Science of the Gaps

Skeptics frequently charge theists with clinging to a “god of the gaps” approach to explaining natural phenomena. The argument goes something like this:

  1. A certain natural phenomenon has no known scientific explanation or cause (e.g., lightning).
  2. Given the absence of a naturalistic explanation, the phenomenon is attributed to some divine power (e.g., Thor’s hammer).
  3. In time, science discovers that the phenomenon, in fact, has a perfectly reasonable naturalistic explanation (e.g., the discharge of static electricity between clouds and ground).
  4. The supernatural explanation is discarded as superstition based on ignorance, leaving one less “gap” in our knowledge to be filled.
  5. With the advance of scientific knowledge, more and more of these gaps are closed, leaving an ever-shrinking range of unexplained phenomena to attribute to God.
  6. Those who continue to invoke God as an explanation for unknown causes, therefore, are clinging to a rapidly diminishing “god of the gaps.” It’s only a matter of time before the few remaining gaps are filled, and this impotent deity will be relegated to the dustbin of history, along with other ancient superstitions.

The strength of this argument rests on an extrapolation embedded in #6, namely, that naturalistic science is the sure path to finding all the answers. We may not have found the answers yet, but the track record definitely points away from supernaturalism and toward naturalism.

Up to a point, this is a valid line of reasoning.  There is no question that science has vastly improved our understanding of how the world works, reducing the need for supernatural explanations. Ironically, it was believers who, based on their conviction that God created an orderly universe, played a major role in discovering and explaining many of these natural processes, thus closing gaps in our knowledge (e.g., Newton, Bacon, Kepler, Galileo, Herschel, Faraday, Mendel, Marconi, etc.). True believers are always open to new knowledge that helps us understand how nature works.

The mistake is projecting this history of scientific advancement forward to an absolute conclusion that all gaps will be answered by science leaving no room for the supernatural. This is a leap of faith into a very dark and dangerous void.

In the first place, while science has made incremental improvements in expanding our understanding of the natural world, some very large chasms remain unbridged: Why is there something rather than nothing? How can we account for the human concept of morality and evil? For all our advancement, modern science still struggles awkwardly with these very basic questions.

More significantly, the popular image of science steadily progressing toward a “final answer” is not as neat and tidy as proponents would have us believe. Some scientific discoveries close some gaps, only to open others. Newtonian physics, for example, explained the realm of physics for several centuries, until Einstein’s theory of relativity exposed some new gaps in our knowledge. Einstein in turn has been further complicated by quantum physics. That same process of advancement, retrenchment, and adjustment routinely takes place in every field of scientific endeavor.

Thomas Kuhn highlighted the messiness by which science makes progress with his concept of “paradigm shifts” (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 1962, 1970) . It’s not a neat, linear process, but a never-ending quest for understanding marked by advances, setbacks, unexpected anomalies, blind alleys, and outright error. Those who proudly proclaim “the science is settled” in any field of study (here’s looking at you, climate activists) are displaying an unwarranted level of intellectual arrogance.

In other words, the “god of the gaps” argument turns back on itself. By clinging to naturalistic explanations for all unexplained phenomena, skeptics themselves are using a “science of the gaps” argument. The list of gaps is not steadily shrinking, but constantly morphing, with gaps opening and closing as new knowledge is gained. They’re playing whack-a-mole with a universe of complexity far beyond human comprehension, all the while expressing absolute confidence that science has the answers out there somewhere in the future. Agnostic David Berlinski summarized the problem well in The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretentions:

As a rhetorical contrivance, the God of the Gaps makes his effect contingent on a specific assumption: that whatever the gaps, they will in the course of scientific research be filled. It is an assumption both intellectually primitive and morally abhorrent—primitive because it reflects a phlegmatic absence of curiosity, and abhorrent because it assigns to our intellectual future a degree of authority alien to human experience. Western science has proceeded by filling gaps, but in filling them, it has created gaps all over again. The process is inexhaustible. (p. 183-184)

As a theist, I freely admit that there are gaps in my understanding of how the world works, and I applaud the crucial role that science plays in helping to understand that world. But I plead with atheists to show the same humility in acknowledging that maybe, just maybe, there are forces at work in our world that cannot be explained by natural causes.

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4 Responses to Science of the Gaps

  1. Allallt says:

    You can reword the “God of the gaps argument” to be something a lot simpler: ‘if you don’t know, you don’t get to just guess’. That’s it. It’s not about science having a successful history of encroaching on absolutely everything we ever thought to be religious, it’s about how you reach a conclusion. If all you have is a question (e.g. “Where does lightening come from?”) then all you have is a question, not an answer (e.g. “Thor’s Hammer”).
    The problem is not that science might find an answer, it’s that your answer doesn’t have any evidence in favour of it…

    • kg says:

      God has been proposed by theists as a response to the to problem of the beginning of life and the universe. What is unscientific about it aside from an atheist`s bias?
      What other reasonable and logical response is there? Why don’t we accept God until atheists can show us a better solution (which they have not)

      • Allallt says:

        Because that isn’t how science works. If we have no good answer, then we do not just pencil in our favourite answer until a later date. We wait until a claim has met a reasonable level of burden of demonstration. God hasn’t.
        God, as a claim, isn’t even the most reasonable: it hugely multiplies entities. “Among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected.”
        God is the one with all the assumptions: it’s an entirely new type of existence; it’s an entire consciousness; it assumes violates for a mechanistic universe (etc).

  2. That’s a rather interesting POV David Berlinski takes, in saying “It is an assumption both intellectually primitive and morally abhorrent—primitive because it reflects a phlegmatic absence of curiosity, and abhorrent because it assigns to our intellectual future a degree of authority alien to human experience.” The same can easily be said – in fact, HAS been said – about the belief in a supernatural being.

    Aside from the ontological arguments, that can also be used to demonstrate the non-existence of a God ( http://modernatheist.org/2013/11/23/an-ontological-argument-that-demonstrates-the-non-existence-of-god/), there is simply the matter of scientific fact, that most agnostic rationalizations touch on, but seem hesitant to actually learn about, for themselves. (And the rocket science has already been done, for anyone evincing the need to know.)

    In point of fact, the first time I “felt the Spirit” – in years – was when I actually picked up a copy of Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species,” and read it for myself.

    For filling that gap, in both your head AND your heart, with the scientific revelation of the truth, few things are actually as personally rewarding – or comforting – as discovering this truth for yourself. Darwin’s humble approach to the subject, alone, is almost endearing. And you can get a free ebook edition from Google Books, or a Kindle edition from Amazon.

    But first, check out “Why you never heard one damn thing about evolution in school” http://modernatheist.org/2014/08/26/defending-darwinian-evolution/ . ☺

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