The God-of-the-Gaps Objection

Traditional arguments for God’s existence as well as trope religious explanations are often derided for being “god-of-the-gaps” thinking. Namely, God is inserted where science has not yet reached. The gaps are gaps in scientific knowledge so that God is a placeholder for scientific progress. This objection attempts to contend that there is an explanatory conflict between science and religion. Or this is the contention that science conflicts with natural theology ( arguments for the existence of God). The god-of-the-gaps objection is normally based on the past successes of science in explaining things that were mysterious to us and things that were normally explained with reference to God.

The God-of-the-Gaps Objection is Circular

People who use the god-of-the-gaps objection are presupposing scientism or naturalism (i.e. the god-of-the-gaps objection is circular). For example, Gary Knox, in his book, “The God Confusion”, contends ( along with other proponents of the god-of-the-gaps objection) that people believe in a God because there is a lot science still has not explained, such as the origin of life. Any thoughtful person can recognize the remarkably bald assumption at the heart of that contention: that science will explain everything that we now explain with reference to God. This presupposes scientism or naturalism, because to assume that everything will be explained by science is to assume that scientism is true (and the objection is thus circular). The “gaps” are only gaps in scientific understanding if you already believe them to be gaps in scientific knowledge and not gaps in another type of knowledge. What reason do we have to believe them to be gaps in scientific knowledge and not another type of knowledge? The past success of science? We’ll look at why that’s an irrational justification later on. The god-of-the-gaps objection is incoherent in many ways. It relies on historicist irrationality, it generalizes based on a bad sample, the past revisions of science at least cancel out any argument that can be made from it’s successes, and it is circular. We’ll look at each of these throughout the rest of the article. John Loftus ( and other popular atheists) go so far as to accuse religious apologists of appealing to ignorance ( a logical fallacy) by explaining certain phenomena that has not been explained by science, in terms of God. Loftus’s objection relies on the same assumption as does Knox’s. What Loftus seems to have in mind is that apologists are saying: “We don’t know, therefore God”.

However, you may notice that what afflicts this contention is exactly the same as what afflicts Knox’s version of the objection. Loftus assumes that the statement “we don’t know” really applies. Yes, we don’t know in terms of scientific knowledge, but this doesn’t mean that “we don’t know” in general. Here again, Loftus assumes scientific ignorance is the same thing as general metaphysical ignorance and so presupposes scientism. Apart from this, the appeal to God is meant to explain what is not known, and is not based on the idea that there is a lack of scientific evidence to the contrary. If you look at the structure of the arguments of natural theology, particularly in their more sophisticated forms, you will notice that this is not even close to what is argued. It may be true that a consequence of the arguments is that God explains a gap in naturalistic understanding, but in order to defeat the argument, you must defeat one of the premises. Peter Millican does something similar in a debate with Robin Collins on the Fine-tuning Argument. He contends that the cosmological arguments are not persuasive to him, because they appeal to ignorance. They appeal to ignorance, because there might be a naturalistic explanation. Not only does this argument fall victim to the objection already expounded above. But also, Millican claims that the cosmological arguments appeals to ignorance, when he is arguing against them by appeal to some naturalistic explanation that we don’t know about. He is clearly the one appealing to ignorance!

Generalization Based on a Bad Sample

If something is successful at doing one thing – it is not therefore successful at doing something else. If science can explain specific natural phenomena or events, it is unreasonable to generalize this logically to other events, because other events are so different from the events already explained. Even though science has explained many different, unique events, the other unexplained events are too unique and different to justify a generalization based on the sample. You can only generalize based on a sample if you have good reason to think the other events are, in important respects, similar to the things in your sample. But we don’t know that the things that remain unexplained are relevantly similar because they haven’t been explained. Unless you presuppose that they must have a naturalistic explanation , you have no reason to generalize based on the sample of all things already explained by science. Furthermore, there are things we are not even sure consist of matter and energy (such as consciousness, the cause of the universe, the cause of natural laws etc.) In other words, you cannot show that they are importantly similar without presupposing naturalism.

Historicism is Irrational

The idea that because science has revealed many things in the past it will in the future continue to explain things normally explained theologically, is a result of historicist thinking. Historicism is the idea that one can make predictions of the future based on the past. It is also at least partly a hangover of the naïve Enlightenment belief in capital-P “Progress” – that we are driven by historical forces to become ever more advanced. This belief has waned in the last hundred years or so, but it is still with us. It is clearly false as well. What happened in the past, does not necessarily determine future events. Financial speculators, for example, attempt to predict the oscillations of the stock market based on historical data. But they will be quick to admit that the predictions based on past data is not even close to logical implication. In fact, some stock market gurus say that trying to predict the movements of the stock market based on historical data is pretty futile.  It is called a non-sequitur – it doesn’t follow. There is no such thing as “historical destiny”. As a philosophical argument, it is fallacious to think there is logical implication of the future based on the past. So, to think that science’s past explanatory success means it will eventually explain everything is  at most an unfounded quasi-fideistic hope, not an argument. You might contend that the past success of science cannot justify the conclusion that science will explain everything deductively, but inductively. The fact that science has been so successful in explaining the things we are ignorant of, means that it is likely that it will explain the other things that are mysterious to us, or are explained in other ways now. Still, inductive arguments that attempt to predict the future will always be suspect, or at least weak. Moreover,  there is a distinction between the claim that science will explain everything in the future and the claim that science will have more explanatory success in the future. The former is much more ambitious than the latter. The claim that science will explain everything or is capable of explaining everything merely based on the past successes of science is completely irrational. Even if the future success of science can be inductively inferred from the past success of science, the omniscience of science cannot be inductively inferred from the past success of science. It is no more than a positivist utopian hope, manic with the technological prosperity that we currently enjoy.

What About the Past Failures of Science?

Moreover, one can respond to this by pointing out that the argument from the past success of science is a double-edged sword. Accepted science has undergone as many revisions as successes (probably more). Nor has these revisions been merely small modifications within existing theories or paradigms. They involved large-scale paradigmatic shifts in scientific understanding, which is why they are commonly called “scientific revolutions.” These include the Copernican revolution, the Darwinian revolution, the Chemical Revolution (of Antoine Lavoisier), Newtonian physics etc  . All of these theories caused a fundamental change in scientific understanding in their fields. More recently, Einstein’s theory of relativity provides more accurate predictions and a more complete understanding of physics than Newton. And, even more recently, quantum physics seems to be contradicting some of Einstein’s ideas. However, the previous ideas in physics, like that of Newton and Einstein are not disproved. At a certain level of analysis Newton and Einstein’s theories hold just as true today as they always did. It is simply that other theories are more comprehensive. Nevertheless, one can easily construct a similar inductive argument that science cannot be trusted, because, based on the history of science, there could well be more scientific revolutions. And there could also be new scientific theories which do not blow the existing theories out of the water, but which fundamentally change the way we understand that branch of science ( such as quantum physics or relativity).

Appeals to Ignorance

It is common to hear atheists claim something like “Just because we can’t explain it naturalistically now, doesn’t mean we will never explain it.” But, they do this without realizing that the same sort of response is available to the theist. The theist can also say, appealing to the changes that science has undergone, just because you can explain it now naturalistically, doesn’t mean that a supernatural explanation will not ultimately be vindicated as the true explanation. What this sort of claim reveals is simply a faith in naturalism. This response presupposes naturalism, because it presupposes that everything we’re ignorant about or find mysterious will be explained naturalistically. It is therefore circular. It is also worth noting that the god-of-the-gaps objection is a bad one to level at the classical arguments for God’s existence. The argument is that science will explain things by appeal to God, because it has ruled out religious explanations in the past. But it is interesting to note that only one version of the design argument (Paley’s analogical teleological argument) has been ruled out by a scientific theory and Paley’s design argument is not even a classical design argument. All the classical arguments for the existence of God have survived the scientific revolution and continue unscathed into our own day, even given how advanced the science of our day has become. So, to argue from history that science will destroy the arguments from God’s existence doesn’t work, because you only have one example of an argument for God’s existence being disproved by science. I agree that science has cleared other religious explanations, but we are not talking about religious explanations in general. We are talking about natural theology in particular.

All Religious Arguments are Created Equal?

Also, The god of the gaps objection presumes that all religious arguments and explanations are created equal; that there really is no difference between an ancient Greek explaining lightning with reference to Zeus and modern Christian apologists explaining the origin of the universe with reference to God. It seems to me that the underlying idea here is that the absence of a naturalistic explanation is not merely a necessary, but a sufficient condition on an argument for the existence of God. All religious people need, it is thought, is some part of reality that hasn’t been given a scientific explanation, and they can construct an argument for God’s existence. This is false however. If you can show that it is unlikely or even logically impossible to construct a naturalistic explanation for something, then that is one way  to distinguish modern arguments from just any supernatural explanations. For example, it is logically impossible to explain the existence of the universe naturalistically, because the natural world as a whole came into existence with the universe. The same goes for the contingency of the universe. The Fine-Tuning argument probably does not have a naturalistic explanation, because you will only move the problem up one level if you postulate some natural law to explain it. Then the question becomes how our universe happens to have the natural law that causes a life-permitting universe. Also, if you explain it via a multiverse, then you have to explain how such a mechanism, that creates universes as though it is a walk in the park, and must be exceedingly complex, could have arisen. In other words, the natural theological arguments are compelling, either because what they appeal to cannot be explained naturalistically ( such as the moral argument, the ontological argument and the argument from contingency) or because any naturalistic explanation would only move the problem back one level.

There are also other conditions that we can identify (apart from the impossibility or improbability of a naturalistic explanation). An argument for the existence of God usually only works when it can imply one or more of God’s attributes ( or attributes which are close to them). Usually, the phenomenon must have ultimate significance – it must deal with human nature (the argument from consciousness), or the ultimate nature of the cosmos, or the first principles of reality etc. Good religious arguments are always of this kind. For example, no academic apologist has appealed to the absence of a naturalistic explanation for subnuclear forces to show the existence of God. There are many other mysteries in science which are not appealed to to argue for the existence of God, and which could not be done plausibly. But if the absence of a naturalistic explanation is all that is required, why don’t all the mysteries of science work as well as the Fine-tuning argument as arguments for God’s existence? In other words, the absence of a naturalistic explanation is not a sufficient condition on a good argument for the existence of God.

But can Everything be Explained by Science?

You might have noticed that the above leaves us with uncertainty about whether science really will explain everything we now explain in terms of God. Nevertheless, it is more than arguable that there are (metaphysical) questions that science could not explain, not merely that they haven’t been explained. Here are a few:

The Origin of Life

By “the origin of life” here I mean the mere fact of the existence of nature. ( I don’t mean the question of how the first single-celled organisms developed 4 billion years ago).  This couldn’t be explained by science because any explanation of something must appeal to something outside of that thing to explain it. The existence of a book as a whole can only be explained by something that is not the book itself.  So too, the existence of nature cannot be explained with reference to nature. Science is methodologically naturalistic (meaning that it only explains in terms of natural forces). This means that science can only appeal to nature in order to explain to nature, which is absurd. This means that an explanation for the existence of life cannot be scientific, because it cannot be naturalistic.

Morality, Mind and Meaning

There are certain aspects of human experience that cannot be explained by science without fundamentally altering what is normally meant by them. These are morality, consciousness, our existential intuitions of objective meaning and purpose, including such things as beauty, love, hope etc. One is normally pointed towards sociobiology, evolutionary psychology and the frontiers of neurology to explain these things scientifically. Recall I said that science cannot explain these things without fundamentally altering what is normally meant by them. Sociobiological and neurological explanations of morality, aesthetics and consciousness do not explain, but explain away. When you explain these things in terms of science you rob them of their substance. Beauty, morality and objective meaning are made into illusions brought on by our unconscious fight for genetic fitness. They cease to have any reality. Morality ceases to be obligatory and moral value is undermined by naturalistic explanations of morality. What remains can simply not be called “morality” anymore. Beauty ceases to have objective significance beyond it’s biological usefulness, which is intrinsic in the experience of beauty, and so it has been destroyed. Our existential intuitions of purpose are no doubt also just by-products of some biological process, which means that they are also made into an illusion. Meaning and purpose are subjective. If your explanations destroy or alter the reality of the things you are trying to explain, then you have failed to explain them, because our information about them only flows from our experience of them. This is so, unless you already assume that science must give you the answers about these questions ( which once again would be a circular affirmation of scientism). The phenomena are changed in order that they square with the scientific method.  This is perhaps most apparent in the neurological explanations of consciousness. Science has always studied processes which are fundamentally unconscious or mechanistic- lacking what is normally ascribed to consciousness: volition, intentionality, “what-it-is-likeness” ,and qualia. Yet neurological explanations of the mind make consciousness seem strangely, well, unconscious. The mind starts to look like a machine and the human being starts to look more like a the robotic ,blind, avolitional puppet utterly enslaved to forces beyond its control. The only way one can adequately describe this thing that results after science has finished with human nature, is to call it unconscious, which makes its irony and self-contradiction complete. Consciousness has been fundamentally altered (in fact, it has been turned into its opposite) in an attempt to explain it through science. Unless you already assume that science has all the answers (which would be circular) you should not accept this. In order to accept these scientific explanations, you need to accept the additional premise that the first-person experience of consciousness (or the phenomenological point of view) is ontologically irrelevant. This is a philosophical, not a scientific, premise.