The Hole In the God of the Gaps Argument

The fact is that all scientists are filling in the gaps with a model of reality they believe best those gaps in light of the knowledge they have. 

Most people who have entertained ultimate questions seriously abut whether God exists are familiar with the “God of the Gaps argument” that is made against the existence of God. It goes something like this: In the past, people couldn’t explain the rain, so they concluded that God must be crying. People couldn’t explain an earthquake, so they thought God must be mad at something they did. People invoked a divine perspective to fill gaps in our knowledge and understanding of how the world works.

From that observation (which is factually true as a simplistic statement), they add in the equally true observation that the progression of science over the centuries has been filling in the gaps and providing knowledge and understanding of natural processes that explain the things we didn’t know without having to resort to the conclusion that “God does it”. Thus, the argument goes, we should stop invoking divine explanations… and stop believing in God.

Scientists realized they didn’t need to invoke divine explanations at all to be able to study the natural world, and so the scientific consensus has concluded over recent centuries that divine explanations are not only not necessary, but not appropriate. Divine explanations are viewed today as anti-scientific. Many who are concerned with the purity of science would deem divine explanations as heretical.

The God of the gaps argument (an argument to prove the nonexistence of God), however, is pretty weak. The fact that we can do science (which is the study of the natural world) without appealing to a supernatural being or explanation isn’t surprising. There is an order to the natural world that we can study and know, but that order doesn’t preclude the existence of a super (other than natural) Being behind it all.

If we resign ourselves to nothing but the study of the natural world, how do we expect to know anything about the possibility of reality beyond it?  If we limit ourselves to naturalistic explanations, we have foreclosed any other possibility.

Frankly, there is a big gap between the fact that the natural world has order that we can study and the question whether anything beyond the natural world exists. I can turn the argument around and accuse the atheist of filling the gap with the conclusion that no God exists.

But all of this really misses the important point. Hugh Ross addresses the God of the gaps argument in a recent interview with Kahldoun Sweis. He says, “In science, there are always gaps. We will never learn everything. We are limited human beings.” However, when we “push back the frontiers of science”, we have to ask ourselves whether the gaps in our knowledge are getting bigger and more problematic? Or are they getting smaller and less problematic?”

We continue to have gaps in our cumulative human knowledge, and we likely always will. As we continue to study and learn about the natural world (and other things), the question we should be asking is whether those gaps are growing larger and more problematic? Or are they shrinking and becoming less problematic? And, what model of reality makes best sense of those gaps?

Hugh Ross suggests that, if the gaps are getting smaller and less problematic, we can have some confidence we are on the right path. If the gaps are getting bigger and more problematic, than we have to question whether we are on the right path.

In this context, Hugh Ross addresses the subject of the origin of life. Hugh Ross is an astrophysicist, and he operates an organization (Reasons to Believe) that brings together scientists who have credentials in the scientific community around the world to test biblical models of reality against the science at its cutting edge. They devote themselves to keeping up with scientific developments and adjusting their models as appropriate.

Hugh Ross and his colleagues interact and participate with top scientists around the world. They know the cutting edge of science and, therefore, have an audience in the scientific community, even if they propound a model of reality that most people in the scientific community reject for a more naturalistic model. The fact is that all scientists are filling in the gaps with a model of reality they believe best those gaps in light of the knowledge they have.

The God of the gaps argument is more bombast and fluff than substance. It really isn’t an argument at the end. The poignant issue is what model best fills those gaps. Along those lines, we might ask the question: whether purely naturalistic models explains those gaps better than other models?

In looking at the origin of life research from a naturalistic perspective, Hugh Ross says, “The more we learn about the origin of life, the bigger the gaps get from a naturalistic perspective, the more numerous they get, the more problematic they get, … and this is widely admitted within the origin of life research community.”

Ross concludes, therefore, “Since this has been the trend for the last 60 years, maybe [we’ve] got the wrong model on the origin of life. Maybe [we] need to consider abandoning a naturalistic model.”

He goes on to say there are “hints of this [realization] showing up in the scientific literature, where … origin of life researchers are talking about the ‘hand of God fallacy’…. They are basically saying, ‘We have amazing advances in the lab, trying to figure out how we can put different life components together, but it only works if you have a highly skilled biochemist with a lot of funding and technology, [but] if you try to actually duplicate what happens in the natural realm, nothing happens.’”

He observes that they cutting edge origin of life researchers are very self-conscious about the number of times they refer to the hand of God fallacy, and wrestle with the realization that they don’t have good evidence to substantiate what they are proposing – that a random, unguided natural process explains the origin of life.

I don’t offer any of this to prove that God exists. I only offer it to suggest that we shouldn’t rule God out. A purely naturalistic explanation is only one possibility. The question we should be asking is not how many gaps have been filled, but how many and how wide are the gaps that remain? More importantly, are those gaps widening and becoming more problematic on a naturalistic view or on a theistic view? Which view makes the most sense of what we know and what we don’t know?

I also think it’s important to keep in mind, that we are always putting to the test our “theories”, or models of reality, both theistic and atheistic, but we hold to one or the other on the basis of faith. I know atheists don’t like to be accused of having faith, but they do. Faith is having confidence in what we know and in the conclusions drawn about what we don’t know (from what we do know).  The person who commits to atheism is placing confidence in that model of reality over an alternative, theistic model of reality.

It occurs to me that a more appropriate position for the person committed to science and the scientific method that cautions against jumping to conclusions and values following the evidence where it leads, might be agnosticism. And in that light, I openly wonder why so some scientists who are atheists fault theists for holding to a theistic model when the atheists clearly hold to an atheistic model (both of which are “filling gaps”).

At the same time, I am not suggesting that agnosticism is a better starting place. How do we test agnosticism? It seems we need a positive theory to test in order to do science. In that sense, I submit that atheism is a positive theory; it is a model of reality that makes an affirmative statement (there is no God) that can be tested.

Though many modern atheists try to take a position that they really aren’t taking a position, methinks they do protest too much (in the best Shakespearean voice in my head). They are taking a position, and that position colors their thinking in the most fundamental ways, including how they do science, and the model of reality that they test against the knowledge they have and the way they fill the gaps in that knowledge.

How we fill the gaps in our knowledge dictates “what” we are testing when we do science. It’s hard to do science, or thinking of any type, without a starting place. We have to choose one, and then test it. Accusing theists of perpetuating a God of the gaps fallacy has as much validity as accusing an atheist of perpetuating a non-God of the gaps fallacy. It’s meaningless.

We all have a starting place. The real issue is whether one model makes better sense of the what we know, and whether one model is a better predictor of future knowledge. In other words, we all fill the gaps with our own models of reality. The issue isn’t that we fill those gaps, but how we fill those gaps. Then we need to ask which gap filler makes the most sense, offers the best explanations and is the best predictor or future knowledge?

These models are as much philosophical, theological, psychological sociological, etc. as they are scientific. We can test them scientifically, but they need to make sense beyond the realm of our scientific knowledge in our personal and social lives. These models need to make sense of our experiences, what it means to be human, how we interact with others, etc. But I am opening up another can or worms for another day.

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