents know that actions have consequences, and out of love they want their children to avoid those consequences.
          If we are to have free will then we are free to make very bad choices. God wants us to make good ones, but he still leaves us freedom to make the bad.

        • Openobserver

          Thanks Mark for your comments but again we are comparing apples to oranges here. To point out dangers to a child is a loving thing to do. To make a demand under the threat of retribution is coercion. It is not freedom at all. If you say to the the child, do not eat that hemlock or I’ll bash in your head with this baseball bat, that is not love. It is the same freedom a thief, gun in hand, gives his victim when he says, hand over your wallet or take a bullet to the chest.

          According to Christianity, God did not give man freedom. We say man chose to sin but the Bible says man is incapable of living sinless no matter how hard he tries. Where’s the freedom? Man can accept or reject God with reward or terrible suffering. That is no freedom, that is coercion. Of course, God really is love and really does give man freedom if we do not distort or misunderstand what God really is.

        • Mark Hamilton

          Well, I guess this may have to be something we disagree on. When I see God asking us not to do something I see a parent saying not to eat hemlock because hemlock itself is bad, not a parent saying don’t eat hemlock because I’ll bash you head in. He doesn’t “need” to bash our heads in; such behavior has negative consequences on it’s own.

          Hey, the Bible says man is incapable of livng a sinless life, its true. But has anything in your own experience told you any different? Have you ever met a man who did no wrong, who never hurt others, or took more than his fair share, or wished someone was dead? Have you met a perfect human being? If you have then I’d say you have an excellent argument against the idea that all men sin. If not, I have to say that the Bible is pretty well backed up by our observations there.

        • Openobserver

          Of course, I’ve never met a man who didn’t sin. That is my point precisely. There is no choice NOT to sin. There is no freedom of choice regarding such. So we can only conclude God is condemning everything He creates and we view it as a marvelous loving creator.

          You believe Jesus volunteered to save all. What if He had made the other choice or what was God doing before Jesus made such decision? Just creating only for suffering?

          It is all blatant contradiction.

        • Mark Hamilton

          I don’t really see the contradiction at all. God created humans to be perfect and good, like him. Adam and Eve knew no sin. They had a choice not to sin, and it was an easy one. They had a whole world to explore and the only thing forbidden from them was the fruit of a single tree. They had the freedom to choose, and they chose poorly. We’ve been living with the consequences of that choice ever since. Thankfully God loves us and paid a desperate price in order to undo our mistake. Now we wait until his return, after which we will be like Adam was, able to choose definitively between good and bad, wise and foolish. It’s a story of a disobidient child who loses himself in the woods, and the father who loved him enough to go through death itself to bring them back.
          Where’s the contradiction? If it’s so blatant, you should be able to point it out to me.

        • Openobserver

          Mark, if you haven’t recognized it by now, It ain’t gonna happen. Hey, As long as you find comfort in the belief and can make sense of it, have a marvelous Christian journey. Cheers!

        • Mark Hamilton

          No offense, but, well, I’m offended at your answer. It seems to me that by saying “if you haven’t recognized it by now, It ain’t gonna happen” seems to put my intelligence and ability to reason in doubt. I’m doing my best to listen, but I still don’t understand why you insist on your interpretation of scripture and the world around us. To blame me for that seems more than a little rude.
          I’m sorry if this comment also comes off as rude, but I’m a bit peeved.

        • Openobserver

          Sorry Mark if I offended. Didn’t mean to. Look, we all have our ingrained beliefs and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. My opinion doesn’t mean squat. It’s just my opinion. I’m no guru either. It might interest you to know that I come from a very fundamentalist Christian upbringing, taught Bible, Sunday School and served as Southern Baptist Deacon for many years. When I finally reached the point of opening my belief to serious question it became very obvious to me how ridiculous the belief actually is. (my opinion, of course). People simply have to come to the right place before their ready to open and that’s fine. It’s just the way human nature is. Imagine trying to convince the Mullahs of the stupidity of Islam. Ain’t gonna happen. So forgive me if I come across to abruptly. I have to admit that it all seems so obvious to me now that I seem to fall into that trap. Sorry and Best Wishes.

        • Openobserver

          One further comment if I may. I believe the believability of the Christian belief can be summed up in the question, would loving parents ever under any circumstance submit a child to eternal suffering. It always amazes me how parents are so afraid one of their children may become entangled with the world, become lost and be condemned by God. They certainly never would but are afraid God might and at the same time claim God’s love to be much greater.

        • Mark Hamilton

          Hey, sorry if I got a littlie heated there. For some reason I mostly got upset when you used the phrase “blatant contradiction,” becaue I couldn’t (and still can’t) see the logical contradiction here. Ironically enough I’ve been having a long discussion with someone else on another blog where I’ve been trying really hard not to lose my cool. I guess all that pent up frustration was bound to show itself somewhere! Apology accepted.

  • Openobserver

    Sorry to comment again but will include the link to my argument ON Intelligent Design in case anyone’s interested.

  • indytony

    Dawkins’ second assumption – “Complex beings always evolve from simpler beings” is a metaphysical tenant of pseudo-science. Try proving macro-evolution in a lab, and I guarantee you won’t get very far before your funding runs out.

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