Transcript: Podcast 3- The God-of-the-Gaps

16 April 2007

There isn’t really much as far as news this week, so we’ll go straight to the main feature.

Main Feature: The God-of-the-Gaps

One of the most common claims made against theists in general and Christians in particular is that they are guilty of using the so-called “God-of-the-gaps” strategy. Supposedly, the God-of-the-gaps is used whenever somebody uses God as an explanation to cover up our ignorance, particularly on some scientific matter. Thus, for example, if a theist claims that the unlikelihood of abiogenesis, which is the natural development of the first life form, is evidence of God’s existence, the critic will counter that God is just being used to cover our current scientific ignorance.

Closely related to this is the claim that science has had a long history of overcoming theistic explanations. Therefore, when the theist uses a God-of-the-gaps strategy, they put themselves in a bad position because they will soon be refuted by the steady march of science. Thus, to continue with the abiogenesis example, scientists may one day discover good evidence that the natural development of the first life form is quite plausible. Then, the theist who based her case on God’s existence on such an argument will be thoroughly refuted.

Moreover, it is often alleged that the march of science has been so efficient at overcoming religious explanations that this is, in itself, evidence that God does not exist. Many contend that there are only a few tiny holes where God can fit in, with the rest of reality adequately explained by science. In a few decades, even these last remnants will probably close up, and the case for God’s existence and activity in the world will be nonexistent.

So, there are two issues that must be dealt with here. First, is it ever appropriate to use God as an explanatory hypothesis? And secondly, does the history of science provide evidence that God does not exist? I will look at both of these arguments in turn.

As for the first question, why would someone argue that God cannot legitimately be used as an explanation for anything? There are several different reasons offered for why this is the case.

1.) The first charge that may be made is that the concept of God is not coherently defined. It is at best a nebulous concept. Therefore, people just claim that “God did it” when they don’t really have any idea what this claim entails.

But while it may be true that some people don’t exactly know what they are talking about, this does not mean that all theists are in the dark. Personally, I would maintain that, minimally, God is a personal being who exists outside the universe and who is therefore not subject to the laws of the universe. By personal being I mean an agent with the capability of rational free choice. This seems to be an adequate and clear definition.

3.) A particularly bad argument sometimes alleges that the God hypothesis brings up more questions than it answers, and therefore should be dismissed. This, however, relies on the shaky assumption that explanations which bring up more questions then they answer are bad explanations. Yet, a hypothesis should be judged based on how well it answers the data in question, not on the supposed implications of the hypothesis. Moreover, all sorts of scientific theories bring up more questions then they answer. Theories are constructed to explain data, and when they explain data extremely well, they are accepted regardless of the mind-boggling questions they bring up. For instance, should we reject general relativity or evolution just because they bring up a lot of questions? Almost everyone would rightly say no.

4.) The final argument against using God as an explanation is a pragmatic one- supposedly, if we accept God as the answer to a particular problem, then science will be stopped in its tracks and we will return to the mysticism and scientific ignorance of the Dark Ages.

But is this a realistic concern? I don’t think so. Nobody needs to claim that, if we establish God as the likely cause of a certain event, we should then close any other investigation of other possibilities on the issue. Quite the contrary, the scientific forum would still be open, and we would be allowed to continue to propose unique ideas, while maintaining that God is the best explanation for the given phenomenon for the time being.

This is the standard approach for any other issue. For example, although most people believe that the “Big Bang” theory accurately portrays the developing stages of the universe, that does not prevent other scientists from offering alternative theories. As with any discipline, the current majority view does not go unquestioned. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that the same situation would arise if God were proposed as the best explanation for a given phenomenon. Because of this, we see that there is no reason to dismiss the God hypothesis out of hand.

In any case, even if we decided, for practical reasons, to keep God out of so-called ‘scientific’ explanations, this would not negate the rationality of believing in God on the basis of the scientific evidence. Thus, even if the scientist is blocked by a methodological constraint to officially say; God is the best explanation of this phenomenon, surely he can still believe it deep down and profess his belief during his off hours. And, since most of us aren’t professional scientists, there is no problem with us accepting the evidence for God’s existence based on scientific knowledge.

So far, I have countered four reasons given for rejecting the God hypothesis, but are there any good arguments in favor of allowing God as an explanation. I think the answer is quite obvious- God might be the cause of something! If we remove a potential truth from the realm of “acceptable” truth, then we are artificially limiting our knowledge of the way the world actually is. After all, if we are really searching for truth, then we want to know the way the world actually is. But, what if the world is actually created by God, what if God actually did supernaturally intervene to create the first life form? By rejecting the possibility out of hand before the investigation even begins, we are potentially missing the truth.

A second reason for allowing God as an explanation is that to do otherwise is hypocritical. Nonbelievers almost always claim that theists have the burden of proof since they are the ones saying that something actually exists. While this is a hotly contested issue, I am personally more than happy to accept the burden of proof. However, if I then argue that God exists and the nonbeliever turns around and says, “ah-ah, you are using God-of-the-Gaps” then what exactly am I supposed to do? It is clearly unfair to give me the burden of proof but then not allow me to provide any evidence for my belief!

Well, I think we’ve seen that, generally speaking, the God-of-the-Gaps charge is inappropriate. But what about the follow-up claim that scientific advances are increasingly putting God out of a job, what I call the Argument from the History of Science?

Jeffrey Jay Lowder, a prominent atheist, put it this way-

“If there is a single theme unifying the history of science, it is that naturalistic explanations work. The history of science contains numerous examples of naturalistic explanations replacing supernatural ones and no examples of supernatural explanations replacing naturalistic ones.” 1

How can this argument be formulated? I will offer a possible deductive version containing three premises.

1.) If scientific explanations consistently replace supernaturalistic explanations, then it is unlikely that any remaining supernaturalistic explanations are true.
2.) Scientific explanations have repeatedly replaced supernaturalistic explanations.
3.) Therefore, it is unlikely that any remaining supernaturalistic explanations are true.

I would like to challenge both premise 1 and premise 2 of this argument.

According to premise 1, the tendency for scientific explanations to prevail is evidence against the existence of God. But is this premise sound?

First, to quote J.P. Moreland in Scaling the Secular City,

“Even if the number of gaps in science is small and getting smaller, this does not prove that there are no gaps at all. It begs the question to argue that just because most alleged gaps turned out to be explainable in scientific terms, then all alleged gaps will turn out this way. After all, what else would one expect of a gap but that there would be few of them? In this regard, gaps are like miracles. By their very nature, they are in the minority, for two reasons. God’s usual way of operating is through secondary causes…Second, the epistemological value of a miracle or a gap arises only against a backdrop where the miracles or gaps are rare and unexpected. It is in the contrast with the usual that a miracle or a gap obtains evidential value for being a direct act of God.” 2

A second problem with this claim is that it relies on historical contingencies to establish objective truth. Let me try to explain briefly.

Someone can only claim that supernaturalistic explanations have been overcome by scientific explanations if, in fact, people in the past have held certain things to have supernaturalistic explanations. Thus, in the past many ancients considered severe weather to be a direct act of God or gods. We now have a natural explanation for most weather. However, it is only a contingent fact that our ancestors believed in this way. By contingent I mean, it could have been otherwise. What if our ancestors had never thought that severe weather events were direct acts of God, but always assumed that they had some sort of natural cause? That certainly seems possible. But, if this were the case, then the nonbeliever would not be able to point to the Argument from the History of Science as evidence against God’s existence. Consequently, God’s existence would actually be more probable if ancients had not assumed that weather events were direct acts of God.

However, it seems absurd that the beliefs of our ancestors could have any bearing whatsoever on the whether or not God exists, which is an objective fact about reality one way or the other. The probability of the existence of God can and should only be based on the success of arguments that are currently used for his existence.

2.) What about the second premise, that scientific explanations have repeatedly replaced supernaturalistic ones? I have been kind in my formulation of the argument by withholding from the claim, which is often made, that all supernaturalistic claims have been replaced by scientific ones. But even this easier to defend second premise is nowhere near immune to criticism.

First of all, a point must be made about what is meant when one claims that supernaturalistic claims have never replaced naturalistic claims. Due to current scientific methodology, it is unlikely that scientists would, as a whole, admit that a supernaturalistic explanation has ‘overcome’ a naturalistic one. Though scientists may personally believe that God is the best explanation, they are not going to put them in a textbook. So, we must take it with a grain of salt when the atheist triumphantly declares that NO supernatural explanations have ever overcome natural ones.

The real question is whether or not scientific finds have supported arguments for God’s existence or not. I would like to offer three case studies which demonstrate that, contrary to the claims of the nonbeliever, scientific finds in the past few decades have actually bolstered rather than deteriorated the case for theism.

1.) The first topic I will discuss is the origin of life, which I’ve been using as an example throughout this show for a good reason. In the past, it was thought that spontaneous generation (that is, the creation of life from inanimate matter) was possible. It was thought that maggots were literally created out of molding food, rats were literally created out of garbage, and so on. Quite obviously, the theory of spontaneous generation renders naturalistic explanations for the origin of life more likely and exposes theism as a needless hypothesis with regards to the origin of life.

Unfortunately for atheists, the theory of spontaneous generation was refuted by later finds in science, and, obviously, nobody any longer believes that maggots emerge from spoiled food. Thus, in order to maintain the naturalistic worldview, a new theory for the origin of life was needed. Moreover, in a huge double-whammy, scientific finds have recently shown the cell to be fantastically complex and intricate, which makes the naturalistic origin of life without spontaneous generation even more unlikely.

I do not wish to digress into a discussion about whether or not the newest origin of life theories are plausible, as this is an issue for a separate podcast. However, it is, I think, fair to say that origin of life theories are far from complete and none are yet fully convincing. In any case, it would certainly be easier for the naturalist if spontaneous generation of rats were true! Therefore, evidence against spontaneous generation and for the incredible complexity of the cell have served to support the theistic claim that God created life.

2.) The second issue is the beginning of the universe. In the last episode I discussed the Cosmological Argument and offered some evidence, some of which is relatively recent, that the universe began to exist. As I mentioned there, prevailing opinion in the scientific community was that the universe had existed forever. Indeed, an eternal universe is the most comfortable fit for the naturalistic worldview. A beginning to the universe is extremely difficult to account for under atheism. On the other hand, it is difficult to imagine a more convenient find for theists- Especially Christian theists who had maintained against the consensus that the universe was created a finite time ago.

3.) The final example is the finding that the physical constants of the universe are remarkably fine-tuned for life. Neil Manson, editor of the book God and Design and himself a skeptic of the design argument, grants this evidence in his introduction. He says concerning recent developments in science;

“A series of breakthroughs in physics and observational astronomy led to the development of the Big Bang model and the discovery that the Universe is highly structured, with precisely defined parameters such as age, mass, entropy (degree of disorder), curvature, temperature, density, and rate of expansion. Using clever experimentation and astounding instrumentation, physical cosmologists were able to determine the values of these parameters to remarkably precise degrees. The specificity of the Universe prompted theoretical exploration of how the Universe would have been if the values of its parameters had been different. This led to the discovery of numerous ‘anthropic coincidences’ and supported the claim that the Universe is fine-tuned for life- that is, that the values of its parameters are such that, if they differed even slightly, life of any sort could not possibly have arisen in the Universe.” 3

This seems to me another very convenient scientific find for theists, while very inconvenient for naturalists. Now, naturally, atheists are going to deny that the Design Argument is persuasive for other reasons, but they cannot deny the scientific evidence that makes the argument possible in the first place. But if this evidence does not count as favoring theism over naturalism, then what evidence does? What possible scientific evidence could theoretically support theism more than this?

So, given these three powerful examples, naturalists are going to have a tough time even matching theism on this battlefront, let alone surpassing it to the degree required for any sort of inference to the Argument from the History of Science.

Thus, both premises of the Argument from the History of Science seem to be false. Scientific discoveries are no threat to Christian theists.

Book Reviews

Scaling the Secular City

Released in 1987 by J.P. Moreland, Scaling the Secular City is now considered a classic work in Christian apologetics. The book covers a large scope, everything from the existence of God to the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

On the issue of God’s existence, Moreland provides a defense of the Cosmological Argument and the Design Argument. Even more interesting, he formulates an Argument from Mind for God’s existence. One chapter of his book is dedicated to defending substance dualism, which is essentially the view that humans have a soul that is distinct from their body. His provocative argument is well-presented, even though the discussion becomes quite technical. Moreland also has strong discussions on the Historical Reliability of the New Testament and the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

As far as a comprehensive apologetics text defending historical Christianity, Moreland’s Scaling the Secular City is second to none. My rating for this book: 4.5 stars out of 5.

The End of Faith

In 2005 Sam Harris released the New York Times bestseller The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason. In this book, Harris tries to demonstrate that religion and reason are, and always have been, in a brutal clash, and that religious faith and zeal have inspired and continue to inspire the worst human behavior.

For the larger part of the book Harris simply discusses some of the atrocities committed historically and in the present in the name of religion, including September 11 and suicide bombings in Israel, the Inquisition, and the Salem Witch Trials. But if he comes down so hard on religion because of atrocities done in its name, then we may rightly ask how he, as an atheist, can he explain the atheistic regimes of Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot, which collectively were responsible for millions of deaths. His response to this obvious criticism is revealing. Harris claims that, while these regimes may not have been explicitly religious, they were the result of poor thinking. He states in his afterword on page 231-

“While some of the most despicable political movements in human history have been explicitly irreligious, they were not especially rational. The public pronouncements of these regimes have been mere litanies of delusion- about race, economics, national identity, the march of history, or the moral dangers of intellectualism.” He goes on to say “I know of no society in human history that ever suffered because its people became too reasonable.”

Thus, we see that The End of Faith does not really offer any support for atheism or oppose religion, it simply supports reason and opposes blind faith. Otherwise, his critique of religion is completely arbitrary, since he admits in this quoted passage that the real enemy is not simply religious faith, but irrationality itself. Thus, Harris needs to demonstrate that Christianity inherently necessitates irrational faith if he wishes to demonstrate that it should be rejected. Throughout the book, Harris merely assumes that so-called “fundamentalist” Christians can only exist through blind faith, but his assumption is both unproven and incorrect. Despite writing at length about the supposed irrationality of religion, Harris never once deals with any of the arguments offered by Christians either historically or in the present day. There is no critique of the Design or Cosmological Arguments, no consideration of the evidence for the empty tomb, no critique of biblical passages or doctrines. Harris simply assumes that Christianity requires blind faith, argues that blind faith is both stupid and dangerous, and declares victory. The problem is that he has never shown that Christianity requires blind faith.

Thus, this book, like his more recent Letter to a Christian Nation is just another social critique of some of the bad effects of religious extremism. But this has nothing to do with whether or not Christianity is true. My rating for this book is 2 stars out of 5.

Audience Question

For the audience question for this episode, I’d like to answer a few questions posed by Oystein in the comments to a previous episode concerning the Cosmological Argument. He asks a series of four questions which are often posed by skeptics of the argument.

1.) The first claim is that the term ‘begin to exist’ is paradoxical or nonsensical when applied to the universe, since time is a constituent of the universe.

When we say that the universe began to exist, we just mean that there is a definite time, call it t0, at which the universe began to exist. Prior to this, there was no universe, by definition, since there is no prior. At best, this objection reveals that we need to be careful in our understanding of what is meant by “begin to exist”, but I think it is noteworthy that, to my knowledge, almost nobody challenges the argument itself based on these grounds.

2.) The second question concerns the meaning of the word ‘cause’ used in the argument. Since causal relationships exist within the universe, it does not make sense to talk about cause outside this context.

Those who make this response want to restrict the application of the causal principle to causes ‘within’ the universe. However, they must give some sort of justification for this restriction. The first premise is not a scientific law, rather, it is a metaphysical principle that something cannot come from nothing for no reason. As a metaphysical principle, it applies to all causes, not just causes within the universe.

Put another way, since the empirical data supports causality, the objector must show the relevant difference that makes uncaused beginnings possible when there are no preceding moments of time as opposed to impossible when there are preceding moments of time.

To push the issue even further, William Lane Craig has pointed out that “Indeed, given a dynamic or tensed view of time, every moment of time is a fresh beginning, qualitatively indistinguishable from a first moment of time, for when any moment is present, earlier moments have passed away and do not exist. Thus, if the universe could exist uncaused at a first moment of time, it could exist uncaused at any moment of time. There just does not seem to be any relevant difference. It follows that if the latter is metaphysically impossible, so is the former.” 4

3.) The third claim is that the universe may have had antecedent conditions of which we have no knowledge. Couldn’t an antecedent cause of some sort explain the existence of the universe?

I would first note that this objection is extremely flimsy. Notice that there is no mention of just what ‘antecedent’ causes would or even could create the universe. It is simply thrown out as a possibility.

In any case, according to the Big Bang model of the universe’s origins, which is very well-supported, especially compared to other cosmological models, time itself began with the big bang. Thus, any ‘antecedent’ causes would have to exist timelessly. But, as we will see when addressing the fourth objection, such a timeless cause can only be a personal being who wills to create the universe.

Moreover, if the arguments against the existence of an actual infinite are sound, which I think they are, then any talk of antecedent causes is doomed to fail. This is because, of each antecedent cause, we can ask, did it have a beginning? If it is supposed to be a mechanical, non-personal cause, then the answer must be yes, since according to the Kalam arguments it is impossible for something to exist for an infinite amount of time. So we must ask, what caused this cause? And what caused that cause? And so on. Eventually, we will have to arrive at a timeless cause, which simply can’t be mechanical. So the objection does not solve the problem, it only pushes it back a little bit. But the problem will not go away for the atheist.

4.) The final objection is: Even if the universe was caused to exist by something else, that something else need not be what we call God.

Now, this final objection was actually answered during the episode on the Cosmological Argument. However, this is a very common objection and so it can’t hurt to repeat the response here.

Once we determine that the universe does indeed have a cause, we have to look at the circumstances of the universe’s beginning and decide what type of cause is necessary. In this case, it seems that the cause would need to be immaterial, since it is outside of the universe, changeless, since there is no time without the universe, and with no time there is no change, and timeless, since if the cause were not timeless than the cause would require a cause, and so on. At the end of the day, there must be a timeless cause.

But all of this, I think, is secondary to the most vital question we can ask at this point- is the cause necessarily a personal being? For, an atheist will be extremely loathe to admit that there is a personal creator of the universe! In fact, I think it is fair to say that if we conclude that there is a personal creator of the universe, even if this is all that we know, then atheism is undermined.

So, is the cause personal? There are two arguments I would like to provide that, indeed, the cause must be personal.

According to the first argument, we know that the first cause must be timeless and immaterial, for reasons already discussed. But, the only possible timeless and immaterial things we can identify are abstract objects and minds. But, abstract objects do not stand in causal relations. Therefore, the cause of the universe must be a mind. Those who object to this line of reasoning must answer this question: If not a mind, what timeless, immaterial thing could possibly cause the universe?

The second argument is very difficult to explain, but I will do my best. Basically, we know that the cause of the universe must be a personal being, because an impersonal cause only responds to conditions, it does not decide to do things. Thus, an impersonal cause of the universe would only create the universe if the conditions for executing the creation of the universe were present. But, the conditions for such a creation would either be always present or never present, since without the universe there is no time and no change, as we’ve already discussed. But, this obviously creates a problem, because if the conditions were never present, then the universe would never be created, which is absurd. On the other hand, if the conditions were always present, then the universe would have been created from eternity, which conflicts with all the evidence for a beginning of the universe which the Kalam Cosmological Argument advances. Thus, the cause of the universe must be a personal being who can freely choose to create the universe without the need for conditions.

If these two philosophical arguments for the personhood of the cause are unconvincing, then this only means that we must pursue other arguments if we want to establish that the cause of the universe is personal. In fact, there is such evidence to be found in the Teleological Argument, which I will cover in an upcoming podcast. The Teleological Argument is one of the most widely discussed arguments for God’s existence in the literature these days, and it is based on the scientific evidence for fine-tuning discussed earlier in the episode. Therefore, even if all three of the philosophical arguments provided for a personal cause are flawed, there is still excellent evidence that the cause is indeed personal.

NOTES:

1. It appears that this page is no longer on the Internet. However, the majority of the article was reproduced in my response to his article.

2. Moreland, J.P. Scaling the Secular City (Baker Academic: 1987)

3. Manson, Neil. God and Design. (Routledge: 2003)

4. Craig, William Lane. Must the Beginning of the Universe Have a Personal Cause?: A Rejoinder. Found at http://www.leaderu.com/offices/billcraig/docs/morriston.html



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