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.
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.