Nothing but Gaps

*Posted by Barry Creamer

There is an oddity in theistic argumentation known as the “God of the Gaps.” It’s not odd because of what it claims, but because of its origin and a significant twist regarding its implications.

What it claims:
“God of the Gaps” is a term describing what is taken to be a common theistic fallacy. That is, theists commonly argue for the existence of God based on the evidence of what would otherwise amount to gaps in human understanding.

Presumably, historically, wherever nature’s phenomena exceed human explanation, observers resort to faith in God to fill the void. If, for instance, it cannot be explained why things are drawn together and toward the ground, then God must hold everything together—and so with the origin of life, the complexity of the human eye, or the reality of human consciousness.

In truth, the arguments are not inherently fallacious. They are not deductive arguments, to be sure. But they are (or at least, can be) reasonable inductive or abductive arguments, depending on the case. It is no less reasonable to assert God’s existence from the need for a first cause than it is to assert that it rained last night because a yard with no sprinkler is soaking wet. It may not be necessarily true that if a lawn with no sprinkler is soaked it must have rained, but rain is sufficient to explain the soaking and is presumably and reasonably the best explanation for it. (For those who are dissatisfied with the prospect that an argument is less than necessary or certain, it is a point for another day that practically all of life is lived at the level of induction and/or abduction, not deduction.)

But the defense of “God of the Gaps” argumentation (or certain kinds of arguments from silence) is not important here. Rather what matters here is that it does lead to some serious problems for theists who use it. The worst of those problems is that people believe (correctly or not) that they can explain more and more phenomena over time. And with each explanation a gap is filled and God is pushed back, so to speak, in terms of where He is presumed to fit, exist, hold things together, or offer explanatory resolution. If God is in the gap where it cannot be explained why things hold together, and then Newton or a quantum physicist offers gravity or the strong nuclear force as explanation, then there is no gap anymore for God to inhabit, so to speak.

Over time, the consequences of that squeezing out of God from the previous gaps is catastrophic to theism. Indeed, in the time following the explosion of explanations during the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, it is no surprise that Western culture becomes largely deistic—acknowledging God’s existence but progressively excluding Him from active involvement in the world.

Its origin:
The funny thing is that the “God of the Gaps” is a term developed and used first and foremost by theists warning other theists about its dangers and limitations.

Those who know God are reminded of Him in every aesthetic experience and moment of awe. The order and purpose apparent in otherwise inexplicable phenomena serve as reminders of God’s presence. Fine.

But creating an argument from those phenomena and reminders can only be kept from the deistic slide described above if the worldview of the arguer and hearer is not tilted toward believing explanations are coming for all things currently unexplained. Western culture is just so tilted. Simply put, if arguments for God’s existence depend on gaps in knowledge, and the culture is committed to filling those gaps, then where is there for the arguments to go when the gaps are gone?

So quite a few theists have made the case that “God of the Gaps” argumentation ought to be avoided both because of its suspiciously fallacious nature, and because of its tendency to invite rebuttal.

Odd implications:
Once the “God of the Gaps” argument (or fallacy) is recognized, then the question remaining is how believers ought to use the relationship between explanation and ignorance in relation to God.

One interesting reaction is to suggest that theists stop relying on gaps to find God and start relying on what is known. This approach can range from thanking God for evolution (ugh) to relying on the rational or emotional rather than the empirical when arguing for God’s existence. That angle is not the point here.

The point here regards the explanatory gaps presumed to be shrinking and retreating as science marches forward. David Hume is a Scottish skeptic, or at least he was. He is wrong about knowledge in general. And he is wrong about faith, miracles, and God. He is wrong about the source of ethics. But he’s not wrong about empirical knowledge. There is no space to reproduce his arguments sufficiently here, but the gist of those arguments is that it is impossible for people actually to explain the cause of anything. One event is said to cause another whenever the two events are related by priority in time, proximity and space, and constant conjunction. But the observation that one event precedes another repeatedly is not the same as discovering some secret power in the former which “causes” the latter. Indeed, the “secret” is intrinsically and inevitably “secret.”

Ask a Twenty-First Centurian (hapax!) why things stick to the ground and the answer will be gravity. He won’t have any idea what gravity is, except that it’s the thing that makes things stick to the ground. But his vocabulary will give him confidence that he can explain why things stick to the ground. Every instance of causal explanation is just so—question-beggingly descriptive but explanatorily vacuous.

In truth, once people have seen something often enough they get used to it, develop a term for it, and believe the term explains it, even though in reality the term only describes what they have seen so often that they no longer seek explanation for it.

In the same way a star athlete loses the joy of playing the sport he loved so much that he gave his life to it, people everywhere (but nowhere more than in the West) lose the awesome wonder of respiration, color, digestion, balance, trees, sunsets, stars, bugs, and economies in the tainting maturation of daily experience. Either because pride refuses to admit ignorance, or because selfishness eventually blinds observation, the majestic and marvelous become mundane.

The irony is not that the “God of the Gaps” leaves God with fewer places to be demonstrated as the gaps decrease and retreat. The irony is that people incapable of creating any one of the items listed in the paragraph above think they can explain all of them. The irony is that in a world where people want all explanations and no gaps, there is, in reality, nothing but gaps—gaps which are not, in fact, silent, but actually compel those who still see them to acknowledge their own frailty in the presence of someone more powerful and purposive than these words could possibly explain.

So perhaps the attempt at explanation should stop here, and acknowledge just this one more gap.

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4 Responses to Nothing but Gaps

  1. Carson says:

    Great article! I used to cringe and hesitate at this “argument” as well, like the theists you mentioned, but now I’m glad to know that it’s something that I can logically embrace. I really enjoyed the discussion on the radio today about consciousness and cognition too. Thanks!

  2. John Rigler says:

    I know more than just that gravity holds me to the earth. It is a weak force (as opposed the strong force that holds atoms together) that causes things to be attracted to each other and is observable in space as well. I used to believe that the fact that the earth was spinning held us to it when I was a child because I had observed water staying in a bucket that was spun around. My physics teacher corrected my ignorant assumption when I was in high school. There is a wealth of information about it easily accessible at the library. If God can be understood in terms of emotions and feelings then a logical leap to an Abrahamic God can not be made. Atheists could simply use the word God to describe their own non-scientific sense of wonder and joy as opposed to those which could be explained neatly by science. Are you really comfortable with the word God becoming so flexible as to be almost meaningless? Also, there is science that the church once rejected (like the round earth theory) that are now common. In 100 years, wouldn’t it be likely that science is accepted that is today firmly rejected by Christianity or even all of us? Could not the Gap that it makes no sense to try to fill actually be getting smaller? Your Hume argument seems to argue that science can not really know anything (except for accepted stuff like the whole round earth thing). Also there seem to be an argument in closing that an atheist is somehow missing out on the joy of life, on a deeper contemplation of the unknown, and on a sort of majesty that you have in Christ. Could I not simply call the sum of my unexplainable feelings ‘God’ while still rejecting the magic of an afterlife, original sin, and an all-seeing, all-loving intelligent creator of the universe? If you argue for a soft, sublime, and poetic definition of the divine, don’t be shocked if folks accept it without the Bronze Age baggage of the Bible.

    • John, I appreciate your comment, but you’ve missed the point completely. Observing and describing the weak nuclear force, or the strong nuclear force, or electromagnetism (none of which is gravity, by the way) does not mean the same thing as “understanding” what they are. It has nothing to do with whether science has progressed in what it does. It has everything to do with what science actually does. Just read Hume’s argument in the fourth section of his “Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding.” He’s no friend to Christianity, but at least he’s honest about science and empirical knowledge.
      And I in no way argue that a soft or emotional response to the wonder of existence will lead people inevitably to faith in Christ. My post is intended to remind theistic Westerners that their presumptions about how much we have explained (causally and mechanistically) are wrong, and that there is still reason to be impressed by the wonder.
      Big Bronze Bible Barry

  3. Yetunde says:

    Dear Dr. Creamer,
    Thought provoking subject! A hunger for truth is vital in these discussions. Christians should value truth and seek to speak truth. We are children of God, we need to take the posture of a learner. In the Middle Ages, the Church believed the sun orbited the earth, Copernicus corrected this specific belief because of his hunger for truth and his meticulous careful observation.
    Science is supposed to be about what is testable, observable and repeatable. Go to any lab in the country, duplicate a given experiment, and arrive at their same finding. Atheists, agnostics,or skeptics will sometimes say (well we don’t have the evidence right now but one day it will appear) as if making that type of statement gives credence to their point. Hypothetical imaginary scenarios aren’t testable observable or repeatable. When all objections to evolution are explained away with imaginary scenarios – evolution becomes unfalsifiable – which ironically is very unscientific.
    As the scripture says
    Casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ 2 Cor 10:5

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