"God of the gaps" arguments and the limitations of science


(James McKay) #1

Just putting out this observation for some general discussion and feedback.

We’re told that “God of the gaps” type arguments are poor arguments for design or for the existence of God. The BioLogos common questions page, “Are gaps in scientific knowledge evidence for God?” says this:

Every field of science has unanswered questions and gaps in our understanding. Scientists typically view these as open research questions. Others sometimes argue that if science can’t explain how something happened, then God must be the explanation. Such arguments are called “god-of-the-gaps” arguments. The risk in these arguments is that science is always developing. If gaps in scientific knowledge are the basis for belief in God, then as scientists fill in the gaps, the evidence for God disappears. The God of the Bible, however, is much more than a god of the gaps. Christians believe that God is always at work in the natural world, in the gaps as well as in the areas that science can explain.

While this article does make some valid points – we shouldn’t limit our acknowledgement of God’s activity to just what fits in the “gaps” – as far as I can tell, its central premise is incorrect.

As scientific knowledge increases, gaps don’t simply get filled in: new gaps appear in their place. What is dark energy? Why are the charges of the electron and proton so finely balanced? How do we reconcile quantum mechanics with gravity without sending everything off to infinity? And so on and so forth. (The book We Have No Idea by Jorge Cham and Daniel Whiteson is a particularly entertaining read in this respect.)

In fact, there are even mathematical reasons to believe that there will always be gaps. Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorems, for example, show that it’s impossible to produce a mathematical system that can prove everything, or even that can prove its own self-consistency, while Tarski’s undefinability theorem shows that mathematics can not even answer the question “what is truth?”

Regardless of whether this means that God-of-the-gaps type arguments have some merit after all or not, I think it’s hubristic if not misleading to portray science as a relentless onward march that will eventually have all the answers and drive a “God of the gaps” out of the picture altogether. Rather, it seems that science is a fractal that includes ever finer and more intricate detail, with more questions popping up all the time, the further in you go. Discussions about the merits of such arguments need to be a bit more nuanced than “meh, God-of-the-gaps, not convincing.”

Thoughts, anyone?


(Chris Falter) #2

Jammycakes- I just bought the Kindle and Audible versions of We Have No Idea on your recommendation.

I am not sure I agree 100% with your perspective. Within some domains (such as geology) I think Asimov’s essay on scientific advancement is winning.

https://chem.tufts.edu/answersinscience/relativityofwrong.htm

However, I agree that we humans have limitations and some may even be intrinsic, as you suggest.

Yours,
Chris


(Laura) #3

I think your explanation makes sense. It sounds like the major problem is when we become too specific about which gaps God is supposedly filling.

In “Finding Darwin’s God,” Ken Miller shares a story about when, as a child, he listened to a priest give a talk in which he mentioned a certain process in flowers (something to do with reproduction or pollination maybe?) which science could not explain, and used that as evidence for God. A few decades later, Miller sat listening to a talk by a scientist who had finally answered whatever question had previously been unknown in that process.

This was used to illustrate the danger of using God-of-the-gaps arguments. And I agree that if we zero in on one particular process and use that as magical “proof” for God, we could be in trouble – but if we’re simply using that as an example of a bigger picture, it might make more sense. I don’t have a problem believing that there will always be gaps to some degree. The question is whether this will be communicated to a lay audience in a way that makes that clear.


(Stephen Matheson) #4

I’m with you on the hubris of assuming that science–by this I mean humanity–will “eventually have all the answers.” But I don’t think that’s a very good argument against god-of-the-gaps thinking. Looking back on my years as a believer, my big problem with gods of the gaps was that they used god as a tool and thereby diminished him. Not only was he then just another falsifiable proposition. He was a reason to celebrate ignorance. That was never what I wanted in a god. Lots of moderns seem to feel differently.

But also, I always thought that gods of the gaps revealed something about what their followers believe, which is that a god can’t be a god unless she/he/it is “supernatural,” such that natural things are unworthy, and/or that naturally explained things are no longer sacred or worthy. In my experience, these kinds of beliefs were almost always predictive of god-of-the-gaps belief.


(Randy) #5

Dr Matheson, as one uninitiated into philosophy, I’m curious–I think you said that this tied into Gnosticism–the mystery that is unattainable?–as well?

Thanks.


(Stephen Matheson) #6

This seems more like Manichaeism to me. I associate Gnostic error with fondness for secret knowledge. They’re both the kind of thinking that can make gods of the gaps more attractive. But those words aren’t my words, and I’m not a philosopher.


(Mitchell W McKain) #7

First of all there is more than one kind of gap. The kind the question page deals with are the gaps where science is looking for an answer but hasn’t found one yet. And an argument appealing to that kind of gap is foolish and getting more so as science continues to close these gaps with explanations founded on objective evidence.

But there is another kind of gaps which science itself discovers like when quantum physics shows that there are events where there are no hidden variables to determine their outcome. And that is an entirely different situation. When you appeal to gaps in that case, you are the one who is taking the scientific discovery seriously and those who object are the ones trying to dismiss and explain it away.

And then there is the kind of gap which is inherent in the methodology of science itself, since science is based upon revealing the the patterns of nature, and upon the ability to test your hypotheses. That filter right there involves a huge gap in what science can explain. When you appeal to these gaps you are simply rejecting the premise of the naturalist which equates the scientific worldview with reality itself, which is not a premise which is in any demonstrable by objective evidence.

I don’t see how that helps. Appealing to that just sounds like you are aware of how pathetic your argument really is. Part of why it is so pathetic is that you are basically setting up God and religion as some kind of competitor to science and that is a competition you are bound to lose because the explanations of science are actually useful whereas the “Goddidit” religious explanation have no utility unless all you want from your explanation is to silence inquiry into the question. I think it is much wiser to simply abandon the idea that God and religion are about explanations at all. For when you put God and religion into that role as a competitor to science you have fallen right into the trap that the atheists and opponents of religion want you to.

These can roughly be considered additional examples of the gaps described in the second paragraph along side quantum physics.

God-of-the-gaps arguments have no merit, but ONLY when this label is applied correctly in the case of the gaps described in the first paragraph!

No the lesson of history is that the real foolishness is to place your faith in the hope that science will not answer the questions which it has proven marvelously successful in answering. You just have to be wary that when someone claims this to apply to ALL ANSWERS then they are employing a naturalistic premise which you are not in any way obliged to accept.


(Roger A. Sawtelle) #8

Science and philosophy agree that the physical universe is finite or limited. Therefore our scientific knowledge has limits, which indicate that God is the Creator/Source of the universe This is not the God of the Gaps, this is the God of the Facts.


(John Dalton) #9

I would agree.

For when you put God and religion into that role as a competitor to science you have fallen right into the trap that the atheists… want you to.

Well, not necessarily :slight_smile: I’ve argued against using God as an explanation for things like the existence of matter more than once, and would in general be a happier camper if people agreed with me! If you don’t have a solid evidentiary basis for such arguments, in addition to making a poor argument in general, you do open yourself up the “god of the gaps” type accusations. Not to say that people can’t possibly have evidence for such arguments, or believe they have good evidence.


(Shawn T Murphy) #10

Dear @John_Dalton and @mitchellmckain,
In following this discussion I would like to amplify what Roger has pointed out. You use the phrase “God and religion” and you should be writing “gods and religion.” If there is one God, then there would be one belief that defines Him. True or false?

So, I do not object to all the gods that are discussed here because they all have been created by man. There is only one Father, as Jesus described Him, and we do not need religious doctrines to honor and worship Him. If people want to worship a god of the gaps or a god of the fact, then Free Will allows them to do it. It is not my place to judge.
Best Wishes, Shawn


(John Dalton) #11

Hmm. I don’t see how God would be defined by belief, so I guess false from my perspective. Maybe I’m not fully grasping what you’re saying.

I’m not sure if we’re on the same page here either. I think when you say “as Jesus described him, and we do not need religious doctrines to honor and worship him” it sounds like you’re not talking about using God–whichever god you believe in, I don’t think it matters for the purpose of this argument–as an explanation for various unexplained phenomena, and hence, you’re not talking about what I and I believe @mitchellmckain are talking about. I’m definitely not talking about all possible reasons for believing in a god, but only that particular subset.


(Shawn T Murphy) #12

Is not a scientific truth defined by a law? Anything not defined by a law is a theory or imperfect representation of the truth. This is the same in religion. Only Jesus truly knows God and can define Him. Any manmade religion is just an imperfect representation of God. That was my point.


(John Dalton) #13

I understand, Jesus has defined God. I would say that’s a positive belief on your part, and not seeking to use God as an “explanation”.


(Mitchell W McKain) #14

Incorrect. That is not the substance of a “god of the gaps” argument and thus making accusations on that basis is just as flawed. In fact, by doing so you are stuffing your own indemonstrable premises in the gaps of their explanation, which sounds like a “god of the gaps” type argument in its own right – at least to the rather shoddy standard by which you would be using this accusation.

So let’s reiterate just exactly what is a “god of the gaps” type argument. This is when you appeal to something that science hasn’t explained yet but has every expectation of explaining eventually, because there is nothing non-measurable or un-falsifiable about it, as a reason for invoking God as the only explanation. History demonstrates that this is extremely foolish because science has been uncovering explanations for things at an accelerating rate.


(John Dalton) #15

That would certainly be weird and sounds like an utterly improbable scenario to me. It looks like I disagree with you about how a “god of the gaps” might be generated, but that’s okay.


(Jay Johnson) #16

I think I agree, but mainly, the whole question reminded me of one of my favorite passages from Pascal:

For in fact what is man in nature? A Nothing in comparison with the Infinite, an All in comparison with the Nothing, a mean between nothing and everything… If we are well informed, we understand that, as nature has graven her image and that of her Author on all things, they almost all partake of her double infinity. Thus we see that all the sciences are infinite in the extent of their researches. For who doubts that geometry, for instance, has an infinite infinity of problems to solve? They are also infinite in the multitude and fineness of their premises; for it is clear that those which are put forward as ultimate are not self-supporting, but are based on others which, again having others for their support, do not permit of finality. But we represent some as ultimate for reason, in the same way as in regard to material objects we call that an indivisible point beyond which our senses can no longer perceive anything, although by its nature it is infinitely divisible.

Let us then take our compass; we are something, and we are not everything. The nature of our existence hides from us the knowledge of first beginnings which are born of the Nothing; and the littleness of our being conceals from us the sight of the Infinite. Our intellect holds the same position in the world of thought as our body occupies in the expanse of nature.

This is our true state; this is what makes us incapable of certain knowledge and of absolute ignorance. We sail within a vast sphere, ever drifting in uncertainty, driven from end to end. When we think to attach ourselves to any point and to fasten to it, it wavers and leaves us; and if we follow it, it eludes our grasp, slips past us, and vanishes for ever. Nothing stays for us. This is our natural condition, and yet most contrary to our inclination; we burn with desire to find solid ground and an ultimate sure foundation whereon to build a tower reaching to the Infinite. But our whole groundwork cracks, and the earth opens to abysses.

Let us therefore not look for certainty and stability. Our reason is always deceived by fickle shadows; nothing can fix the finite between the two Infinites, which both enclose and fly from it.


(Mitchell W McKain) #17

No… religious people do this all the time. In fact, didn’t jammycakes come pretty close to doing this in the OP…

He didn’t quite make this into a God of the gaps argument but it was close in some sense and I wouldn’t be surprised hearing some preacher using this examples of how science cannot explain everything and thus we need God. Now that is a classic example!


#18

From our friends over at The Hump of the Camel

Note that “truth” is never used. I assume you are using “theory” in the casual sense to mean guess.


(Shawn T Murphy) #19

Dear Bill,
Truth and Fact are synonymous in my mind. But I do not in any way say a theory is a guess, just an imperfect description of the fact. If it were a perfect description, then it would be a law. There are of course many different levels of ‘theory’.
Best Wishes, Shawn


(George Brooks) #20

@jammycakes

If God is “always at work in the natural world”, it means we don’t just need God to explain what gaps we think exist… it means seeing God as the agent for all the natural events we see or understand to be real.