Richard Dawkins believes that if the universe began to exist—it was caused by nothing. In a debate with Cardinal George Pell in 2012 he asserted:
“Of course it’s counterintuitive that you can get something from nothing! Of course common sense doesn’t allow you get something from nothing! That’s why it’s interesting. It’s got to be interesting in order to give rise to the universe at all!”
He was right about at least two things: to get something from nothing is both counterintuitive and in opposition to common sense. But in light of mounting evidence for an absolute beginning to the universe, such confidence in nothing is reflective of the radical measures taken by atheists—such as Dawkins, Steven Hawking, Lawrence Krauss, Peter Atkins and others—to avoid postulating a divine Designer as the kick-starter of our finely-tuned, expanding universe.
Atheists know that anything which begins to exist must have a cause of its existence. This expectation drives scientific research. But in the case of the origin of the universe there seems to be an extreme avulsion to the basic philosophical principle that “out of nothing, no thing comes”. Thus atheists object to Lucretius’ ancient maxim: “Nothing can be created from nothing”. Science is founded on the principle that “things cause things”. But wouldn’t it seem equally true that “no thing causes no thing”? Yet, as we’ve seen atheists will make an exception, postulating nothing as a cause, in order to avoid the God conclusion (although it seems that often their description of “nothing” is a description of some thing leaving the question of the ultimate cause of things still open and unanswered).
Indeed such reasoning could make a first-year philosophy student cringe—not to mention professional philosophers such as Dawkins’ fellow atheist, Michael Ruse, who once remarked, “I think Dawkins is ignorant of just about every aspect of philosophy and theology and it shows”. Regardless, Dawkins and others continue to persist in this line of philosophically problematic thinking—what G.K. Chesterton might have called “uncommon nonsense”—while nonetheless enjoying strong influence on their atheist followers.
In an interview with PBS Dawkins was asked to comment on the hypothesis that God is the designer of whole evolutionary system. His negative answer reflects the same key principle he uses to deny God as the Big Banger of the universe:
“You start with essentially nothing—you start with something very, very simple—the origin of the Earth. And from that, by slow gradual degrees, as I put it “climbing mount improbable”—by slow gradual degree you build up from simple beginnings and simple needs easy to understand, up to complicated endings like ourselves and kangaroos.”
Thus, such atheists postulate “nothing” as the cause of the universe because, on their view, nothing is “very, very simple” and God is not. And according to Dawkins and company the Big Bang (and the subsequent forward-moving evolutionary processes) must reflect a transition from the simple to the complex. From a simple molecule to a more complex molecule; from a single-celled organism to a multi-celled organism; from absolutely nothing to a universe. Therefore, on their view, simple nothing is preferable to a complex god as the Grand Cause of things; God is too complex to be the cause of the simple beginnings of the universe and the biological processes contained within.
But I want to point several important considerations in regard to this atheistic objection that God is too complex to be the cause of the universe (and the processes within):
First, the complex God they reject is not the God of Christianity. They might have ruled out a god of complexity, but not the God of simplicity proposed by Christian theists. This error is often committed by skeptics when they paint God with a suspicious similarity to themselves while failing to factor in His most essential supernatural characteristics; and a problematic creation of God in man’s image and likeness results.
Dawkins’ language betrays this tendency in his PBS interview:
“For one thing, if I were God wanting to make a human being, I would do it by a more direct way rather than by evolution.”
Albert Einstein, a deist (and perhaps this sheds some light on why he remained so), says something similar:
“When I am judging a theory, I ask myself whether, if I were God, I would have arranged the world in such a way” (Einstein: His Life And Universe, Walter Isaacson, p. 551)
These men are placing themselves into the shoes of God, assuming they would know how an all-powerful, all-knowing Creator of the universe would act. Though they might be men of great intelligence, they are not all-knowing nor all-powerful; nor are they eternal or supernatural. God is in this sense wholly other than man; therefore God may very well have reasons for setting things up as he has; and such reasons may be beyond what our limited intellects can grasp.
Furthermore, they reject a complex God; but the God of Christianity is unimaginably simple. Therefore the god they reject on the basis of over-complexity is not the Christian God.
Second, God has no parts and is therefore more simple than anything in nature. God is pure spirit, by definition. He is completely non-physical. Eminent philosopher from the University of Notre Dame, Alvin Plantinga, has pointed out that by Dawkins’ own description of God as a spiritual Being he has, perhaps unknowingly, admitted the simplicity of God as a pure spirit devoid of parts.
The atheist case fails to make key distinctions between a mind and its ideas. As philosopher William Lane Craig has clarified:
“Certainly such a mind may have complex ideas—it may be thinking, for example, of the infinitesimal calculus—, but the mind itself is a remarkably simple entity. Dawkins has evidently confused a mind’s ideas, which may, indeed, be complex, with a mind itself, which is an incredibly simple entity.”
Third, the basic Christian definition of God is simple enough to be accepted by non-Christian religions. Antony Flew, the influential 20th century atheist philosopher (who eventually became a deist) writes:
“This strikes me as a bizarre thing to say about the concept of an omnipotent spiritual Being. What is complex about the idea of an omnipotent and omniscient Spirit, an idea so simple that it is understood by all the adherents of the three great monotheistic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam?” (There Is A God, p. 111).
In his Summa Theologica, St. Thomas Aquinas shows five ways we can know “the absolute simplicity of God” as understood from a Christian perspective. Aquinas explains that unlike everything in the created order God’s essence and existence, being uncaused, are one and the same (see also Karlo Broussard’s article here).
Fourth, the creation event is not a natural event. Therefore any rule observed in nature (such as the proposed “simple to complex” rule) does not necessarily apply to the origin of the universe.
All of nature (time, space, matter, energy) and its laws came into existence with the Big Bang. Any cause before the beginning of the universe would not be a natural cause; it would be a supernatural cause. The “simple to complex” principle may apply to natural events, but an event that involves a transcendent, supernatural cause—a divine intervener—cannot be analyzed (and restricted) in the same way as natural events. The boundaries of science limit it to the physical world of time, space, matter and energy; in other words, science is limited to the moment of and after the Big Bang, but not before it. We must, therefore, look to other methods of acquiring knowledge—such as philosophy or perhaps even theology—in order to find good answers to questions such as “Why did the universe begin to exist?”
Fifth, the “simple to complex” rule may have exceptions. Oxford mathematician, John Lennox, has offered this possibility in his debates with Richard Dawkins and Peter Atkins. Lennox offers the example of a book and its author. The design of a book suggests a designer. But the designer of the book—the author—is much more complex than the book itself. Therefore it seems in some cases that a thing may have a cause more complex than itself.
Sixth, an effect cannot be greater than its cause. Boston College philosopher, Dr. Peter Kreeft, writes:
“But doesn’t evolution explain everything without a divine Designer? Just the opposite; evolution is a beautiful example of design, a great clue to God. There is very good scientific evidence for the evolving, ordered appearance of species, from simple to complex.” (from “Argument From Design”)
The evolutionary process seems to know where it’s going. Thus the order and intentional nature of such an evolutionary system appears to point towards a cause greater than itself—which would be congruent with the basic philosophical principle that an effect cannot have more in it than its cause. Kreeft admits that there is very good scientific evidence for the evolving, ordered appearance of species, from simple to complex; but if such a “simple to complex” process exists then what set it in motion? And furthermore, what mechanism keeps it on course?
If an ordered process like evolution exists, so must a more-ordered and intelligent—or in God’s case perfectly ordered and omniscient—cause of the evolutionary system. Dawkins admits that:
“Darwinian natural selection can produce an uncanny illusion of design.” (from “Big Ideas: Evolution”)
He writes that evolution’s “guiding force is natural selection”. But if this is true: what guides natural selection? If he says nothing—then the guiding force called Natural Selection begins to look rather similar to a transcendent, intentional and intelligent cause camouflaged in a scientific-sounding name.
Nobel Laureate in physics, Dr. Richard Feyman, has expressed that “you can recognize truth by its beauty and simplicity”. On this, I think, theists and atheists can agree. I also think it is clear, based on the considerations proposed, that the Christian God is not the complex deity commonly rejected by atheist scientists. God, as he really is, is pure simplicity which is reflected in His name: I Am.
Indeed science must proceed for the sake of the Christian apologetic. For as we unfold the natural mysteries of the universe through scientific discovery, the reality and necessity of God for explaining the universe and all it contains will continue to be more clearly revealed. As the theoretical physicist Paul Davies, an agnostic, admitted in his Templeton address: “Science can proceed only if the scientist adopts an essentially theological worldview”.
The God of absolute simplicity we propose is not the “God of the gaps”; at least not the God of the scientific gaps. We might say, however, that God is the God of the limitless gap that lies beyond the confines of the universe (or universes if you prefer). He is the explanation that fills the void beyond the boundaries of time, space, matter and energy and thus provides a explanation for those things that cannot be explained by science. Truly, science and theology fit together exquisitely as the history of science forcefully testifies. But sadly for those who continue to reject the existence of God, nothing will remain the explanation of everything—and the supernatural gap beyond the universe will remain unfilled.
This article was originally posted at StrangeNotions.com.
For more on the same topic read Cows, Quarks and Divine Simplicity by Brother Athanasius Murphy, O.P.