Monday, November 05, 2018

What is the God-of-the-gaps?

Atheists frequently accuse Christians of committing the God-of-the-gaps fallacy (hereafter GOG). But what is the God-of-the-gaps fallacy, and what makes it fallacious? From what I can tell, there are at least two different GOG allegations.

1. GOG short-circuits the search for natural mechanisms. For instance, prescientific people don't know about viruses and bacteria, so they explain epidemics in terms of divine displeasure. 

i) There may well be examples of that. However, Christian theism doesn't regard direct divine agency as a general substitute for natural mechanisms. Rather, the role of God is one step removed. God created the natural mechanisms. 

ii) This is not to deny that divine agency is often invoked to explain certain events within the ongoing history of the world. Miracles are a classic example. 

But that's not GOG reasoning, for atheists are the first to admit that certain kinds of events are naturally impossible. If they happened, they'd require supernatural agency. Atheists generally respond to reported miracles, not by crediting the report while attributing the cause to an undiscovered natural mechanism, but by denying the accuracy of the report. 

2. Another version goes something like this: GOG is fallacious because naturalism is the standard of comparison. To say "God did it" is unscientific because physical causes are the only admissible explanation. On that view, any appeal to supernatural agency is by definition a fallacy. It's sufficient to identify the explanation as theistic or supernatural, then slap the "fallacy" label on the explanation. Nothing more is required to refute it. 

But that's a transparent rhetorical ploy. Concoct a tendentious fallacy, then apply it to the position you oppose. 

Yet that begs the question of whether it really is a fallacy and why. That's a shortcut that endeavors to win the argument without having to even present an argument. 

To make naturalism the standard of comparison begs the question. The very issue in dispute is whether there is supernatural agency. That can't be settled at the outset by prejudicial stipulation. 


  1. The atheists have their own “god of the gaps”. They worship Time Plus Chance. In their minds, Time Plus Chance is all knowing, all powerful, and presuppositionally flawless.

  2. It is true that in the past God's direct activity has been invoked as the cause of events that science has later shown to be caused by natural processes. So "God of the gaps!" is -- at least -- a reminder that this kind of thinking can end in embarrassment. But embarrassment-by-association is not logic. The real question is: is it inherently illogical to treat a "gap" (i.e., an event apparently without a natural explanation) as evidence for God? And the answer is obvious: certainly not. In fact, when asked "what would you consider evidence for God?" most atheists describe ...a "gap"!

    Clearly, care must be taken. A "gap" as (public) evidence for God needs to have an "in-principle" aspect to it. For example, the origin of the universe, involving the origin of natural processes, cannot logically be explained by those same natural processes. (The only "out" for an atheist here is to speculate on unknown natural processes -- but such speculation is not inherently scientific). Another great example is the origin of life: there is no known natural process that can -- even in-principle -- account for the vast quantities of information necessary to regulate even the simplest of life-forms. The failure to produce even a scientifically coherent theory of abiogenesis in the fifty-five years since the Urey-Miller experiments indicate that this is no trivial "gap". Both of these "gaps" feature in modern lists of unsolved scientific questions.

    Of course, "gaps" are gaps in ...our knowledge. If we think of available knowledge like a fence that needs painting, then knowledge-gaps will always be getting smaller. On the other hand, considering the exponential explosion of scientific knowledge, perhaps available knowledge is more like a fractal: the more we know, the more questions arise. There is always something deeper to be discovered; there is always something more fundamental to be understood.

    If "God of the gaps!", based on the closing of gaps throughout history, is a legitimate tonic against "evidence for God", then widening gaps -- especially after decades of careful research -- must be considered legitimate "evidence for God".

  3. Some thoughts:

    1. I think GOG often draws a false dichotomy between science and agency (e.g. God). The assumption seems to be explaining how a phenomenon or process works means the explanation has likewise explained why a phenomenon or process works. As if science and agency are mutually exclusive.

    2. In fact, I would tend to think the "why" is generally more fundamental than the "how". The "why" is a deeper question than the "how".

    3. I forget who it was that said something like: I posit God not to explain the scientifically unexplained, but I posit God in order to explain why science itself explains.

    4. It's arguably a naturalism-of-the-gaps (NOG) to believe science will certainly be able to explain existing gaps in the future. For starters, this runs smack into Hume's problem of induction (e.g. black swans).

    In addition, there are arguably phenomena and processes which science in principle may never be able to explain (e.g. the hard problem of consciousness, the law of conservation of energy vis-à-vis perpetual motion machines, Heisenberg uncertainty principle, Gödel's incompleteness theorems).

    5. Moreover, it's not as if Christianity is the odd one out for being, say, illogical, mysterious, or at least not understandable, while science is always so crystal clear and fully understandable. There are many things in science which aren't fully understandable to the human mind. For example, what is energy, what is gravity, what is consciousness, Schrödinger's cat paradox, the nature of the quantum universe, and so on. The mathematics and science for most of these are understandable, but the problem is the mathematics and science still don't answer these deeper questions about the nature of these phenomena or processes. And these phenomena or processes which aren't fully understandable are not peripheral to science, but in fact quite central.