Better no God than a God of the gaps

Bakerloo_line_-_Waterloo_-_Mind_the_gapI didn’t realise until last week that I felt so strongly about this, but I abhor the God of the gaps. We’ve been covering it in our MSc in Science and Religion, and I was challenged as to why I feel so strongly about it. After all, it forms the basis for some important attempts to build bridges between science and religion, not least Intelligent Design (ID). I feel no reluctance in saying that I would rather renounce belief in a creator God altogether, than stake my faith in a God who only works in the gaps in our scientific understanding. To my mind, the God of the gaps idea is subtly pervasive, and it miscontrues both Christian theology, and science, all in one. Clearly, not everyone feels as strongly as me, and some are quite open to the God of the gaps idea. But for the record, this is my where the strength of my response arises…

The topic for the MSc class was the anthropic principle, that cluster of philosophical and theological explanations that try to make sense of the scientific observation that life on this planet (and indeed the existence of planets, stars and galaxies to begin with) is contingent upon a number of acutely-balanced factors and fundamental constants in physics. If some of them (such as the fine structure constant) had turned out to be very slightly different, then life on earth would simply never have occurred.

There’s an entry-level explanation that says: of course these factors have to be what they are, because if they weren’t then we wouldn’t be here to ask the question. But most people are instantly led on beyond this to look for a deeper explanation. Two complementary explanations tend to hold sway: (1) the physical constants and the laws of nature have been finely-tuned by a supreme intelligence (the creator God) in order that intelligent life (us) would evolve one day; (2) there are many possible universes with many physical constants and laws, and our universe just happens to be the one right for life.

Clearly, (1) relies on there being a God, while (2) doesn’t. And (2) might multiply hypothetical entities (unseen and untestable universes, and it’s often accused of verging on metaphysics as a result), but it does at least allow the scientific enterprise to continue in the name of science rather than religion. This is why most cosmologists adopt (2). And its also why I favour (2), in spite of the fact that I’m a Christian with relatively traditional beliefs who adheres to the idea of a Creator God. Indeed, this is exactly where my (admittedly strong) reaction against the God of the gaps arises.

The God of the gaps idea suggests that where there are gaps in our scientific understanding of the world (e.g. why the physical constants appear to finely-tuned), then we can call upon God to explain them. ID works in exactly this way, suggesting that there are problems in understanding the natural world which are so insurmountable that science will never answer them. For the famous ID-er Michael Behe, these gaps are particularly apparent in our understanding of life at the molecular level. Science cannot explain them, and so we must call upon an Intelligent Designer.

The problem is that, since Behe’s book Darwin’s Black Box appeared in 1996, science has made considerable advances in understanding some of his examples of intelligent design. And this illustrates the general problem with the God of the gaps. As science advances, the gaps get smaller and smaller, and the explanatory God (the Intelligent Designer) gets squeezed out. What happens when science has closed up all of the gaps? Well, then there’s no God.

I react very strongly to this. First, I can’t believe in a Creator God who could be squeezed out or compromised by science. Second, I believe that science must be free to be science, to approach the natural world in the optimistic belief that even the most intractable problems may one day submit to the scientific method of trial and error. Without this optimism, real science is barely possible. Third (and this is where my first and second reactions come from), my own relatively traditional belief in God as Creator sees God at work in every natural process and event (not just the gaps), in a way that (I think) is fully compatible with science as science. I see science as an outflowing of God’s creative nature, underpinned by the divine rationality. From that point of view, science is the natural human response to Gen.1:31 – “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good”. Theologically, science is made possible by that divine assessment, and indeed science is a (tacit) recognition of that assessment. The God of the gaps idea, by contrast, is a complete negation of it.

12 thoughts on “Better no God than a God of the gaps

  1. Dr. Harris,

    Thank you for explaining your view. I am in total agreement. It is this approach to science and religion – I believe in a God of creation, revelation, and tradition, while fully accepting the methods and explanatory power of science – which confounds scientists and theologians alike. That’s the beauty of it!

    However, I think the phrase “God of the Gaps” is broadly applied to many different forms of argument. Some may believe that God only does the things that can’t be explained by physics and biology (their God is indeed wimpy). Many people, though, merely level their attacks against materialism where they perceive its ideology is weakest, perhaps to prove the point that science doesn’t explain everything. Maybe some of those arguments are in part successful, in context, but are left unapplied in other discussions – many theories only work in certain cases.

    This doesn’t seem to work very well. Perhaps the strategy of aiming at the gaps in the armor of any ideology is ineffective in the long run. The problem of evil has plagued many a theological mind, but the faithful generally get around it somehow. Evolution turns so many heads away from religion because it strikes directly at a central tenet of faith, i.e. creation. To strike a real blow at materialism, one would have to knock its helmet off instead of just poking it in the ribs.

    A stronger argument for belief comes from the heart, is aimed at the heart. The scientific cosmology does have one important gap – it fails to explain who you are in any deeper sense of existence.

    So how does one define where the scientific cosmology is lacking, and how can they level a successful claim against it?

    Thanks again,

    • Don, thanks for this helpful comment. It is very easy to argue all this at the head level, and forget that religion matters at so many more levels, e.g. at the heart, as you say. Is it possible to be a materialist (I prefer the term “naturalist” myself) and a religious believer at those deeper levels? I hope so, because that’s my approach, rightly or wrongly…

  2. Your Grace,

    I don’t perhaps understand the difference between the Anthropic Principle and general teleological arguments. Looking backwards at a result is very different from looking forwards on the probability of dice throw.

    Advising anybody to buy a lottery ticket to make them rich is irresponsible. However, if I have a billion dollars now, and won it from the lottery so that I now live in the perfect gold-plated marble mansion, then that upfront chance that I would win the lottery is irrelevant.

    The anthropic principle seems to assume that the lottery was created so that I personally could win it. But, there could be an uncountable number of lotteries that I could have won, or only the single one I ever entered in my life. Doesn’t matter: I won this one, and that’s all that counts. I will never know if I could have won the other ones as well, as I am not in them.

    That’s the way I view the Anthropic arguments.

    I would like to reduce it to Occam’s Razor but it doesn’t seem to work: which is the simpler explanation? Is it a creator-god (and which one by the way?), or a natural process (and which one by the way?) that just happens to have put us in this condition? As both probabilities from where I’m standing seem ridiculously small, it is hard to make an argument on that basis.

    I think the question is unanswerable. If we were all the products of a computer program, then what test could we perform to determine that this were the case, or who exactly wrote the program? I suspect we can determine no more than the information that is available to us within the program.

    My strongest argument against (at least caring) about the creator-god model is that the world is not perfect (from my point of view): there is crime, we all die, we get sick, there is injustice etc. The ancient problem of evil, I guess, which seems incompatible with the actions of a perfect creator-god without logical contortions; and if there is an imperfect creator-god out there, then it is difficult to get too excited about it.

    Hence, I tend to vote for the “I won the lottery” model, although I don’t know which one I entered. But, hey, life’s pretty good on the whole.

    A Wretched Sinner

    • Ian, as before I agree with so much of what you say. For me though, the presence of evil in the world gives me reason to hope in a creator God as the solution to such evil, rather than to doubt such a God’s existence on account of evil.

  3. Hi Mark

    Thanks for the post. I suppose I just have an issue with this bit:
    Clearly, (1) relies on there being a God, while (2) doesn’t. And (2) … does at least allow the scientific enterprise to continue in the name of science rather than religion.
    To suggest that asking the question “How was it done” is somehow different if God did it, suggests that the God implicit in these two options is still the superhero God who works outside the rules and rationale of God’s own nature. But if God is truly omnipresent, and the author of all laws and nature, then it necessarily follows that arguments (1) and (2) are not only compatible, but that science is science whether or not God exists.
    The “god as superhero” model which is required in order for God to create the universe in a way which science could not access implies that God had to have a methodology which would not be logical or rational – something which all physical evidence would suggest is incorrect. It’s easy to banish the God of the Gaps once we have filled the gaps – but we really need to make sure we don’t hold a wee place for him at the beginning of the universe either!

    • Thanks for the comment. Yes, (1) and (2) are both compatible with a Creator God, but (1) positively requires it (since it says that the physical constants have been finely-tuned by a being above nature, and therefore stops science from saying anything more). My reading of what you’re suggesting is what you might call option (3), that a deeper physics will be discovered which explains why the constants take the values they do without requiring extra universes or God to explain them. Of course, (3) is compatible with a Creator God as well. (In fact, all serious science is compatible with a Creator God). (3) is not generally held very widely in scientific circles though, largely because no one has the slightest idea how to derive such a deeper physics, nor what it would look like, and because most cosmological models produce extra universes anyway. As a result, most cosmologists follow (2). Funnily enough, experimental physicists outside of cosmology are often deeply suspicious of (2).

      Hope you’re settling in well in Melrose!

  4. Mark,

    thanks for your open word: Better no God than a god of the gaps. I may add, though, some arguments that I have gathered from conversations with by brother:

    (1) there is a difference between the anthropic principle and the biological ID (you are also referring to M. Behe): the first one refers to the laws of nature, the “biological ID” is like an intervention of God in the evolutionary process which is very problematic: why is the process not good enough so that God has to tinker with it from time to time?

    (2) the multiverse does not necessarily nullify the fact that our universe is “fine-tuned” for life, it is just bringing the argument one level up: “why this multiverse with our universe.”

    My brother Albrecht Moritz has written an article:

    All the best, Mary B M

    • Mary, thanks for your points of clarification – the previous respondent (Pip Blackledge) picked me up on similar issues.

      In response to (1), I would say that, while the fine-tuning interpretation of the anthropic principle and biological ID are indeed different, they both make the same theological point that where our current scientific understanding is inadequate then we can bring in a supernatural explanation.

      About your point (2) – yes, absolutely. As I’m sure you know, there’s not really a catch-all multiverse explanation that completely negates the possibility of fine-tuning, since there are actually various models of multiverse, each of which introduces a degree of contingency of its own. So adopting a multiverse explanation in place of a creator God doesn’t mean we’re let off the question of “Why this multiverse rather than another one?” (unless we go for the most extravagant of all multiverse hypotheses where there are infinitely many universes).


      • Mark, there is still a difference between the anthropic principles: it is about constants and physical laws. Biological “intelligent design” – would mean that the processes of evolution – that you cannot call laws in the strict sense of physical laws – that are in place are imperfect and God needs therefore to interfere. That would necessarily mean that God has made processes that do not work and need “divine intervention” to save the outcome – to say is in the strong way (sorry, English is not my native language).

        • Mary, I think I always understood this difference, and said so in my first reply to you, so I am not sure what you’re getting at.

          I agree that fine-tuning and ID make different scientific claims, but I am interested in the theological claims they make, which are similar in that they both relate to the God of the gaps approach.

          • Thanks for the clarification.
            To me the anthropic principle does not belong to the god of the gap arguments. It is, of course, not a proof – there is no scientific proof. But the second does – and this drives me crazy as a biologist….
            Thanks again. Loved the conversation……..

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