Faith & Science
“God of the Gaps” Revisited
My hat is off to Yale theology grad student Ross McCullough for writing a daringly counterintuitive essay in First Things. He revisits the idea that there’s something fatally flawed in so-called “God of the Gaps” arguments.
That phrase, which I’ll abbreviate as GOG, has an almost magical ability to intimidate theists. Many a religious believer who’s a little too eager to impress his secular friends only has to hear it and he’s immediately rendered willing to drop any previously held view that science gives evidence of design in nature. A bonus then is that he doesn’t have to spend time learning about the challenging science involved, and can punt and refer to philosophical and mystical reasons for his faith instead, subjects that come easier to him as a humanities major.
We’ve emphasized here in the past that the theory of intelligent design is not a “God of the Gaps” argument. ID points to positive evidence of design, not necessarily of God either but, much more modestly, of some source of intelligent agency operating behind or in nature.
However what if it were otherwise? Would that be the end of ID as a theory worthy of serious consideration? No.
McCullough notes that the anxieties around GOG are primarily apologetic, not theological or scientific. What if scientists succeed in closing the gaps, then I’ll feel humiliated and (a secondary consideration, it often seems) people’s faith will suffer! But this is answered by pointing out that materialism has already eroded faith and promises to go on doing so, a considerable threat in itself, perhaps greater than that involved in advancing GOG arguments. Weighing the relative dangers would seem to argue for giving a green light to GOG.
On the theological side, the central events involved in the Christian and Jewish stories are moments when natural explanations of events must fail. GOG goes along with the territory. McCullough cites the Resurrection, which of course Christians will be recalling shortly at Easter:
[God’s] transcendence does not preclude — it rather enables — his acting in the world as an unmediated efficient cause, and such action cannot but leave a permanent gap in scientific reconstructions.
There is no natural explanation for the Resurrection: The explanation is that God did it. Here is a gap and a God we all already believe in. The inevitable theological conclusion is that there can be nothing wrong with a God of the gaps, so long as it is not a God made to fit the gaps.
Why, then, disallow God from acting in primordial history?
For Jews, there is the Exodus from Egypt, which we’ll be remembering soon as Passover begins. God could have established Abraham’s family as a nation in the land of Israel directly, without the intervening sojourn in Egypt. That he chose not to do so demonstrates that the Jews were being bourn along by divine choices and actions. They experienced the depths of weakness and misery, and only then were redeemed, in a turn of events that could not be ascribed to the natural way of the world. The explanatory “gap” is filled by God, demonstrating his freedom to act and, by implication, ours as well.
So for Jews and Christians, there should be no shame in GOG arguments, if they have scientific merit. There McCullough is also insightful. Pointing to gaps in materialist explanations is often said to be a science-stopper. But it’s not:
We can still inquire whether other explanations, implying an Apollo or not, make better sense of the data. The question is still open, in that sense; scientific inquiry is still possible. To posit a God in the gaps simply disallows an infinite chain of explanation.
Beyond all these considerations is the simple question of what’s true.
If the causal chain for a particular event might include God, our reconstructions of the chain in scientific explanation should not in principle exclude him. For there is at stake here not just apologetics, whether Christian or atheist, but what is always and most fundamentally at stake in scientific questions: the truth.
What if the gaps are real and will never be filled? Atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel, no less, argues in this way, as Andy Ferguson notes in his excellent Weekly Standard essay on Mind & Cosmos (emphasis added).
Nagel insists that we know some things to exist even if materialism omits or ignores or is oblivious to them. Reductive materialism doesn’t account for the “brute facts” of existence — it doesn’t explain, for example, why the world exists at all, or how life arose from nonlife. Closer to home, it doesn’t plausibly explain the fundamental beliefs we rely on as we go about our everyday business: the truth of our subjective experience, our ability to reason, our capacity to recognize that some acts are virtuous and others aren’t. These failures, Nagel says, aren’t just temporary gaps in our knowledge, waiting to be filled in by new discoveries in science. On its own terms, materialism cannot account for brute facts. Brute facts are irreducible, and materialism, which operates by breaking things down to their physical components, stands useless before them. “There is little or no possibility,” he writes, “that these facts depend on nothing but the laws of physics.”
McCullough’s outstanding article is not yet available to nonsubscribers, but it’s a good reason to subscribe to First Things.
Image: “Flux Ropes on the Sun,” NASA/Goddard.