God of the Gaps?

Hey Philosophy Foosball Bloggers, sorry for the long delay between posts. It is the end of the semester and my work is starting to catch up making me a very busy fellow. Just to let you know, I am working on something, and you can count on me being a more frequent blogger over Christmas break.

But to keep you distracted until then I found this interesting article by the philosopher Alexander Pruss on the God of the Gaps Argument. For those sympathetic to Intelligent Design, the so called God of the Gaps criticism is given to their position frequently. From what I understand it to be in the limited reading I have done, ID claims that certain things of the natural world exhibit improbability and specificity which cannot be explained naturalistically thereby inferring design. Critics of ID say the argument is simply an appeal to the ignorance of our modern day scientific knowledge of the phenomena being explained.

I'm still thinking about these arguments, and I probably will be for a long time before I can come to any conclusion. Until then, let's have a look at the article.

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Dr. V said...

I have taken a quick look at Alexander Pruss's article and some of the discussion, and I've found it interesting. If I may, I would like to take the discussion in a slightly different direction here.

Before I begin, I want to emphasize that the God-of-the-gaps objection to intelligent design inferences is an important one. Very often in the past, the more science discovers about the natural world, the more it is the case that natural non-intelligent causes can explain what used to be thought of as explainable only by an intelligent cause such as God. This is true and important.

Nevertheless, I think that two additional points should be emphasized as well.

First, it should be emphasized that science not only discovers what natural non-intelligent causes can do (thereby rightly kiboshing some premature appeals to a supernatural intelligent cause), but science also discovers what natural non-intelligent causes cannot do. The more we learn of nature, the more we learn of its causal capacities, including its causal limits. This is postive knowledge, not a gap in our understanding.

Second, it should be emphasized that the more we learn of intelligent causes (e.g., us), the more we learn of what intelligent causes can do. This is positive knowledge too.

Now (and here is my point, finally), if we find an event or configuation in nature that, from what we actually know of nature's relevant causal capacities, nature cannot do (or very probably cannot do), and if we find that the event or configuration in question strongly resembles what we know intelligent causes can do (but calls for even more intelligence than the best of our intelligence), then the inference to an intelligent cause would seem to be reasonable. Why? Because it would be based on what we know, not on ignorance or gaps.

I think we make this sort of inference, at least roughly, in everyday life, when we try to figure out whether a cause was due to a person's intelligent action or not. Think about finding the following series of letters and spaces on your Scrabble board: "It's your turn to pay for the pizza."

Pizza or no pizza, it's some food for thought.


P.S. Thanks, Mark, for your fine "blogmastering"!

Jordan said...

Here's a link to a relevant video clip which features Dr. John Lennox discussing the "God of the gaps" argument. He distinguished between "good gaps" and "bad gaps" and makes a couple of other good points drawn from historical scientists' discoveries.


Dr. V said...

Thanks, Jordan, for the link to John Lennox speaking on “gaps.” I very much enjoyed the video.

I have recently been looking at some of Lennox’s work (a chapter by Lennox in Beyond Opinion, a book edited by Ravi Zacharias, is very helpful; also helpful is Lennox’s book God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God?; also the Dawkins-Lennox/God Delusion debate is enlightening). And I think that a couple of comments on Lennox’s understanding of the gaps may be helpful here.

(Note: My comments are merely an attempt to clarify; I’m not really disagreeing with Lennox. In fact, I think Lennox’s work is super! If any Providence student has a desire to pursue graduate studies in philosophy of science at University of Oxford, I would be inclined to recommend studying with Lennox. I think that he would be an excellent guide.)

Lennox distinguishes between “bad gaps” and “good gaps.” The bad gaps are gaps in our knowledge about the world, gaps that get filled as we investigate the world. I think Lennox labels them “bad” because sometimes we mistakenly fill them with God. That is, we don’t know how it happened, i.e., we are ignorant of how it happened, so we conclude that God did it. This would be an argument from ignorance, a.k.a. the god-of-the-gaps fallacy. At is turns out, the more science discovers, the more the god of the gaps is squeezed out of the gaps.

Lennox’s good gaps, on the other hand, are gaps in reality, not knowledge. These gaps are the actual limits to what natural causes can in fact do. This is not based on an argument from ignorance. Rather, we examine an event or phenomenon (say, a written message or DNA), and we discern from what we know of nature, that natural unintelligent causes don’t have the causal capacity for producing this. I think Lennox labels them “good” because these gaps are real and we have positive knowledge about them.

I think that Lennox’s distinction between the gaps is crucially important. But I wonder if the labels “good” and “bad” are really helpful. It seems to me that the gaps per se are neither good nor bad; rather, the goodness or badness enters into the picture by how we use/misuse them. No one likes to be ignorant, but sometimes admitting ignorance is a virtue. Saying “I don’t know” or “I have a gap in my knowledge” isn’t bad in itself; it’s being honest. The badness enters when I mistakenly or deliberately base my argument on this ignorance (there would be more badness if it’s deliberate). Also, the actual gap or limit to nature’s causes isn’t a good per se; it just is. (I suppose that in a general sense it’s good because nature is a creation by God, but that would be a background sense, it seems to me.)

Maybe instead of good gaps and bad gaps we should simply say, respectively, gaps in nature’s capacities and gaps in our knowledge?

Also, I wonder how the gaps relate to, say, an historical investigation of Jesus’ resurrection?


Jordan said...

Yes, I very much agree with your elaboration on the video. I think "bad" and "good" aren't the best labels to give the gaps since, as you point out, there is no moral imperative attached to either one of gaps per se; the morality comes into play as a second order in the way we investigate a gap, how honest we are, how well we recognize our own presuppositions, how well we represent it, etc. I suppose Lennox was over-simplifying a bit by using those terms.

Also, it seems to me that many arguments against theism or ID, like the God of the gaps argument for example, often fail to miss these key distinctions (gaps in knowledge vs. gaps in reality). This leads to misrepresentation. I think the straw man fallacy is the most common fallacy committed on both sides of a debate. The issues at hand are often more complex and nuanced than they initially appear. It's a good reminder to me to make sure I notice any distinctions in my opponent's position before I argue something as well.

Thanks for the interesting discussion Mark and Dr. V!

Uchitrakar said...

God of the gaps

I will begin this article with two postulates: 1) God has created this universe, 2) He has brought man in this universe with some purpose.
I am not claiming here that these two postulates are true, or that I can prove them to be true. But I want to show here that if these two postulates are true, then God will always be the God of the gaps. Anyone who will be reading this article should not forget that there is an “if” clause in the last sentence.
Now I will begin with the supposition that God has created this universe. If God has created this universe, then He could have created it in four different ways: 1) He created it in such a way that there was no necessity for Him to intervene in it after creation, 2) After creation He intervened in it, but these interventions were a bare minimum, that is, He intervened only when these were absolutely necessary. In order to clarify my point here, I will say that He intervened only when He found that without His intervention the universe would come to a standstill, 3) He created the universe in such a way that in order to keep it going He had to make very frequent interventions in it, 4) God's total intervention after creation.
If it was the purpose of God to keep mankind crippled in every possible way, then He would have adopted either the third or the fourth way while creating the universe. This is because in these two cases man, in spite of his having sufficient intelligence and reasoning power, will fail to unveil the secrets of nature, because in almost every phenomenon of nature that he will decide to study he will ultimately find that there always remains an unknown factor, for which he will have no explanation. For him the book of nature will thus remain closed forever. But if it were God's purpose that man be master of His creation, then it is quite natural for Him that He would try to keep the book of nature as much open to him as possible, so that with the little intelligence he has been endowed with man will be able to decipher the language of nature, and with that acquired knowledge he will also be able to improve the material conditions of his life. In that case God will try to adopt the policy of maximum withdrawal from His creation. He will create the universe in such a way that without His intervention the created world will be able to unfold itself. However that does not mean that He will never intervene. He will definitely intervene when without His intervention the created world would become stagnant. In such a scenario man will be able to give an explanation of almost all physical events in scientific language. But in those cases where God has actually intervened, he will fail to do so.
So I think there is no reason for us to be ashamed of the "God of the gaps" hypothesis. Yes, if God has created the universe, and if God’s purpose was that man be master of His creation, then He would try to keep as little gap in His creation as possible. But the minimum gap that would be ultimately left can never be bridged by any sort of scientific explanation. God will also reside in that gap. Why should we be ashamed of that?
Therefore, I can conclude this article in this way: If God created this universe, and if God wanted man to be the master of His creation, then God would willingly choose to be “God of the gaps”.
A theistic God will always prefer to be the God of the gaps.