God of the Gaps

February 2nd, 2012 in clues. Tags: , , , , , , ,

Christians and other theists sometimes argue for God’s existence based on facts about the universe that science cannot explain, or has not yet explained. But non-believers sometimes accuse these arguments of being fallacious, because they use ‘God of the Gaps’ reasoning.

Is this a problem?

What is ‘God of the Gaps’ reasoning?

‘God of the gaps’ reasoning occurs when someone bases an argument for the existence of God on a gap in scientific knowledge. If science cannot explain something that everyone admits occurs, then perhaps God is the best explanation?

An example from the past is that before meteorology was well understood, thunder was explained as a result of the behaviour of Thor. A present day example is abiogenesis – the appearance of biological life from merely chemical particles – which science cannot yet explain, and which some theists believe was the direct intervention of God. In both cases, God is the explanation of what cannot currently be explained in other ways.

What is wrong with ‘God of the Gaps’ reasoning?

Scientists, theologians and philosophers all tend to be critical of this reasoning.

  • Scientists generally believe there is no evidence for God’s involvement in the gaps in scientific knowledge, certainly not evidence of a scientific kind (i.e. based on empirical evidence, repeatable and capable of being tested via development of a hypothesis and predictions). They are generally confident that science will fill in the gaps, as it has already done for many gaps in the past. (It is true that some scientists support Intelligent Design and the concept of ‘irreducible complexity’, which argues that some present gaps in evolutionary science cannot be explained scientifically, but these are a minority.)
  • Theologians and philosophers object to ‘God of the gaps’ reasoning because (i) it diminishes God’s power and scope to small areas of his creation, and (ii) as gaps are filled by advancing scientific knowledge, the scope for God further reduces.

Does this stop theistic arguments based on science?

Some sceptics label all arguments from science as ‘God of the Gaps’, but this is generally considered an overstatement.

  1. Theologians and philosophers argue that God should be looked for, and found, within scientific knowledge, not at the gaps between knowledge.
  2. Science progresses by forming hypotheses, testing them and either proving them, or modifying them, until a satisfactory theory is developed. Thus scientists may develop a large number of mistaken and unsuccessful hypotheses before arriving at the ‘correct’ one, which is always subject to change when further information is available. Philosophical arguments for God’s existence can thus legitimately be modified as their scientific basis changes, without this counting against them.
  3. If we accept the findings of science, then rather than look for God in the gaps, we can legitimately ask of the latest scientific understandings: Why is it like this? This is not explaining a gap by God, but considering the whole of scientific knowledge and questioning how it can be explained.
  4. Some sceptics argue that, because science has been successful in explaining gaps, we shouldn’t accept the ‘God explanation’ for anything, because one day science will explain that too. But this would be an argument to never draw any conclusion, in case it is later superseded – almost faith in a ‘science of the gaps’.
  5. Scientific explanations do not preclude the action of God. Scientists tend to argue that God isn’t necessary as an explanation, and therefore shouldn’t be included in the scientific consideration of a phenomenon. This may be true scientifically, but a scientific explanation isn’t the only way to understand an event. For example, if you ask me why the kettle is boiling, the scientific answer is that heat applied by the stove has raised the temperature to the level where the water vapourises. But another type of explanation is that it is boiling because I wanted to make some tea.

So it seems legitimate to take the findings of science and ask how they can best be explained – by future scientific discoveries, by chance, by God, or whatever?

Are the cosmological and fine-tuning arguments God of the Gaps?

It seems to me that they could be if expressed poorly, but are not when properly formulated. Both the cosmological argument and the teleological (or fine-tuning) argument are based on the sum total of scientific knowledge, not a gap in scientific knowledge. They ask, effectively, what is the cause or explanation of the whole physical universe and its apparent ‘fine-tuning’ to allow life? That cause or explanation cannot be physical, because that would make it part of the thing it is supposed to have caused. Therefore the cause cannot be part of scientific knowledge, nor a gap in scientific knowledge.

If scientific understanding changes or grows, for example, with the development of a plausible and verified scientific hypothesis for the multiverse (the idea that we live in one of many universes, or that our ‘universe’ is in fact one domain in a much larger universe), then the cosmological and teleological arguments include that in the sum total of scientific knowledge that they are seeking to explain, and the arguments don’t change.

Conclusion

Those who propose arguments for the existence of God based on science need to be careful to base them on current scientific knowledge, and not on supposed gaps in that knowledge.

‘God of the gaps’ in Wikipedia, Rational Wiki and BioLogos.

3 Comments

  1. The RationalWiki article on the God of the Gaps is (as usually) lopsided to support RationalWiki’s supposedly “rational” agenda. There is no mention of the term originating from Christian clergy, in particular Protestant clergy. The entire article is just ideological rhetoric to discredit believers in general terms. Incredible. (But I should not have been surprised because RationalWiki is a bulwark of the Christ myth conspiracy theory.)

    The problem is that many sceptics have na├»ve beliefs about the scientific method and think that an uncaused universe is a satisfying rebuttal of the first cause argument. It seems as if they are not aware at all of the epistemological limitations of the scientific method (this is true for the RationalWiki article as well). But if there is no good argument given for the belief that science will explain what caused the universe, this is just assuming one’s conclusion.

  2. Yes, I thought it was the weakest of the references I came across, but I put it in for balance. I was also interested that they put in the bit about Godel.

  3. Despite the name, metapcihyss isn’t pcihyss. But perhaps what you’re looking for is what’s called the philosophy of science. You’ll get a feeling for this if you study the early history of science. I recommend the recorded lectures of Dr. Lawrence Principe, produced by The Teaching Company. I have not yet started his series on the History of Science, but his set on Science and Religion was superb.

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