Monday, September 27, 2010

Two Cheers for Robin Le Poidevin

It long ago ceased to be fun pointing out ways in which Richard Dawkins embarrasses himself when he pretends to be a philosopher. But Robin Le Poidevin, professor of metaphysics at the University of Leeds, still finds the temptation irresistible and, in succumbing to it, makes a point well worth making in a post at the OUPblog.

One of the pillars on which Dawkins's argument against the existence of God rests in his book The God Delusion is his contention that God would have to be almost infinitely complex to be the creator and sustainer of an almost infinitely complex universe. Simply knowing such a universe fully would make an omniscient God at least as complex as the knowledge itself. With this "straw god" firmly in place, Dawkins invokes Occam's Razor to argue that natural evolution is a simpler and therefore a logically preferable explanation for the existence of the world. (You can read this argument in full in Chapter 4 of The God Delusion.)

Dawkins seems unaware, at least within the context of the argument as he presents it, that the concept of a "complex God" flies in the face of orthodox Christian theology. Christians in the Thomistic tradition--which is to say Roman Catholics and a fair number of Protestants--hold to the concept of a "simple God." God acting in different ways at different times and in different places; God "responding to" the actions of human beings; God "working out" his will sequentially through history; God knowing a hundred bazillion separate facts, if you will; these are the perceptions of God as they occur necessarily to finite human beings, but they cannot be essentially true of the "uncaused cause" of the universe in whom Christians, Jews, Muslims, and a fair number of "virtuous pagans" have believed over the centuries. The basics of this philosophical position can be found in Part I, Question 3 of the Summa Theologiae.

Prof. Le Poidevin pinpoints Dawkins's mistake in his blog post:

"When the philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz opined that God had created ‘the best of all possible worlds,’ his view was mercilessly lampooned in Voltaire’s satirical novel Candide. ‘Best’ here, however, does not mean most agreeable, but rather where the greatest variety is produced by the simplest laws. And indeed it is a requirement on scientific explanation that it not involve needless complexity. Elegant simplicity is the ideal.
Perhaps God is like that: his understanding and capacities may be infinitely complex, but the underlying nature that gives rise to that complexity may be relatively simple. If so, then it isn’t a given that the probability of such a being is enormously improbable. And if God is not clearly improbable, then atheism is not the default position."
A nice encapsulation of the philosophical principle. Thomists, however, would correct Prof. Le Poidevin in one detail. God is not "relatively" simple; he is (as St. Thomas Aquinas termed it) omnino simplex--absolutely, altogether simple.
Prof. Le Poidevin moves on from this point to a philosophical defense of agnosticism and gets into a bit of trouble, I think--which is why I'm giving him only two cheers. I'll say something about agnosticism in another post.

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