All Call This God

When St. Thomas concludes his five ways with different variations on this statement, he likely does so for several reasons.

First, it seems that it was more or less true at the time. Certainly atheists existed, just as they do now, but they were rarer, and they probably mostly denied not only that “God exists,” but also the specific conclusions of St. Thomas’s arguments.

Second, he does so for convenience. Since he proceeds to make numerous arguments about the first principle to which he concludes in Question 2, the name “God” is a simple way to refer to that principle.

However, there are several things about this procedure which could cause confusion. This was possible at the time, and perhaps even more so now.

First of all, by drawing the conclusion that “God exists,” St. Thomas suggests not only the conclusions that he is actually drawing, but also conclusions such as “the first efficient cause is omniscient and omnipotent,” since such things are usually said of God. Using this terminology will inevitably affect the thought processes of students of theology in predictable ways. For example, since the student already believes that God is omniscient, an argument for this conclusion will almost certainly feel more reasonable, given that that it is phrased in terminology referring to “God,” than it would feel if put in more abstract terms.

Similarly, we saw earlier that Richard Dawkins’s objections are not to the idea of a first principle as such, but to the things which are typically attributed to that principle. This made clear communication between himself and the theologians with whom he spoke very difficult, because it was not clear exactly which questions were being addressed at any particular time.

In our own discussion, we have established various things about the cause, and others can be easily established. For example, we did not explicitly discuss whether the first cause is a body, but it can be easily shown that it is not. However, there are some things among the usual divine attributes which, at the least, cannot be easily proven, and which possibly cannot be proven at all. St. Thomas says something similar when he gives reasons for the necessity of revelation:

It was necessary for man’s salvation that there should be a knowledge revealed by God besides philosophical science built up by human reason. Firstly, indeed, because man is directed to God, as to an end that surpasses the grasp of his reason: “The eye hath not seen, O God, besides Thee, what things Thou hast prepared for them that wait for Thee” (Isaiah 64:4). But the end must first be known by men who are to direct their thoughts and actions to the end. Hence it was necessary for the salvation of man that certain truths which exceed human reason should be made known to him by divine revelation. Even as regards those truths about God which human reason could have discovered, it was necessary that man should be taught by a divine revelation; because the truth about God such as reason could discover, would only be known by a few, and that after a long time, and with the admixture of many errors. Whereas man’s whole salvation, which is in God, depends upon the knowledge of this truth. Therefore, in order that the salvation of men might be brought about more fitly and more surely, it was necessary that they should be taught divine truths by divine revelation. It was therefore necessary that besides philosophical science built up by reason, there should be a sacred science learned through revelation.

We have seen that the first cause has various attributes that make it similar to a mind, as for example that it acts for an end and is thus concerned about the good, and as said above, that it is not a body. However, the statement that it is a mind simply speaking is much harder to establish, if it is possible at all. For example, St. Thomas argues in Question 14 of the Prima Pars:

In God there exists the most perfect knowledge. To prove this, we must note that intelligent beings are distinguished from non-intelligent beings in that the latter possess only their own form; whereas the intelligent being is naturally adapted to have also the form of some other thing; for the idea of the thing known is in the knower. Hence it is manifest that the nature of a non-intelligent being is more contracted and limited; whereas the nature of intelligent beings has a greater amplitude and extension; therefore the Philosopher says (De Anima iii) that “the soul is in a sense all things.” Now the contraction of the form comes from the matter. Hence, as we have said above (Question 7, Article 1) forms according as they are the more immaterial, approach more nearly to a kind of infinity. Therefore it is clear that the immateriality of a thing is the reason why it is cognitive; and according to the mode of immateriality is the mode of knowledge. Hence it is said in De Anima ii that plants do not know, because they are wholly material. But sense is cognitive because it can receive images free from matter, and the intellect is still further cognitive, because it is more separated from matter and unmixed, as said in De Anima iii. Since therefore God is in the highest degree of immateriality as stated above (Question 7, Article 1), it follows that He occupies the highest place in knowledge.

In order for this to be conclusive, St. Thomas’s first statement has to be evident, since he does not argue for it here, although of course this does not imply that he could not possibly make an argument for it. The statement is that “intelligent beings are distinguished from non-intelligent beings in that the latter possess only their own form; whereas the intelligent being is naturally adapted to have also the form of some other thing; for the idea of the thing known is in the knower.”

It is evident that in the sense specified, intelligent beings can have the form of another. And it is also evident that non-intelligent beings do not have the form of another in precisely that sense. But it is not evident that they do not have it in any sense, and this is necessary for the argument to follow. For someone who supposes that the first cause is not a mind, does not assert that it does not have the forms of other things in any way. Instead, he asserts that it has the form of all things as the cause of all. Nor would he say that it has them in a lower way than intelligent beings do, but in a much higher way. Plotinus maintains a theology of this kind (Enneads 5.3.11):

Thus the Intellectual-Principle, in the act of knowing the Transcendent, is a manifold. It knows the Transcendent in very essence but, with all its effort to grasp that prior as a pure unity, it goes forth amassing successive impressions, so that, to it, the object becomes multiple: thus in its outgoing to its object it is not [fully realised] Intellectual-Principle; it is an eye that has not yet seen; in its return it is an eye possessed of the multiplicity which it has itself conferred: it sought something of which it found the vague presentment within itself; it returned with something else, the manifold quality with which it has of its own act invested the simplex. If it had not possessed a previous impression of the Transcendent, it could never have grasped it, but this impression, originally of unity, becomes an impression of multiplicity; and the Intellectual-Principle, in taking cognisance of that multiplicity, knows the Transcendent and so is realized as an eye possessed of its vision. It is now Intellectual-Principle since it actually holds its object, and holds it by the act of intellection: before, it was no more than a tendance, an eye blank of impression: it was in motion towards the transcendental; now that it has attained, it has become IntellectualPrinciple henceforth absorbed; in virtue of this intellection it holds the character of Intellectual-Principle, of Essential Existence and of Intellectual Act where, previously, not possessing the Intellectual Object, it was not Intellectual Perception, and, not yet having exercised the Intellectual Act, it was not Intellectual-Principle. The Principle before all these principles is no doubt the first principle of the universe, but not as immanent: immanence is not for primal sources but for engendering secondaries; that which stands as primal source of everything is not a thing but is distinct from all things: it is not, then, a member of the total but earlier than all, earlier, thus, than the Intellectual-Principle- which in fact envelops the entire train of things. Thus we come, once more, to a Being above the Intellectual-Principle and, since the sequent amounts to no less than the All, we recognise, again, a Being above the All. This assuredly cannot be one of the things to which it is prior. We may not call it “Intellect”; therefore, too, we may not call it “the Good,” if “the Good” is to be taken in the sense of some one member of the universe; if we mean that which precedes the universe of things, the name may be allowed. The Intellectual-Principle is established in multiplicity; its intellection, self-sprung though it be, is in the nature of something added to it [some accidental dualism] and makes it multiple: the utterly simplex, and therefore first of all beings, must, then, transcend the Intellectual-Principle; and, obviously, if this had intellection it would no longer transcend the Intellectual-Principle but be it, and at once be a multiple.

While Plotinus is not easy to understand, it can be seen from the last statements here that according to him, the first principle of things is not an intellect, but transcends intellect. This kind of theology is not evidently mistaken, and in fact Plotinus is making a fairly reasonable argument in favor of it.

One reason why it will be fairly difficult to settle such questions definitively, from the point of view of reason, is that we do not have a sufficiently precise understanding of the things involved. In the discussions here on this blog, I took care to form fairly precise definitions of terms such as distinction, whole and part, one and many, and so on. No one has given an equally clear definition of mind, and it is not clear that it is possible to do so. We know what it is like to have a mind, but that does not mean that we can define it. And in fact, as Dawkins and Plotinus suggest, some parts of that experience seem to be contrary to the idea of a first principle. From the point of view of Catholic theology, such difficulties may be resolved, or partly resolved, by the doctrine of the Trinity. But if it is necessary to bring in the Trinity to resolve the difficulties, this suggests that reason alone may not capable of such a resolution.

The name “God,” then, suggests many things which can be proven true of the first cause only with great difficulty, and possibly not at all. Consequently St. Thomas’s procedure has a significant risk of leading students to believe that they have a better understanding of theology than they actually have.

There is a second issue with his procedure, much more relevant in our times than in his. Saying that God exists is making a claim which is remote from the senses, both because God is not a body, and because “truly you are a God who hides himself,” as Isaiah says. Consequently, as was argued in the post on things remote from the senses, people will be more likely than usual to be influenced by motives other than truth in their beliefs regarding God.

One of those motives, as was also stated there, is the desire to be loyal to a group to which one belongs. And this particular motive will be especially likely in the case of God, because God is understood to be a person, and in most cases, he is understood to be a person who has a special relationship with a community that believes in him. Consequently belief in God is necessary for the sake of loyalty to God himself, since he is a person, and for the sake of loyalty to his community. This is likely the reason for the fact that historically apostasy was often punished with the death penalty, as for example in the Old Testament:

If anyone secretly entices you—even if it is your brother, your father’s son or your mother’s son, or your own son or daughter, or the wife you embrace, or your most intimate friend—saying, “Let us go worship other gods,” whom neither you nor your ancestors have known, any of the gods of the peoples that are around you, whether near you or far away from you, from one end of the earth to the other, you must not yield to or heed any such persons. Show them no pity or compassion and do not shield them. But you shall surely kill them; your own hand shall be first against them to execute them, and afterwards the hand of all the people.

The same thing is true in many Islamic societies even today. For the apostate is understood to be literally guilty of treason, in the political sense of the term.

Again, insofar as God is understood to be a person responsible for some community, that community will ordinarily accept some religion, namely the one which is believed to be approved by God. In this way saying that God exists is commonly understood not only to imply that he has certain divine attributes, but also that some particular religion is true. And believing that a religion is true is often something that is openly admitted to have motives other than truth, as when St. John says at the end of his Gospel, “But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” Thus “life in his name”, which is a Christian life, one in a Christian community, is explicitly set down as a motive for belief here.

Since people easily notice the motivations of others, but suppose that they themselves are motivated by truth alone, and since such motivations are especially clear in the case of God, atheists sometimes suppose that they are concerned about truth while believers are not.

This is a mistake, however, since whether you assert or deny the existence of God, the statement remains equally distant from the senses, and human nature is the same in believers and in atheists. Consequently atheists are also likely to have various motives other than truth for their opinion, as for example in this particularly honest statement by Thomas Nagel in chapter 7 of his book The Last Word:

In speaking of the fear of religion, I don’t mean to refer to the entirely reasonable hostility toward certain established religions and religious institutions, in virtue of their objectionable moral doctrines, social policies, and political influence. Nor am I referring to the association of many religious beliefs with superstition and the acceptance of evident empirical falsehoods. I am talking about something much deeper— namely, the fear of religion itself. I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear myself: I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.

In particular, the semi-political orientation of religious belief implies that atheists will often have somewhat political motivations for their unbelief. This can be seen in accounts such as this one:

Two atheists – John Gray and Alain de Botton – and two agnostics – Nassim Nicholas Taleb and I – meet for dinner at a Greek restaurant in Bayswater, London. The talk is genial, friendly and then, suddenly, intense when neo-atheism comes up. Three of us, including both atheists, have suffered abuse at the hands of this cult. Only Taleb seems to have escaped unscathed and this, we conclude, must be because he can do maths and people are afraid of maths.

De Botton is the most recent and, consequently, the most shocked victim. He has just produced a book, Religion for Atheists: a Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion, mildly suggesting that atheists like himself have much to learn from religion and that, in fact, religion is too important to be left to believers. He has also proposed an atheists’ temple, a place where non-believers can partake of the consolations of silence and meditation.

This has been enough to bring the full force of a neo-atheist fatwa crashing down on his head. The temple idea in particular made them reach for their best books of curses.

“I am rolling my eyes so hard that it hurts,” wrote the American biologist and neo-atheist blogger P Z Myers. “You may take a moment to retch. I hope you have buckets handy.” Myers has a vivid but limited prose palette.

There have been threats of violence. De Botton has been told he will be beaten up and his guts taken out of him. One email simply said, “You have betrayed Atheism. Go over to the other side and die.”

We noted the lack of clarity in the disagreement between Richard Dawkins and the theologians with whom he conversed at the Cambridge conference. I would suggest that this is vagueness of the third kind. Insofar as political and social allegiances are at stake in the assertion or denial that God exists, it is not necessary to be clear about the meaning of the claim. All that is necessary is to say that you are on one side or the other. Alain de Botton, by praising various aspects of religion, is admitting that he is not giving his full allegiance to the atheists, and thus they must condemn him as a traitor.

For the first reason, namely the fact that using the name “God” immediately suggests all of the usual divine attributes, it might be better to compose theological treatises without following St. Thomas’s procedure, even if this is somewhat less convenient. For the second reason, namely because of the motivations that are at stake in asserting or denying the existence of God, it might be better to adopt an approach which is more sensitive to context. If you are speaking with Richard Dawkins, it is perhaps better not to use the name of God at all, in order to ensure a common understanding, while if you are speaking with believers, there is much less of a problem with calling the first cause God.

Richard Dawkins and the Simplicity of God

Richard Dawkins concludes chapter 3 of his book The God Delusion with the following claim:

There is a much more powerful argument, which does not depend upon subjective judgement, and it is the argument from improbability. It really does transport us dramatically away from 50 per cent agnosticism, far towards the extreme of theism in the view of many theists, far towards the extreme of atheism in my view. I have alluded to it several times already. The whole argument turns on the familiar question ‘Who made God?’, which most thinking people discover for themselves. A designer God cannot be used to explain organized complexity because any God capable of designing anything would have to be complex enough to demand the same kind of explanation in his own right. God presents an infinite regress from which he cannot help us to escape. This argument, as I shall show in the next chapter, demonstrates that God, though not technically disprovable, is very very improbable indeed.

Throughout chapter 4, which is entitled, “Why There Almost Certainly is No God,” he struggles with the view of the theologians that God is simple, as opposed to his own idea that God, if he exists, must be extremely complicated. He begins the chapter:

The argument from improbability is the big one. In the traditional guise of the argument from design, it is easily today’s most popular argument offered in favour of the existence of God and it is seen, by an amazingly large number of theists, as completely and utterly convincing. It is indeed a very strong and, I suspect, unanswerable argument— but in precisely the opposite direction from the theist’s intention. The argument from improbability, properly deployed, comes close to proving that God does not exist. My name for the statistical demonstration that God almost certainly does not exist is the Ultimate Boeing 747 gambit.

The name comes from Fred Hoyle’s amusing image of the Boeing 747 and the scrapyard. I am not sure whether Hoyle ever wrote it down himself, but it was attributed to him by his close colleague Chandra Wickramasinghe and is presumably authentic. Hoyle said that the probability of life originating on Earth is no greater than the chance that a hurricane, sweeping through a scrapyard, would have the luck to assemble a Boeing 747. Others have borrowed the metaphor to refer to the later evolution of complex living bodies, where it has a spurious plausibility. The odds against assembling a fully functioning horse, beetle or ostrich by randomly shuffling its parts are up there in 747 territory. This, in a nutshell, is the creationist’s favourite argument— an argument that could be made only by somebody who doesn’t understand the first thing about natural selection: somebody who thinks natural selection is a theory of chance whereas— in the relevant sense of chance— it is the opposite.

There follows a discussion of evolution, creation, and intelligent design. He concludes the section by stating,

A deep understanding of Darwinism teaches us to be wary of the easy assumption that design is the only alternative to chance, and teaches us to seek out graded ramps of slowly increasing complexity. Before Darwin, philosophers such as Hume understood that the improbability of life did not mean it had to be designed, but they couldn’t imagine the alternative. After Darwin, we all should feel, deep in our bones, suspicious of the very idea of design. The illusion of design is a trap that has caught us before, and Darwin should have immunized us by raising our consciousness. Would that he had succeeded with all of us.

The argument here is basically that evolutionary theory has been fairly successful in explaining living things as having resulted from a slow and detailed process in which they became increasingly complex through natural causes. Consequently Dawkins is optimistic that this manner of explanation can in principle be applied to everything else. In fact, according to him, no one has ever offered any other plausible explanation of things:

Turning Watchtower’s page, we find the wonderful plant known as Dutchman’s Pipe (Aristolochia trilobata), all of whose parts seem elegantly designed to trap insects, cover them with pollen and send them on their way to another Dutchman’s Pipe. The intricate elegance of the flower moves Watchtower to ask: ‘Did all of this happen by chance? Or did it happen by intelligent design?’ Once again, no of course it didn’t happen by chance. Once again, intelligent design is not the proper alternative to chance. Natural selection is not only a parsimonious, plausible and elegant solution; it is the only workable alternative to chance that has ever been suggested. Intelligent design suffers from exactly the same objection as chance. It is simply not a plausible solution to the riddle of statistical improbability. And the higher the improbability, the more implausible intelligent design becomes. Seen clearly, intelligent design will turn out to be a redoubling of the problem. Once again, this is because the designer himself (/ herself/ itself) immediately raises the bigger problem of his own origin. Any entity capable of intelligently designing something as improbable as a Dutchman’s Pipe (or a universe) would have to be even more improbable than a Dutchman’s Pipe. Far from terminating the vicious regress, God aggravates it with a vengeance.

He says something similar while discussing multiverse hypotheses:

It is tempting to think (and many have succumbed) that to postulate a plethora of universes is a profligate luxury which should not be allowed. If we are going to permit the extravagance of a multiverse, so the argument runs, we might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb and allow a God. Aren’t they both equally unparsimonious ad hoc hypotheses, and equally unsatisfactory? People who think that have not had their consciousness raised by natural selection. The key difference between the genuinely extravagant God hypothesis and the apparently extravagant multiverse hypothesis is one of statistical improbability. The multiverse, for all that it is extravagant, is simple. God, or any intelligent, decision-taking, calculating agent, would have to be highly improbable in the very same statistical sense as the entities he is supposed to explain. The multiverse may seem extravagant in sheer number of universes. But if each one of those universes is simple in its fundamental laws, we are still not postulating anything highly improbable. The very opposite has to be said of any kind of intelligence.

Beginning to address the response of theologians, he says:

But what attempts have theists made to reply? How do they cope with the argument that any God capable of designing a universe, carefully and foresightfully tuned to lead to our evolution, must be a supremely complex and improbable entity who needs an even bigger explanation than the one he is supposed to provide? The theologian Richard Swinburne, as we have learned to expect, thinks he has an answer to this problem, and he expounds it in his book Is There a God?. He begins by showing that his heart is in the right place by convincingly demonstrating why we should always prefer the simplest hypothesis that fits the facts. Science explains complex things in terms of the interactions of simpler things, ultimately the interactions of fundamental particles. I (and I dare say you) think it a beautifully simple idea that all things are made of fundamental particles which, although exceedingly numerous, are drawn from a small, finite set of types of particle. If we are sceptical, it is likely to be because we think the idea too simple. But for Swinburne it is not simple at all, quite the reverse. Given that the number of particles of any one type, say electrons, is large, Swinburne thinks it too much of a coincidence that so many should have the same properties. One electron, he could stomach. But billions and billions of electrons, all with the same properties, that is what really excites his incredulity. For him it would be simpler, more natural, less demanding of explanation, if all electrons were different from each other. Worse, no one electron should naturally retain its properties for more than an instant at a time; each should change capriciously, haphazardly and fleetingly from moment to moment. That is Swinburne’s view of the simple, native state of affairs. Anything more uniform (what you or I would call more simple) requires a special explanation. ‘It is only because electrons and bits of copper and all other material objects have the same powers in the twentieth century as they did in the nineteenth century that things are as they are now.’ Enter God. God comes to the rescue by deliberately and continuously sustaining the properties of all those billions of electrons and bits of copper, and neutralizing their otherwise ingrained inclination to wild and erratic fluctuation. That is why when you’ve seen one electron you’ve seen them all; that is why bits of copper all behave like bits of copper, and that is why each electron and each bit of copper stays the same as itself from microsecond to microsecond and from century to century. It is because God constantly keeps a finger on each and every particle, curbing its reckless excesses and whipping it into line with its colleagues to keep them all the same. But how can Swinburne possibly maintain that this hypothesis of God simultaneously keeping a gazillion fingers on wayward electrons is a simple hypothesis? It is, of course, precisely the opposite of simple. Swinburne pulls off the trick to his own satisfaction by a breathtaking piece of intellectual chutzpah. He asserts, without justification, that God is only a single substance. What brilliant economy of explanatory causes, compared with all those gigazillions of independent electrons all just happening to be the same!

Note that Richard Swinburne is not the only one who thinks it too much of a coincidence that electrons are not all different and randomly changing their properties from moment to moment. David Hume, praised by Dawkins, believes the same thing. In any case, in terms of the argument here, Swinburne is exactly right. There is only one first cause, and it does indeed explain why all electrons behave in the same way. Some such thing would have to be the case in any event, but the only way the activity of electrons (or of anything else) can be understood is in relation to a final cause, the formal aspect of an efficient cause.

Dawkins however objects that such an explanation is not simple at all, but supremely complex:

Swinburne generously concedes that God cannot accomplish feats that are logically impossible, and one feels grateful for this forbearance. Having said that, there is no limit to the explanatory purposes to which God’s infinite power is put. Is science having a little difficulty explaining X? No problem. Don’t give X another glance. God’s infinite power is effortlessly wheeled in to explain X (along with everything else), and it is always a supremely simple explanation because, after all, there is only one God. What could be simpler than that?

Well, actually, almost everything. A God capable of continuously monitoring and controlling the individual status of every particle in the universe cannot be simple. His existence is going to need a mammoth explanation in its own right. Worse (from the point of view of simplicity), other corners of God’s giant consciousness are simultaneously preoccupied with the doings and emotions and prayers of every single human being— and whatever intelligent aliens there might be on other planets in this and 100 billion other galaxies. He even, according to Swinburne, has to decide continuously not to intervene miraculously to save us when we get cancer. That would never do, for, ‘If God answered most prayers for a relative to recover from cancer, then cancer would no longer be a problem for humans to solve.’ And then what would we find to do with our time?

Outraged by this idea of simplicity, Dawkins considers another example of this position:

Not all theologians go as far as Swinburne. Nevertheless, the remarkable suggestion that the God Hypothesis is simple can be found in other modern theological writings. Keith Ward, then Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford, was very clear on the matter in his 1996 book God, Chance and Necessity: “As a matter of fact, the theist would claim that God is a very elegant, economical and fruitful explanation for the existence of the universe. It is economical because it attributes the existence and nature of absolutely everything in the universe to just one being, an ultimate cause which assigns a reason for the existence of everything, including itself. It is elegant because from one key idea— the idea of the most perfect possible being— the whole nature of God and the existence of the universe can be intelligibly explicated.”

Like Swinburne, Ward mistakes what it means to explain something, and he also seems not to understand what it means to say of something that it is simple. I am not clear whether Ward really thinks God is simple, or whether the above passage represented a temporary ‘for the sake of argument’ exercise. Sir John Polkinghorne, in Science and Christian Belief, quotes Ward’s earlier criticism of the thought of Thomas Aquinas: ‘Its basic error is in supposing that God is logically simple— simple not just in the sense that his being is indivisible, but in the much stronger sense that what is true of any part of God is true of the whole. It is quite coherent, however, to suppose that God, while indivisible, is internally complex.’ Ward gets it right here.

Important things here are the statement that “Ward mistakes what it means to explain something,” and that “he also seems not to understand what it means to say of something that it is simple.” And lastly there is Dawkins’s attempt at doing theology when he says that “Ward gets it right here.” I will return to this shortly. In any case, Dawkins continues by recounting his experiences at a conference at Cambridge:

At a recent Cambridge conference on science and religion, where I put forward the argument I am here calling the Ultimate 747 argument, I encountered what, to say the least, was a cordial failure to achieve a meeting of minds on the question of God’s simplicity. The experience was a revealing one, and I’d like to share it.

After some discussion of the background of the conference, Dawkins explains his experience with his argument against the existence of God:

For better or worse, I attended two days at the Cambridge conference, giving a talk of my own and taking part in the discussion of several other talks. I challenged the theologians to answer the point that a God capable of designing a universe, or anything else, would have to be complex and statistically improbable. The strongest response I heard was that I was brutally foisting a scientific epistemology upon an unwilling theology. Theologians had always defined God as simple. Who was I, a scientist, to dictate to theologians that their God had to be complex? Scientific arguments, such as those I was accustomed to deploying in my own field, were inappropriate since theologians had always maintained that God lay outside science. I did not gain the impression that the theologians who mounted this evasive defense were being willfully dishonest. I think they were sincere. Nevertheless, I was irresistibly reminded of Peter Medawar’s comment on Father Teilhard de Chardin’s The Phenomenon of Man, in the course of what is possibly the greatest negative book review of all time: ‘its author can be excused of dishonesty only on the grounds that before deceiving others he has taken great pains to deceive himself’. The theologians of my Cambridge encounter were defining themselves into an epistemological Safe Zone where rational argument could not reach them because they had declared by fiat that it could not. Who was I to say that rational argument was the only admissible kind of argument? There are other ways of knowing besides the scientific, and it is one of these other ways of knowing that must be deployed to know God.

There are basically three possibilities here. Either Dawkins did not understand the theologians, the theologians did not understand Dawkins, or the theologians did not understand their theology. The third possibility is very plausible given the criticism of St. Thomas by Keith Ward and Sir John Polkinghorne mentioned by Dawkins earlier. Most likely all three are the case.

Dawkins continues to what perhaps is the heart of the issue between himself and the theologians:

Time and again, my theologian friends returned to the point that there had to be a reason why there is something rather than nothing. There must have been a first cause of everything, and we might as well give it the name God. Yes, I said, but it must have been simple and therefore, whatever else we call it, God is not an appropriate name (unless we very explicitly divest it of all the baggage that the word ‘God’ carries in the minds of most religious believers). The first cause that we seek must have been the simple basis for a self-bootstrapping crane which eventually raised the world as we know it into its present complex existence. To suggest that the original prime mover was complicated enough to indulge in intelligent design, to say nothing of mindreading millions of humans simultaneously, is tantamount to dealing yourself a perfect hand at bridge. Look around at the world of life, at the Amazon rainforest with its rich interlacement of lianas, bromeliads, roots and flying buttresses; its army ants and its jaguars, its tapirs and peccaries, treefrogs and parrots. What you are looking at is the statistical equivalent of a perfect hand of cards (think of all the other ways you could permute the parts, none of which would work)— except that we know how it came about: by the gradualistic crane of natural selection. It is not just scientists who revolt at mute acceptance of such improbability arising spontaneously; common sense baulks too. To suggest that the first cause, the great unknown which is responsible for something existing rather than nothing, is a being capable of designing the universe and of talking to a million people simultaneously, is a total abdication of the responsibility to find an explanation. It is a dreadful exhibition of self-indulgent, thought-denying skyhookery.

I am not advocating some sort of narrowly scientistic way of thinking. But the very least that any honest quest for truth must have in setting out to explain such monstrosities of improbability as a rainforest, a coral reef, or a universe is a crane and not a skyhook. The crane doesn’t have to be natural selection. Admittedly, nobody has ever thought of a better one. But there could be others yet to be discovered. Maybe the ‘inflation’ that physicists postulate as occupying some fraction of the first yoctosecond of the universe’s existence will turn out, when it is better understood, to be a cosmological crane to stand alongside Darwin’s biological one. Or maybe the elusive crane that cosmologists seek will be a version of Darwin’s idea itself: either Smolin’s model or something similar. Or maybe it will be the multiverse plus anthropic principle espoused by Martin Rees and others. It may even be a superhuman designer— but, if so, it will most certainly not be a designer who just popped into existence, or who always existed. If (which I don’t believe for a moment) our universe was designed, and a fortiori if the designer reads our thoughts and hands out omniscient advice, forgiveness and redemption, the designer himself must be the end product of some kind of cumulative escalator or crane, perhaps a version of Darwinism in another universe.

We can see here what Dawkins means when he says that Ward mistakes what it means to explain something. “The very least that any honest quest for truth must have in setting out to explain such monstrosities of improbability as a rainforest, a coral reef, or a universe is a crane and not a skyhook.” Otherwise, according to Dawkins, you haven’t explained anything. And what does he mean by a crane rather than a skyhook? A skyhook, identified with what he considers a complex God, would be something that already has such complexity within itself. A crane is something simple, and simple in the sense intended by Dawkins. Explanation, therefore, according to Dawkins, requires an original simplicity, this being understood as he understands it.

In reality, attempting to explain things is to look for their causes. And correspondingly, there are different kinds of explanation and different kinds of causes. But Dawkins is identifying certain types of causality and explanation in particular, namely those that are found in Darwinian evolution. It is likely that he is doing this because he feels satisfied by such explanations, and therefore tends to think that other accounts are not real explanations, since they leave him dissatisfied. In reality, however, there are various types of explanation and thus various types of cause.

What did Dawkins mean when he said that Ward “seems not to understand what it means to say of something that it is simple”? And why does he say that “Ward gets it right here” when Ward opposes St. Thomas on the understanding of the simplicity of God?

St. Thomas asserts that God is simple in the sense that he is not composed of parts. Given his supposed activities, Dawkins considers this absurd, and thus he says that Ward gets it right when he admits that God is “internally complex.” In other words, despite believing that God does not exist, Dawkins is making the theological claim that God cannot be simple in the sense asserted by St. Thomas, but must be composed of parts.

Why does he say this? Why doesn’t he think that since he doesn’t believe in God, this is none of his concern and he should just leave it to the theologians as they apparently told him?

Dawkins is reasoning from the supposed activities of God to his nature. God is supposed to be “a being capable of designing the universe and of talking to a million people simultaneously.” Designing the universe seems to involve planning, which involves a plan, which has various parts. Talking to people seems to involve words and sentences, which are distinct from one another, and also thoughts, which seem to be distinct insofar as they are thoughts about diverse things. In other words, it is obvious that when we design and plan things, and when we speak with people, we are capable of doing so because we consist of parts. Consequently if God can do these things, he must have parts as well.

In fact, in terms of the argument for a first cause, Dawkins nearly admits that he cannot refute the argument:

Yes, I said, but it must have been simple and therefore, whatever else we call it, God is not an appropriate name (unless we very explicitly divest it of all the baggage that the word ‘God’ carries in the minds of most religious believers). The first cause that we seek must have been the simple basis for a self-bootstrapping crane which eventually raised the world as we know it into its present complex existence.

His problem is not the argument for a first cause, therefore, but the things that are typically said of that cause, and he objects to these things because they seem to him to imply that the first cause is not simple.

We already saw that Dawkins objects to the idea that God has no parts. But is this his real objection? Simply that he thinks that the first cause must be partless, and therefore that it cannot do things like designing, planning, and talking that seem to involve parts?

This is not his real objection, whether or not he understands this fact himself. For the correct response to this objection, from a theological point of view, is exactly that God is simple in the sense defined by St. Thomas. And he does not perform the activities mentioned by Dawkins in the way that he supposes. God does not pass from one thought to another. He does not think of one part of a plan, and then another. If he speaks, he does not go from word to word in his mind. To the extent that parts are implied by such things, they are to be denied of God, and the theologian only believes that they exist in God by analogy.

But Dawkins will still have a problem with this response, if it implies that God still performs those activities, even in an analogous way. If for example God ever directly produces a voice in my mind telling me to do something, Dawkins will have a problem with this, even if I say that God does not have parts. Only the voice has parts. Dawkins will still insist that this explanation is “not simple.”

And why not? Because it is not the kind of explanation that is pleasing to him, where complexity comes from simplicity, not just in the sense that a partless being causes beings with parts, but in the sense that mathematical complexity is caused by mathematical simplicity. This is ultimately what he means when he talks about a crane rather than a skyhook. If we give a mathematical explanation of the voice in my head, it will be a mathematically complex one, and if the only cause is God, it may not be clearly possible to reduce that mathematical complexity to something mathematically simple. Evolutionary explanations, on the other hand, allow something mathematically complex to be explained in terms of laws which are mathematically simple. And this is the only kind of explanation that Dawkins considers reasonable, satisfying, or true.

We can divide all of this discussion into various questions:

  1. Is there a first cause at all? We have established that there is, and Dawkins does not deny it.
  2. Does the first cause have parts? We have established that it does not, and in principle Dawkins does not assert that it does. To some extent he could be taken to be conceding that it does not, since his objection is that if God exists, he has many parts and is extremely complicated, and therefore cannot be the first cause.
  3. Does the first cause produce mathematically complex things from mathematically simple ones? It is certain that it does in general. Our discussions of mathematical laws in nature and of the order of the world are both relevant, as well as the issue of simplicity and probability. Dawkins agrees with this, and in fact his position is that this is the only way that mathematical complexity is ever produced.
  4. Does the first cause ever produce mathematical complexity without doing this through mathematically simple things? Nothing in our discussions establishes that such a thing is impossible, nor that it is actual. Dawkins denies that this is possible or at least that it is reasonable, but he does not seem to have a particular argument for this other than the fact that such a claim leaves him feeling dissatisfied, feeling that something has been left unexplained which should be explained. But as we have seen, this is not a question about the nature of explanation in general, but the kind of explanations which are pleasing to him.
  5. Is a first cause which does not directly produce such mathematical complexity worthy of being called God? This is mainly a question about the meaning of words, although there also could be questions about what that being would be like. Dawkins denies that this is a reasonable way to use the word “God”, because, according to him, God is always understood to intervene directly in the world, causing things which are meaningful on a human level and consequently which are already mathematically complex.
  6. Do God’s activities imply that he has parts? Dawkins assumes that they do, and apparently the theologians at the conference that he attended were unable to explain otherwise.

It is problematic to discuss the question of “whether God exists” with someone like Richard Dawkins because these separate questions end up being mixed together. Dawkins gives a negative response to question 5, but if this is in fact a reasonable way to use the name “God,” then Dawkins should not deny that God exists, even if the rest of his position is correct. Likewise, Dawkins assumes an affirmative answer to question 6, and therefore concludes that if the answer to question 2 is negative, God cannot be the first cause, and therefore that if he exists he must be caused. Discussing these questions with him separately would possibly be much more productive.

The Indifferent Universe of Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins says at the end of chapter 4 of his book River Out of Eden, “The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.”

The phrase “at bottom” is likely intended to exclude the interpretation which would deny the existence of purpose and of good and evil in the obvious sense of such a denial. In other words, denying these things by asserting that there is no purpose at all in human life, and that nothing anyone does or accomplishes is good or evil. It would not even be necessary to argue against such a position. It is sufficiently plain to common sense that this position is false, and even apart from this, the moral reasons to believe it is false would be compelling. And in any case Dawkins clearly believes in the existence of evil in this plain sense.

Nonetheless, there are problems with the claim even in the “at bottom” sense. In order for it to be reasonable for him to maintain his position, he should at least be able to answer these two questions:

(1) If there is no good and evil “at bottom”, why is there good and evil on the surface?

(2) Why do things tend to get better over time?

Developing the first question, why do human beings care about their own good and the good of humanity, if the universe at bottom does not? After all, human beings are a part of the universe. If the universe does not care, it would seem that human beings would not care either.

Or again: even if we can explain why human beings care about their own good, why do apples taste good? Apples could be good for health, and human beings could care about their health, without apples tasting good. It is almost as if the apples themselves cared about humanity.

Dawkins would likely attempt to respond to such questions by giving an evolutionary explanation. But while such explanations are surely a part of the truth, attempting to give a full response to such questions with such an explanation is bound to fail, because in the end it is a question of the working of human mind, and evolution cannot fully explain this.

As an example, consider the question about apples. If apples did not taste good, Dawkins might say, people would not eat them, and consequently they could not contribute to human health. And if similarly people did not eat any healthy foods, they could not survive. Evolution selected for people who could survive, and therefore for people who like the taste of health foods, including the taste of apples.

This may be all very well as far it goes, but the question has not yet been adequately answered. For we can still ask:

(1) Why do people eat things that taste good to them, instead of things that taste bad to them? If people normally ate things that taste bad to them, and rejected things that taste good, then evolution would have selected for people that eat healthy things that taste bad, and all healthy food, including apples, would taste bad to people.

(2) Why does food have any taste at all? Evolution could have easily selected for people who ate tasteless healthy food.

It is fairly evident that no evolutionary explanation will suffice to answer these two questions. The first question, about why people tend to eat things that taste good, rather than things that taste bad, is basically asking why people tend to do what seems good to them, rather than what seems bad. If people simply tended to do what seems bad to them, life would be like a dangerous roller coaster, where you are being “pushed along” on a path that you fear or dislike. But it is completely possible to imagine a life like this. It is not intrinsically absurd, and evolution is fully capable for selecting for such a thing, if it is possible at all. So the fact that this is not how things are, at least for the most part, is evidence that some explanation is necessary besides the fact of evolution.

The second question is similar, in the sense that it is asking why people’s tendency to do things is related to something known to them, rather than being unconscious. Our heart beats without there being any conscious intention for it to do so. Why could we not equally well eat without any conscious intention and without noticing any taste?

There is a debate about whether philosophical zombies are possible. But this debate may well be a red herring, because it may simply be a distraction from the true issues. It is likely impossible for such a zombie to exist, but the entire argument for this conclusion consists in the fact that human beings are in fact conscious. No explanation has been given for why this must be so, except the explanation suggested by St. Thomas: that the generosity of God requires that form be present in every disposed matter. In particular, it is evident that evolution cannot explain why we could not do everything we do, without being conscious, because exactly the same selective pressures would have been at work throughout the entire process.

To put this in another way, if philosophical zombies are impossible, this is because the universe is not indifferent to mind. And what is not indifferent to mind, is not indifferent to good and evil.

Aristotle describes the progress of the knowledge of causes among the ancient Greek philosophers:

From these facts one might think that the only cause is the so-called material cause; but as men thus advanced, the very facts opened the way for them and joined in forcing them to investigate the subject. However true it may be that all generation and destruction proceed from some one or (for that matter) from more elements, why does this happen and what is the cause? For at least the substratum itself does not make itself change; e.g. neither the wood nor the bronze causes the change of either of them, nor does the wood manufacture a bed and the bronze a statue, but something else is the cause of the change. And to seek this is to seek the second cause, as we should say,-that from which comes the beginning of the movement. Now those who at the very beginning set themselves to this kind of inquiry, and said the substratum was one, were not at all dissatisfied with themselves; but some at least of those who maintain it to be one-as though defeated by this search for the second cause-say the one and nature as a whole is unchangeable not only in respect of generation and destruction (for this is a primitive belief, and all agreed in it), but also of all other change; and this view is peculiar to them. Of those who said the universe was one, then none succeeded in discovering a cause of this sort, except perhaps Parmenides, and he only inasmuch as he supposes that there is not only one but also in some sense two causes. But for those who make more elements it is more possible to state the second cause, e.g. for those who make hot and cold, or fire and earth, the elements; for they treat fire as having a nature which fits it to move things, and water and earth and such things they treat in the contrary way.

When these men and the principles of this kind had had their day, as the latter were found inadequate to generate the nature of things men were again forced by the truth itself, as we said, to inquire into the next kind of cause. For it is not likely either that fire or earth or any such element should be the reason why things manifest goodness and, beauty both in their being and in their coming to be, or that those thinkers should have supposed it was; nor again could it be right to entrust so great a matter to spontaneity and chance. When one man said, then, that reason was present-as in animals, so throughout nature-as the cause of order and of all arrangement, he seemed like a sober man in contrast with the random talk of his predecessors. We know that Anaxagoras certainly adopted these views, but Hermotimus of Clazomenae is credited with expressing them earlier. Those who thought thus stated that there is a principle of things which is at the same time the cause of beauty, and that sort of cause from which things acquire movement.

Thus, according to Aristotle, the philosophers came to the knowledge of an agent cause that intended the goodness and beauty found in things. And they came to this conclusion because the universe they observed did not have “precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference,” but properties which would be much more likely to be observed if the universe is, at bottom, not indifferent to mind, and not indifferent to good and evil, despite the random talk of Richard Dawkins.