Richard Dawkins on the “simplicity” of God

August 31, 2023 • 11:10 am

If you’re able to read the post below on Richard Dawkins’s Substack site, you get three treats in one. First, he reproduces a scathing review he wrote for the 1996 Sunday Times of London about theologian Richard Swinburne‘s book Is There a God? (The answer was “yes,” of course, and Swinburne’s god was a “simple” one.) Second, Richard re-discusses the topic based on a debate he had with Swinburne and other religionists this June about whether God was indeed “simple.” Finally, both segments are written in Richard’s inimitable clear and humorous style, and so you get the third treat of enjoying his prose. (I’d love to be able to write like him; Richard and Steve Pinker are my models for clear and absorbing writing.)

If you haven’t looked at Richard’s site, the following might be free to access. Click on it to try. If not, either subscribe or just read the quotes I’ll give below.

The book review begins with a funny rebuke:

It is a virtue of clear writing that you can see what is wrong with a book as well as what is right.  Richard Swinburne is clear.  You can see where he is coming from.  You can also see where he is going to, and there is something almost endearing in the way he lovingly stakes out his own banana skin and rings it about with converging arrows boldly labelled ‘Step here’.

Yep, he stepped there.

Swinburne claimed that God has many powers. For example, as Richard notes, the esteemed theologian thinks that God has to keep every physical particle in line, for without God’s continual intercession, every electron would willy-nilly assume different and diverse properties.

[Swinburne’s] reasoning is very odd indeed.  Given that the number of particles of any one type, say electrons, is large, Swinburne thinks it too much of a coincidence for so many to 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, but would be expected to 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” (p 42).

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 neutralising 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.  It is because God is constantly hanging on to each and every particle, curbing its reckless excesses and whipping it into line with its colleagues to keep them all the same.

Oh, and in case you wondered how the hypothesis that God is simultaneously keeping a billion fingers on a billion electrons can be a simple hypothesis, the reason is this.  God is only a single substance.  What brilliant economy of explanatory causes compared with all those billions of independent electrons all just happening to be the same!

Not only that, but besides looking after the gazillions of electrons in the Universe (not just on Earth), God has to monitor the behavior and thoughts of every individual, human or nonhuman, and has complete knowledge of all of them. As it says in Matthew 10:29:

Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear ye not therefore, ye are of more value than many sparrows.

The review is delightful, especially if you like mockery of Sophisticated Theology™, and Richard ends it this way:

A God capable of continuously monitoring and controlling the individual status of every particle in the universe is not going to be simple.  His existence is therefore going to need a modicum of explaining in its own right (it is often considered bad taste to bring that up, but Swinburne does rather ask for it by pinning his hopes on the virtues of simplicity).  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.  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 where would we be?

If this is theology, perhaps Professor Swinburne’s colleagues are wise to be less lucid.

I feel like applauding when I read stuff like that.

After this, Richard quotes how theologians and believers went after him for his claim in the debate that God must be complex (his definition of “complex” is below), and that if you really understood theology, you’d know that its practitioners mean “simple” in a way different from both scientists and laypeople.

In the debate, Swineburne stood by his claim that God was simple, so the existence of God isn’t really a problem. (The “complexity” of any god would demand an explanation of how such a vastly complicated deity came about, an explanation that theologians aren’t prepared to give, as they don’t have one—except perhaps to claim “it’s gods all the way down”.)

In a loud, confident, articulate voice, Swinburne expounded exactly the same astonishing line as before, and I criticized it in the same terms. How can you possibly say God is a “simple”, “unitary” explanation for the universe and the laws of physics, given that, in order to create it, he needed to know a whole lot of physics and mathematics.  Plus, 4.6 billion years later, he now has the bandwidth to read the intimate thoughts of seven billion of people simultaneously, and, for all we know, the thoughts and prayers of even more billions of extra-terrestrial aliens.

It didn’t surprise me that Swinburne still thinks God is a supremely simple entity. He evidently uses the word “simple” in a special theological sense. What does surprise me is the number of others incapable of seeing the absurdity of his position. Several Twitter responses to the debate proudly proclaim “Divine Simplicity” as a thing in theology. But you can’t demonstrate that something is right merely by shoving the word “Divine” in front of it, not even if you attribute it to Augustine or Thomas Aquinas. What is the justification for invoking “Divine Simplicity in this context? Does it even mean anything coherent?

And then Dawkins explains what he means by simplicity and complexity, which is the same way scientists (and everyone else, if they could articulate it) understands complexity. It’s a nonmathematical version of “Shannon information.”  Here I have to give a longish quote:

Here’s what I mean by simple. I suspect it captures what most biologists mean, if not most scientists. It can be quantified using an intuitive, verbal version of Shannon’s mathematical measure of information. Simple is the opposite of complex. The complexity or simplicity of an entity is the minimum number of words (more strictly bits – binary digits in the most economical re-coding) you need to describe it. A centipede and a lobster both consist of a train of segments running from front to rear. The centipede is simpler than the lobster, in the following sense. To describe the centipede, you admittedly need a special description of the front and rear segments, but the many segments in between are the same as each other. Just describe one segment, and then say “Repeat repeat repeat . . . some large number of times” (it might literally be 100 times in some species.) But you can’t do that with the lobster because most of the segments are different from each other. If you were to write a book called The Anatomy of the Centipede and another book called the Anatomy of the Lobster, the second book would come out a lot fatter. Assuming, of course, that the two books go into a similar level of detail, which is an easy assumption to police.

From this you can see that simplicity/complexity is measured not just by number of parts but also by what Julian Huxley called “heterogeneity of parts”. And we have to add that the heterogeneous parts themselves, and the way they are connected up, are necessary to the definition of the entity concerned. Any old heap of junk has a large number of heterogenous parts but neither they, nor their particular juxtaposition, are necessary to the general definition of “a heap of junk”. You can shuffle the parts of a  heap of junk a million times, and all million will answer to the definition of a heap of junk. The heterogenous parts of a lobster, and their mutual arrangement, are necessary to the definition of a lobster. So they are to the definition of a centipede, but fewer of them are different from each other, and you can shuffle (most of them) into any order.

There’s more, but I’ll just give some funny bits in the form of social media rebukes Richard got (in italics) and his answers (in plain text):

“Richard, stop embarrassing yourself. Stick to science.

With all due respect – and I have a lot of respect for you – watching you switch lanes from science to philosophy is like watching Michael Jordan switch to baseball.”

I’ve become ever so slightly irritated by the suggestion that you need some sort of special training to think clearly. Philosophy is just thinking clearly. Does one not need to think clearly to do science? Or history? Or any subject worth studying. Perhaps not theology, where thinking clearly might even be a handicap.

and this:

For evolution’s sake stop trying to do theology.”

I am not trying to do theology, not least because I have grave doubts as to whether theology is a subject at all (I don’t in any way impugn the fascinating work done in university Departments of Theology on the Dead Sea scrolls, comparing ancient Hebrew texts, and similar honest scholarship). I’m talking about theology in the (I suspect but could be wrong) obscurantist sense epitomised by “Transubstantiation” and the “Mystery” of  the Eucharist, the “Mystery” of the Trinity, the “Mystery” of the Incarnation, and “Divine Simplicity”.

I am not trying and failing to do theology, Swinburne is trying and failing to do science. The question of why all electrons and all copper atoms behave as others of their kind do is a purely scientific question.  And the question of why we exist, which was the topic of the London debate, is fairly and squarely a scientific question. It is possible that science will never ultimately solve it, though I think it will, and the possibility of failure is no reason to give up without making the effort. But if science doesn’t solve it, no other discipline will.

And, finally, this:

“Stick to biology.”

Thank you, I intend to. Biology uses language honestly and solves real problems. In 2,000 years, what problem has ever been solved by theology?

In that short last sentence, Richard sums up what I try to say in my lecture on the incompatibility of religion and science. There I talk about all the scientific advances in just the last century, and then ask this: “How much more do we know about the nature and will of God since the writings of Augustine or Aquinas?”  The answer, of course is “nothing”, for theology is not a discipline in which one can investigate and test various propositions.  We still know nothing about God—least of all whether He/She/It even exists.

h/t: Daniel

41 thoughts on “Richard Dawkins on the “simplicity” of God

  1. Right! theology has never solved any problem…it just creates more problems, more strife, more conflict and more mendacity. It makes you wonder if there is indeed a devil, a troublemaker who invented theology in order to deliberately ignite hatred, violence and oppression. After all, there is nothing that rules out a devil…..using the same illogic of those who posit a god. Can they disprove the existence of a devil? Or is god, not the devil, responsible for so much evil?To be continued.

    1. There is no reason to think that theology is even a valid human intellectual endeavor. More probably the ultimate human intellecutal vanity. And as an attempt to comprehend the mind of God it is an abject failure. Thus religion is no more then a theological counterfeit. Evolution remains true, but imposes upon the human condition the inheritance of a limited capacity of moral and spiritual perception. So I would suggest the challenge is how to transcend the state of mind the evolution forces upon us? And neither science nor ‘religion’ have a solution to that end!

  2. Richard should stick to his science, biology.
    Clearly the Pauli Exclusion principle (that only 2 electrons can occcupy the same orbital and that they must be of opposite spin) proves not only the existence of God but also of His opposite the Devil.

  3. I’m reminded of one of my favorite expressions of Dan Barker, viz., “Theology: the only subject without an object.”

  4. Clearly, god is a simple answer: “What?” “God.” “Oh.”

    It’s still simpler to assume he isn’t there.

  5. “Stick to biology.”

    Prof. Dawkins’s reply to that was spot on. It’s just sad that the remark tells us that there are people who think that biology doesn’t matter but religion does.

  6. Top-down explanations look very different than bottom-up explanations. The latter looks at a question as a mystery to be solved. Whether it’s “what makes the car move?” “why do the stars shine?” or “how did the eye come about?” the answer is going to involve specifics and history. It’s also going to involve a lot of work, slowly, over time, as things are broken down to simpler components so we might understand .

    Approaching those questions from the top-down, on the other hand, avoids those pesky details involving gradual development. The car moves because of its locomotion ability; the stars shine because they’re bright; the eye was created by a Simple Being that wanted an eye — and used its Simple Power of doing that by doing that. Such Simple Being has no components, nor is there any complicated history where it got the way it was starting from things it wasn’t.

    Theology approaches the world like a singularity incurious child. “It just is, that’s why. Sounds good to me.”

    1. I think it is plausible that some ‘why questions’ are vacuous. It looks like there is an implicit premise of cause in such questions. That we can understand the world to a certain extent with cause-effect models need not mean the idea works in general. We must be careful about the language we use to form questions. ‘What is the trajectory of an electron inside an atom’ was not a well formed question in that the classical idea of a trajectory did not apply — it is absent in quantum mechanics which is a better description of phenomena at that scale.

      It also helped that people began to describe physical phenomena (often mathematically) instead of looking for agency behind everything. Religious people still look for agents who make things happen.

      Thank you, I intend to. Biology uses language honestly and solves real problems. In 2,000 years, what problem has ever been solved by theology?

      It might not have solved a problem, but it has created jobs for theologians. Religion (not just Christianity) has made idiocy into a virtue.

      1. That all electrons are the same is a symmetry. A symmetry is what one gets if no god or any other supernatural entity is mucking about with things. Consider a completely calm lake. The surface is symmetrical. If there is any ripple on the surface one looks for a cause: a fish taking a fly, a gust of wind, a splash of rain. No disturbance, no cause. A sophisticated theist might invoke gravity and the second law of thermodynamics, but gravity was explained by Einstein by invoking the symmetry of the laws of physics in accelerated frames of reference, and the second law is a simply a statistical statement about what is most likely if no external influence is acting, again a kind of symmetry.
        The brilliant mathematician Emmy Noether helped Einstein (and David Hilbert and Felix Klein) sort out a problem with energy conservation in general relativity. She became so interested that for about three years she indulged in theoretical physics as a hobby, and developed her famous theorem that any differential symmetry implies a conservation law. She should have won a Nobel prize, but physicists were slow to recognise the importance of what she had shown. Today symmetry dominates theoretical physics, either directly or through Noether’s theorem. Increasingly the fundamental laws of physics emerge from symmetry principles, even the four forces. No god is necessary.

    2. Exactly Sastra, ‘it is the whistle of the station chief that makes the train move’. You are so pertinently spot on there.

  7. First of all, in order to avoid confusion and misunderstanding, one needs to be aware of the relevant distinction between theoretical, ontological, and mereological simplicity. When theologians call God simple, they mean to say that he is /mereologically simple/ in the sense of lacking (proper) parts (components/constituents). That is, God is said to be a zero-dimensional substance that isn’t composed of any other substances. According to the extreme version of the doctrine of divine simplicity, not even the divine attributes are (nonsubstantial) parts of the divine substance.

    “Most philosophers believe that, other things being equal, simpler theories are better. But what exactly does theoretical simplicity amount to? Syntactic simplicity, or elegance, measures the number and conciseness of the theory’s basic principles. Ontological simplicity, or parsimony, measures the number of kinds of entities postulated by the theory. One issue concerns how these two forms of simplicity relate to one another. There is also an issue concerning the justification of principles, such as Occam’s Razor, which favor simple theories.”


    “According to the classical theism of Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas and their adherents, God is radically unlike creatures and cannot be adequately understood in ways appropriate to them. God is simple in that God transcends every form of complexity and composition familiar to the discursive intellect. One consequence is that the simple God lacks parts. This lack is not a deficiency but a positive feature. God is ontologically superior to every partite entity, and his partlessness is an index thereof. Broadly construed, ‘part’ covers not only spatial and temporal parts (if any) but also metaphysical ‘parts’ or ontological constituents. To say that God lacks metaphysical parts is to say /inter alia/ that 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. God is thus in some sense /identical/ to each of his attributes, which implies that each attribute is identical to every other one. ”

    Divine Simplicity:

    1. “According to the classical theism of Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas and their adherents, God is radically unlike creatures and cannot be adequately understood in ways appropriate to them”

      And how do Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas and the other bullsh*t artists know this?
      If, as Dawkins says, philosophy is just thinking clearly, theology is its opposite. It shows how human beings can come up with ridiculously elaborate concepts that explain nothing and are based on nothing. Theology cannot explain, prove, or even make a plausible case why a simple God that lacks parts can interfere with every particle in the universe. All the theologians can do is travel up their own fundaments.

    2. You know, or at least you really, really should, that your hypothesis is BS when you have to concoct a trail of ever increasing nonsense like that to support it.

      This is what always gets me about theology. It is truly simplistic drivel (Divine Simplicity indeed!) that a child would be gently chided for concocting dressed up with fanciful terms of art and delivered in dramatic tone, and with an insistent expectation that it be taken seriously. People that believe this stuff are delusional.

    3. Sounds like a whole bunch of special pleading.
      Then again, I’m not a theologian or philosopher, so what do I know.

    4. It is not clear to me if you are defending, or even espousing, the idea of divine simplicity. Therefore, I shall not assume it.

      I find the idea of divine simplicity to me eminently sensible and compelling. It is very much like the idea of arboreal simplicity:

      There is a tree, simpler than all trees, that is one with all trees, that can bear the fruit of any tree, that knows all trees, and always was, is, and will forever be. It is this tree from which all trees emanate. If we do not respect and worship this tree, it will become angry, set all our forests on fire and condemn this earth to be denuded of all trees. We shall all die of treelessness.

      Divine simplicity is an example of grammatically correct nonsense. However, I do think that it makes a superb constituent of religion. Nothing like putting words together to form meaningless sentences to get the masses in tow.

  8. “Religion is believing there’s a diamond the size of a refrigerator buried in your yard. Theology is arguing over the brand of refrigerator.”
    James Lindsay

  9. To any physicist types out there: Isn’t it true that electrons don’t all stay the same? Don’t some spontaneously split off into something else? Certainly they change their energy levels and spin.
    If so, then Swinburne would not doubt find god in the inconstancy of electrons.

    Pop-ups are back again, btw. Also it does not want to load my login credentials.

    1. Electrons are stable. Unless there is another particle to react with (such as a positron), they don’t turn into anything else; and for them to react with anything else apart from positrons requires a whole lot of extra energy.
      They can change their energy levels if they interact with something else (like a photon), or if the system is in an excited state, but that doesn’t change their fundamental properties, just the state they’re in. (Like, your eye color doesn’t change just because you sit down on a chair.)
      Also – and I found this really fascinating – you can do experiments measuring things like heat capacity that yield different results depending on whether the particles you’re looking are are really interchangeable, or whether they just happen to have the same properties but you could tell them apart if you tracked them closely enough. The results are unanimous: all electrons are indistinguishable and interchangeable, as are all protons, all hydrogen atoms in their ground states etc.
      And for what it’s worth, quite a bit of effort has gone into showing that the laws of nature (such as speed of light, interactions between particles etc) are constand throughout the universe (and, by extension, don’t change with time).

  10. Richard Dawkins says it better than basically most can.
    But a deity that listens to prayers and can interfere in human business, is necessarily complex, after all, God is not a bacterium (but arguably a virus). It has intelligence (well, one could argue about the degree of that), highly complex from any angle. The ‘simplicity’ of a god is just a cop out, a ridiculous trope. A god is inevitably highly complex. Complexity can only arise by Natural Selection. How did this complex god evolve? His ability to create a universe and not being overwhelmed by all these prayers? Is that simple?

  11. Order in nature is proof of God. Non-order in nature – a miracle – is also proof of God. A and Not A are both proofs of God. It’s a suckers game.

  12. You say God is simple? Great–then show us by building one.

    You say you don’t have the materials? No problem–you can give us the plans.

    You say you have no idea what plans for building God would even mean? Then shut up about your confidence that God is simple.

  13. Given that the number of particles of any one type, say electrons, is large, Swinburne thinks it too much of a coincidence for so many to have the same properties.

    There is one electron field. All electrons are excitations of that field 🙂

  14. “According to quantum field theory, particles are excitations of quantum fields that fill all of space.”
    ” well, he’s just an excitable god”

    “Excitable Boy” is about a kid with an extreme case of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder who murders his prom date. He’s institutionalized, but when he gets out 10 years later, he digs up her grave and makes a cage from her bones.

    Warren Zevon
    Sounds a bit like a god, Warren. Good one.

  15. Of course Dawkins would know about Shannon information and Kolmogorov complexity – he does lots of research. Those concepts are very useful in philosophy, as well as science and mathematics. A growing number of philosophers are catching on to the importance of scientific and mathematical tools. Things are looking up.

  16. “… the esteemed theologian thinks that God has to keep every physical particle in line, for without God’s continual intercession, every electron would willy-nilly assume different and diverse properties.”

    This is exactly the same dopey occasionalist philosophy that Al-Ghazali came up with in his “Incoherence of the Philosophers” in the late-11th century (although he didn’t know about electrons of course). Once the idea becomes entrenched, true science becomes impossible (since if there were no laws governing the behaviour of the natural world, why bother looking for any?). Al-Ghazali is often credited with single-handedly bringing scientific advance in the Islamic world grinding to a halt.

  17. It’s so exasperating that these kinds of debates even continue to take place. It would be a sad and pathetic waste of time to even engage in them if it weren’t for the fact that there are so many people who believe such nonsense and who seem incapable of recognizing it as such. Will these foolish beliefs ever go away? Yes, albeit slowly.

  18. You can shuffle the parts of a heap of junk a million times, and all million will answer to the definition of a heap of junk.

    Not true!
    You might get a Boeing 747. Or at least half a wing.

    1. I just read about one third of the interview and find Ken Boa’s views too laughable to continue. He spins creationist nonsense and redefines terms mid-paragraph. He claims “Who am I? Where did I come from? Why am I here, and where am I going?” are the biggest questions of life. Really? Are “Me. Easthampton. I live here. To the grocery story.” the biggest answers in life? Must be per Boa’s constrictions.

  19. In that short last sentence, Richard sums up what I try to say in my lecture on the incompatibility of religion and science. There I talk about all the scientific advances in just the last century, and then ask this: “How much more do we know about the nature and will of God since the writings of Augustine or Aquinas?” The answer, of course is “nothing”, for theology is not a discipline in which one can investigate and test various propositions. We still know nothing about God—least of all whether He/She/It even exists.
    Excellent. I don’t think that you need to worry about your writing style!

  20. “Philosophy is just thinking clearly.”

    Here I must disagree. Analytic philosophers at least bring their own distinctive set of tools to the mix, in particular formal and informal logic. Consistency, not just clarity, is – or should be- their forte.

  21. If God is, as the theologians assert, simple, then how could it be that God could be in any way like us? Human agency is an incredibly complex phenomenon, so asking us to imagine “we are made in God’s image” is asking us to think of human without anything that makes us human.

    While I have no doubt theologians have clever retorts that would show how I’m completely wrongheaded for even daring to suggest that “in his image” in any way refers to our physical properties, I truly don’t get how we are expected to borrow aspects of human agency when it’s an irreducibly physical and cultural phenomenon. We are physical beings with brains that learn and interact with other such creatures, and from that we get behaviour, cognition, language, beliefs, meaning, drives, desires, fears, love, etc. To say that God can have all those but without the hassle of having a physical body or presence in spacetime just makes theology feel like a word game.

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