God of the gaps
| The dreams of man|
|Disturbing your sleep|
“”Explanations exist; they have existed for all time; there is always a well-known solution to every human problem — neat, plausible, and wrong.
God of the gaps (or a divine fallacy) is a logical fallacy that occurs when believers invoke Goddidit (or a variant) in order to account for some natural phenomena that science cannot (at the time of the argument) explain. This concept resembles what systems theorists refer to as an "explanatory principle". "God of the gaps" is a bad argument not only on logical grounds, but on empirical grounds: there is a long history of "gaps" being filled and the remaining gaps for God thus getting smaller and smaller, suggesting "we don't know yet" as an alternative that works better in practice; naturalistic explanations for still-mysterious phenomena always remain possible, especially in the future where research may uncover more information.
- P1: Natural phenomenon X seems mysterious.
- P2: God works in mysterious ways.
- C: Therefore, God causes X!
For the less religious, substitute God with another thing-you-don't-understand (real or imaginary) and get an application of a different didit fallacy. For example, the idea of quantum consciousness relies on quantum-mechanics-of-the-gaps.
The human brain appears to be hardwired to find causes for any "effect" experienced in the world, from eerie sounds, to scary thunder, to terrifying ground shakes, and deadly diseases. Early humans, just beginning to seek explanations for natural things they experienced in their world, found answers by saying those things were caused by gods, or other supernatural figures (like ghosts or witches); many early "gods" are storm gods (such as Thor) or gods of the wind (the kami, in Japan). The very act of birth was apparently seen as magical and godlike.
But as humans explored more, they found naturalistic answers to simple things they once attributed to gods. As humans developed a simplified scientific method, more "gaps" were filled with naturalistic answers. God or the supernatural were no longer needed as an explanation for those items. And finally, as science took hold of humanity's quest to understand the world, each advance in scientific knowledge reduced the area where a divine power was necessary. Galileo and Newton undid the idea that planetary motion was accomplished through the efforts of angels. Lightning was revealed to be an electrical buildup and discharge in the atmosphere. We learned that earthquakes were shifts in the plates of the Earth's crust. Even things not yet proven can be shown to have likely or possible natural causes. For example, the discovery by astronomers of organic molecules in space revealed that life on Earth had a possible explanation that did not (necessarily) involve a creator god.
“”If a philosopher or social scientist were to try to encapsulate a single principle that yoked together the intellectual process of civilization, it would be a gradual dismantling of presumptions of magic. Brick by brick, century by century, with occasional burps and hiccups, the wall of superstition has been coming down. Science and medicine and political philosophy have been on a relentless march in one direction only — sometimes slow, sometimes at a gallop, but never reversing course. Never has an empirical scientific discovery been deemed wrong and replaced by a more convincing mystical explanation. ("Holy cow, Dr. Pasteur! I've examined the pancreas of a diabetic dog, and darned if it's NOT an insulin deficiency, but a little evil goblin dwelling inside. And he seems really pissed!") Some magical presumptions have stubbornly persisted way longer than others, but have eventually, inexorably fallen to logic, reason and enlightenment, such as the assumption of the divine right of kings and the entitlement of aristocracy. That one took five millennia, but fall it did.
When each gap is filled, the believer is forced to jump to the next gap. This game can continue ad nauseam, since human knowledge will never be able to explain everything (by definition of infinity, and by principles such as Gödel's incompleteness theorems). However, the argument is an instance of the logical fallacy of argument from ignorance.
The ultimate "gap" that likely cannot be bridged is "well, God started everything", because even if something like the m-theory explaining how our universe could have "big banged" in the first place was proven to be true someone could always ask, "yes, but what created the membranes?".
Creationists generally declare that, rather than filling a gap, a new piece of information simply generates two gaps, one on either side of the newly-established fact — meaning that additional information is understood to diminish the observational base of a theory. As such, increases in knowledge would paradoxically increase human ignorance.
The God of the Gaps argument indicates enormous conceit because, by implication, a believer indicates that he (or she) has understanding of all there is, except those things God did, and therefore declares that a miracle is necessary to make him (or her) fail to understand. It needs hardly to be said that this belief system has little do to with observation, and much to do with blind belief in the unknown.
Devaluation of theists' idea of God
For theists the weakness of "God of the Gaps" methodology is that their arguments for the existence of God are weakened every time scientists fill the "gaps" with real knowledge.
However this is just "Goddit" on a slightly larger scale, and secondly not all the gaps into which God is shoehorned exist in the theory of evolution.
Life and evolution
One of the more prominent examples of current "God of the Gaps" thinking is the Intelligent Design movement, which claims that some aspects of how life formed are impossible to explain — not only with today's scientific knowledge, but ever.
Another well-worn God-gap is that of abiogenesis. Again, as there is no generally accepted explanation for the appearance of life on the planet, the position that Goddidit is taken as default by creationists.
The God of the Gaps argument finds what is perhaps its most popular manifestation in ideas about first cause. Ultimately, some people will always believe that something cannot come from nothing, and that any scientifically explained manifestation/creation of our Universe will require that something "caused" it to exist. (There is, of course, rarely a serious question of what caused the causer, or who the causer is.)
Amusingly, Gödel's incompleteness theorems prove that God will always have a little gap left to hide in, no matter how much humanity learns, but if God is used to fill that gap, there must be an inconsistency.
The O'Reilly Paradox
Because many of the people using this tactic are fundies they often have a loose understanding of modern science. This produces an interesting phenomenon where the person trying to discredit science refers to a scientific principle that is well understood. A famous example of this is Bill O'Reilly's declaration that ocean tides were an unexplained phenomenon, implying the Almighty willed the oceans to move. This error is hilarious, as the cause of tidal movement has been well understood for centuries. Another less famous, but still incredibly hilarious example comes from one of SpiritScience's videos. Here we see a mixture of falsehoods and facts that could easily be explained by a ten-second Google search, such as capillary action or surface tension.
When confronted with questions about a global flood, even seemingly rational people will resort to God of the Gaps with hidden under flowery language. For instance, one might ask, "How did Noah suddenly have advanced knowledge of calculus to build such a ship? And how did Noah even manage to lift beams that must have been bigger than 50.8cm by 50.8cm (that's the size they used on the Wyoming, the largest wooden ship ever built)?" will likely elicit the response, "Well, as for the beams, it seems likely, even probable, that God would have helped Noah along. Along those same lines, it wasn't that Noah learned calculus, it was just that he was following God's instructions". Clearly a solid argument to explain valid arguments against the Flood.
More than a gap-filler
Some creationists (for example Werner Gitt, in Did God Use Evolution?) try to refute this refutation of their arguments by saying that for them, God is not just a gap filler. But that is beside the point. For anyone switching to creationism because of the God of the Gaps argument, God would be. This is why the argument does not work.
“”No one infers a god from the simple, from the known, from what is understood, but from the complex, the unknown, and the incomprehensible. Our ignorance is God; what we know is science.
|—Robert Green Ingersoll|
“”People think that epilepsy is divine simply because they don't have any idea what causes epilepsy. But I believe that someday we will understand what causes epilepsy, and at that moment, we will cease to believe that it's divine. And so it is with everything in the universe.
“”How wrong it is to use God as a stop-gap for the incompleteness of our knowledge. If in fact the frontiers of knowledge are being pushed further and further back (and that is bound to be the case), then God is being pushed back with them, and is therefore continually in retreat. We are to find God in what we know, not in what we don't know.
“”Does it mean, if you don’t understand something, and the community of physicists don’t understand it, that means God did it? Is that how you want to play this game? Because if it is, here’s a list of things in the past that the physicists at the time didn't understand [and now we do understand] […]. If that’s how you want to invoke your evidence for God, then God is an ever-receding pocket of scientific ignorance that’s getting smaller and smaller and smaller as time moves on — so just be ready for that to happen, if that’s how you want to come at the problem.
|—Neil deGrasse Tyson|
“”One must state it plainly. Religion comes from the period of human prehistory where nobody — not even the mighty Democritus who concluded that all matter was made from atoms — had the smallest idea what was going on. It comes from the bawling and fearful infancy of our species, and is a babyish attempt to meet our inescapable demand for knowledge (as well as for comfort, reassurance and other infantile needs). Today the least educated of my children knows much more about the natural order than any of the founders of religion, and one would like to think — though the connection is not a fully demonstrable one — that this is why they seem so uninterested in sending fellow humans to hell.
“”If a faithful account was rendered of Man's ideas upon Divinity, he would be obliged to acknowledge, that for the most part the word "gods" has been used to express the concealed, remote, unknown causes of the effects he witnessed; that he applies this term when the spring of the natural, the source of known causes, ceases to be visible: as soon as he loses the thread of these causes, or as soon as his mind can no longer follow the chain, he solves the difficulty, terminates his research, by ascribing it to his gods… When, therefore, he ascribes to his gods the production of some phenomenon… does he, in fact, do any thing more than substitute for the darkness of his own mind, a sound to which he has been accustomed to listen with reverential awe?
|—Baron d'Holbach, 1770|
“”God was invented to explain mystery. God is always invented to explain those things that you do not understand. Now, when you finally discover how something works, you get some laws which you're taking away from God; you don't need him anymore. But you need him for the other mysteries. So therefore you leave him to create the universe because we haven't figured that out yet; you need him for understanding those things which you don't believe the laws will explain, such as consciousness, or why you only live to a certain length of time — life and death — stuff like that. God is always associated with those things that you do not understand. Therefore I don't think that the laws can be considered to be like God because they have been figured out.
- See the Wikipedia article on Systems theory.
- Bateson, Gregory (2000). Steps to an Ecology of Mind: Collected Essays in Anthropology, Psychiatry, Evolution, and Epistemology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p. 39. ISBN 9780226039053. https://books.google.com/books?id=HewJbnQmn1gC. Retrieved 2019-01-03. "[...] an hypothesis tries to explain some particular something but an explanatory principle - like 'gravity' or 'instinct' - really explains nothing. It's a sort of conventional agreement between scientists to stop trying to explain things at a certain point."
- The "God Of The Gaps" Argument
- "Bill O'Reilly vs David Silverman - Tide Goes In, Tide Goes Out". http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wb3AFMe2OQY.
- "Spirit Science 20 ~ Water". http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XtDennZr5fA&t=1m48s.
- "Richard Feynman's Views on the Irrational Origin of Religion". http://web.archive.org/web/20130415063353/http://www.bayarea.net/~kins/God/Feynman_atheism.html.