I 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.