Thursday, May 3, 2012

God's simplicity

Commentor KW replies to my discussion of the cosmological proof and the notion of the simplicity of God:

[Egnor] “Aquinas showed rigorously that the only thing that can be the cause of its own existence is an entity in which essence (what it is) and existence (that it is) are identical. He also showed that it must be simple (without parts) and pure actually, without potentiality.
[KW] How simple? It seems to me that all religions rely on a fairly complicated God or Gods. I don’t see how a God that necessarily underpins all of existence as a constant causal force while maintaining an intellect and relationships with his creations can be simple. How does something without parts have a thought? Of course if something has no parts, then there can be no change of relationship between those parts, and thus no potential for thought or purposeful action.
KW asks very good questions. A refreshing shift from intellectual nihlism.

The notion of metaphysical simplicity is fiendishly subtle, and transcends what we generally mean by "simplicity". Scholastic philosopher Bernard Boedder. S.J. from the Jacques Maritain Center provides a synopsis:
... God is not only physically simple, but also metaphysically. As physical simplicity excludes physical composition, so metaphysical simplicity excludes metaphysical composition. The difference between physical (real) and metaphysical (virtual) composition may be thus expressed: Physical composition means union of diverse realities completing one another to constitute one really existing being, as for instance, man is a physical compound of body and soul; metaphysical composition means union of diverse concepts referring to the same real being in such a way that none of them by itself signifies either explicitly or even implicitly the whole reality signified by their combination; man, for instance, is a metaphysical compound of animal and rational. This metaphysical composition belongs to all creatures, even to such as are physically simple. The reason for this assertion is obvious enough. That which is signified by the definition of a created thing, its essence as we call it, depends for its existence, not upon itself, but upon its creating cause. Without the influx of the creating power of God the creature is nothing but an objective idea of the Divine Mind, something known only as capable of existing under the condition that God wills its existence. In other words, the essence of every creature is in itself a mere possibility; not a real, but a conditional existence. In conceiving its essence, or the contents of its definition, we thereby neither express nor imply its existence. Consequently the objective concept of the real existence of a creature is metaphysically compounded of the two concepts of its essence and existence. That this first kind of metaphysical composition cannot be predicated of God is evident; for its only foundation is the contingency of created being; therefore it must be alien to the Divine Nature, which exists with absolute necessity.
... any conceivable sort of metaphysical compositions are all inapplicable to God. The general reason for this may be stated thus: Concepts which in their application to objective reality are absolutely inseparable, so that none of them can have a real foundation different from the real foundation of the rest, cannot be metaphysically compounded. For though none expresses what is expressed by the others, yet each of them implies all the rest. But the concepts which we form of the Divine attributes are in their application to objective reality absolutely inseparable. Each of the Divine attributes in its objective reality coincides with the one self-existing Divine substance, which we have proved to be a simple unchangeable essence. Consequently none of the Divine attributes has any objective foundation except in so far as it is one with the rest; which is evidently the same as to say that the Divine attributes are absolutely inseparable in their application to objective reality. Divine justice, for instance, without Divine mercy is impossible; and so is Divine power without Divine wisdom. Therefore these attributes are not metaphysically compounded, although they must be said to be metaphysically or virtually distinct; the concept of justice does not express what is expressed by the concept of mercy, although it implies the same.
So one might ask: what about the Trinity? Isn't that a metaphysical composition, a composition of three Persons in one Essence?

Fr. Boedder:
Real distinction does not necessarily mean real composition, nor does virtual distinction necessarily mean virtual composition. For things to be compounded they must first be distinct; but, given the existence of distinct things, it is not necessary that they should be compounded together into a unity. Catholic Theology recognizes a real distinction between the three Divine Persons, because They are, as "substantial" relations within the One Godhead, opposed to one another; but it is not constrained in consequence to admit that the Godhead is really compounded of Them, because it teaches that each Person is not really distinct from, but really identical with, the Essence of the Divinity. Again, Catholic Theology recognizes a virtual distinction between the Divine Essence and each Divine Person, but it does not teach us that the Divine Essence is virtually compounded of the three Persons, because the concept of each Divine Person does not prescind from, but involves the concept of the Divine Essence. These observations show us that the mystery of the Blessed Trinity is opposed neither to the physical nor to the metaphysical simplicity of God.
A composition is a substance made of parts each of which is less than the whole. A simple substance has no composition.

Metaphysical simplicity entails no composition-- it admits no components each of which is less than the whole-- but admits distinction and relation. A metaphysically simple thing is not compounded, but it can have relations and distinctions within it, although each distinction is identical with the essence of the simple whole.

But how can something have distinctions and relations within it, but still have each distinction identical to the whole? I will hazard an analogy (whenever a layman tries to explain the Trinity, it is a hazard!).

Imagine when I think about myself. There is the "I" that thinks, and the "Myself" that is thought about. I think about Myself. Yet I am not composed of two selves-- an I and a Myself. I am one self, not two, even when I think about myself. I do not make myself into four selves by thinking about thinking about thinking about myself. Yet I can make a distinction between the subject "I" of my thought and the object "Myself" of my thought. Yet they are the same self. There is no composition-- each is fully me. The difference between I and Myself is one of relation-- one is the subject of my thought, the other is the object of my thought. Yet each and both are fully me, without composition.

This analogy is one of the analogies used by theologians to explain the Trinity. God is Love, and Love entails relations. Love exists within God, and can be expressed by God to His creation. The Son is the Father's contemplation of Himself, and the Holy Spirit is the Love exchanged between the Father and the Son.

God is Love, and the Trinity is the eternal Act of Love.

By the very crude analogy of "I think about myself", one can get a glimpse of how the Trinity can be three Persons in one Essence, metaphysically simple, yet with relations.

Metaphysical simplicity is sublime, and means something quite beyond what we mean by "simplicity" in everyday language. It is a detailed and very rigorous metaphysical understanding that cannot be reduced to colloquialisms.

It of course admits debate-- one can disagree about metaphysical simplicity. Philosophers and theologians do disagree, often passionately, and with sublime arguments.

But it is no argument to invoke mundane definitions of "simplicity" applicable to everyday life to refer to the metaphysical argument. One does not refute quantum mechanics by arguing that Schrodinger's Equation (which contains the letters E, H and Psi) can't be true because letters don't exist in atoms. One does not refute the metaphysical simplicity of God by arguing that a really smart and powerful God couldn't be simple.

One must understand the relevant science and terminology to argue coherently. This applies to people who misunderstand metaphysics as well as to people who misunderstand science. If you want to provide answers, learn the language and understand the questions.

Back to KW:
It’s far less problematic to imagine that quantum systems boot-strap themselves into existence by their very quantum nature, and that at least one such self contained quantum fluctuation contained an inflation field resulting in a flat universe full of matter and gravity with zero net energy.

"Boot-strap themselves into existence" is a colloquial way of saying "cause their own existence". The impossibility of self-causation of existence for a natural thing is well demonstrated in classical philosophy. A thing cannot be prior-- in a causual (not necessarily temporal) chain-- to itself. In ordinary language, something cannot cause itself-- 'bootstrap itself'-- because it would have to exist in order to cause itself to exist, which is nonsense.

A quantum field can be said (loosely) to cause all kinds of things-- particles, a universe, etc. But it cannot be said, even loosely, to cause itself.

To assert that a thing in nature is its own cause of existence is to deny logic-- to substitute nonsense for an argument.

However, even if one could make that assertion credibly-- that something can cause itself-- it would entail denial of the Principle of Sufficient Reason (PSR), which is the assertion that everything that exists has a reason sufficient to explain its existence. This is the foundation for all logic and science. If things could cause themselves, then one could easily deny evolution-- organisms didn't evolve; each living thing just caused itself. One could deny all social conventions-- 'I didn't fire that bullet that killed the guy; the bullet wound caused itself'. The denial of the PSR is the denial of science and the possiblity of any logic in life.

That atheists are willing to deny the PSR in order to evade God's existence is evidence of their desperation.

It’s far more reasonable and potentially far more scientifically fruitful to assume that quantum systems can generate themselves that it is to posit the existence of a really not so simple omnipotent, omniscient, eternal being.
A quantum field can't cause itself.
The cosmologists and physicists who have made this a truly remarkable time in our understanding of the universe will, thankfully, simply continue to ignore medieval metaphysical bullshit.
KW argues that things cause themselves and that the Principle of Sufficient Reason is invalid, and yet he accuses those who insist on logic and reason of perpetuating "medieval metaphysical bullshit".

Yet KW's arguments are entirely metaphysical as well, and of an ancient lineage (such arguments are what Aristotle and Aquinas and countless classical philosophers were refuting.)  That KW is reduced to insult and incoherence is even more evidence of the power of the classical arguments.


  1. Excellent and very enlighten blog Dr. Egnor.

    The problem with atheists is not that they don't KNOW that God exists but that they don't WANT God to exist for whatever reasons.

    This is why they have to abandon logic and come up with far fetched and impossible explanations, like Stephen Hawkins' Law of Gravity as the cause of the universe or quantum field fluctuations capable of creating a universe 15 billion light years across or posit multiple universes popping into existence all over the place like popcorn.

    As you said, they are reduced to insult and incoherence!

  2. I’m sorry if you take offence to my use of the term “bullshit”. I just don’t think there’s a more appropriate word for this mess of ideas.

    Your attempt at medieval metaphysics apologetics shows how bankrupt the concepts are. Bernard Boedder’s argument reads like any apologetic post-hoc rationalization designed to assuage those that already believe. Arguments that rely on souls, composite beings, metaphysical composition, divine essence, and the nature of the trinity, are quite simply religious gibberish. I’m sure those like Pepe will pretend to understand and support this argument, but for those of us who don’t already believe, you can’t hide bullshit by heaping more bullshit on top of it.

    I admit that we may never know what happened “before” the inflation field. There may always be aspects of the universe that are hidden from view and extrapolation of our theories into those realms may forever remain conjecture. Having said that, the issue is plausibility; cosmologists are looking at scenarios that are consistent with our physical theories and, perhaps more importantly, our observations, and God is nowhere to be found.

    Our current understanding of the universe includes the observation of temperature variation in the microwave background radiation consistent with the notion that chaotic quantum fluctuations of space-time where locked into place and greatly expanded by superluminal inflation. It’s important to note that the spectrum of these temperature fluctuations was predicted based on inflation theory before they where observed. The large scale distribution of matter in the universe is the result of quantum fluctuations of nothing (in this case I’m talking about nothing as understood by Aquinas, empty space). This is of course not the final answer as to why there is something instead of nothing (whatever that is), but it shows how vast complexity can arise form simple beginnings without resort to the supernatural.

    The cosmological revolution of the last three decades has profound things to say about the nature of the universe that are only slowly creeping into public consciousness. Science has shown that a universe like ours can, and most certainly did, come from an infinitesimal nugget that contains an inflation field, and that all we see around us is the result of expansion and collapse of that field. Until Alan Guth came along none of this was ever imagined.

    Your assertion that quantum fields can’t generate themselves is just that, an assertion. Provide us with a comprehensive theory of quantum gravity that precludes self generation of fields and I’m sure it will be considered. Until then, I’ll stick with what is plausible given our current observations and understanding while freely admitting what I don’t know.


    1. [Provide us with a comprehensive theory of quantum gravity that precludes self generation of fields and I’m sure it will be considered.]

      No problem. Explain how this (the theory between the brackets):


      generates quantum gravity.

      From nothing comes nothing.

      Even if "something comes from nothing" is asserted by brute force, without regard to logic, then science and logic collapse.

      Do you deny the Principle of Sufficient Reason?

    2. “Do you deny the Principle of Sufficient Reason?”

      I don’t know, and I’m not sure it matters. Is there a reason a radioactive nucleus decays now instead of 10 years from now? The decay of radioactive isotopes is entirely statistical in nature. There is nothing you can do to force radioactive decay of a given nucleus; it just happens, or it doesn’t. The same is true of just about every aspect of quantum mechanics. Is there a reason a photon picks one slit over the other when you try to determine which slit it went through?

      What I do know is I won’t straitjacket my thinking by rigidly subscribing to some philosophical position. The farther we remove ourselves from the time and distance scales where we operate the stranger and more counterintuitive thing become.

      Two trillion years from now alien cosmologists will look out at the universe and see nothing but their tired dim old galaxy. There will be no other galaxies in their cosmic horizon allowing them to see and measure the cosmic expansion. There will be no cosmic microwave background for them to measure and analyze. They will see what until 80 years ago we thought to be true; a single galaxy sitting alone in an apparently infinite three dimensional void. The evidence that has so informed our cosmology will be denied them by the relentless expansion of space. They won’t see evidence for a big bang and will forever be stymied to explain how the universe came to be as they observed it. You and your ilk will would do well in that future.


    3. Is there a reason a radioactive nucleus decays...

      Hazard is God who walks incognito.
      Albert Einstein

      We may ignore, but we can nowhere evade, the presence of God. The world is crowded with God. God walks everywhere incognito. And the incognito is not always hard to penetrate. The real labour is to remember, to attend. In fact, to come awake. Still more, to remain awake.
      CS Lewis

      KW, some great men came before you! Is there a reason you're so thick?

    4. "From nothing comes nothing."

      You're sure about that? Have you ever seen nothing? Have you ever actually studied nothing?

    5. Quoting C.S. Lewis as a "great man" just shows how stupid you are Pepe. Lewis was a mediocre fiction writer who is only considered "great" in the sheltered confines of religious apologia.

    6. @anon

      C.S. Lewis legacy is something you will never achieve, even in your wildest dreams.

    7. KW, when you say that you won't straitjacket yourself to a philosophical statement, did you realize you were making a philosophical statement? You just can't escape logic, man, unless you have a hole in your head (with apologies to the good doctor)...

  3. Let's talk about simplicity.

    The simplest form of God is the God that is creation of human imagination and nothing more. Then all complexity falls away, the arguments dissolve, and the arguments end.

    You cannot deny that the human-created god is the god that best fits the evidence.

    Before we knew what caused rain, we attributed it to gods.
    Before we knew what caused lightning, we attributed it to gods.
    Before we knew what caused volcanoes, we attributed them to gods.
    Before we knew what stars and planets were, we attributed them to gods.
    Before we knew how species developed, we attributed them to gods.
    I could spend all day listing examples and never once list an example where the attribution to gods was correct. Yet millions of words were spoken and written describing in detail the logic and philosophy and theology of those beliefs - each and every one of them wrong.

    Before we've discovered what caused the universe, you attribute it to gods.

    The simplest answer is - you're wrong. No appeal to Aristotle or Aquinas will change that.

    I prefer honesty and truth to narrative and myth. You prefer narrative and myth to honesty and truth because your morality is built upon your particular myth. In the absence of evidence, no amount of logical gymnastics will make me think your mythology is truth. And no amount of evidence will make you accept the truth over your myth.

    But the evidence indicates that your theology and god are just as insubstantial as all the thousands of theologies and gods that came before.

    As for KW's argument - when you say the universe cannot bootstrap itself, you're applying the laws of this universe to what came before this universe. But then you apply a different standard to the uncaused god. The difference between an uncaused god and an uncaused universe is religious faith, nothing more.

    1. Before we knew what caused rain, we attributed it to gods.
      Before we knew what caused lightning, we attributed it to gods.
      Before we knew what caused volcanoes, we attributed them to gods.
      Before we knew what stars and planets were, we attributed them to gods.
      Before we knew how species developed, we attributed them to gods.

      This is very sophomoric argumentation. It's plainly evident you haven't read Aquinas...

  4. Pepe - I'm begging you. Please. Just once. Contribute something other than quotes from othr people, fawning praise for Egnor or insults for the rest of us.

    In the immortal words of Matt Damon in the bar scene in Good Will Hunting: "Do you have any thoughts of your own on this matter?"

    Or on any matter?

    1. What's wrong with fawning praise for Egnor?

    2. Pepe, you mean the one where you criticize atheists for being reduced to insults? I see you took the moral and intellectual high ground when you resorted to the term "thick" with KW and "moron" with me. What a wonderful example you're setting.

      I know English isn't your first language, but do you understand the word "irony"?

      Oh, and by the way - his name is Stephen HAWKING - in English or French.

    3. ...or being reduced to insults?

      You forgot the most important part: incoherence!

  5. "A quantum field can't cause itself."

    I see. You've tested this so that you are able to support your assertion with more than just your say-so?

  6. That something cannot be a cause of itself is a basic tenet of rationality. Your demand for some sort of empirical proof says far more about you then your nonsensical demand says about the position you imagine you are attacking.

    However, it is about the best that can be expected from the ineducable militant internet atheist.