God of the gaps – 4 thoughts

This page in brief …

God of the gaps reasoning occurs when a scientific unknown (a gap) is used to argue for the existence of God. Atheists criticise God of the Gaps because science is slowing filling the gaps, making God unnecessary, they say. Many theists share this objection, believing that God is found in all of his creation, not just in the gaps in our knowledge.

But is this type of reasoning all bad? Are there times when our lack of a scientific explanation really can be seen as pointing to God?

On this page I examine all these ideas, and conclude that God of the Gaps reasoning isn’t as bad as often claimed, as all new knowledge fills a previous gap in our understanding. Science doesn’t have all the answers and seems to have definite limits. Science and religion are not necessarily in conflict, but may provide understandings of two different types of casues. Nevertheless, some theistic arguments are better based than others, and some gaps arguments should be avoided.

God of the Gaps

‘God of the gaps’ reasoning occurs when an argument for the existence of God is based 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 might be explained as being caused by Thor or some other god. 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.

Critics say Intelligent Design – the idea that various stages in the evolutionary process couldn’t have happened without the direct action of God – is ‘God of the gaps’ thinking, though proponents disagree.

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

‘God of the gaps’ is almost universally disliked – it seems some people think you only have to say the phrase and you have won the argument. For example, this website gives a number of statements about evolution that the author labels as ‘God of the gaps’ – and “hates”.

‘God of the gaps’ and science

Science is based on empirical evidence and the repeatable testing of hypotheses and predictions. It deals only with the natural world and is based on ‘methodological naturalism’ – i.e. it assumes that supernatural explanations should not be used for natural phenomena. Even theistic scientists would generally accept methodological naturalism.

Scientists therefore generally believe there is no evidence for God’s involvement in the gaps in scientific knowledge, certainly not evidence of a scientific kind. They are generally confident that science will fill in the gaps, as it has already done for many gaps in the past.

Thus a major theme of critics of ‘God of the gaps’ reasoning is that science has such a good record of providing naturalistic explanations for events that might once have been considered to be supernatural, that we can confidently believe that soon there will be no place for God in the world. God, according to the late physicist Victor Stenger, is a “failed hypothesis”.

‘God of the gaps’ and theology

On this matter, many theologians and christians agree with the scientists – ‘God of the gaps’ reasoning is foolish and shouldn’t be used.

German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “how wrong it is to use God as a stop-gap for the incompleteness of our knowledge. If in fact the frontiers of knowledge are being pushed further and further back (and that is bound to be the case), then God is being pushed back with them, and is therefore continually in retreat. We are to find God in what we know, not in what we don’t know.”

So is ‘God of the gaps’ thinking totally wrong? Should we totally expunge it from our thoughts?

I’m not so sure. Here are 4 thoughts that may help us examine this question

1. Knowledge from gaps isn’t all bad

New beliefs fill gaps in our knowledge

To a philosopher, a belief is anything that we think is a fact, not just religious beliefs. So “I like chocolate” is a belief of mine which I hold very strongly. So is “gravity holds me down”.

And our beliefs change. If I learn about something new, such as quantum entanglement, then a gap in my knowledge has been filled. If I want to learn something new about quantum physics, I need to read about the things I don’t know, that is, the things that are currently gaps in my understanding.

So gaining knowledge from the gaps in our knowledge isn’t in principle “bad”, though it may at times not be the best way forward.

Changing our beliefs according to our knowledge

The scientific method of testing hypotheses via data has told us an enormous amount about the natural world. If experimental results are repeatable then hypotheses can be provisionally verified subject to further data that might change the conclusions. This means that the verification or falsification of hypotheses is an objective process (hopefully).

As a result, new data and new hypotheses may at any time show an existing understanding is incomplete. This means that our scientific knowledge is always to some degree provisional. If a change, even a fundamental change, is required, scientific understanding must adjust and everyone moves on with the new paradigm.

The same can be true of religious understandings. Many religions (not all) are based on revelations that are considered by some adherents to be authoritative, perhaps even unable to be changed or even questioned. But in reality, religious belief also adapts to new understandings. Few christians believe in a flat earth these days.

So if a christian builds their understanding, or an argument for the existence of God, on a gap in scientific understanding, and then science explains the gap, this is hardly a difficulty. The christian can adjust their belief, adjust or abandon that particular argument, and move on.

Nevertheless, there may be gaps that are more or less useful in drawing metaphysical conclusions.

2. Some “gaps” are not so much gaps as limits

God isn’t used as the explanation for most gaps

Physicist Aron Wall describes high temperature superconductivity as “a puzzling phenomenon in condensed matter physics”. (I’ll take his word for it!) But, he points out, this gap in our understanding isn’t used as an argument for God, because the complexity of superconductor physics makes it unsurprising that we don’t fully understand it yet, but the success of science makes it seem likely that it will be resolved one day.

We could multiply this example many times. Only a select few gaps are ever used as the basis for an argument for God. So what makes a “gap” potentially suitable for a theistic argument?

Are there questions science can’t answer?

Well it seems that there might be.

When science answers a question, it almost always opens up another question. Every explanation is expressed in terms of some other fact. So ultimately, we will either have an infinite regress in the quest of an answer, or we have to stop the chain of explanation somewhere and simply accept a brute fact. As Van Morrison once sang: “It ain’t why? why? why? why? why? – it just is!”

For example, physicist Sean Carroll, when discussing the origin of the universe, says that this is not something we need an explanation for, and might just be beyond us. We might just have to say “that’s just how it is.”

This conclusion is apparently based on his view that “insofar as it attempts to provide an explanation for empirical phenomena, the God hypothesis should be judged by the standards of any other scientific theory.”

But if we remain curious about the existence of God, it may be that we need to look at gaps that are outside the apparent ability of science to examine – not so much a gap in science as the limits of science – and consider other ways of knowing. To limit ourselves to science may unnecessarily limit our options and bias our conclusions.

3. There are different ways to know things

Science is a way of knowing

Science has been very successful at explaining natural processes and so discovering natural laws. In most cases it assumes that natural laws can fully explain why events occur in the world, or at least natural processes are all that science can and should consider – an assumption that is known as methodological naturalism.

For the most part, methodological naturalism works well. Natural processes really are generally (many would say totally) determined by natural laws that apply consistently in time and space. But it has its limitations. There are other ways of knowing

The general vs the particular

Former particle physicist John Polkinghorne wrote: “science describes only one dimension of the many layered reality within which we live, restricting itself to the impersonal and general, and bracketing out the personal and unique.” The social scientists can address the actions of people en masse, but it is much more difficult for science to predict or generalise about the choices of an individual, especially the actions of God.

Personal reasons

Psychologists and psychiatrists understand much human behaviour in terms of choice. This is a different way to describe causes. Physics may describe the process which determines an event, but choice may describe why an event occurred. 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. Both types of explanation tell us something useful.

So the social sciences typically investigate via questions that uncover motivations and assumptions, as well as the measurements and observations that are used in (say) physics. Investigating God may require an approach more like the social sciences than like physics. A different type of explanation requires different methods to investigate it.

The supernatural

Science, which is based on methodological naturalism, is unable to directly investigate the supernatural. It can examine the natural outcomes of a supposed supernatural event (say an apparently miraculous healing) but it cannot investigate the cause. We need a different approach to address that.

Investigating the supernatural could utilise science (including the social sciences), history, personal experience and revelation.

Do science and religion address totally separate matters?

Eminent biologist Stephen Jay Gould suggested that science and religion were “non-overlapping magisteria” (NOMA), meaning each is a different area of inquiry which should not comment on each other’s realm. He saw science as the realm of fact and religion as the realm of values.

This idea would reduce the potential for conflict between the religion and science, but hasn’t met with much support. Some scientists believe science provides information about values. Many scientists believe religions make factual claims about the world (God as creator, miracles, etc) that science can address, and so conclude that science removes the need, and even the evidence, for religious belief.

Christians tend to agree. They typically see God as active in the world, in creation, miracles and the work of the Holy Spirit, and are likewise not willing to see their faith separated from science.

Finding God in the science

So instead of looking at gaps in scientific knowledge, many theists argue we should look at whether God is seen within science. Charles Coulson, mathematics professor at Oxford University and a church leader said: “Either God is in the whole of Nature, with no gaps, or He’s not there at all.”

Medieval scientists such as Johannes Kepler believed the universe was orderly and that order could be known, because God had created it. Kepler proposed three mathematical rules that governed planetary motion, and said: “The reason why the Mathematicals are the cause of natural things is that God the Creator had the Mathematicals with him ….”.

So it is reasonable to look at the features of the universe discovered by science and ask whether there could a natural explanation (of the process) and a supernatural explanation (of the original cause or purpose). And if it is an aspect that is not explicable by science, whether a supernatural explanation is even more valuable.

Theism vs naturalism

Ultimately, the argument isn’t theism vs science, but theism vs naturalism, with science providing some of the data. While science proceeds by assuming methodological naturalism because natural processes are what it measures, science is neutral on the question of theism vs naturalism. Neither can be proved or disproved by science, and both compete as an explanation.

Some naturalists say that science confirms their naturalism, meaning they think it is legitimate to draw metaphysical (non-scientific) conclusions from the scientific evidence. So it is surely just as reasonable to draw theistic conclusions from the scientific evidence, if we think the evidence points that way.

4. Can God be a reasonable explanation of anything?

Some naturalists argue that God can never be a reasonable explanation, because only verifiable scientific hypotheses can provide reliable knowledge. But as we have seen, all this seems to claim too much. There are important questions (maybe the most important questions) that science cannot answer. Human beings will continue to be curious about these questions, so appropriate methods (philosophy, experience, religion) must be employed to address them.

But how could God be a reasonable explanation?

We test a hypothesis by what it explains

A scientific hypothesis that explains all the evidence (observational data) efficiently is more likely to be true that one which doesn’t. So we can test metaphysical hypotheses the same way. Which worldview (naturalism, theism, etc) best explain the evidence? The various philosophical arguments for and against theism attempt to do exactly that.

So we can consider any accepted scientific conclusions, and ask the simple question – are these facts more likely if naturalism is true, or more likely if theism is true?

Some examples of naturalism vs theism

The origin and design of the universe

Currently, cosmologists have many hypotheses about the beginning of the universe, the apparent “fine-tuning” of universal parameters, and the possibility of an ensemble of universes of which our universe is just one (the multiverse). Much is still uncertain. But this doesn’t prevent some cosmologists who are naturalists (e.g. Sean Carroll, Stephen Hawking) drawing conclusions about God being unnecessary to explain the science of the universe. No-one says they are guilty of “naturalism of the gaps”.

Some hypotheses about the universe lend themselves to such conclusions more than others do. But other hypotheses seem to be much more amenable to a theistic conclusion, and some cosmologists (e.g. Aron Wall, Stephen Barr) are theists. If the naturalist scientists are not committing a gaps fallacy, it is difficult to see how the theistic ones can be either.

The arguments either way are based on complex and uncertain science, but it seems to me that a causeless and designer-less universe makes less sense than one which is caused and the fine-tuning is designed. Theism explains the science better than naturalism does, in my opinion.

The uniqueness of human life

Most of us quite naturally assume certain apparent facts of our common human experience – our consciousness shows each of us is a real individual, our brains are not determined only by physical processes so we have the ability to make genuine choices and to think rationally, and some things really are right and wrong.

But naturalism is unable to explain all of this satisfactorily, and many naturalists deny that many of these experiences are actually real, and they reduce humanity to being clever animals. To be a consistent naturalist means to disbelieve or mistrust our deepest experiences of being human, in favour of trusting the logic of naturalistic science.

But theism allows us to accept neuroscience and also accept these experiences as real, because we believe that God created us as more than physical beings. This isn’t a God of the Gaps explanation – it is built on the science not on the gaps. It is a better explanation (I believe) because it is more complete – it can fit in both the science and our human experience.

Healing miracles

If we want to investigate an alleged healing miracle, we can examine the medical evidence before and afterwards, we can verify that there was prayer for healing before the event, and we can consider the rates of natural recoveries from that condition. We may conclude from the evidence that an extremely unusual recovery occurred, but this evidence cannot show that God was or was not the cause of the recovery.

Perhaps there was a medical factor present which we don’t know about, thus making this conclusion based on a gap in our knowledge. But if we examine several apparent miracles and find that natural recoveries are becoming cumulatively less likely, it isn’t unreasonable to conclude that the prayer was effective and it is improbable that a lack of medical understanding is the explanation for all the cases.

Conclusions

  1. Metaphysical reasoning cannot totally avoid gaps in human knowledge, but the best reasoning is built on the best scientific understanding available.
  2. New developments in science can lead to new scientific understandings and new religious or philosophical understandings. This shouldn’t cause us any difficulty.
  3. An event can reasonably be described from different perspectives – science may explain the processes, but personal choices or the action of God may explain something different but important.
  4. There are some aspects of life and the universe where science reaches its limits. We can reasonably ask if theism explains what science cannot.
  5. There are thus several ways that science may form the basis of a theistic argument. In all cases we can consider any accepted scientific conclusions, and ask the simple question – are these facts more likely if naturalism is true, or more likely if theism is true?
  6. It is better to explain why we believe someone’s reasoning is faulty rather than thinking that labelling it “God of the gaps” is sufficient to discredit it.

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