The Hole In the God of the Gaps Argument

All people, including scientists, fill in the gaps in their knowledge with a model of reality they believe best fills those gaps in light of the knowledge they have. 

Most people who have entertained the question, 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 natural phenomenon, like rain, thunder, earthquakes, etc. so they attributed those things to the activities of the gods. People use the gods (or God) to fill gaps in their knowledge and understanding of how the world works out of ignorance.

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 in human knowledge and understanding of the natural world. We have found natural explanations for most phenomenon without having to resort to the conclusion that “God did it”. Thus, the argument goes, we should stop invoking divine explanations.

Many people take that even further and conclude that we should stop believing in God altogether. We don’t need God to do science; thus, we don’t need God at all, they say.

Thinkers realized during the Enlightenment period that they didn’t need to invoke divine explanations at all to be able to study the natural world. From that realization, a scholarly consensus the thinking has developed that divine explanations are not only not necessary; they are not appropriate.

Divine explanations are viewed today by most scholars as anti-scientific. Some people who are concerned with the purity of science would even deem divine explanations “heretical” to the current scientific orthodoxy.

The God of the gaps argument (as an argument to prove the nonexistence of God), however, is pretty weak. The fact that we can do science (which is, by definition, the study of the natural world) without appealing to a supernatural being or explanation isn’t surprising. It also can’t tell us what caused the natural world, as any cause of the natural world would have to be independent of it.

Just as the study of a painting can never introduce us to the painter, study of the natural world could never hope to introduce us to the creator of the natural world. At best, it might tell us something about the painter/creator. In both cases, we must be willing to look elsewhere to find the painter/creator.

Frankly, the order we see in the natural world is more surprising on a naturalistic worldview that assumes no intelligence behind the universe. We see intricate design in the universe, from the micro to the macro levels. How do unguided co-locations of molecules and matter acting randomly on each other produce the exquisite fine tuning we see?

The order to the natural world that we can study and know doesn’t preclude the existence of a supernatural (other than natural) Being behind it all. The order of the natural world is actually more difficult to explain without God.

The order of the world, by itself, is not proof that God exists, but the design we see is best explained by a grand Mind. This is not a gap-filling argument. It is an argument based on the best explanation we have – that all design we see in our experience is created by a being with agency who thought of it, designed it, and created it. This is the best explanation that we have.

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 foreclose any other possibility.

Thus, refusing to allow for the possibility of a God that might fill the gaps in our knowledge is just as arbitrary and closed-minded as filling every gap with God (and refusing further inquiry).

We all fill gaps in our knowledge, and we do it on the basis of what we know and believe about what we know. Our gap fillers are our basic assumptions. The theists assumes a Creator exists. An atheist assumes that no creative mind is behind the universe.

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 naturalist 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.

Hugh Ross is an astrophysicist, and he operates an organization (Reasons to Believe) that brings together scientists who have objective 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 in understanding with a model of reality they believe best explains 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 this context, Hugh Ross addresses the subject of the origin of life. 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. They 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 as we progress in our knowledge? 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?

We must always put to the test our “theories”, or models of reality, both theistic and atheistic. To the extent that they are mutually exclusive, we have a hard time sitting on the fence. Most people commit to one view or the other.

If a transcendent (supernatural) God exists, we can’t expect to prove His existence by the methods we use to study the natural world any more than we might prove the existence of a painter by studying only the physical character of a painting. We “take it on faith” that the painting was painted by a painter in the same sense that assume the creation of the natural world by a Creator.

A person who refuses to accept that assumption does so as much by faith as the person who accepts the assumption that a Creator exists.

I know naturalists 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 the conclusion that no God exists (or that the existence of God is an inconsequential inquiry) is placing confidence in that model of reality over an alternate, 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 many 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” – one with God and one with the conclusion of no God).

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 way, including how they do science.

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 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 of what we know, and is the best predictor of future knowledge. Which gap filler tends to shrink those gaps in our knowledge, and which gap filler tends to result in those gaps growing wider?

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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