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.

In Summa Theologica part 1, question 3, Aquinas lays out the following aspects of God’s simplicity:

  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.
  8. God does not enter into composition with other things.

Notice how Aquinas argues that God is “simple,” primarily because he lacks physical parts and composition. This is different from saying that God is complex because he possesses the intelligence and capability of designing extremely complex objects, such as biological structures. This distinction is important to bear in mind when looking at the actual argument that Dawkins lays forth in the Ultimate Boeing 747 gambit. In The God Delusion (pp. 187-189), Dawkins presents that argument as follows:

  1. One of the greatest challenges to the human intellect, over the centuries, has been to explain how the complex, improbable appearance of design in the universe arises.
  2. The natural temptation is to attribute the appearance of design to actual design itself. In the case of a man-made artefact such as a watch, the designer really was an intelligent engineer. It is tempting to apply the same logic to an eye or a wing, a spider or a person.
  3. The temptation is a false one, because the designer hypothesis immediately raises the larger problem of who designed the designer. The whole problem we started out with was the problem of explaining statistical improbability. It is obviously no solution to postulate something even more improbable. We need a “crane”, not a “skyhook”; for only a crane can do the business of working up gradually and plausibly from simplicity to otherwise improbable complexity.
  4. The most ingenious and powerful crane so far discovered is Darwinian evolution by natural selection. Darwin and his successors have shown how living creatures, with their spectacular statistical improbability and appearance of design, have evolved by slow, gradual degrees from simple beginnings. We can now safely say that the illusion of design in living creatures is just that – an illusion.
  5. We don’t yet have an equivalent crane for physics. Some kind of multiverse theory could in principle do for physics the same explanatory work as Darwinism does for biology. This kind of explanation is superficially less satisfying than the biological version of Darwinism, because it makes heavier demands on luck. But the anthropic principle entitles us to postulate far more luck than our limited human intuition is comfortable with.
  6. We should not give up hope of a better crane arising in physics, something as powerful as Darwinism is for biology. But even in the absence of a strongly satisfying crane to match the biological one, the relatively weak cranes we have at present are, when abetted by the anthropic principle, self-evidently better than the self-defeating skyhook hypothesis of an intelligent designer.

I have bolded the words “design” and “intelligent” above, because I think that they are at the heart of the argument that Dawkins is making here. Dawkins is not saying that God is complex because he is composed of physical 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. As such, Dawkins is arguing that God is teleologically complex, not that he is physically complex.

In this way, God possesses the agency-centered teleology that I discussed in in my earlier essay about Aquinas’ teleological argument for God. This kind of teleology is described by philosopher André Ariew in “Platonic and Aristotelian Roots of Teleological Arguments” (pg. 9):

“I. Agency-centered teleology:

Behavioral. Activities undertaken for the sake of something, which may be either a state or further action.

Artifactual. Activities undertaken for the sake of producing an object of a certain sort (artificial).

…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…”

What Dawkins is arguing is that God is complex because he exhibits the kind of behavioral and artifactual teleology that is implied by intelligent design. God is behavioral, in that he is designing biological structures or the physical constants in our universe for the sake of some purpose; he is intelligently creating the universe for the purpose of life. God is also artifactual, in that he is designing these things in specific ways, and not in other ways, in order to suit the purpose of his design. God has the ability to decide and execute a plan, which reflects agency-centered teleology.

The alternative to this hypothesis is that there is no intelligence or agency-centered teleology behind our universe and the life within it. Rather, these things have arisen as the result of blind and unintentional causes. Evolution instead explains how complexity has emerged as the result of mutation and natural selection, which do not exhibit agency-centered teleology [1]. This can create the illusion of design, but is actually the result of non-intelligent causes. This alternative theory also matches the definition of metaphysical naturalism, which I offer in this previous essay.

Now, consider the responses to Dawkins’ argument, and why I think that they miss the mark. Here is what Alvin Plantinga writes in response to Dawkins:

“More remarkable, perhaps, is that according to Dawkins’s own definition of complexity, God is not complex. According to his definition (set out in The Blind Watchmaker), something is complex if it is has parts that are ‘arranged in a way that is unlikely to have arisen by chance alone.’ But of course God isn’t a material object at all and hence has no parts. God is a spirit, an immaterial spiritual being, and therefore has no parts at all.”

Note that Plantinga is quoting a different book (The Blind Watchmaker) than The God Delusion, which I don’t think offers the same definition of complexity that Dawkins is implying in the Ultimate Boeing 747 gambit. Regardless of whether Dawkins says elsewhere that complexity entails an improbable arrangement of parts to have arisen by chance, what he clearly means in the Ultimate Boeing 747 gambit is the teleological complexity implied by intelligent design. William Craig makes the same mischaracterization when he responds to Dawkins:

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

Both of these responses miss the mark. At no point in laying out his argument above does Dawkins state that God is a complex arrangement of physical parts. Both Plantinga and Craig are conflating two different understandings of “complexity,” in order to straw man Dawkins’ argument. Their appeal to the kind of divine simplicity discussed by Thomas Aquinas, therefore, is irrelevant.

Plantinga appears to foresee this problem, when he offers an alternative meaning of complexity, by suggesting that God is complex because of his omniscience and what he knows:

“So it is far from obvious that God is complex. But suppose we concede, at least for purposes of argument, that God is complex. Perhaps we think the more a being knows, the more complex it is – God, being omniscient, would then be highly complex … [I]f Dawkins proposes that God’s existence is improbable, he owes us an argument for the conclusion that there is no necessary being with the attributes of God…” 

Plantinga states that omniscience is one of the attributes of God, and in the same article he also writes:

“God has created us in his image, and an important part of our image bearing is our resembling him in being able to form true beliefs and achieve knowledge.”

And so, we are right back to God possessing intelligence in terms of his knowledge. Now, here is the thing: Plantinga argues that God was not created, but is a necessary being that exists in all possible worlds. This is the standard theistic rebuttal to the question, “If God created the universe, then who created God?” The answer is that nobody created God. God simply exists as an ontologically primitive entity.

As philosopher Graham Oppy (The Best Argument Against God, pp. 12) explains, an ontologically primitive entity is something that is not “not susceptible to further explanations.” God’s existence is not explained by anything else; he simply exists inherently. Why is this hypothesis more complex than the alternative hypothesis that the origins of our universe and the life within it are blind? Because a basic tenet of explanatory simplicity is that the more simple hypothesis is one that postulates fewer and less complex primitive entities. The less things that you merely assume on the ontological bedrock, the less conjectures you need to make a priori. As Oppy (pg. 13) explains:

“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.”

And here is why theism is more complex than atheism: To assume that an intelligent God, exhibiting agency-centered teleology, simply exists, without any further explanation, is far more complex than proposing non-intelligent causes for the things that God is used to explain. We don’t have to start on the ontological bedrock with a highly complex intelligence, especially of the sort exhibiting the bizarrely personal and emotive aspects of the Christian God, as something that is primitive and cannot be explained by anything else. Instead under atheism, non-intelligence gives rise to intelligent beings, such as humans, through blind selective forces. That at least starts us with something simpler and less complex than the human intelligence that we are seeking to explain.

And so, I find it very hard to believe that God is “simple” under the definition of “complexity” that Dawkins is describing. God is extremely complex, in terms of his agency-centered teleology and intelligence, not because he is composed of physical parts. At least if our universe had blind origins, without such complex intelligence, we don’t have to assume something that complicated as ontologically primitive. A blind start postulates fewer and less complex primitive entities.

-Matthew Ferguson

[1] Funny enough, Plantinga argues that even if biological complexity has emerged through evolution, that still does not mean that God could not have guided such evolution. In his response to Dawkins, Plantinga states:

“Suppose the evidence of evolution suggests that all living creatures have evolved from some elementary form of life: how does that show that the universe is without design? …  After all, couldn’t it be that God has directed and overseen the process of evolution? What makes Dawkins think evolution is unguided?”

But when one stops to think about the actual forms of life that emerge from evolution, including those that cause suffering and pain, we must consider what kind of evolution God is guiding. Why would God guide evolution to create diseases and genetic defects, for example? In Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion and Naturalism (pg. 59), Plantinga offers the following answer:

“Satan and his minions … may have been permitted a role in the evolution of life on Earth, steering it in the direction of predation, waste, and pain…”

Once more, I have to wonder if it is really a more simple explanation to say that “Satan and his minions” have created diseases and genetic defects, or to propose that blind and unguided evolution sometimes accidentally creates forms of life that cause suffering and pain. I leave it to the reader to decide which explanation is simpler.

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

  1. The thing is, this is a question that should have arisen in theological circles a long time ago. The standard theology is not just that God has no physical parts, but that he is an utterly indivisible One in all respects. Yet, he has infinite knowledge and intelligence and hence plans and knowledge claims and so on, which are clearly distinct mental ‘things’. How can he be Simple, yet have these ‘things’ within it? I utterly fail to see how the theologians reconcile these views.

    This is part of my main beef with so-called sophisticated theology – it tries to shoehorn the Biblical god into an abstract (Aristotelian) metaphysical framework. The results make a mockery of both the Biblical literary figure (well-described by Dawkins’ famous introduction to The God Delusion), and of notions of Aristotelian metaphysics (which are themselves groundless, but at least less so).

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