Thomas Aquinas on Divine Simplicity and Richard Dawkins’ Ultimate Boeing 747 Gambit

I have been discussing the theology of Thomas Aquinas in recent posts on this blog, including an extensive rebuttal to Aquinas’ Five Ways of proving God’s existence in this previous essay. The Five Ways belong to question 2 of the first part of Summa Theologica, and in this post I am going to discuss the content under question 3. In question 3, Aquinas writes about the theological attribute of divine simplicity. The discussion there is relevant to an argument that atheist Richard Dawkins made about a decade ago in The God Delusion, termed the Ultimate Boeing 747 gambit.

Boeing 747

Dawkins’ argument is a play on the notion of a “tornado sweeping through a junkyard to assemble a Boeing 747,” which is used by creationists to mischaracterize the probability of abiogenesis and evolution. Allegedly, the odds of complex life emerging by chance should be as rare as a tornado passing through a junkyard and assembling a Boeing 747. Dawkins’ response, however, is to turn this argument on its head. If life is too complex to have emerged by chance, then what are the odds that a complex deity, with all of the intelligence needed to design life, would just happen to exist by chance as the uncaused creator of the universe, in order to create life? Dawkins argues that the unexplained complexity of this designer poses a greater question than the problem that it seeks to solve. Rather, God is the Ultimate Boeing 747, in that the odds of such a being just happening to exist is much improbable than the more simple explanations of abiogenesis and evolution.

This argument did not jive well with many theologians, however, and both Alvin Plantinga (response here) and William Lane Craig (response here) wrote a rebuttal to it. In their responses both Plantinga and Craig appeal to Aquinas’ conception of divine simplicity to argue that Dawkins does not have a correct understanding of theology. Below is my response to their counter-arguments, and why I do not think that they have correctly characterized the complexity described by the Ultimate Boeing 747 gambit.

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A Minimalist Definition of Naturalism

I have been away from blogging here on Civitas Humana for a while, due to being busy with graduate work as part of my Ph.D. program. Thankfully, I passed my dissertation prospectus and advanced to Ph.D. candidacy last quarter, and so now I can dedicate more time to research and blogging.

I am going to start posting again here on Civ by beginning with a relatively short discussion of my definition of metaphysical naturalism. I have discussed some of the conceptual and ontological ways of defining both the “natural” and the “supernatural” in a couple of my previous essays on this blog (see here and here). In those essays I discuss criteria such as physicalism, reductionism, uniformity, and teleology. I think that all of these criteria are useful for articulating some of the ways that we differentiate the natural from the supernatural, but recently I have started to think that an even more minimal definition of naturalism is sufficient to deny one particular supernatural concept, namely the existence of God.


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Big History: An Introduction

What is big history? This emergent and interdisciplinary field, enriched and pioneered by Dr. David Christian of Macquarie University, encourages a more holistic understanding of human events than does the traditional study of history. While historians are concerned with understanding the past in context, and considering cause and effect in human terms, big historians are concerned with understanding the past not only in its immediate human historical setting, but in the context of scientific and physical laws of nature as well. If history is written by the victor, then big history is written in the stars themselves.

Screenshot 2015-12-20 at 1.39.32 PMDr. Christian, bolstered by the support of philanthropist Bill Gates, first injected big history into the public sector with a 2011 TED Talk, providing an 18 minute overview of world history. In this sensational talk, which has garnered more than 5 million views since its publication, Dr. Christian identifies the basic principles of big history, including the concept of Goldilocks conditions and the various “thresholds” of complexity that we observe in the universe. At various moments in the cosmic past, Christian states, certain Goldilocks conditions have come about, in which “not too little, and not too much” of certain components — usually energy or mass — have allowed the universe to reach states of increasing complexity.

Starting at the Big Bang and the first moment of time itself, Christian traces the cause-and-effect of each moment and identifies these thresholds. He highlights the six universal thresholds of complexity as follows:

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Good News!

I have had less time to write on Civ than I would have liked this year, due to my language studies in Greek, so I thought that I would share this major milestone. I still have more graduate projects to work on, but I also have much more material planned for Civ, when I get around to it. At least I am making progress towards my PhD!


Screenshot 2015-11-30 at 6.31.27 AMI have received news that I have unanimously passed the Greek qualifying exam in my PhD program! This exam was the last of 11 qualifying exams that I have had to take in my graduate studies (5 in my MA program, and 6 in my PhD program). The Greek exam is, by far, the most difficult (the second most difficult is the Latin qualifying exam, but I consider Latin to be a much easier language than Ancient Greek, and that’s saying something!).

There has been a long journey to get to this point. I began studying Greek six years ago (the year before I entered my Classics MA program at the University of Arizona). During my time there I not only studied Greek every semester, but even took an independent study in Greek prose composition in which I completed all of North and Hillard’s Greek Prose Composition. In addition to…

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Can There Be Empirical Evidence of God’s Existence? Thoughts on Summa Theologica I, 1, vii, Aquinas’ Five Ways (I, 2, iii), and Miracles

aquinasI have been doing a read through St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica recently, along with Brian Davies’ newly published commentary on the text–Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae: A Guide and Commentary (2014)I’ve also decided to blog some of my thoughts and notes along the way, in order to discuss a few of the differences between Christian theology and metaphysical naturalism. In this post, I will be discussing some of the implications of Aquinas’ theology for the possibility of there being empirical evidence of God’s existence, particularly with regards to how Aquinas describes God as the object of the study of his sacred science (part I, question 1, article 7), and Aquinas’ Five Ways of demonstrating God’s existence (part 1, question 2, article 3).

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New Pages on Civitas Humana!

It’s been a while now that the ‘Recommended Resources‘ page on the toolbar has merely stated “coming soon!”. Sorry that it didn’t come sooner, but now a number of books on topics of secular humanism, naturalism, materialism, cosmology, ethics, and more have been added as recommended readings. This list will no doubt also be expanded with time.

Likewise, the blog series “Thinking about the ‘Metaphysics’ in Metaphysical Naturalism” has been turned into a new page, titled ‘The Metaphysics of Metaphysical Naturalism‘, for easier access at the top of the blog.

Civitas Humana now has a complete toolbar, which addresses multiple issues of secular humanism and naturalism. Just one more improvement to add to this resource!

Onward and upward,

Francis Adams

Are All Norms Moral Norms?

For the next part of my blog series, “Thinking about the ‘Metaphysics’ in Metaphysical Naturalism,” I am going to discuss metaphysical naturalism’s implications for ethics and moral imperatives. Before that, however, I am also going to discuss the meaning of normative statements and whether all normative claims are specifically “moral” normative claims.

boromir-is-oughtA normative statement is a claim that expresses value, preference, or obligation. Words like “should” and “ought,” or “good” and “bad,” or even “beautiful” and “ugly” are not merely factual descriptions of the world, but also include underlying judgements. It can be a factual statement that a piece of art consists of certain colors, shapes, and patterns, for example, but that is not the same thing as saying whether a piece of art is pleasant to look at or beautiful. Normative statements investigate different properties pertaining to objects and behavior. Their underlying meaning is not merely descriptive, but also preferential. This distinction is often termed the “is-ought problem.”

One of the major objections made against metaphysical naturalism is that it is unable to account for the truth of normative claims. In particular, apologetic moral arguments often levy the charge that naturalism cannot account for the truth of moral values and imperatives, and that naturalist metaphysics thus entails moral anti-realism. Whether this assertion is defensible is a question that I will investigate later in this blog series. Before that, however, I want to make some key distinctions between “moral” normative statements and other types of normative claims. In particular, a response that I often get, from both theists and atheists alike when using words like “should” and “ought,” is that such words inherently possess moral judgements. I do not think that this interpretation is correct, and accordingly, I am going to lay out certain types of normative statements below that do not necessarily relate to moral judgements, despite their normative character.

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