An Irreducibly Complex God

Joshua Benitone

            When discussing the existence of God, proponents and opponents alike base their arguments on the attributes God possesses.  There are a multitude of attributes traditionally ascribed to God: omnipotence, omnibenevolence, justice, etc.  Those who deny God’s existence allege to find incompatibility between two or more attributes and show that God’s existence is absurd or that belief in God is irrational.  This leaves theists with three options: refute the anti-theist’s argument, redefine the concept of God to escape the anti-theist’s argument, or relent and eliminate one or more attributes.  In this paper I will argue that the typical manner of arguments by anti-theists is flawed.  I will challenge their standard response by stating that God is simple, meaning that the attributes are not to be understood individually, but rather they holistically represent God’s nature.  I believe we can redefine how God is viewed. 

It is important to first address the issue of the status of language used to describe God before we can evaluate claims regarding God’s attributes and existence.  There is conflict regarding how to talk about God.  Presently, there is no definitive way to prove or deny God’s existence.  This leaves us debating whether it is rational to believe in God and how we should speak about God.  Some claim that our human language and concepts are incapable of intelligently representing God.  This is mirrored by the idea of silent reverence at the realization that God’s nature either exceeds our ability to understand or compels us to avoid explanation.  Therefore, it is better not to speak of God and only experience God. 

Though there are reasons for remaining silent due to a lack of understanding or as a sign of reverence, both of these approaches share a fundamental flaw; they propose we ignore or shy away from a major philosophical and theological question.  William James addressed the issue of whether it is rational to even talk about God.  He argues that “our non-intellectual nature does influence our convictions”1.  Since our non-rational natures can influence our convictions, this means that we often must speak about something which cannot be accounted for based on purely rational or logical bases.  Perhaps proponents of Gould’s non-overlapping magesteria would argue that specific fields (religion, science, sociology, etc.) should not converge because they deal with entirely different issues2.  I will argue that this is erroneous.  Religious concepts have been an enduring part of human history.  This means that magesteria governing personal and public life have included religious elements that arguably are inseparable.  The magesteria naturally overlap and are dependent on each other; they cannot be isolated.  James concludes, “The state of things is evidently far from simple; and pure insight and logic, whatever they might do ideally, are not the only things that really do produce our creeds”3.  We cannot ignore issues relating to God because they pervade every magesteria.   By prohibiting God talk, we arguably diminish the useful, and perhaps indispensable, social role that religion can play in discussions that center on values.  

If I am correct, there are pragmatic reasons for talking about God even though our language cannot truly represent God’s nature.   So, how should we talk about God? The positions in this debate take three forms: talking about God based on experience, literal language, or analogy.  The problem with speaking about God through experience is how to talk about God if you haven’t experienced God.  In addition, most “religious” experiences are personal and private, which allows no grounds for verification and they are inapplicable to those believers who have not had an experience.  Speaking of God literally is highly problematic.  We cannot definitively prove God’s existence or nature, understand God, or even experience God making it difficult for philosophical discussion.  Too much debate is then spent on God language instead of on God.  This leaves the analogical approach, which I believe is the most plausible and effective.

To speak of God using analogies allows room for clarity in discussing religious language.  By calling God “wise,” we use that term analogically and, thus, aim to describe God within the limits of human language; we do not claim to represent the whole of God’s nature itself.  John Houston approaches the issue of describing God by basing his arguments on Aquinas’ thoughts on divine simplicity and naming God4.  Because of the concepts of divine simplicity, Houston notes that objections to describing God by analogy are a result of the lack of attributes in a “simple” God.  Therefore, saying “God is Wise” or “God is Good” is the same as saying that “God is God”5.  This means that all analogies when speaking of God are tautological and unneeded.  The descriptions “all amount to identity statements which are themselves identical with one another”6. 

We must realize that speaking of God via analogies does not affect God’s character; it is simply a means for us to understand the concept “God is God” in a way that is understandable for us.  Houston does this best in his concluding paragraph: 

“Our understanding of the concepts of goodness and wisdom derive from the different experiences we have of creatures, whose agent cause is God. The distinguishing features of our concepts enable us to distinguish the contents of the different attributes we ascribe to God without at the same time having to claim that the referent of these attributes differs ontologically. Although the predicates ‘wise’ and ‘good’ signify the same ontological referent—God—they do not signify the same thing in accordance with our experience. This means that the statement “God is good” is informative in a manner that the statement “God is wise” is not—and vice versa”7.

Speaking of God via analogy as a means to represent the infinite in finite terms stands as a legitimate way to discuss God while not getting lost in linguistic debate. 

            By establishing analogy as the means of describing God, we also simultaneously establish simplicity as the focal point for understanding the unity of God’s attributes.  We acknowledge that the phrases “God is wise” and God is good” are ultimately the same as “God is God”, but the former phrases are still informative.  This means that we break down the simplicity of God into elements that we can understand, but God is still a unified whole.  Houston states, “According to divine simplicity we recognize that God and His attributes are ontologically identical. However, it does not follow that these attributes are therefore indistinguishable. Their identity obtains in virtue of their ontology, their distinctness obtains in virtue of our conception of them”8.  God is God, but we look at individual portions of God’s nature to understand them.  Regardless, God is ultimately unified and we must maintain this realization.    

God is traditionally viewed as simple, or having no parts.  Nevertheless, many critiques of God’s existence involve attempting to unravel God by comparing two or more of God’s attributes in order to prove an incompatibility.  I believe this to be an inappropriate understanding of a “simple” God.  A simple God cannot be reduced, meaning that all of God’s attributes can stand together to defend each other as a whole.  Therefore, when God is viewed as simple, God’s nature cannot be scrutinized in parts, but must be taken together.  This kind of God can withstand the traditional critiques of anti-theists. 

Even though God is simple, we view God as a complex entity because of the limits of our language.  But God is irreducibly complex, which I argue is the same as God being simple.  We cannot literally know God, so we are left to understand God to the best of our capabilities since we must discuss God’s nature.  Therefore, by referring to God as irreducibly complex, I mean that we must view God as if God was constructed of various portions, while recognizing that God’s nature escapes the bounds of our language. If we created a being that was omnipotent, omniscient, just, merciful, etc., we wouldn’t create God.  Assuming that there are a finite amount of ingredients capable of comprising an infinite entity is counterintuitive and absurd.  God is not the product of multiple attributes.  We can, however, understand God through analogies, but we must acknowledge ultimately that God is not both good and wise.  God is God.  This means the wisdom and goodness are complimentary descriptions of God, along with the many other attributes. 

At first glance there may seem to be a contradiction in claiming that a simple entity is also irreducibly complex.  However, consider a jigsaw puzzle.  A puzzle is innately simple because it is a picture of a whole image.  But that picture is divided into many smaller pieces that when put together comprise the whole.  Each piece is a small feature of the whole, but simply viewing the individual pieces and what small portions of the whole puzzle they represent will not help us to understand the picture as a whole.  The individual pieces won’t suffice.  It is only in the perfect combination that they make the complete whole which, upon completion, is no longer complex.  God is simple so we divide the concept of God in an attempt to understand the infinite whole, but the single attributes cannot be used to represent the whole.  They help us build the picture, but they alone are not the picture.  In this same regard, the attributes as seen through analogy help us understand God, but they are not God and cannot be interpreted as if they are. 

Why think that simplicity characterizes God’s nature?  God, as traditionally construed, is seen as a prime mover or a creator and is called necessary for everything to follow9.  This means that God would have existed prior to everything else which leads to the conclusion that nothing created God, yet everything comes from God.  As long as this stands as the view of God, it follows that God must be simple.  If God is not dependent on anything to exist, then there is no combination of attributes, circumstances, or necessary factors that sustain or comprise God. As Aquinas states, “every composite is posterior to its component parts, and is dependent on them; but God is the first being”10.  At most, God can only be God, nothing else.  Then it follows that if God is simple, but we perceive God as complex and comprised of parts, then complexity is not a feature of God’s nature but rather of the language we use to refer to God’s nature

This interpretation of a simple God allows us to make sense of the collection of attributes that have been ascribed to God over the history of theology.  The major attributes are as follows: omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent, omnipresent, immutable, infinite, simple, merciful, just, self-sufficient, free, and loving11.  There may be more or less depending on how you want to group them, but these are the core attributes.  Because of God’s simplicity, these attributes are only human perceptions of God, not literal, independent qualities.  To say that God is any of these is to say that “God is God”.  But we must use analogy to parse the concept of God into terms and ideas we can convey. 

Thus far, I have argued that God is irreducibly simple and that there are pragmatic reasons for using language that seems to isolate individual attributes.   But there is a problem that remains.  Is it logical to ascribe these attributes to God in the first place?  After all, as analogies these attributes could be understood as projections of our finite understanding.  There is no verifiable way to define these analogies as factual descriptions of God. 

For instance, Aquinas proposes in his fourth way of proving God’s existence that God is the maximum degree of existence12.  This concept tends to be disregarded as outdated because it is based on the Platonic idea of forms.  Aquinas’ proof by degree is mocked and rejected by Richard Dawkins because it seems to hold a logical contradiction.  To illustrate this he jokes, “You might as well say, people vary in smelliness but we can make the comparison only by reference to a perfect maximum conceivable smelliness.  Therefore there must exist a pre-eminently peerless stinker, and we call him God”13.  The major critique is that if God is the maximum of creation, then this seems to make God the maximum of both the positive and negative parts.  While God would be the maximum of good, Dawkins critique would hold God as simultaneously the maximum of evil.  This makes it seem easy to disregard the concept of degree, but this is incorrect.

By approaching this issue from the perspective of negative theology, we can see the error in Dawkin’s reasoning.  Negative theology applies to the argument of degrees by realizing how attributes fit in with each other.  Consider the concept of good and evil.  These two ideas are not separate, as Dawkins would argue.  Evil is simply a lack of good, or less good than the maximum14.  This can be argued because the two concepts are opposites and cannot be separated as abstracts.  If there is a lack of evil, then there is good, and vice versa.  This is just as if there is a lack of heat there is cold, or a lack of light becomes darkness.  Evil only exists when there is a substantial lack of goodness.  That means that the maximum degree of evil is actually omnibenevolence.  Evil is linked to goodness, making evil at its best perfect goodness and not ultimate depravity.  Dawkins believes that the argument of degree leads to contradictions because God must hold perfections of every opposing attribute leading to contradictions.  Negative theology shows there are no opposing attributes, just different degrees of fundamental attributes.

I believe this is significant in establishing degree as a powerful proof for the existence of God as well as for clarifying how we describe God’s nature.  We can extrapolate the idea of degree from the Platonic doctrine of forms and use it in combination with negative theology to establish a sound basis for our traditional analogies of God.  We can examine what is seen around us and look to God as the origin of it.  Aquinas considers this issue when it comes to using analogy in describing God, such as saying “God is good”.  He states that analogy will, “fall short of a full representation of Him... For these names express God, so far as our intellects know Him. Now since our intellect knows God from creatures, it knows Him as far as creatures represent Him”15.  In this way we acknowledge that we can know God through history and humanity because God’s imprint or essence is in all of creation.  Since God is posited as a creator and point of origin, logically it follows everything to come from that creator would somehow represent that creator.  How can something unlike God come from God? 

Negative theology and the concept of degree work together so we can differentiate what the attributes are.  God is the maximum fulfillment of the baseline attributes of existence.  This means God isn’t perfect good and perfect evil, because evil is on the same scale of goodness.  Aquinas continues, “Therefore the aforesaid names signify the divine substance, but in an imperfect manner, even as creatures represent it imperfectly. So when we say, "God is good," the meaning is not, "God is the cause of goodness," or "God is not evil"; but the meaning is, "Whatever good we attribute to creatures, pre-exists in God," and in a more excellent and higher way. Hence it does not follow that God is good, because He causes goodness; but rather, on the contrary, He causes goodness in things because He is good”16.

Since everything in existence is made by God and is a degree of God, then God only has to represent the perfections.  Nothing that comes from God can surpass God’s character, which is reflected into our language used to describe God’s attributes.  Many challenges have been made regarding God’s attributes, especially God’s “omni-’ attributes.  A classic challenge made against God’s omnipotence is whether “God can create a stone too heavy for Him to lift”17.  This seems challenging because either God is not omnipotent for being unable to make the stone, or not omnipotent for being unable to lift the stone.  George Mavrodes solves this riddle, but his conclusion is not directly relevant to this project18.  What is important are the implications that exist in these attributes.  We must look at them with the model presented by Aquinas. 

God is the maximum of created attributes.  This does not necessarily imply a literal omni- anything to God.  As finite creatures with limited power, we will view an entity with immeasurably more power as omnipotent.  This doesn’t make God omnipotent, it just means we describe God as omnipotent.  After all, our descriptions of God should be analogies at best, not literal and factual claims that are impossible to verify.  Therefore, God’s supposed omnipotence is projected from the vantage point of our lesser power.  I think it is better to replace our omni- terms with analogies that won’t lead to linguistic challenges such as in the stone riddle.  Instead of omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent, we should understand the analogies in terms of God being the most powerful, wise, and good entity to exist.  This portrays the same character of God in less conflicting language.  If God is the most powerful, and the most powerful means omnipotent, then God is omnipotent.  If God is the most wise, but there is no logical possibility of something being omniscient, then God is simply the most wise.  This allows us to establish God as the maximum of all negatively derived attributes with room for God to be either omni- or just the most-, and neither of these is damaging to the God concept as a whole. 

Once we establish analogy as a means of describing God, defend God’s innate simplicity, and do away with linguistic complications, we can discuss the concept of God as a whole.  Is a simple God a contradiction?  The answer has to be “no”, because if God is simple, there is nothing about God that can contradict God’s nature.  There are two ways to clarify this answer.  One is simple, whereas the other takes more to develop.  The simple answer is that God’s nature cannot be a contradiction because contradictions only come in our view and language.  If we accept that God is irreducibly complex, (because we cannot know God entirely, we can only understand God as inseparable attributes that are small parts of an infinite whole) then we must acknowledge that God’s nature is not in conflict and not contradictory.  We can get caught in the language, but our debate over it does not affect or change God’s character.  Since we cannot prove God’s existence, we can only assume that if God exists, then God exists in the non-contradicting simple state that logic brings us to. 

This won’t be a good enough answer for those skeptics who are still concerned with the attributes that God maximizes.  I have already expressed how God can be simple while maintaining multiple attributes.  With that established, we will move forward.  Many attacks mounted against God come in the form of pitting particular attributes against each other. For instance, some argue that God cannot be all powerful and all knowing while being all good since God created a world full of death and sin.  A good and powerful God would not do this, unless that God was capable, but lacked foresight and wisdom.  This evidence seems condemning.  Another alleged conflict is with God’s justice, mercy and love.  How can God maximize justice while being merciful and loving?  God’s justice requires that God punish sinners, while God’s mercy contradicts fairness.  But some people will still go to hell because of God’s justice, so God must not be loving enough because God’s justice overpowers God’s love and mercy. 

These are considered defeaters by opponents to God’s existence.  However, I believe them to be logical fallacies that focus on the language and technicalities used to describe God, not the actual character of God.  These arguments are based on the idea that for some reason, God’s attributes are independent of each other and are in a constant conflict against each other.  This is innately illogical.  If all these properties exist in a simple God, then they cannot be reduced to individual properties.

 This brings to light an entirely new way to think of God.  Instead of looking for how the properties contradict each other, let us test if they can support each other.  Even through our potentially flawed analogies, the attributes we give to clarify “God is God” allows us to perceive a simple and irreducibly complex God that is logically consistent.  I believe the fallacy in singling out a pair of attributes comes in allowing opponents to turn one attribute into a straw man.  The issues I presented above can be remedied by including the rest of God’s attributes.  It was easy to disprove God by only examining a small portion of God, but what about the whole?

When we consider the entirety of God, it resolves the seeming contradictions.  The two issues presented above are solved simultaneously by considering the whole of God’s nature.  God is a self-sufficient entity that exists as a prime mover.  Because God is self-sufficient, then God is simple since nothing was before God to make God.  This also makes God free, for there is nothing to keep God in check.  If a free God made the decision to create, then God’s goodness would lead God to create a universe where the inhabitants ultimately had the ability to experience the perfection and goodness of God by having the capabilities to analogously reason about that which is beyond their understanding, allowing them to spend eternity in heaven[I].  God’s power allows God to create that existence, or any God chooses.  But, God’s wisdom allows God to create the most ideal world for goodness to be potentially maximized in the creations.  Therefore, God would create a world that allowed evil and good to simultaneously coexist in a balance19.  This is not by a lack of power or goodness, but an insight into potentiality of which world could hold the greatest ability to promote the maximum level of goodness[II]. 

God created a world with good and evil so that the creation could experience ultimate goodness through choice.  But, this meant that some would also suffer the effects of evil.  God is just, meaning that those who succumbed to evil would have to be separated forever from God20.  But this would ruin God’s plan if not dealt with.  Therefore, God’s mercy is enacted to allow any and every free will agent to make a decision to embrace the goodness God has set apart.  The justice still deals with those agents who don’t enact the decision, but God’s love is used as a tool to inspire the mercy opportunity to spread.  This means that for God’s perfect world where anyone can experience the goodness of God, some will not. This is not by a failure of God, but by a failure of the individual.  If we accept God’s wisdom, we cannot question the status of the world.  The faults then become the consequences of the finite nature of creation, not the intentional and powerful creator.  The combination of God’s attributes will suffice to solve individual conflicts between themselves. 

This brings us to two major conclusions in the debate regarding God’s nature.  The first is that many of the flaws in the character of God are misunderstandings based on the use of our language, or our limited implication with words such as justice.  We take the idea of perfect justice to mean perfect fairness, because that is our concept.  We project this meaning, but that does not make it the universal maximum of justice.  Second, even with the traditionally prescribed human analogies, the character of God still remains intact as a whole.  Love and goodness solve the conflict between justice and mercy.  Justice and wisdom solves conflicts between omnipotence and omnibenevolence.  It is easy to separate God’s attributes to make a mess.  But, we have to recognize God is simple and the attribute separation is a fallacy.   

It would be illogical to judge a whole entity by a single part.  To appropriately evaluate God, we must evaluate God entirely.  God’s characteristics cannot contradict each other because God is simple and ultimately only has one characteristic, “Godness”.  As finite creatures, we divide these analogously into separate categories to understand.  But we must remember these categories are based on analogies.  Therefore, all assessments on God’s being made on these analogies cannot stand as factual and flawless descriptions. God can only be evaluated as God, not as our perception.  Therefore, a simple God is broken down into many attributes that are irreducibly complex and can withstand scrutiny as a whole. 


Works Cited

1.      James, William. "The Will To Believe." Minnesota State University. (accessed March 21, 2013).

2.      Gould, Stephen J.. "Nonoverlapping Magesteria." Riverside Community College. (accessed March 21, 2013).

3.      James

4.      Houston, John A.. To Speak of God: Transcendence, Simplicity, and Aquinas’ Doctrine of Analogy., 2008.

5.      Houston, pg. 9

6.      Houston, pg. 9

7.      Houston, pg.12-13

8.      Houston, pg. 12

9.      Aquinas, St. Thomas. "Summa Theologica." Internet Sacred Text Archive Home. (accessed February 13, 2013).

10.  Aquinas

11.  Shatz, David. "Chapter 1: The Concept of God." In Philosophy and faith: a philosophy of religion reader, 1-4. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2002.

12.  Aquinas

13.  Dawkins, Richard. The God delusion.  Pg. 77-80.  London: Bantam, 2006.

14.  "Augustine's Confessions." Christian Classics Etheral Library. (accessed March 21, 2013).

15.  Aquinas

16.  Aquinas

17.  Pojman, Louis P.. Philosophy of religion: an anthology. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth Pub. Co., 1987.  Pg. 268

18.  Pojman, pg. 268

19.  Pojman, pg. 188

20.  Pojman pg. 181-200


[I] Alvin Plantinga’s “The Free Will Defense” lays out the argument for God’s free will, God choosing to create, and why God chose to create the world we have now.  It stands as the basis for my arguments. 


[II] This concept is based on Leibniz’s “Theodicy: A Defense of Theism”.  Here Leibniz systematically presents and defends his concept that God permits evil to allow good and that God made a world with evil because it would be “better than a world without evil”.  This will stand as the basis of my argument for why a good God would create a world with evil.