“God Is Simple”: Can Apologists Even Conceptually Jump This Shark?

[I am planning to expand this older essay as part of a blog series that I am doing on the theology of Thomas Aquinas on my philosophy blog Civitas Humana. As such, some of the content below may be revised in the newer version, which I will post a link to here, once it is finished. -MWF 9/29/15]

[I have now written my new essay on divine simplicity and the Ultimate Boeing 747 gambit, which can be accessed here. This new essay represents my current position on the topic, and should be given priority if it is perceived to contradict any of the arguments in this older essay. -MWF 4/20/16]

Richard Dawkins, after years of being badgered by creationists and evolution-deniers with elementary questions like, “How can human life just come from chance?,” proposed an interesting counter-dilemma: not only does Darwinian evolution explain quite nicely how a complex, intelligent mind can evolve from simple beginnings, but, if one’s guiding intuition is that complex entities simply cannot exist on their own by chance, then it is extremely unlikely that a complex, personal god would just “exist,” without any causal explanation, as the accidental origin of the universe. The argument, now dubbed the Ultimate Boeing 747 Gambit, reverses the burden creationists have long been trying to put on evolutionary scientists. Whereas evolutionary science can explain how the apparent design in the universe is merely “illusory,” however, since science can demonstrate simple and impersonal forces giving rise to complexity, no such mechanism exists for creationists to explain the complexity of a deity, much less an emotive, personal, and bizarrely specific deity like the Abrahamic one. Evolution is a much simpler explanation for complexity in the universe (not to mention one that is supported by actual demonstrable evidence) than a complex god that cannot account for its own complexity.

Not surprisingly, however, reversing the burden and applying the same reasoning to theistic concepts ruffled the feathers of many apologists, such as Alvin Plantinga (response here) and William Craig (response here), and got them grasping for an answer to this problem. I’ve seen many a Hail Mary thrown over the years by apologists, but even this one took me by surprise: “Actually, God is not complex at all, but rather a simple explanation!” The root of Plantinga and Craig’s response is the theological notion of “Divine Simplicity” [1].

I was puzzled by this retort that a cognitive being greater than complex human minds is somehow simple, but at the same time there was one aspect of this rebuttal that annoyed me. Since god is an invisible entity that theologians can pretty much invent and make up attributes about on their couch, god can never be tested against demonstrable evidence in the same way that a scientific concept has to be. In short, theologians can create all sorts of valid arguments to explain god, without any of them having to be sound arguments. A sound argument is one that must not only be valid, in that its conclusions flow logically from its premises, but also one for which the premises are actually true and verified. Thus, even if a theologian could make a valid argument resting on the premise that god is simple, there is never a way to actually test the soundness of this premise, since there is no way to observe or demonstrate what god is actually like.

In contrast, an actual scientist must always test her theories against data, and thus has to provide the extra burden of presenting sound arguments. Since god is purely conceptual rather than demonstrable, apologists have much more flexibility in the mental gymnastics they pull to somehow avoid making their theories of god incoherent, since coherence is all one needs in a conceptual realm that is free of evidence.

In the case of the “God is simple” argument, however, I doubt that apologists even have the ability to jump this shark conceptually. The reason why is that I do not think that the concept of divine simplicity can rationally be reconciled with the cognitive faculties and agency that would be required for God to create and design the universe. Despite whatever medieval theologians Plantinga and Craig want to appeal to, minds and cognition are not simple.

Fonzie was able to jump the shark in Happy Days, but let’s imagine instead that he were attempting to leap over a mile-wide span of ocean infested with hundreds of sharks. Suppose that Fonzie were furthermore using all the same equipment, no special jet pack or anything to allow for extra propulsion. FonzieBased on Fonzie’s speed, the angle of the ramp, and, more importantly, gravity, I know that it would be completely impossible for Fonzie to actually make it over the shark net. Merely because it is physically impossible, however, does not make Fonzie’s feat conceptually impossible. I can certainly in my mind imagine Fonzie jumping over a mile-wide span of sharks. All it requires is exaggeration of the forces in play: greater speed, a higher jump, lessened gravitational force. So surely in my head I can play the image of Fonzie performing a physically impossible stunt. In the case of somehow trying to reason that god is simple, however, the stunt is not only exaggerated, but even unfathomable.

Certainly I can say, “God is simple,” by merely constructing a sentence with a noun, verb, and adjective does not mean that I can actually visualize the concept. I can likewise say, “a square is a circle,” and make many other incoherent sentences. In the case of a simple theistic god, the contradiction may not be so clear as a square circle, but it would be applying an adjective that defies all of the characteristics of an object to the object it is describing. For the sake of analogy, describing a personal god as “simple” would be like pineappledescribing a pineapple as “smooth.” Every feature of the pineapple would suggest otherwise: prickly thorns, a coarse exterior, a triangular and sharp stem. The only way that I could possibly envision a pineapple as smooth is if I were to step back, squint my eyes, and blur my vision until I could only see a hazy image and really discern none of the actual details. In like manner, if apologists wish to argue that a personal deity is “simple,” they need to blur and confuse the vision of their audiences to the point that every attribute of god is little more than hazy generalization. Consider how theologian Alvin Plantinga attempts to muddle the issue: “according to much classical theology… God is simple, and simple in a very strong sense, so that in him there is no distinction of thing and property, actuality and potentiality, essence and existence, and the like.” One has to blur god into some warm and fuzzy concept to ever call him “simple.”

But another point that I think should be made is that Dawkin’s Ultimate Boeing 747 Gambit does not just apply to the abstract, theologian’s conception of “God,” but can be applied (in fact, more effectively) to the deities of specific religious traditions, such as the god of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. What features does a personal deity like the Abrahamic one have? Well, as I discussed above, we have no actual evidence to examine god with, but we can go off of how god is described in religious scripture and teachings. God has a mind capable of super-human cognition (the foolishness of god is wiser than men), memories (he’s still upset over the whole Eden incident), emotions (he gets jealous), creative faculties (he designed the complex universe), and intimate relationships (many people claim to have one with him). Basically the Abrahamic god has all the characteristic of a human mind (we are supposedly made in his image), but with exaggerated capabilities. The human mind, I would argue, is the most complex thing known in our universe.

How do we define complexity? Typically, the term complexity is “used to characterize something with many parts in intricate arrangement.” Any human mind is very complex, possessing the capacity to receive input from multiple forms of stimuli (sensation), recognize patterns among an otherwise jumbled chaos of stimuli (perception), analyze relationships among patterns (reason), estimate results from those relationships (prediction), respond to those predictions (decision-making), and record experience (memory). In order for a personal god to have the attributes that are given to him, he likewise needs to have these faculties. Even this fairly complex description of the mind only describes it at the surface level and does not even begin to delve into all of the complex and intricate aspects of these faculties. It is simply unfathomable for me to imagine these faculties existing on their own, but fortunately the brain and its evolution can explain quite nicely how the mind developed and operates.

William Craig, however, has an escape hatch to get around the mind’s immense complexity, by simply throwing out the brain: “as a mind without a body, God is amazingly simple. Being immaterial, He has no physical parts.” However, this entirely misses the point of intricacy. Something does not need to merely lack physical parts to still have an intricate arrangement of faculties. Apply Craig’s example to a computer, for example. Would simply eliminating a computer’s hardware suddenly make the operating system and all of its software amazingly simple? Not at all! In fact, you would have a far greater problem explaining how an operating system and software can exist without the computer hardware in the first place. You have only made the situation more complex and problematic. Craig challenges, “If you doubt this, then I invite you to explain the sense in which a pure mind is complex. What Richard Dawkins does is to confuse the mind itself with a mind’s thoughts. Certainly a mind’s thoughts can be complex, but a mind’s thoughts are not the mind itself.” I have already demonstrated that even an immaterial mind is complex in possessing an intricate arrangement of sensation, perception, reasoning, prediction-making, decision-making, and memory storage faculties. Simply dropping out the brain, which is the actual structure that can explain how all of this works, makes the mind more complex. Craig says that a mind can merely cease from complex thoughts, but this still does nothing to remove the complex faculties. I can delete all of the complex data stored on my computer, but I will still have a very intricate and complex operating system and set of software.

Once one restores resolution and clarity to what a mind actually is, the conclusion is unavoidable: a mind is incredibly intricate and thus complex. So to argue that god both has a mind and is simple is incoherent and thus invalid. Therefore, a personal god who is simple is not even conceptually possible. Consider this: to even formulate a concept requires an intricate arrangement and function of mental faculties. Thus to use such complex faculties in the mind (not just the brain) to argue that a mind is somehow simple is itself self-refuting.

So we are back to square one: god is incredibly complex. Now, there is one part of this that I partially agree with Craig on. Craig does admit that it is an “erroneous” assumption that an explanation “must be simpler than the thing explained.” Perhaps a naturalistic universe does require an incredibly complex number of physical laws to merely “exist” in order to be explained. However, since god is complex, a theistic universe likewise requires an incredibly complex deity to merely “exist” in order to be explained. The only difference is that naturalism, in being impersonal, has the potential to be simple, whereas theism, in relying on the existence of a complex, personal mind, can never be simple. While I do not think that the Ultimate Boeing 747 Gambit necessarily disproves god, it does disprove certain theories about a god. Since a deity is not demonstrable, but merely conceptual, the idea of god can only be fully disproved through incoherence (evidential arguments only render the existence of god less probable, but do not make god’s existence impossible). The Ultimate Boeing 747 Gambit reveals that a “simple personal god” is incoherent and thus disproves that view of god. However, disproving a “complex personal god” (which is not necessarily incoherent, at least not for the same reasons of complexity) requires additional arguments.

Regardless, we are back to the issue of valid arguments versus sound ones. Even if one could form a valid argument based on a complex god, there is no evidence for such a being to make it sound. Instead, all of the evidence points towards impersonal, natural forces being responsible for the formation of life and everything else we observe in the universe. If we are interested then in further making sound arguments, it would be in our interest to lead our investigations in the naturalist direction.

-Matthew Ferguson

[1] The concept of divine simplicity is discussed by medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas in Summa Theologica, part 1, question 3. There are eight articles for this question, in which Aquinas discusses the simplicity of God. Aquinas argues that God is simple because (1) God does not have a body, (2) God is not composed of matter and form, (3) God is the same as his essence or nature, (4) God is his own existence, (5) God does not belong to a genus, (6) there are no accidents in God, (7) God is not a composition of parts, and (8) God does not enter into composition with other things.

I do not think that any of these attributes, however, apply to the argument that Richard Dawkins is raising with Ultimate Boeing 747 Gambit. Dawkins is not arguing, for example, that God is a body composed of matter and form. This is how William Craig misinterprets Dawkins argument when he states:

“[A]s a mind without a body, God is amazingly simple. Being immaterial, He has no physical parts.”

Rather, Dawkins is not saying that God is complex because he is composed of material parts, but instead that God is complex because of his intelligence. For complex biological organisms to be explained as the creation of an intelligent designer, we first have to assume a more complex intelligence capable of designing such complexity. In this way, Dawkins is arguing that God is teleologically complex, not that he is physically complex.

Dawkins argument can be broken down nicely by a distinction between Platonic teleology and Aristotelian teleology, offered by philosopher André Ariew in “Platonic and Aristotelian Roots of Teleological Arguments” (pp. 8-9):

“[W]e can distinguish two distinct conceptions of teleology in Aristotle’s writings and at least two sub-categories:

I. Agency-centered teleology:

  1. Behavioral. Activities undertaken for the sake of something, which may be either a state or further action.
  2. Artifactual. Activities undertaken for the sake of producing an object of a certain sort (artificial).

II. Teleology pertaining to natural organisms.

  1. Formal. Biological developmental processes that occur for the sake of self-preservation or preservation of the species (form).
  2. Functional. Parts of organisms that are present for the sake of the organism possessing them.

I and II are distinct notions of teleology … Agent-specific teleology (I) is purposive, rational, and intentional, and represents external evaluation. The goal is the object of an agent’s desire or choice … Teleology pertaining to natural organisms is distinct: non-purposive (though seemingly so), non-rational, non-intentional, and immanent — that is, an inner principle of change. The goal is not an object of any agent’s desire.”

What Dawkins is arguing is that it is a far simpler explanation that complex biological organisms are formal and functional, rather than the product of some agency-centered teleology, like God. This kind of simplicity, as a theoretical virtue, is discussed by philosopher Graham Oppy (The Best Argument Against God, pp. 13):

“If everything is equal, we should prefer the more simple theory to the less simple theory. If everything else is equal, we should prefer the theory that postulates fewer (and less complex) primitive entities.”

What Dawkins is arguing, therefore, is that theism posits a more complex primitive entity, in the form of God’s intelligence, when creationists, for example, appeal to God’s design to explain biological complexity. However, the formal and functional features of evolution (following Aristotelian teleology) are far less complex than the behavioral and artifactual features of intelligent design (following Platonic teleology). In this way, God’s intelligence and agency is more complex than unguided evolution, which does not imply that Dawkins is arguing that God is complex in the sense of being a body made of physical parts.

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3 Responses to “God Is Simple”: Can Apologists Even Conceptually Jump This Shark?

  1. mansubzero says:

    Mr Ferguson

    is there a post here where you discuss theological things?

    why do you think the christians consider the roman actions of crucifying jesus as sinful actions?

    if jesus’ punishment appeases justice, then jesus DESERVED punishment

    thom stark wrote :
    Paul identifies the death of Jesus as a “hilasterion” (Rom 3:25), which is a propitiatory sacrifice meant to appease an angry deity. Moreover, in the Gospels Jesus himself regularly cites the Isaian Suffering Servant as predictive of his death, investing it with a sacrificial, propitiatory meaning

    if an angry diety is appeased only by the VIOLENT bloody execution of himself and thinks his violent punishment atones for sins, then in my opinion, the romans who punished him CANNOT be guilty of sinful actions

    the fact or state of having committed an offense, crime, violation, or wrong, especially against moral or penal law; culpability:
    He admitted his guilt.

    are christians willing to admit that the crucifixion of thier god was a crime? are they willing to admit that something which appeases thier god and atones for sins = wrong? was god nailing himself using roman actions? if yes, then romans cannot be GUILTY of crime, right?

  2. I have mine own personal take on this problem. At its heart I see two cognitive biases. We humans are burdened with a huge cerebellum. Our cerebrums are roughly equivalent to that of dogs and all the other animals which do not recognize their own faces. You can make a good case that the cerebrum of a dog is way better than ours. Our cerebellums though are much larger than any other species. Only a few even compete.

    The human cerebellum evolved later than the cerebrum, and it’s largely separate. For example, we cannot choose to beat our own hearts. Many people feel like they are a “soul wearing a body” and on some level, they’re right: we are cerebellums wearing cerebrum-run bodies. Hence the idea of a soul without a body, or a soul hopping into other bodies and possessing them seems quite natural to us even though it’s utterly absurd if you start asking how it would work.

    The second bias is that people, faces, language–all the uniquely human stuff–is a huge part of our brains. Bring in something one of these
    and a huge portion of your brain lights up. Your respiration changes. Your eyes focus. Way in the back there’s some part of the brain that knows it’s a colon and a right parenthesis, but that’s slammed off the map by the person! face! happy! signals buzzing through your head. 😦

    We see agency everywhere, even in punctuation, and when we see these mysterious people we are perfectly willing to accept that they don’t have a body or even any physical existence. It seems simple because we are taking the neurological shortcut to Humansville, and Humansville is the biggest and most exciting city in Brainland.

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