The goose, the gander and the God-of-the-gaps

Usually an accusation leveled at Christians, but guess what: this is just as much a hang-up for atheists. Before giving you three reasons why I say that (while also acknowledging the problems for theists), let’s make sure we’re all on the same page: what exactly is meant by a ‘God-of-the-gaps’?

One of the idiosyncrasies of our species, Homo sapiens, is that we crave explanations. As we’re driving down the road and we notice an apple and a coffee cup on top of a mailbox, we automatically come up with some kind of explanation for why they’re there (it may not rise to the full level of your conscious brain, but you can be sure that part of your unconscious brain has put together some kind of explanation). When walking through a dark room or in a forest at night and we hear a little rustling sound to our left, we immediately try to understand what made the noise. When something profoundly good or horribly bad happens to us, we wonder “Why did this happen to me? There has to be a reason”.

We’re always trying to make sense of the world around us. Sometimes, the explanations about the world around us are mundane, and scientists can take care of them quite easily.

“Why is the sky blue?” … it has something to do with what the atmosphere does to the sun’s light (the details aren’t important for this blog).

“What makes an airplane fly?” … something about aerodynamics, airflow velocities and Bernouli’s Principle (again, don’t sweat the small stuff for now).

“Where do babies come from?” … Really? Do I have to explain?

But some questions are harder to answer.

“Where did all the ‘stuff’ in the universe come from?”

“Will we ever have a Theory of Everything?” (as was asked in a BBC article earlier this week).

“How did the first living cell come to be?”

At this point, there’s a long pregnant pause, as the scientists look sideways at each other to see if their colleagues have an explanation. And if none of them come up with a satisfactory answer quickly enough, a confident theist steps forward and announces “God did it”.

Whenever one inserts God into a gap in our knowledge, we have a God-of-the-gaps.

The problem is that the gaps in our knowledge are routinely eventually filled by science.

For millennia, only God could make people fly … until Orville and Wilbur Wright flew the first plane across the dunes of Kittyhawk, North Carolina.

Only God could look down on the ‘four corners of the earth’ … until we sent astronauts around the moon and they watched the first ‘earth-rise’.

Conception and fetal development were once the sole domain of God … until we learned how to take cheek cells and fertilize them or turn them into stem cells, and sustain zygotes in test tubes, and do in utero surgery on fetuses.

Only God could restore life to a dead body … until we invented CPR and a variety of machines and powerful drugs.

Only God could create matter … until we built the Large Hadron Collider and started smashing atoms together at near light-speed and creating anti-matter (with matter being a by-product).

At one time, I thought that each filling of another gap just made God that much smaller and less relevant. But ask any scientist: every answer we come up with only generates ten more questions. The gaps don’t get smaller or fewer … in fact, they only multiply and/or get bigger. As Einstein put it: “As our circle of knowledge expands, so does the circumference of darkness surrounding it”. Many trained scientists including myself find that the more we learn about the complexity of life (the genome and the genetic code; the cell; living organisms; ecosystems), the more improbable it appears that it all just happened, spontaneously and unaided.

Just the same, there are a couple distinct problems for theists who carelessly fill in the blanks with “God did it” answers.

On the one hand, there’s no way to test or prove that answer, and so the Christian version is no more convincing to someone who isn’t a theist than the Hindu version, or the Mayan version, or the Inuit version. The ‘God-explanation’ you endorse depends on the religious world-view you’re working with, and no one can convince you (or anyone else) otherwise.

And on the other hand, such answers can sometimes be ‘science-stoppers’. When we come to a scientific problem that can’t be explained, it might be too easy to say “God did it” and stop looking for exactly how he might have done it. If a natural explanation does exist, we may never find it if we just satisfy ourselves with the unquestioned explanation “God did it”.

In our defence, though, not all theists are that intellectually lazy.

Isaac Newton was an ardent theist (I’m told he wrote more about theological matters, some of them quite strange actually, than he did about scientific questions). When he became curious about gravity or the nature of light, he did indeed say “God did it”, but he also pursued the ‘how’, and made shattering discoveries in the process.

Many great scientists and philosophers had religious tendencies or were even outright theists: Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, Galileo, Johannes Kepler, Thomas Aquinas, René Descartes, Johannes Gutenberg, Christopher Columbus, Leonardo da Vinci, Nicholas Copernicus, Sir Francis Bacon, Blaise Pascal, Robert Boyle, Carolus Linnaeus, Gregor Mendel, Michael Faraday, Louise Pasteur, William Harvey, Max Planck, Werner Heisenberg, Albert Einstein, Alexander Graham Bell, John Polkinghorne (co-discoverer of the quark), Raymond Damadian (inventor of the MRI), Francis Collins (former head of Human Genome Project), and hundreds of others.

Many of the greatest institutions of higher learning were founded by religious groups: Yale, Harvard, Oxford, Princeton, Stanford, Columbia.

Please don’t misunderstand me here. I’m not saying that all these people had theological viewpoints with which I’d agree, nor that those institutions are still religiously oriented. Instead, I’m just saying that to argue that theism is necessarily a ‘science-stopper’ is patently false.

So there’s a big difference between a God-of-the-gaps view as a default position versus treating it as an acceptable a priori assumption. The fall-back position kicks in the moment scientists hesitate to give an acceptable answer, and in that sense is a science stopper. But that’s not at all the same as starting off with the a priori assumption that “I believe God exists and that he could have used a materialistic mechanism that we haven’t yet found, while at the same time also believe that he could have stepped in and intervened supernaturally”, and this position allows the theist and atheist to entertain different possibilities together.

As an analogy, consider a situation in which a mother agrees to pick up her two boys after hockey practice at 7:00, and that both boys find themselves still standing outside the ice rink at 8:30 with no indication that she’s coming soon. The first boy begins with the a priori assumption that his mother wants the best for him and is reliable, while the second refuses to hold that assumption. Both entertain all kinds of possible explanations why she’s late, and may even begin with some of the same obvious ones: she ran out of gas … got lost … had an accident … car was stolen. But if they were somehow able to rule out those possible explanations, they would eventually find themselves going down diverging paths in their attempt to explain the problem, solely based on their a priori assumptions about their mother. The second boy could consider possibilities that were non-starters for the first: mother changed her mind and chose to watch her favorite TV show instead, or just didn’t feel like getting up. The first boy, on the other hand, might come up with explanations that were non-starters or far-fetched from the viewpoint of the second: mother was indeed trying to reach them but had been abducted by an alien space ship.

In the same way, the theist and the atheist start with opposite a priori assumptions regarding the existence of God, and as such, when explanations for a scientific problem become hard to find, they are forced down different paths in their search for an answer.

So having said so much about theists, let me finish by pointing out three ways in which atheists are really no different when it comes to this firm-conviction-based-on-nothing mentality.

First, where the theist might too easily take the God-of-the-gaps approach without thinking, the atheist is too liable of taking the anything-but-a-God approach, again without thinking. An absolute a priori rejection of “the God hypothesis”. A good scientist will remain open to all possibilities, and until someone finds proof – definitive unassailable, hard evidence – that there is no such thing as a Being who operates in all the dimensions of our universe (we think there are at least 10, but there may be as many as 26!?), then one needs to leave that possible explanation on the table. As Carl Sagan said: “the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”.

Second, the atheists might simply substitute this with a naturalism-of-the-gaps mentality: the firm belief that science will solve all problems and answer all questions. They betray this belief when they frequently say things like: “we haven’t worked out all the precise details just yet, but give us more time and we will amaze you”. I’ve blogged previously about Stephen Hawking’s warning that mankind could destroy itself in its development of artificial intelligence, and a die-hard proponent of that technology countering with: “I believe we will remain in charge of the technology for a decently long time and the potential of it to solve many of the world problems will be realised” (apparently robots will be our saviours). Earlier this week, NASA scientists were criticized for declaring adamantly that we will have “definite evidence” of alien life within 20 to 30 years … that “It’s definitely not an if, it’s a when.”

Third, most atheists would also ultimately put their faith in a God-of-the-gaps! I have to credit a fellow blogger for pointing this out last week. If you ask an atheist “What would it take for you to believe in God”, they won’t refer to a ‘miraculous’ healing of cancer, or the resurrection of a dead person, or the jaw-dropping complexity of the living cell, or the changed life of a drug addict, because science can at least attempt to explain those. Instead, after first trying to dodge any explicit answer to your “What would it take?” question (which my fellow blogger called the ‘hide-the-goalposts’ tactic), they may eventually give an answer which sets the bar impossibly high. Like asking for all the stars in the night sky to suddenly re-arrange themselves to spell out “Yes, John, I exist”. In other words, they would require some phenomenon that science could not possibly explain … a God-of-the-gaps … before believing!

What is good for the goose is indeed sauce for the gander.

So what’s left to be said?

Both sides should be open to other possibilities. Both should be careful not to let their preconceived ideas … their a priori assumptions … blind them to alternative explanations. Both should avoid taking extreme positions, whether that be God-of-the-gaps, naturalism-of-the-gaps, or anything-but-God thinking.

Both should see the strengths of the other side. Yes, science has a track record of making predictions and fulfilling them, but the Christian faith also has a successful track-record in the form of radically changed lives. (And, unfortunately, both have their failures.)

We should learn from each other as we try to fit together the puzzle of the world around us.


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3 thoughts on “The goose, the gander and the God-of-the-gaps

  1. Thought provoking as always! Thank you for sharing as it is a great conversation starter for those of us who like to talk about topics with some depth!:)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. From an atheists point of view the god of the gaps argument is ultimately pointless. The nature of belief is such that there is no gap too small for God to hide in. Even if mankind has the capacity, or survives long enough, to close all the gaps…. well isn’t Gods creation so wonderful and gap free!

    Any success Christianity has had in changing lives is a product of faith or belief in God, nothing to do with an actual god. No reasonable person doubts the power of religious (or indeed any) belief, but it is reasonable to doubt that it is based on reality. To date Science has been pretty successful at helping us understand reality.

    I think most atheists would agree that they can’t completely discount the possibility of a god /gods. However, given there is absolutely no evidence of such and it seems an unnecessary complication in a natural world that operates exactly as it would without a god (in a universe that doesn’t seem designed with life in mind), the god explanation or hypothesis just isn’t very convincing. Here we seem to agree, there is nothing to suggest God should be the default explanation for anything.

    Yes, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence …but really, with a god who “steps in and intervenes supernaturally” surely we would have good evidence or some fingerprints from the “hand of god” by now. Not finding evidence where you might reasonably expect to is evidence of absence.


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