On the one hand, Dawkins is a rather vocal exponent of evolution. Evolution, to me, appears to hold that greater complexity can arise form lesser complexity (unless we want to argue that the causes conspiring to increase the complexity of a particular part of the universe are summa summarum greater in some sense than the effected increase in complexity in the organism, which isn't obvious to me).

On the other hand, Dawkins requires that God be incredibly complex if he is to be a legitimate cause of the universe, that is, he must be complex enough to produce something like the universe. To him, this contradicts the Christian, or at least Catholic belief, that God is irreducibly simple, composed of no parts, and so on.

Dawkins is not particularly well known for his philosophical erudition, but if we take his claims and evaluate them on their own merit, are there problems between these two positions?

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    This reminds me of Descartes' assertion in his Meditations that the causer is like a boulder, and the caused is like a piece chipped off the boulder. It's certainly not an alien concept, but Dawkins' phrasing seems a bit odd to me.
    – commando
    Commented Nov 20, 2012 at 23:15

5 Answers 5


I don't think Dawkins' point is based upon the nature of God but on the mechanism by which God created the universe. As an intentional process, as opposed to a random one, God apparently had to decide on all sorts of things (including forming some sort of internal model of how things would go to be sure they'd end up the way He wanted). A being that can predict how a universe will behave and then create it is in some sense at least more complex than the universe itself (or the foresight would not be assured of working). Since evolution is not posited to have foresight of anything, you can have very simple starting conditions and rules that yield very complex (but completely unpredicted) consequences.

If Dawkins' point was that if X creates Y by any means and any reasonable definition of "creates", then X is more complex than Y, I agree, he's in trouble. I just don't think that's a sensible interpretation.

  • Dawkins brings up this point while arguing that God is a poor explanation for the existence of the universe because, by his reasoning, God would need to be as complex as the universe in order to have caused it. His argument is most certainly about the nature of God in that he wants to show that the Designer cannot be the God of theology. What bothers me is that he admits, in a tacit kind of way, that a cause must be greater than its effect where greater is more complex. If that is so, then he shoots himself in the foot by accepting evolution IF evolution is "effect more complex than cause". Commented Nov 21, 2012 at 21:40
  • @RobertLeChef - I haven't read the passage in question in a while (though I have read something along these lines, I believe). Can you quote verbatim in your question, and include enough of the context so we can avoid a misreading? I agree that it could be a problem, but I think you are reading uncharitably rather than trying to understand Dawkins' meaning. Anyway, even if he made a silly mistake, it's a silly mistake, which I have rectified above. It doesn't detract from any other points which do not contain that particular silly mistake.
    – Rex Kerr
    Commented Nov 21, 2012 at 22:03
  • I have returned the book to its owner. I am not arguing that all of his arguments are wrong even if this particular one may be off. I googled around, and it appears the canonical form of his argument (which I admit could use some clarity) may be arguing that a designed universe would need a cause at least as complex as the universe, but an undesigned universe would not. If that is so, then his argument doesn't appear to be susceptible to the counterargument. However, that argument seems to have passed the question onto the causal status of laws in relation to their effect. See Amazed below. Commented Nov 23, 2012 at 21:50

Dennett talks about this as "Skyhooks" vs. "Cranes"

A Crane is something which can build great complexity, but it rests on simple, fundamental principles. This is like evolution.

A Skyhook (a crane hanging from a helicopter) is something which can build great complexity, but it rests on no firm foundations. This is like creationism.

Some of the criticisms you bring up have been brought up by others who say that Dawkins doesn't differentiate well enough between these two in his Boeing 747 Gambit. He may not have presented the argument perfectly, but others have made it more rigorous.

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    I'm not sure I much like the metaphor because its philosophically troublesome, and as you say not very rigourous (it does me no good saying it could in principle be made more rigourous if a relevant and coherent intuition doesn't even present itself that could be made more rigourous). In any case, the fact that epistemically simple principles can be thought of producing higher complexity itself poses questions about the metaphysical nature of these principles. To say that certain biological processes are observed or corroborated is one thing, but Dawkins is going far beyond them. Commented Nov 21, 2012 at 15:30
  • I apologize - I did not mean that they could be made more rigorous in theory, but rather that Dennett and others have given (to my mind) a more sound definition.
    – Xodarap
    Commented Nov 23, 2012 at 14:44

I think the problem is applying the world complexity equivalent to nature and to God. For example, in the claim that God is "simple, composed of no parts", whereas e.g. "my body is not simple, but composed of multiple, highly sophisticated parts".

Since you mention the Catholic Church, here is perhaps the most relevant whilst still general entry about God in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (later on God is described as trinitarian, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, but that is probably beyond the scope of the question):

IV. How Can We Speak about God?

39 In defending the ability of human reason to know God, the Church is expressing her confidence in the possibility of speaking about him to all men and with all men, and therefore of dialogue with other religions, with philosophy and science, as well as with unbelievers and atheists.

40 Since our knowledge of God is limited, our language about him is equally so. We can name God only by taking creatures as our starting point, and in accordance with our limited human ways of knowing and thinking.

41 All creatures bear a certain resemblance to God, most especially man, created in the image and likeness of God. The manifold perfections of creatures - their truth, their goodness, their beauty all reflect the infinite perfection of God. Consequently we can name God by taking his creatures" perfections as our starting point, "for from the greatness and beauty of created things comes a corresponding perception of their Creator".

42 God transcends all creatures. We must therefore continually purify our language of everything in it that is limited, imagebound or imperfect, if we are not to confuse our image of God --"the inexpressible, the incomprehensible, the invisible, the ungraspable"-- with our human representations. Our human words always fall short of the mystery of God.

43 Admittedly, in speaking about God like this, our language is using human modes of expression; nevertheless it really does attain to God himself, though unable to express him in his infinite simplicity. Likewise, we must recall that "between Creator and creature no similitude can be expressed without implying an even greater dissimilitude"; and that "concerning God, we cannot grasp what he is, but only what he is not, and how other beings stand in relation to him."

In my opinion, this summarises very well the problems in Dawkins arguments against the existence of God, including the particular case of your question, which is that of complexity. Namely, the use of categories derived mainly from our experience and theorising of nature (including the human being) to characterise a possible Judeo-Christian God. As the above text expresses, the "infinite simplicity" of God (some might say a contradiction, but yet again, only based on our human categorisations) is inexpressible, incomprehensible, ungraspable with our human representations, including language.

  • For an entity supposed to be so "inexpressible, incomprehensible, ungraspable with our human representations, including language." an awful lot of very specific rules and regulations seem to have been written and violently enforced in his name. Most religions don't seem to show any trouble grasping the precise instructions of their God, even down to who one can marry, what one should do with one's Sunday, what meat one can eat etc. None of this sounds very "inexpressible" to me.
    – user22791
    Commented Sep 16, 2017 at 8:52
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    @Isaacson An entirely different discussion, unrelated to the answer, and which this is not the place to have. You can ask such question in e.g. Christianity.SE and I (and others) will be happy to provide an answer.
    – luchonacho
    Commented Sep 16, 2017 at 8:58

The fundamental distinction between the hand of Natural Selection and the hand of God(s) is intent.

The Theorum of Evolution states that Natural Selection is non-random, but is absent intent, will, or consciousness. Natural Selection is the expression of natural laws in biology and ecology. In contrast, a creator deity requires an intelligence complex enough to encompass the entirety of existence. Evolution arises naturally from the observed laws of the universe; God does not.

The modern concept of Evolution posits that life began on Earth a simple molecule that was able to imperfectly replicate itself from widely available compounds in its environment. Errors in replication which are beneficial (e.g. slightly longer claws, the ability to metabolize oxygen, etc.) allow one variant branch to thrive while those who lacked that variation die out (or evolve along a different path that is equally beneficial. )

Give this excruciatingly slow process enough time (in our case, about 4 billion years) and you find that the creatures that survived the hundreds of trillions of reproduction cycles are very well suited (i.e. adapted) to the environment they developed in.

So, complexity of life doesn't need a creative will; all it needs is time and resources. The eyeball did not appear perfectly formed at once (God creating complexity), it arose over eons because those individual life forms with better light-detecting cells tend to survive and everyone else gets eaten or starves (nature selecting beneficial traits).

  • Can you elaborate Evolution arises naturally from the observed laws of nature; God does not. a little.
    – user2411
    Commented Nov 21, 2012 at 9:14
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    @wingman Simply put: DNA. We can observe the molecule of life, watch it replicate itself and note how errors occur. We know that errors can have dramatic effects (or none at all.) Evolution predated discovery of DNA by more than a century, but lines up exactly with what we observe in DNA. There is no such evidence for divine creation, however Evolution does not address the creation of the Universe or the origin of DNA itself. Commented Nov 21, 2012 at 9:24
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    You appear to have missed the point of my question. I know very well how evolution proper, biologically, works, and I do my best to avoid the teleological language many use. My question is metaphysical and concerns the mutual coherence of Dawkins' two positions. I was asking whether his acceptance of evolution as something that proceeds from lower complexity to higher complexity necessarily means his rejection of the principle that cause is greater than its effect. Perhaps this means drawing a distinction between "complex" and "great". Commented Nov 21, 2012 at 15:05
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    Also, I can't parse the idea that God would arise from simple principles. That would make God not God, but a product of something more basic, and it assumes that complexity requires explanation while simplicity does not. Commented Nov 21, 2012 at 15:27
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    @Amazed - That's clearer, thanks. Trivially, especially if you're an engineer, it sounds fine: higher complexity is achieved through a concatenation of simpler things using simple operations. But now I've only dug myself in deeper, involving the nature of "laws" and their causal status and in relation to the effect which I suppose is beyond the scope of this question. Commented Nov 23, 2012 at 21:45

How about if we think about it like this.. Nuclear bomb. What are all the possible events that led to the creation of this piece of fissile material. Multiply this by all the different possibilities that could have been different (led to say some other kind of material) . So the cause is the total possibilities. Of course only one of these paths actually came true. Most people think that total possibility is only one but the actual cause that led to this is much much much greater.. almost infinite maybe.. compare this to the outcome of nuclear explosion.. I think you see what i mean.. all the different possibilities of universes coalesced into this one that created the fissile material in this time and place.. which led to the explosion.. What do you think??

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    Could you make the connection between your answer and the question much clearer? As written, this doesn't seem very well suited to the question.
    – virmaior
    Commented Sep 24, 2015 at 6:19

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