Nothing but Gaps

*Posted by Barry Creamer

There is an oddity in theistic argumentation known as the God of the Gaps. Its 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 natures 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 togetherand 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 Gods 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 deisticacknowledging Gods 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 Gods 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 Gods 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 Gods 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 hes 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 wont have any idea what gravity is, except that its 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 soquestion-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 gapsgaps 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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