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Once Again, Why Intelligent Design Is Not a “God-of-the-Gaps” Argument

The “god-of-the-gaps” objection to intelligent design is one that we have addressed numerous times at ENV and elsewhere (most recently, here). Yet even though the argument has been convincingly refuted time and again, it lives on in the popular literature.
My friend Jamie Franklin recently published a post on his website explaining why he has come to reject the claims of ID. His main concern is that ID presents a god-of-the-gaps argument, one that is based on what we don’t know, rather than what we do know, about life. Because Jamie’s thoughts are echoed in many other sources, they deserve a reply. He writes:

Basically, it seems to me that [intelligent design] is a God of the gaps type argument. This is when we look at something in the world that science cannot currently explain and attribute it to some kind of supernatural force. So, for example, at some point somewhere in history someone probably said that the god Thor was responsible for thunder and lightning in the sky. At that time there was no naturalistic explanation for thunder and lightning. This is a God of the gaps argument.

This comparison fails on so many levels one barely knows where to begin. It is very difficult to envision how someone could offer an inferential design argument based on the occurrence of thunder and lightning. On the other hand, it is not at all difficult to imagine how one could offer such an argument based upon the digital information encoded in the DNA molecule and the intricate nanotechnology that is so abundant in living systems. Indeed, a key selling point of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection was that it served as a designer substitute. It could produce the appearance of design without the need for intelligent activity. Even Richard Dawkins, at the beginning of The Blind Watchmaker, asserts that “Biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose.” No natural explanation for thunder and lightning has ever claimed to offer a designer substitute.
The analogy offered by my friend also confuses observational and historical science. Thunder and lightening are a phenomenon that we can readily observe, repeatedly in real time. As such, the phenomenon is accessible to experiment and measurement (although, admittedly, the causes of lightning are still not fully understood). The origin and evolution of life, on the other hand, are historical events and therefore (since they cannot be directly observed) require a different sort of reasoning process, an inference-based methodology.
Historical scientific inquiry often employs a method of reasoning known as the abductive method of inference to the best explanation from multiple competing hypotheses. This methodology asks, “Given what we know about the explanatory efficacy of the various competing hypotheses, which cause best explains the evidence we observe?” In all of our experience of cause and effect, we know that complex and sequence-specific information, when it is traced back to its source, uniformly originates with an intelligent cause. Therefore, when we find complex and sequence-specific digital information encoded in the hereditary molecules of DNA and RNA, the most plausible candidate explanation — given what we do know about the nature of information — is that it also originated with a source of intelligent agency.
Another important problem with my friend’s comparison is that ID does NOT invoke a supernatural force to explain biological phenomena. This is because the scientific evidence, at least on its own, does not justify an inference to a supernatural cause. The scientific evidence in living systems points to the activity of some intelligence. Whether a natural or a supernatural intelligence is a question that is logically downstream, and is not part of the design hypothesis. Jamie’s misconception is apparent throughout his blog post. Contrary to his assertion, ID is not “a particular attempt to synthesize modern science and Christian faith.”
Remarkably, my friend seems to have been impressed by the objections raised by Francis Collins. Dr. Collins is a well-known figure to readers of ENV not least for his ill-founded arguments based on supposed “junk DNA”. Jamie says that his “epiphany moment” occurred when he read this statement in Collins’s book The Language of God.

Faith that places God in the gaps of current understanding about the natural world may be headed for crisis if advances in science subsequently fill those gaps….There are good reasons to believe in God, including the existence of mathematical principles and order in creation. They are positive reasons, based on knowledge, rather than default assumptions based on (a temporary) lack of knowledge.

“So, you’ve convinced me, Mr. Collins,” my friend writes: “Never again will I put my faith in a God of the gaps type argument.”
But ID is not based on an argument from ignorance. In fact, there are established criteria by which we detect design (see William Dembski’s books The Design Inference and No Free Lunch). A design inference is not triggered by any phenomenon that we cannot yet explain. Rather, it is triggered when two conditions are met. First, the event must be exceedingly improbable (so much so that it exhausts the available probabilistic resources). Second, it must conform to a meaningful or independently given pattern. Is it a “god-of-the-gaps” argument to infer that Francis Collins’s book was crafted by an intelligent designer? Does a forensic scientist commit an “arson-of-the-gaps” fallacy in inferring that a fire was started deliberately rather than by natural causes?
On what basis does one argue that the fine-tuning argument, whose logic Collins does accept, is not a “god-of-the-gaps” argument? In fact, if one were to take this way of thinking to its necessary conclusion, any tentative hypothesis at all about anything could be considered an argument from ignorance because a better explanation may be forthcoming in the future.
Furthermore, to assume that every phenomenon that we cannot explain yet must nonetheless have a materialistic explanation is to commit a converse “materialism-of-the-gaps” fallacy. Ironically, one of Francis Collins’s flagship arguments for Darwinism is based on the claimed non-functionality of much of our non-protein-coding DNA (which he dismisses as “genetic flotsam and jetsam”). But isn’t this, as argued here, an argument based on what we don’t know rather than on what we do know?
ID is not based on a “god-of-the-gaps” argument. To say otherwise is simply to make a factual error. If ID makes any positive argument whatsoever (as it does), whatever else might be wrong with it, that fact alone makes it something other than a “god-of-the-gaps” argument. For a fuller and more detailed treatment of the positive case for intelligent design, I refer readers to Stephen Meyer’s book Signature in the Cell (summarized in this lecture) and Casey Luskin’s blog post here at ENV: “A Positive, Testable Case for Intelligent Design.”