The God of the Gaps: Why God and science are not competing explanations.
“The common belief that… the actual relations between religion and science over the last few centuries have been marked by deep and enduring hostility… is not only historically inaccurate, but actually a caricature so grotesque that what needs to be explained is how it could possibly have achieved any degree of respectability.”
–Cambridge University historian of science Colin Russell
“Just because science hasn’t explained something yet doesn’t mean that we should just give up and say, ‘God did it.’”
-A comment made, in various versions, by multiple atheist commenters to this website.
The cartoon above provides a good depiction of how many (perhaps most) atheists perceive God. They perceive him as an explanation for natural phenomena that competes with scientific explanations, and that serves to fill gaps in scientific understanding. But this perception is completely flawed and misguided.
Atheist Dan Barker (Public Relations Director for the Freedom From Religion Foundation) and Christian (philosophy professor) Richard Howe publicly debated God’s existence at the University of Florida in 1997. Barker comments:
“All through human history, we’ve had…questions [such as these:]. What causes thunder? What causes the lightning? I don’t know, there must be a big Thor [Norse God] up there that does it. [audience laughter] But now, now we’ve learned about electricity. Now we don’t need that Thor anymore. We’ve erased that God, right? And as the line moves up, answering more and more questions, the gods disappear. We still have a lot more questions up here and we no longer put a God down here… He’s living in gaps, and the gaps are getting smaller…”
And, among atheists, Barker is certainly not alone. A review of comments made by atheists at this website (or virtually any other website where God’s existence is debated) will quickly reveal that many (perhaps most) atheists consider God and science to be competing explanations for natural phenomena, such as thunder and lightning, or the phenomenon of life. God, according to this atheist view, is only necessary to fill gaps in current scientific understanding….”the God of the gaps.” Eventually science will fill the last of these gaps and then there will be no longer be any need for God whatsoever.
Citing a natural mechanism as an alternative explanation to God is what is known as a “category error” in philosophy.
But when atheists make such arguments, they commit what is known in philosophy as a “category mistake” or a “category error.”
Oxford University mathematician John Lennox provides excellent commentary on this logical fallacy as it relates to the above described atheist reasoning in God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God?:
“…In some quarters the very success of science has also led to the idea that, because we can understand the mechanisms of the universe without bringing in God, we can safely conclude that there was no God who designed and created the universe in the first place. However, such reasoning involves a common logical fallacy, which we can illustrate as follows. Take a Ford motor car. It is conceivable that someone from a remote part of the world, who was seeing one for the first time and who knew nothing about modern engineering, might imagine that there is a god (Mr. Ford) inside the engine, making it go. He might further imagine that when the engine ran sweetly it was because Mr. Ford inside the engine liked him, and when it refused to go it was because Mr. Ford did not like him. Of course, if he were subsequently to study engineering and take the engine to pieces, he would discover that there is no Mr. Ford inside it. Neither would it take much intelligence for him to see that he did not need to introduce Mr. Ford as an explanation for its working. His grasp of the impersonal principles of internal combustion would be altogether enough to explain how the engine works.”
“So far, so good. But if he then decided that his understanding of the principles of how the engine works made it impossible to believe in the existence of a Mr. Ford who designed the engine in the first place, this would be patently false – in philosophical terminology he would be committing a category mistake. Had there never been a Mr. Ford to design the mechanisms, none would exist for him to understand. It is likewise a category mistake to suppose that our understanding of the impersonal principles according to which the universe works makes it either unnecessary or impossible to believe in the existence of a personal Creator who designed, made, and upholds the universe. In other words, we should not confuse the mechanisms by which the universe works either with its cause or its upholder.”
“The basic issue here is that those of a scientistic [not to be confused with “scientific”] turn of mind like [prominent atheists] Atkins and Dawkins fail to distinguish between mechanism and agency. In philosophical terms they make a very elementary category mistake when they argue that, because we understand a mechanism that accounts for a particular phenomenon, there is no agent that designed the mechanism. When Sir Isaac Newton discovered the universal law of gravitation he did not say, ‘I have discovered a mechanism that accounts for planetary motion, therefore there is no agent God who designed it.’ Quite the opposite: precisely because he understood how it worked, he was moved to increased admiration for the God who had designed it that way.”
Lennox’s above comments call attention to a grave oversight that is pervasive in atheist reasoning: Citing a natural mechanism behind a natural phenomenon is NOT equivalent to explaining the ultimate source for that phenomenon. In Lennox’s words, “We should not confuse the mechanisms by which the universe works either with its cause or its upholder.” Put more simply, it is impossible to cite a natural mechanism as the source of the natural world because natural mechanisms are an aspect of the natural world. An aspect of something cannot be cited as the cause for that something.
Citing a natural mechanism behind a natural phenomenon is NOT equivalent to explaining the ultimate source for that phenomenon.
Moreover, Lennox’s above critique calls attention to an even more basic problem prevalent in atheist thought: The persistent confusion of scientific and ontological questions. God is an answer to ontological questions, NOT scientific questions. A little review of terminology is in order. The Oxford Dictionary defines science as “The intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment.”
Ontology is the branch of philosophy which discusses the nature of being, existence, or reality. And the Oxford Dictionary defines philosophy as “The study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence, especially when considered as an academic discipline.”
Any time a natural mechanism is cited as the cause of a natural phenomenon, a scientific explanation has been proposed….but an ontological explanation for the source of this mechanism has NOT been proposed. These are two separate questions. In simpler terms, science discusses questions of intermediate (or natural) causes, and ontology discusses questions of fundamental (or ultimate) causes.
Science cannot study the premises upon which science is based. Questions that are of a fundamental nature cannot be answered by science. As an illustration, consider the question of why 2 + 2 = 4. Such a question cannot even be subjected to scientific study because it discusses a FUNDAMENTAL mathematical premise. Will a scientific experiment conducted sometime in the future finally reveal to the world why 2 + 2 = 4? Of course not, because such a fundamental mathematical premise is something which underlies science and is therefore meta-scientific. Scientific inquiry can contribute to ontological reasoning, but it cannot replace ontological reasoning.
For further illustration, consider the following breakdown of the topic of evolution:
Scientific question: What accounts for the diversity of life on Earth?
Proposed scientific answer to the above question: A mechanism known as the random mutation of genes and the natural selection of reproductive offspring is responsible for the diversification of life (Darwinism).
Ontological question: What is the source of this above mentioned mechanism? (Please read Why Evolution Cannot Be Used To Rationalize Atheism and Riddles for Atheists for a more thorough exploration of this topic).
Atheist answer to the above ontological question: ??????????????? (Atheist commenters to this website are encouraged to furnish any answers they wish).
Theist answer to the above ontological question: A conscious and intelligent being, God, is the fundamental ground of reality, and the mechanisms we experience in nature are the product of this being.
As I discuss in my essays titled God Is Real…Why Modern Physics Has Discredited Atheism and The Ultimate Cart Before the Horse (Why Atheism is Illogical), theism holds God to be the fundamental ground of reality, whereas atheism is rooted in the materialist worldview, which holds that inanimate matter is the fundamental ground of reality. Citing inanimate matter as the fundamental ground of reality leaves some very significant unanswered questions. Regarding this point, Albert Einstein wrote (also cited in Riddles for Atheists):
“You find it strange that I consider the comprehensibility of the world (to the extent that we are authorized to speak of such a comprehensibility) as a miracle or as an eternal mystery. Well, a priori, one should expect a chaotic world, which cannot be grasped by the mind in any way… the kind of order created by Newton’s theory of gravitation, for example, is wholly different. Even if man proposes the axioms of the theory, the success of such a project presupposes a high degree of ordering of the objective world, and this could not be expected a priori. That is the ‘miracle’ which is constantly reinforced as our knowledge expands.”
Please note that Einstein says this “miracle” is “constantly reinforced,” rather than diminished, “as our knowledge expands.” If inanimate matter is the fundamental ground of reality, why is the universe comprehensible rather than chaotic, and why is it so ordered, rather than disordered? Citing a natural mechanism or a physical law does NOTHING to answer such questions because three fundamental, ontological questions remain unanswered: 1) Where do natural mechanisms and physical laws come from? 2) If matter is the fundamental ground of reality, how can matter be compelled to do anything, much less follow a physical law (or “regularity” if you prefer)? 3) Why these laws and not laws that allow for chaos and disorder?
The theistic model places consciousness (God’s consciousness) as the fundamental ground of reality, which is much in line with modern physics (as demonstrated in God Is Real…Why Modern Physics Has Discredited Atheism). And if God’s consciousness is the fundamental ground of reality, and our world is a manifestation of this consciousness, it is immediately clear why there is such a “high degree of ordering of the objective world.” But if matter is the fundamental ground of reality (as with atheism) the question of where this ordering comes from is completely unanswered.
Further, NO AMOUNT of “the study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world” will ever by itself answer such fundamental questions as why there even exists a physical and natural world, for us to study, in the first place. In his book The Limits of Science, Peter Medwar (an Oxford University immunologist who won the Nobel Prize for Medicine) writes:
“That there is indeed a limit upon science is made very likely by the existence of questions that science cannot answer, and that no conceivable advance of science would empower it to answer…I have in mind such questions as:
How did everything begin?
What are we all here for?”
And David Bentley Hart incisively lays down the distinction between scientific and ontological explanations, as they relate to God, in his book Atheist Delusions:
“Even if theoretical physics should one day discover the most basic laws upon which the fabric of space and time is woven, or evolutionary biology the most elementary phylogenic forms of terrestrial life, or palaeontology an utterly seamless genealogy of every species, still we shall not have thereby drawn one inch nearer to a solution to the mystery of existence.”
“Even the simplest of things, and even the most basic principles, must first of all be, and nothing within the universe of contingent things (nor even the universe itself, even if it were somehow ‘eternal’) can be intelligibly conceived of as the source or explanation of its own being.”
In summary, atheists who argue that scientific explanations are an alternative to God either confuse, or deliberately conflate, science and ontology. We are not dealing with a “God of the Gaps,” but rather, as Lennox puts it, we are dealing with a “God of the whole show.” Atheists frequently try to frame the debate as God vs. science so as to distract attention from the inadequacy, or rather bankruptcy, of their ontological reasoning.
Scientific questions demand scientific answers, and ontological questions demand ontological answers. Therefore, answering such ontological questions as why there is such a “high degree of ordering of the objective world,” and why the world is comprehensible rather than chaotic (as Einstein marvelled at), by saying, “I don’t know, but science may someday figure it out,” simply has no value. Scientific and ontological explanations can and must interact, but science cannot by itself produce an ontological explanation because the scientific method cannot examine fundamental presuppositions that underlie science. Extra-scientific, and therefore philosophical/religious reasoning is a necessary part of the explanatory equation*.
*Please read I Believe in Science! Why Do I Need Religion?! for a further exploration of the necessity for extra-scientific, and therefore philosophical/religious reasoning.