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A website for the book by Ian J Thompson:

"Rational Scientific Theories from Theism"


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13. God is both Simple and Complex

Traditionally, there have been many tensions within theism. We all have an initial preference for simplicity. One tension, therefore, comes from theism asserting both that:

Postulate 11A God is simple because he is One,

and that:

Postulate 11B God is complex because he is Infinite.

Looking specifically at the above claims we see that these seem to be contradictory assertions. In this chapter we investigate these matters. We are not going to get into a discussion about the different kinds of infinity that have engaged philosophers and mathematicians over the centuries. We will focus on those aspects that address the role of God in possible new kinds of scientific explanations.

These questions are topical because there has been recent debate concerning whether science always explains what is complicated in terms of what is simple. We generally agree that the world is complicated, though still finite. Theists, such as myself, now want to use God as part of some scientific explanations of that complex world, as would seem appropriate for a being who created, sustains and interacts with that world. The question is whether an explanation in terms of God is in some sense ‘good enough’ for scientists. Usually, scientists say, we explain all sorts of effects in terms of a few underlying laws, and since these laws have been simpler than the effects, we have gained knowledge and understanding. We now understand, they say, why those various effects occurred, and we can make predictions with our (simple) laws for what will happen in the future, in new circumstances as well as those already well known.

Such scientists see the theistic explanations, but are not satisfied. “That is not science,” they say, “because you have explained the many effects in terms of something not simpler but infinitely more complicated. Furthermore, you have not actually told us the nature of our biology, minds or thoughts, if all you have done is to explain them indirectly in terms of the mind of God. This is just the homunculus scenario all over again. By explaining the outer person in terms of an inner person, you have not really explained at all what a person is.” Their reply is summarized by saying that God, since he does so many things and interacts with so many people, is clearly a complex being--infinite, indeed, theists claim--and therefore you are not explaining the complicated in terms of the simple but in terms of the even more complicated.

Theists, such as Plantinga, have replied that God is in fact simple, and therefore explanations in terms of God are indeed allowed within the framework of science. Others13.1have allowed God to be of intermediate complexity: not perfectly simple, but still perhaps simpler than the (rather large) complexity of one universe specified by a point in the configuration space of 1070 particles.

But why do theists insist that God is simple? Somehow that does not seem quite right. We readily acknowledge that God is one, especially in the sense that there is only one God. After all, that is the most central tenet of monotheism and very much emphasized by all the theistic traditions. But how do we reconcile this with God being infinite, which is also asserted? Of course, we can always call God infinite, since we are hardly likely to be able to prove it. If we are serious about it, however, surely God is infinite in more than name only. Would he not actually be infinite? Would not his love and life be infinite? If God is to be infinite more than nominally, surely there should be actually infinite things existing within God!

All talk of ‘things within God,’ however, has to be done very carefully. Whether God is one or infinite, it is clear that he is never divided. God is never made out of pieces. As Aquinas (ST 3 1) says, “God is not, like creatures, made up of parts," not least because there is no-one else to put him together. But though God is never divided, we may indeed intellectually distinguish what is within God, even though those things are never actually separated. In the next chapter we are going to intellectually distinguish the wisdom of God from his love, and we are going to look at some of the components of that wisdom. We can do this, even though the divine wisdom and the divine love are never separated, and even though the components of God’s wisdom never exist separately.

Our challenge in scientific theism is to give an account whereby both the simplicity and the complexity postulates can be true. This will be done by asserting the more general covering postulate:

Postulate 11   God is a unity, in which there is an infinity of what may be intellectually distinguished, but what is not in fact separated.

From this postulate, both the previous postulates 11A and 11B--those in apparent contradiction--can be deduced. We could discuss the (very interesting) theology here in more detail, but I want instead to return to the nature of scientific explanations, since I am trying to establish the basis of a science.

We acknowledge that explanations in terms of God can refer either to the overall simplicity of God (namely divine unity) or to the detailed complexity of what is within God (namely divine infinity) or to both. This implies that some theistic explanations do not explain the world in terms of simple postulates. Maybe the postulates can be simply stated, for example as they are written in this book, but when they are examined in more detail, we find that there are great many consequences. Endlessly many, we might imagine, if we had an eternity available to examine them all.

What is it about such explanations that might remain unsatisfying to some scientists? They cannot complain that we are not trying to tell the truth. Suppose, Sober (1982) points out, that we should discover that the digestive capacities of an organism are not its own, but are actually performed by parasites in its stomach. Then that ‘homunculus’ account of digestion is not ipso facto unscientific. Why is the situation different in psychology? Matters of fact should be of paramount concern to science! Sober concludes that, “Postulating little men in the head is permissible, as long as the little men do not have the same full-blown abilities as the people they inhabit. Homunculi are all right, if they are stupid." (italics in the original)

It often happens in theistic explanations that the possible ‘homunculi’ are not stupid. Despite yielding many new scientific consequences, is theism unscientific just by virtue of describing non-stupid homunculi? Is it not simply telling the truth? Maybe it can be admitted as still scientific, but there is still the question of whether we have explained what mentality is. Do we ‘really understand’ mentality, if our mentality derives from the mentality of God and is not actually generated anew anywhere? How could science make predictions in that case?

The theistic reply is that we just have to bite the bullet and accept that some explanations are not in terms of simple things but of complicated ones. That is just the way it is. The ultimate explanation in theism is in terms of a God who (in essential ways) is infinite. That is just the way it is. I am not going to offer an explanation for why God is infinite. We just live facing the infinite God.

All is not lost concerning explanations, however. When we discuss divine wisdom in the next chapter, we will see that God does give us the means to understand his life, touched as it is by infinity. He gives us an understanding that is touched in the same way and is therefore sufficiently suited for the task of understanding life. By being suited for understanding God and divine principles, we find a science that can understand the needed causes and effects, can understand how our own minds are formed, and can know all these sufficiently well so as to make predictions about new situations. This is just what is always wanted by scientists.

The infinity of God should only be a worry in science if it gives us too much freedom to explain almost anything, as it would then really explain nothing. We will see that subsequent chapters of this book only rarely rely on an explicit infinity of God, and even then, concern only the potentiality of what God can love and can know.

Previous: 12.4 Appropriating life Up: III. A Scientific Theism Next: 14. God is Wisdom and Action

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