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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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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Cosmology and Time in Metaphysical Naturalism

For the next part of my series about the ‘metaphysics’ in metaphysical naturalism I will be analyzing how modern scientific theories about cosmology fit in to the naturalist worldview. Since I am not a professional scientist, I will be quoting authorities for all critical information. The purpose of this article is more philosophical than scientific, in that it does not seek to advance a particular scientific theory, but rather to demonstrate how modern cosmological theories align with the definition of metaphysical naturalism discussed earlier in this series. Feedback is welcome from professionals, if any of the scientific discussion below has factual errors or is unclear. I have worked to quote scientific authorities in their own words as much as possible, in order that their theories be represented as close as possible to their own views.

The study of cosmology has a long history (see here), but since around the end of the 20th century scientists have reached a generally cohesive view of what our universe looks like. The observable universe that we live in is a sphere with a radius of about 46 billion lightyears. Beyond that the unobservable universe is much larger, and is still inflating rapidly. Within this observable part of the universe alone there are at least 100 billion galaxies (and possibly 500 billion galaxies in the whole universe), and, if modern observational estimates among astronomers are correct about there being 17 billion Earth-sized planets in our galaxy, then the rest of the universe no doubt contains many, many more.

For a musical description of the vast scale of our galaxy and universe, I recommend the Galaxy Song in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life.

In the 1920’s American astronomer Edwin P. Hubble discovered that our universe is not static. Instead, space is expanding rapidly. Current estimates calculate the rate of expansion at 74.3 (plus or minus 2.1) kilometers per second per megaparsec (a megaparsec is roughly 3 million light-years). Since, looking towards the future, the universe is expanding out of control, looking towards the past, we would expect the universe to have emerged from a much smaller point. 

The modern theory of the Big Bang answers this question. Scientists have traced the expansion of our universe to a very small initial state about 13.82 billion years ago. Before the expansion, our universe, including its Big Bang Expansionmatter and radiation, was compressed into a very hot and very dense point of mass just a few millimeters across. This state is theorized to have existed for a fraction of the first second of time, before a massive blast caused the universe’s matter and energy, and even space and time, to expand rapidly. In the trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang, the universe expanded at an unfathomable rate from merely the size of a pebble to being of astronomical scale.

This sequence of events has left us with a vexing question: what caused the Big Bang?

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