Saturday, August 27, 2016

The God of the gaps narrative

An extremely popular argument in atheism is the God of the gaps narrative. According to the narrative, prescientific people used to attribute every event, or at least every mysterious event, to supernatural agency. Indeed, that's a primary source for religious belief in the first place. Ancient people were superstitious because they were ignorant of how nature works. So they postulated supernatural agency as a stopgap.

But due to the stately march of science, we are steadily filling in the gaps. Indeed, the very success of modern science and methodological atheism go to show that invoking supernatural agency never had any genuine explanatory power. Thanks to modern science, we can propose naturalistic alternative explanations. Indeed, religious sophisticates concede scientific explanations for most events. And even when we can't currently offer a naturalistic alternative explanation, the success of secular science creates a tremendous presumption in favor of naturalistic explanations. As Richard Feynman put it,

God was invented to explain mystery. God is always invented to explain those things that you do not understand. Now, when you finally discover how something works, you get some laws which you're taking away from God; you don't need him anymore. But you need him for the other mysteries. So therefore you leave him to create the universe because we haven't figured that out yet; you need him for understanding those things which you don't believe the laws will explain, such as consciousness, or why you only live to a certain length of time -- life and death -- stuff like that. God is always associated with those things that you do not understand. Therefore I don't think that the laws can be considered to be like God because they have been figured out. P. C. W. Davies & J. Brown, eds. Superstrings: A Theory of Everything (Cambridge, 1993), 208-209. 

i) The claim is a half-truth. For instance, paganism often personifies natural forces. Likewise, paganism may treat mental illness as the result of one person hexing another. 

ii) It's also true that some Biblical miracles might employ natural mechanisms. For instance, Ananias and Sapphira might have died from a brain aneurism or stroke or heart attack or pulmonary embolism. The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah might have been a natural disaster. The Crucifixion darkness might have had a natural cause. In cases like that, we'd be dealing with a coincidence miracle: a miracle of timing rather than a miracle of nature. 

iii) There are, however, many Biblical miracles that resist scientific explanation, viz. regenerating the severed ear of Malchus, replicating fish, raising Lazarus from the dead, fireproofing humans (Dan 3), contact with a skeleton reviving the dead (2 Kgs 13:21), the metamorphosis of a stick into a snake and vice versa, walking on water, virgin birth.

For instance, even if it's scientifically possible to walk on water, that wasn't scientifically feasible back in the 1C. The technology didn't exist. 

iv) In many cases, the God of the gaps narrative has the situation exactly backwards. The progress of science has made these miracles even less, or ever less naturally explicable rather than more naturally explicable. Take the virgin birth. About the only thing ancient people were in a position to observe was the normal correlation between sexual intercourse and pregnancy. They had no deeper understanding of the cause and effect. By contrast, we have a detailed scientific understanding of sexual reproduction. In principle, an ancient skeptic might appeal to an unknown law to explain away the virgin birth, but we now know that's naturally impossible. 

v) Apropos (iv), if the God of the gaps narrative were generally true, then we'd find secular scientists offering naturalistic explanations for Biblical miracles. There is the occasional attempt to explain a Biblical miracle scientifically, viz. the ten plagues, Star of Bethlehem, Crucifixion darkness. 

However, many Biblical miracles defy naturalistic explanations. When is the last time you read a secular scientist like Carl Sagan, Isaac Asimov, Richard Dawkins, Jerry Coyne, Sean Carroll, Lawrence Krauss, Victor Stenger, Stephen Hawking, PZ Myers, Steven Weinberg, or Neil deGrasse Tyson present alternative naturalistic explanations for all the miracles of Scripture? If the God of the gaps narrative is true, then they should be able to posit natural mechanisms to account for them. But what they do instead is to deny that these event ever took place. 

For instance, they don't say, "Yes, Jesus was dead for about 48 hours, but here's a natural process to explain the reversal of his condition". They don't say, "Yes, Jesus was restored to life after 48 hours, but not because God raised him from the dead. Here's how it really happened!" 

What they do is not to explain the event naturalistically, but deny the reported event and propose a different event to account for the "legend", viz. the body was stolen; Jesus fainted on the cross, then revived in the tomb; the disciples went to the wrong tomb, &c. 

In general, they dismiss Biblical miracles as pious fiction. Yet that's the polar opposite of their God of the gaps narrative. To be consistent with the narrative, they should grant the historicity of the Biblical events, but then explain them naturalistically. It should be a question, not regarding the occurrence of the event, but the interpretation of the event. 

The upshot is that "skeptics" don't really believe the God of the gaps narrative. In practice, their response to Biblical miracles is diametrically at odds with that narrative. They don't think science has any explanatory power to account for most of these events.  


  1. Just to piggyback off of this fine post:

    1. It's possible there are problems which science can never resolve (e.g. the hard problem of consciousness). If so, then science has its limitations.

    2. A striking issue with secular science is it doesn't pretend to be unbiased and objective. It readily assumes naturalism - or at least methodological naturalism. The assumption is miracles cannot occur. An a priori rejection of miracles is worked into the secular scientific outlook.

    However, bona fide scientific investigation would ask in advance whether the gaps in our knowledge about a particular phenomenon is due to a surmountable ignorance of discoverable physical mechanisms, or if it's due to other possibilities such as the fact that physical mechanisms in a specific case are perhaps inherently unknowable. It's scientific to ask if science is or isn't able to investigate a particular phenomenon. Whether or not a particular phenomenon in question falls under the purview of empirical scientific investigation in the first place.

    If a phenomenon isn't able to be scientifically investigated, then it doesn't necessarily mean it's false or illusory or the like. Rather it may mean we need to pursue other lines of inquiry.

    3. There's an aspect of willful ignorance in much of secular science. Otherwise secular scientists would allow, say, intelligent design theory to be scientifically assessed. Yet many if not most dismiss the knowledge brought by ID theory out of hand. Mention positive evidence for irreducible complexity, specified complexity, or many of the evidences found in systems biology, and many secular scientists will simply roll their eyes and disengage if not worse.

    4. Ironically, one could offer similar criticisms of neo-Darwinism as a theory.

    On the one hand, there are many molecular and cell biologists (among other relevant scientists) such as James Shapiro and Franklin Harold who admit things like: "we must concede that there are presently no detailed Darwinian accounts of the evolution of any biochemical or cellular system, only a variety of wishful speculations".

    But on the other hand, they refuse to part ways with neo-Darwinism. They still wish to hold onto some semblance of neo-Darwinian theory at the same time as proposing their own seismic revisions in neo-Darwinian theory (which they in turn downplay). Every biological event or detail, even if inexplicable by neo-Darwinian mechanisms or processes, is nevertheless attributed to neo-Darwinism in some vague sense.

    In short, they don't know how to explain the inexplicable in neo-Darwinian theory, but they know neo-Darwinism is true and will someday explain all.

    5. What's the end game for secular science?

    It seems to me it's what Einstein once said: "What really interests me is whether God had any choice in the creation of the world".

    That science can one day discover some set of physical laws and/or mathematical equations by which God is made redundant (e.g. quantum cosmology). From the beginning of the universe to the end of time, we can simply watch the entire universe and all it contains unfold according to a TOE. A physical law(s) which commences and sustains the whole of existence. Plug in the right numbers and equations, and the universe, elements, stars, planets, life, consciousness, and so forth must be.

    Chance and necessity explain it all. God plays no role. He may or may not exist, but if he does exist, then he's superfluous.

    However, one problem is, even if we grant all this for the sake of argument, then what explains the existence of such a physical law? If a law, then would there not need to be a lawgiver?

    1. The scientistic crowd will only answer that the universe is a self-existing perpetual motion machine (as if anyone could actually know that) and hence the source of its own laws. They say so not with any firm and irrefutable empirically-derived evidence, but because they are sanitized Baalists who worship the creature rather than the Creator. This is not a war between Science and Religion, but between True and False religion; the latter's appeal to science is but a distraction, mantra, and canard.