You need a better first step

Gary Gutting is a philosopher of religion at Notre Dame, a Catholic university in the US; he writes for the New York Times philosophy blog The Stone. He has a long post saying what’s wrong with Dawkins’s arguments for the strong improbability of god. It’s worth reading because it’s more than just shouting or hand-waving or tone trolling or border disputing or last Thursdayism or science has nothing to say about the supernatural-ism. That’s not to say it’s convincing, but at least there’s something there.

He addresses Dawkins’s argument (not unique to him, of course) that a god that created the universe would have to be even more complex than the universe, and thus would require explanation even more than the universe does, so it doesn’t explain the universe after all, so it’s not a good argument for the existence of god. (That’s not how Gutting puts it, it’s how I do.)

Here Dawkins ignores the possibility that God is a very different sort of being than brains and computers. His argument for God’s complexity either assumes that God is material or, at least, that God is complex in the same general way that material things are (having many parts related in complicated ways to one another). The traditional religious view, however, is that God is neither material nor composed of immaterial parts (whatever that might mean). Rather, he is said to be simple, a unity of attributes that we may have to think of as separate but that in God are united in a single reality of pure perfection.

Okay…but what good is that? What good is a view, what good is “he is said to be”? It’s just saying. Anyone can say, but that doesn’t mean anyone else should believe what is said.

Obviously, there are great difficulties in understanding how God could be simple in this way. But philosophers from Thomas Aquinas through contemporary thinkers have offered detailed discussions of the question that provide intelligent suggestions about how to think coherently about a simple substance that has the power and knowledge attributed to God.

Okay, but I don’t really see why anyone should bother, given that there’s no real reason to pay attention to the claim in the first place. Saying “God is simple” is an ad hoc way to get around the “god would have to be more complex” objection, but it’s not a claim with any apparent relationship to observable reality. That means that intelligent suggestions about how to think coherently about this legless claim don’t strike an outsider as all that valuable.

Making Dawkins’ case in any convincing way would require detailed engagement not only with Swinburne but also with other treatments by recent philosophers such as Christopher Hughes’ “A Complex Theory of a Simple God.” (For a survey of recent work on the topic, see William Vallicella’s article, “Divine Simplicity,” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).

Okay, I had a look.

According to the classical theism of Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas and their adherents, God is radically unlike creatures in that he is devoid of any complexity or composition, whether physical or metaphysical. Besides lacking spatial and temporal parts, God is free of matter/form composition, potency/act composition, and existence/essence composition. There is also no real distinction between God as subject of his attributes and his attributes.

Okay, but again, this is just dogma. It’s just saying. I’m sure it’s internally coherent, but there’s no reason to believe it in the first place. Without any reason to believe it in the first place, it’s hard to care whether it’s internally coherent or not. Don’t you find?

 God is what he has. As identical to each of his attributes, God is identical to his nature. And since his nature or essence is identical to his existence, God is identical to his existence. This is the doctrine of divine simplicity (DDS). It is represented not only in classical Christian theology, but also in Jewish, Greek, and Islamic thought. It is to be understood as an affirmation of God’s absolute transcendence of creatures.

Okay – that all makes sense if you believe in this god in the first place. But if you don’t, it just sounds like people saying fancy things about something they know absolutely nothing about. It sounds grand, that kind of thing, but it’s just saying. Just saying is not convincing to outsiders.

You need a better first step. I already know that theology sounds explanatory and serious to insiders, but you need a better first step to convince outsiders. Science and other empirical forms of inquiry have that better first step; theism doesn’t.

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