God of the Gaps (If You Can’t Explain it, God did it!)

 

This argument is most often used as a theistic argument, which is to say used to prove the existence of a particular god (most often the God of Abraham). However this is a deistic argument, not a theistic one. This is an argument for the existence of a higher power, not any particular god or religion. Even if this argument were granted in its entirety, it would prove only a higher power, and isn't evidence for the God of Abraham any more than Zeus, Apollo, or Hanuman.

If God is the mystery of the universe, god has to be more to you than where science has
yet to tread, because if the only reason you’re saying [it’s god] is because it’s
a mystery, get ready to have that undone
~Neil DeGrasse Tyson

“There is no shame in not knowing. The problem arises when irrational thought and attendant behavior fill the vacuum left by ignorance.” ~Neil deGrasse Tyson

The “God of The Gaps” argument is the axis around which nearly every theistic argument revolves. There is no better delineation of the difference between science and faith than this argument: upon encounter with the unexplained, it is the instinct of the theist to dismissively wave his hand and say it is the work of God, while it is the instinct of the scientist to begin to try to understand the nature of it. God of the Gaps is the single most commonly used argument in theism, employed in probably hundreds of thousands, if not billions of unique instances. It’s existed since the first theistic religion, and in fact most theistic arguments (like Prime Mover and miracles) are actually just dressed up versions of it. Without this argument there are practically no defenses of theism. But what makes this argument so undeniably interesting is that in the history of it’s impassioned use, it’s never once worked. It’s been wrong–every. single. time. Think of it: as many as a billion unique times it’s been used, and it’s always been wrong! It’s probably the single most failed argument in the history of human discourse. And yet this staggering failure rate hasn’t deterred theists in the slightest.

The argument is simple: Science can not explain X, therefore X proves God (or Apollo, Poseidon, Vishnu, whatever you want).

This argument was first used to explain large storms, earthquakes, lunar eclipses, the tides, and other phenomena which, in our infancy, we found terrifying. A quirk of the human race (an evolutionary one) is that we prefer a bad answer to a question over no answer. So if a plague wiped out a herd of livestock or a nearby village, we would look for the most proximate and easy explanation. We glommed onto these events as proof–both of the existence of the god du jour–and that he was upset with us. This gave us the illusion of control over our world, and was a great comfort (repairing relations with the deity(s) usually required some kind of sacrifice, often by burning someone alive). Challenging the notion that we’d correctly identified the source of an earthquake or lightning storm became an attack on people’s very peace of mind (as well as an attack on the dignity of said deity, who was usually capricious and quick to offend). Rational thought was strongly discouraged, even considered dangerous.

Over time, Mars’ orbit appears to slow, reverse, go backwards, and then revers again, in violation of the laws of nature.
Over time, Mars appears to slow, stop, then reverse orbit (retrograde), in apparent violation of the laws of nature. After a short time moving backwards, it returns to a normal orbit.

If a man standing alone on a field was struck by lightning, he would begin to catalog in his mind any recent acts which could have angered this invisible entity. Plagues, storms, a bad harvest–these weren’t random or deterministic–they were, by nature of their mystery, conclusive and irrefutable proof of God, making study both moot and dangerous.

Imagine where we’d be if these beliefs had been left unchallenged? If men of curiosity and wonder followed the warnings of their elders, and left well enough alone? Our cultural and technological advancements would be outstripped by the Amish.

Even Ptolemy was not immune to God of the Gaps thinking; when he discovered that that Mars sometimes went backwards, he saw it as proof of God, who was deliberately violating the laws of physics to poke fun at man’s attempt to understand the world. What other explanation could there be? It took Galileo to figure out that if you put the sun in the center of the solar system, instead of earth, you’d see that Mars wasn’t going backwards at all, it just appeared that way as we passed the other side of its orbit(1)The church didn’t appreciate his insights; they arrested him and forced him to recant. And while the modern church lacks the power to control thought and expression that it did even 200 years ago (and not by their choice, but rather in the face of an unrelenting onslaught of free thinkers refusing to allow superstition to dominate our lives), there’s still to this day vitriolic defiance against, and fear of, knowledge and learning by those under the influence of religion. . I’m old enough to remember the retrograde spin of Venus being considered proof of god’s existence (it appeared to defy the law of angular momentum, until we realized that the planet is upside down). Even a rainbow was thought to be proof of God (after all, how would the colors know what order to line up in if someone didn’t tell them(2)Note the consciousness bias. We believe that there must be a consciousness behind natural phenomena. That’s why we need a prime mover argument. We can’t fathom that a non conscious force moved the universe, it must be conscious, just like someone deliberately made the colors of a rainbow. That argument seems silly now that we know it’s a natural phenomena. But to the best of our understanding, everything is a natural phenomena, and modern arguments that there must be an intelligent designer are just as biased, and no more convincing, than the rainbow argument.; note too the use of a perfect circular shape-the shape of the heavens. Seriously, who could argue with that?

For thousands of years people have claimed that anything which was not understood was the work of god. As these things became understood, theists would fight, resist the understanding, until the evidence became so strong that even the common layman thought priests madmen to deny it, at which point theists fell back, reinterpreted their texts to align with reality, and prepared a new front line defense of god just beyond the new frontier of our knowledge and understanding. And the pattern continues to this day, thousands of years later: fossils were sprinkled upon the earth to test faith(3)Theists were quickly shamed out of that one, though a number still believe it, that–since we don’t know what caused the big bang, that proves god, or that gaps in the evolutionary record (far fewer than theists claim, not that it matters, they’d be happy with only one) prove God.

This argument has never, ever worked, not once. And no amount of commitment to the belief that the frontier of god’s domain has finally been found has ever managed to make it true. For thousands of years, with every naturally occurring phenomenon, given enough time, we’ve found the actual cause of natural phenomena. Time, and time, and time again, this argument is made, and falls. As I said, no other argument in human history has been used more, and none has failed more. People have been willing to murder over it, die over it, rape women and torture children over it, and it’s never been right. As strongly as theists today believe that dark energy proves god, or ignorance of time prior to the big bang proves god, a thousand years ago a theist held with the same conviction that the regularity of tides proved God (nature is random, there must be a conscious hand forcing order to the tide). And while this alone is sufficient to completely dismiss all Gaps arguments out of hand, there are even more problems with it.

First of all, this is a deistic argument, not a theistic one. This is to say that even if it were true, that a deity was moving the waves or making storms, it would prove only a higher power; it would not prove, or even suggest, any one god over another. The hand moving Mars, aligning rainbows, or in some other way screwing with nature, could just as easily be that of Poseidon as it could be Yahweh, Zeus, Apollo, or some other deity as yet imagined or one long forgotten (so called “relieved” religious claim exception to this, the anwser to them is here). Each religion naturally considers it proof for their god, and ignores other theistic possibilities. I’ve never heard God of The Gaps employed agnostic to faith, but rather in direct service of a specific one. But make no mistake, this is not an argument for the truth of the bible, or moses, or any of the 10 commandments, but for a higher power of some kind, that’s all.

Secondly, it appears as if the universe may be infinitely expanding and infinitely divisible. Given that our brains are finite, there will always be things we do not know or understand. That we can not now, or probably ever, comprehend the universe fully, will always leave us with gaps in our knowledge. If that is to be proof of god, the argument becomes as follows: Because our minds are finite (because we are not gods ourselves), there must be a god. That is a deductively invalid argument.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, this argument has always failed. Given enough time, we’ve overcome it.

Ignorance of something is not proof of anything.

And what is so terrible about this argument is the damage it does. Aside from generating complacency (if we already know how something happens, there’s no need to investigate it), it actually incentives theists to oppose science and learning, the most powerful tools in mankind’s toolkit. And while the church doesn’t have nearly the power it used to, we still see opposition to scientific realities, like evolution, because people both need to believe in god, and have coupled their belief to something that simply isn’t true. It leaves us with a very large class of people genuinely opposed to science, the one thing that has done more in the last 300 years to improve the human condition than anything in the 10,000 years before that.

The only way to believe this argument is through the Tinkerbell Effect, the commitment to belief (another psychological phenomena with a prodigious failure rate), the feeling of every gambler that enough failures have led to know where you must be right, and if you can just keep up your faith, play that hand just one more time(4)As I finished up my first draft of this, a great deal more on the big bang, a small science team discovered gravitational waves. This rocked the scientific community, but led to an interesting possibility: the big bang might be part of a larger cosmos, an infinite multiverse of universes being created and destroyed all around us. It took less than a week before I found the first theistic article, and you know as well as I what it said: “Ah, well maybe the big bang was part of the multiverse, but what made that multiverse? Don’t know? See, it was God!”

God of the Gaps is the central argument for theistic faith, and it just doesn’t work (not even close). The universe is an infinite place, and our minds very limited. We will never know all the answers, so for those who want to believe in god, there will always be gaps for him to hide in. But these gaps, once light has been shown upon them, have never let him hide there long, and the fact that we do not know everything certainly isn’t proof of anything.

 

Neil deGrasse Tyson on Moyers & Company.

 

deGrasse Tyson on why he mocked O’Reilly for saying “the tides come in
and out, you can’t explain that [therefore there is a god]”.

 

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. The church didn’t appreciate his insights; they arrested him and forced him to recant. And while the modern church lacks the power to control thought and expression that it did even 200 years ago (and not by their choice, but rather in the face of an unrelenting onslaught of free thinkers refusing to allow superstition to dominate our lives), there’s still to this day vitriolic defiance against, and fear of, knowledge and learning by those under the influence of religion.
2. Note the consciousness bias. We believe that there must be a consciousness behind natural phenomena. That’s why we need a prime mover argument. We can’t fathom that a non conscious force moved the universe, it must be conscious, just like someone deliberately made the colors of a rainbow. That argument seems silly now that we know it’s a natural phenomena. But to the best of our understanding, everything is a natural phenomena, and modern arguments that there must be an intelligent designer are just as biased, and no more convincing, than the rainbow argument.
3. Theists were quickly shamed out of that one, though a number still believe it
4. As I finished up my first draft of this, a great deal more on the big bang, a small science team discovered gravitational waves. This rocked the scientific community, but led to an interesting possibility: the big bang might be part of a larger cosmos, an infinite multiverse of universes being created and destroyed all around us. It took less than a week before I found the first theistic article, and you know as well as I what it said: “Ah, well maybe the big bang was part of the multiverse, but what made that multiverse? Don’t know? See, it was God!”

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Robert Dahm
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Everybody should know that Bluto dunnit.

Warren Kincaid
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Gregg Montoya Of course the debate goes on forever. But so far, everything in the universe points to a finite beginning with the law of cause and effect driving it forward. You have no explanation on how that came to be. You may reject mine, however you offer none.

David MacPherson
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The difficulty here is assuming that science and theism are at opposite ends, in conflict with one another. That’s not true. Science is not the problem, it’s the world view of the people that’s the problem, not science and not theism. Without theism there would be no scientists. The very first scientists were primarily trying to find out….how God did things. Understanding creation.
We would all accept that Sir Isaac Newton was a top scientist, he was also a Christian. He wrote one of the most highly regarded scientific books ever written and even today, it’s still highly regarded in scientific terms.
However, he said that his science proved that God existed. Come a few hundred years to today, the man who sat in Newtons chair at Oxford was none other than Stephen Hawkings. Both these men were scientists, both studied gravity yet one believed gravity proved God existed and the other beleived it proved God didn’t exist. So it wasn’t the science that was the problem it was both these men’s world view. They can’t be both right. Despite the hundreds of years of the study of gravity science cannot tell us what it actually is only what effect it has on things.

David MacPherson
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Lance, are you saying that science can answer every question?

David MacPherson
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The God of The Bible is not the God of the gaps, He’s the God of the whole show.