Does God Disappear As Gaps In Knowledge Disappear?

It’s fairly common for Christians who argue for God’s existence from the apparent design of the universe, or the complexity of DNA, or just the complexity of life itself to be accused by skeptics of making a God-of-the-gaps argument. ‘Ancient man’ says the skeptic, ‘didn’t understand the phenomena around him, and so he assigned his gaps in knowledge to God’s doing. As science progresses, the gaps get smaller, and eventually we will exhaust our need for God as an explanation.’ In fact, I’d wager all the money I could borrow that every Christian has heard this from a skeptic at one point or another.

The problem is that this response misses what it is that science can tell us about anything. Science is descriptive. It tells us what should happen given a set of circumstances. For example, if you hold in your hand a tennis ball, science can tell you what should happen if you were to let go of the ball. I.e., if you release the ball from your grasp, and the ball remains unhindered by any outside force, the ball should fall to the ground. Simple enough, right? But this is actually the problem with the assertion that as the gaps in knowledge decrease, the need for God also decreases.

Let me illustrate it this way: say a group of scientists happen upon a wooden desk, something they have never seen before. They examine it, and play with the drawers.  Eventually they begin to deconstruct the desk. They discover there are nails and glue which hold different pieces together. They see the drawers have grooves which help them open and close smoothly. Eventually they even find that the handles are attached with screws. They even begin to fashion their own supplies and build desks of their own. At each stage the scientists discover more and more about how the desk is put together. Eventually they begin to form theories for what this piece of furniture is used for. With each discovery their knowledge increases and the ‘gaps’ decrease. But no discovery they make ever reduces the need for a carpenter.

Reducing the need for a Designer is outside the scope of what science’s purpose is. Science deals with the physical and isn’t equipped to deal with metaphysics. Whether an Agent is responsible for the mechanics of the universe, or biological diversity is not scientifically discoverable. In other words, science tells us what we see, it describes the world around us. Just because we can discover what lightning is and under what conditions it manifests, doesn’t tell us anything about whether a God designed a universe with properties which allows for lightning events.

This is not to say that because science isn’t equipped to discover or disprove God, therefore God exists.  Not at all.  I’m saying science is a tool, not a conclusion.  Conclusions are made by people using a philosophical framework. Scientists, theologians, and philosophers use the tools of scientific discoveries to make an inference to the best explanation for the phenomena — whether natural causation or agent causation best answers the why.  Science may be able to answer the mechanical why, but the whys of teleology and ontology are questions for philosophy to answer.

Comments

  1. Do you realize that you’re making a god of the gaps argument?
    The gaps in our understanding of physical reality have made any Creator god unnecessary. (See Universe from Nothing by Krauss and Grand Design by Hawking to start with)
    Science has long since debunked the Flood God and the Olympian Gods and the Djinn God and the Turtle-Earth God. Those false assertions of physical reality were easy for science to brush away. That left only that tiny pre-Big-Bang God.
    The gaps for god to hide in in the physical sciences are all but gone. Maybe in the origin of life you can find a tiny hole that god might be in.
    So now you’re presenting philosophy and the meaning of life as a hole for god to hide in. I guess good luck with that. Scientists have no need for “God did it” patchwork in the physical world. Maybe philosophers will entertain deep arguments like “God works in mysterious ways” and “God wants it that way”. I think you’ll find they’re pretty efficient at exposing special pleading, begging the question, and other logical fallacies endemic to theological arguments.

    • I think you’ve totally missed what it is I wrote. At no point have I said or implied “we don’t know, therefore God” what I did say was that science, which measures and describes the physical world, is not in a position to prove or disprove an immaterial.

  2. Jason,
    I suppose you know approximately how an automobile works, right? Does that make Henry Ford irrelevant? Do you understand Hamlet so well that I have no need of William Shakespeare? Do you appreciate the Mona Lisa so much that you have no interest in Leonardo?

    I love the old joke about a scientist who became so enamored of the great strides in the scientific body of knowledge that he knew that with a few tweaks here and there man could create life from the very elements of the earth. He was so confident that he challenged God saying, “I, too can create life. Meet me at a certain place at a certain hour and we will compete.

    And God being a patient God, agreed and when they both appeared at the certain place at the certain time the exuberant scientist began immediately by scooping up a handful of earth to extract the necessary elements. But God objected, raised his great hand and said, “My dear boy, you must bring your own dirt.”

  3. John,

    Your post is on the mark. Science cannot do anything more but give us data to interpret. It details what is happening (or what happened) in a given scenario based on the laws of physics as we understand them. Nothing more. Science explains why the apple falls to the ground and what the force is that pulls it to earth and why the force does the pulling. This information does nothing to either prove or disprove the existence of God. It only explains the mechanics of the apple falling to the ground. God is a possible answer to the final “why?” or “how?” that man asks about the fact of his existence. I don’t see that science is even equipped to provide an answer for this question.

    • Terrance – why is it more natural to suppose supernatural came from natural? Have you read a Universe from Nothing or the Grand Design? Some super smart people with peer review disagree with your conjecture. Better to educate yourself than hand wave without education. But if we had this conversation 20 years ago or 100 years ago, you’d still just be making up an origin story. Replacing “I don’t know” with “God did it.”

  4. TerranceH says:

    I don’t understand why people like Jason make such asinine proclamations. Whether you believe in God, or you believe an inorganic pool of primordial sludge gave rise to a living, complex cell which in turn gave life to all of us, you’re still forced to believe that something – God or Abiogenesis – came (happened) from nothing. In such a situation, it’s far more logical to believe something supernatural came from nothing (in our understanding) than it is to believe that something completely natural (inorganic material) behaved supernaturally by simply appearing out of nowhere.

  5. TerranceH says:

    And I say “…completely natural (inorganic material) behaved supernaturally by simply appearing out of nowhere” while ignoring the likelihood of inorganic material producing something as complex as the first cell had to have been, That, I think, is the more telling argument. Forget the inorganic material just appearing, as they say it did via an explosion. (And then where did the material to create the explosion come from? “It just existed, they say.”

    Science knows no more about the beginning of the universe than Christianity.

  6. M’Art and Tumeyn – Since when is “God” or “God did it” an answer to why? Since when is an inaccessible piece of knowledge (ie why god says he did it) an answer at all. If God knows his reasons and won’t tell us, then why look ourselves? If the Bible has all the reasons but is inscrutable to the unbiased observer (evidence: Mormons, Jews, Lutherans, Catholics, etc), then that is also no answer at all.
    All that talk about Shakespeare and Henry Ford is irrelevant. Henry Ford is in fact unnecessary to any modern auto maker. His opinion might be novel to listen to but it’s not strictly necessary and there’s no reason to think he’d have anything to add. If he did, then great. Shakespeare is an unparalleled genius and serves as a better example of an ancient thinker who would most likely be valuable at any time to explain and expound upon his creation. But even in that case, why he did it is not strictly necessary. If Shakespeare expected it to be performed on stage exclusively by men and in Europe, then maybe he would scream blasphemy and call for punishment for the modern DiCaprio/Danes version of Romeo and Juliet. Maybe he’d be right, but no one would actually begrudge new authors the opportunity to make new works just because the original author had other ideas in mind. Such is the case with a Creator God. The featureless, amoral Creator of the universe has great power but not necessarily any hold on wisdom or ethics or the meaning of life. Better we keep our own counsel in that important activity than hand-wringing about what some unknowable and presumably pre-determined supernatural force might think.
    If you say that science can’t answer why questions, which is itself a questionable assertion, and posit God as an answer, then that is still a God of the Gaps argument.

    • “God did it” is a rudimentary reference to agent causation, and is not a new fangled idea. Humans are agents, God is an agent.

      But krauss redefines “nothing” to include somethings, like empty space, particles, and laws of physics which, if exist are something. In this respect krauss doesn’t ever solve the universe from nothing problem.

      And hawking curiously spends the first third of his book decrying philosophy and how unnecessary it is, then spends the next two thirds using philosophy. Hawking is a PhD, I wonder if he knows what the Ph stands for.

  7. M. Rodriguez says:

    God of gaps is.pure and simple argument from ignorance

    • I agree, M. Rodriguez, which is why I’m not making that arguemnt despite the accusation. Neither does the ID movement. They argue that because of what we do see, the inference to the best explanation is agent causation.

    • Let me see if I can make my point more clear with a different analogy.

      Say there’s a pot of water on the stove which is boiling and you ask, “why is the water boiling?”

      There are two answers:

      1) The water is boiling because the heat from the elements is transfering to the bottom of the kettle which in turn is heating the water inside by making the watermolecules move so fast the temperature of the water becomes 212 degreesF or more causing the water to “boil”

      2) Or, the water is boiling because I want to have some tea.

      Science answers the question with 1) and is incapable to answer with the second. That is a different kind of answer. This is how theists view the world. Yes, 1) is true, but only because 2) is true.

      Yes, the laws of physics and whatnot are true. They work the way they do. Chemicals react in certain ways, but only because God has first put water in the pot and set it to boil.

      Just because we know how water boils, doesn’t ever eliminate the agent acting to put the water in the pot.

  8. Marshall Art says:

    My point is that science is not capable of providing the answer. It can only provide data that is then interpreted based on where the data leads. God IS an answer. The question is whether or He is the correct answer.

  9. understandable

  10. JB –
    Ok, so science has found no need whatsoever for agent causation, you will still say, “But God did it.” And I suppose that’s fine. It really doesn’t hurt anything so long as you accept the science we do know and don’t begrudge scientists the opportunity to seek more truth.
    It’s questionable whether you accept what science has discovered since you claim ID is science. That shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the scientific process.
    In your analogy, you insist on #2-type answer – a “why” or an agent causation. By your religious perspective on the world, you need that answer. The appropriate scientific approach is to view the evidence and draw conclusions from it. Because the universe is a giant death trap for all life and the laws of physics and natural processes seem, by their continued mass destruction of humanity throughout history, to have no special preference for humanity, there’s really no reason to expect any agent causation. Even if by an anthropocentric world-view, you might want to look for an agent, the evidence isn’t there. The processes operate naturally and something does in fact arise from nothing, so agency is unnecessary.

    Here’s another analogy for why is the water boiling.
    1) water boils at 212, it got hot.
    2) A volcano exploded and the lava flows rolled into the house, increasing the temperature in the room.

    There’s really no agency or higher purpose. You might say god wanted to punish the city for supporting gays. Historically, cultures may have asserted that their virgin sacrifice was insufficient to please the mountain gods. Each are equally superstitious and unnecessary, created by agency-detection psychology in our brains rather than any real agency in the world. A scientist will avoid cognitive biases and see the facts as they are — no agency, just natural processes. This is quite enlightening for the family or city who can suffer the loss without having to feel like it was their fault or that something is out to get them.

  11. Jason,
    Science is wonderful. As I’ve mentioned before, I am a scientist. It does a great a job at explaining things and predicting things. Let me ask you a few questions and see if you can give me a scientific response. What does SCIENCE say about each of these issues:

    1) Should I shoot myself in the head tonight? As you say, the universe is a giant death-trap, right? Why not just spring the trap a bit early and get it over with?
    2) Is there any value in truth? Should I lie to my friends and to my family about who I am and what I think?
    3) Should I remain faithful to my wife? After all, according to a naturalistic view, I should just do whatever feels best – whatever maximizes MY happiness, right? Why shouldn’t I just leave her for whoever I think will make me a bit happier?
    4) Can you prove to me that our existence isn’t a mere illusion – perhaps I am ACTUALLY on some alien planet and my brain is sitting in a vat of chemicals and wired with electrodes. All the things I think that I am perceiving are, in fact, just an illusion. This entire conversation is just a figment of some cosmic creature’s imagination.
    5) Have you visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC? Spend an afternoon walking through those galleries of masterpieces and then come back and tell me that the paintings there are all just a cosmic accident due to the chance formation of a meaningless life that also proceeded to make some meaningless scribbles on some canvas.
    6) Spend some time reading about the fundamental physical constants of the universe. They are tuned in an AMAZING way to allow the universe to exist at all. You (and others) don’t like this argument saying that if the constants were different then we would just have a different universe. (kindof like the odds of pulling out an ace of spades is 1 in 52, but the odds of pulling out ANY particular card is also 1 in 52) But this just isn’t the right analogy. The universe is tuned so that the very existence of ANY life wouldn’t be possible because planets wouldn’t have even coalesced. – sortof like a deck of cards where 1 card is the ace of spades and the others are all blank. In fact, from my readings, it’s sortof like 1 card is the ace of spades dealt from a hand consisting of billions upon billions of “blank” cards. We won the lottery. Why? By chance? You can hang your hat on chance if you’d like. But don’t call it a rational choice – it is, in fact, a foolish choice!

  12. 1) Good question, and one related to meaning-making, psychology, sociology, and philosophy. Science can inform the decision and, assuming no other mitigating circumstances, will inform you of the suffering or at least lost positive opportunities that are lost by your suicide. That should advise against such a thing. No.
    2) Sociology and psychology will advise that lying will cause negative reactions in yourself and others thus reducing quality of life for those that you know. Even if you are a psychopath, the sociological effects are still objectively negative. So truth has value in building relationships and maintaining a stable society whereby we can live a good live. So yes. Truth has value.
    3) Truth has value, and in the same way, promise-keeping has value. Your ‘unenlightened self-interest’ is a limited value system as it causes suffering to others as well as yourself by casting you as an untrustworthy and inconsiderate person. Thereby you will be limited in your interactions with those who expect you to be reliable and loving. If you’re unhappy then that is a hard decision and maybe you should leave your wife, but that is an entirely different and very customized discussion. In any case, truth has value, and your wife, if she is loving or at least mature, will respect your feelings as you respect hers.
    4) Solipsism is a failed philosophical experiment both because our experiences are impossible to control and because it is a useless discussion.
    5) Yes. I have been to many museums – MoMA, Louvre, whatever… The paintings there are all a wondrous and inspiring cosmic accident due to the chance formation of a purposeless but meaningful life that also proceeded to make some purposeful and meaningful scribbles on some canvas. Art, like life, is as yet not fully explained, but so are the towering gas clouds of the cosmos and the rock formations of the desert. They are devastatingly beautiful yet entirely accidental.
    6) Anthropic principle.- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anthropic_principle – It’s like pulling the Ace of Spades and saying, “what are the odds I’m holding the Ace of Spades?” Well they are 100% because you already pulled the card.

    Don’t get me wrong. Your point is that value judgments can be subjective and taht staid physical sciences are often a bit too harsh for value judgments. Let us say that science can’t answer any of those questions. “God did it” is still a god of the gaps patch to maintain your beliefs. It’s not justified or rooted in reality. “It’s too complex therefore a perfectly complex being created it.” Such logic doesn’t follow.
    The hard question here is selecting values. One might select nihilistic, selfish, destructive, or trivial values, eg, suicide, domination, terrorism, E-News. Those questions are hard but should be informed by science. There is a certain progression from science facts, like evolution, to developing science like managing depression, to theoretical science like the origin of life, and then to personal judgments to fill in gaps. “God” is a made up patch to increase certainty where there is no certain. Choosing values because god says so is the same as choosing your own values and then “churching it up” by saying that it was really god who chose your values. It’s better to be honest and say that given your best information from science, applying philosophy and logical tools, and drawing from great leaders, you have chosen your values and ethics with the best tools and information you have available.

    ps. He asked me six questions, so the post got a bit long…

  13. Jason, your responses to questions #2 and #3 are really interesting. You are essentially saying that there is no “right” and “wrong” decisions – only “preferred” and “non-preferred” actions. Truth has value only because modern science GIVES it value. Therefore, before modern science came along, there was no value in truth-telling or in promise-keeping. The same could be said of rape, racism, incest, murder, theft, etc, right?

    By the way, I love your closing statement: “Art, like life, is as yet not fully explained, but so are the towering gas clouds of the cosmos and the rock formations of the desert. They are devastatingly beautiful yet entirely accidental.”
    Can you please scientificly prove to me that these things (art, life, gas clouds, rock formations) are accidental? It seems to me that you just made a MASSIVE leap of faith. You like to poke fun at our “blind faith” – but you have just as much “blind faith” as we do! You have ABSOLUTELY NO proof of that final statement you made. It is ENTIRELY a statement of faith.

    You see, that’s the fundamental difference between you and me. We both have faith. But my faith leads me to a coherent understanding why we create great works of art, why we strive to understand our place in the universe, why the universe is comprehensible at all, and why there is evil in this world.

    Your faith leads you to believe that all these things are just a great cosmic accident.

  14. Marshall Art says:

    Time demands I jump ahead, so if I say something already covered…tough.

    Jason continues to pretend no science is involved in ID. ID proponents deal only with the data and interpret them. One main point they make is that science says that nothing creates anything, that there must be a reason or cause. Science has not provided that answer. God, or an intelligent designer, is a very possible answer, since the notion of either a spontaneous event or an ongoing scenario with no beginning do not align with science.

  15. TerranceH says:

    Terrance – why is it more natural to suppose supernatural came from natural?

    I didn’t say that, Jason. Better to familiarize yourself with an argument before responding to it and making an ass of yourself.

    Have you read a Universe from Nothing or the Grand Design? Some super smart people with peer review disagree with your conjecture.

    No, Jason, I don’t think they would – at least not with the facts I stated. It is a fact that the first cell must have been incredibly complex. It’s also a fact that, according to the theory of abiogenesis, organic life must have originated from inorganic material. They may disagree with my argument that it’s illogical to believe inorganic material created a a cell as complex as the first cell had to have been, but given the reality that scientists haven’t been able replicate this in a controlled environment, I’d say the likelihood of this occurring in a disorderly primordial Earth is diminutive – to say the least.

    Nice appeal to imagined authority, BTW. It’s always fun to see that.

    But if we had this conversation 20 years ago or 100 years ago, you’d still just be making up an origin story. Replacing “I don’t know” with “God did it.”

    And you’d still be an angry little man who hasn’t been hugged enough, which is probably the reason why you’re behind the push to remove crosses from a military memorial and stop military personel from praying together. Some folks cure horrible disease with their life; Jason Torpy fights with someone he doesn’t believe in. :rolls eyes:

  16. TerranceH says:

    It’s questionable whether you accept what science has discovered since you claim ID is science. That shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the scientific process.

    Jason,

    You don’t believe Intelligent Design is science because it infers something that cannot be seen, heard, or measured in any way. I find that quite striking since the accepted “scientific” theory for why everything in the universe is held in place is something called dark matter. It cannot be seen, heard, or measured in any way either, as it emits nor absorbs any light or radiation. It’s existence is – are you ready? – inferred by its gravitational effects on visible matter. There is no proof that it exists, yet it’s a perfectly legitimate scientific theory – according to people like you. Hypocrites.

  17. Universe from Nothing?

    That violates “Ex nihilo nihil fit” principle to which I adhere.
    Nothing is no-thing. It has no attributes, because attributes are some-thing, so no potential (thing) to get things appear.

    Hawking’s statement is nor related to science, nor related to physics because nothing is NO a physical THING. Stating otherwise is pseudoscience.

    The phylosofic question “Why is something instead of nothing?” is absurd because the answer would be itself something.

    There is not only the God of the Gaps idea, there is also the Atheism of the Gaps idea which states that our gaps In knowledge can only be covered by naturalistic explanations. But if you have to explain how nature came into existance, the explanation must be non naturalistic.

  18. John,

    “As science progresses, the gaps get smaller, and eventually we will exhaust our need for God as an explanation”
    It’s the Atheism of the Gap.

    I desagree to call the ones who say that skeptic, because they have no doubts.

Any Thoughts?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: