Getting a Better Understanding of the “G-d of the Gaps”

May 16, 2011

Proofs

This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series The Fine-Tuned Universe

When discussing science and evidence for G-d, there is an important and crucial point that needs to be addressed – it is what is known as the G-d of the Gaps.  The concept of the G-d of the gaps basically relates to pointing to some aspect of the natural world which we do not yet understand and stating ‘well, we have no idea how that happens, it must be G-d.’  This, it has been rightly pointed out, is a rather unscientific and (potentially) intellectually stifling position.

In other words, you can’t just ‘blame’ G-d for everything that we don’t understand – because the simple fact of the matter is that we may someday understand it.  What’s worse, this notion just keeps G-d in constant retreat, only focusing Him on those areas of life where are knowledge is deplete, but removing Him from those areas that we do understand.  In short – it is a theologically as well as scientific poor position to take.

So the question obviously arises why would I look at the fine-tuned universe as evidence for a Creator.  Why am I not guilty of invoking the G-d of the gaps.  True, today we have no scientific understanding of why the universe seems fine-tuned for life, but some day we may.  Indeed, isn’t that the trend of science – to expand our frontiers of knowledge, to explain that which was previously a mystery.  If so, what intellectual right do I have to invoke G-d as the explanation for the fine-tuning of the universe?

My answer is simple and straight-forward.

Knowledge Based Evidence

First and foremost, I am not basing my assertion on what we do not know, but rather what modern science claims to have discovered.  Many leading scientists claim that the universe looks fine-tuned for life.  They have looked at the laws and structure of nature and have stated that the laws of nature seem to have inherent flexibility in the manner in which they exist.  They could have been different.  What’s more, if they had been different (even slightly so), it seems that life as we know it (perhaps any life at all) would be impossible.

This is a positive statement based on how scientists currently understand the universe.  I am not pointing to some gap in our knowledge and invoking G-d.  Rather, I am making logical and reasonable inferences from what we claim to know.  More specifically, I am stating that if the universe looks fine-tuned and is indeed fine-tuned, then that implies a fine-tuner because of the nature of what it means to be fine-tuned.  Fine-tuning involves choices, decisions, fore-thought and planning.  It involves intelligence and control.

Of course, there may be a naturalistic interpretation or scientific discovery which explains this fine-tuning.  There is no reason to think that science has said all that it has to say on this matter.  I’m totally aware of that and it doesn’t concern me.  If or when that new scientific explanation is discovered, proven and well understood I will be happy to take a look at it and discuss it.  In the meantime, I will work with the evidence at hand while welcoming any efforts that are made to better understand that evidence.

This is an important distinction to make and understand.  The claim is often made that people are simply looking at the world, saying that it’s too complex to understand and therefore it must be G-d.  I’m sure there are people who do that – I have no doubt.  Arguing from ignorance is not a very intelligent position to take.  But there are things that we think we do understand – and it’s perfectly legitimate, indeed totally appropriate, to make religious and/or philosophical inferences from that knowledge.

Intellectual Hypocrisy

In fact, there is a bit of hypocrisy here.  Richard Dawkins is ‘allowed’ to claim that the theory of evolution proves that there is no G-d.  Regardless of whether his arguments are sound or not (in general I think not, but that’s a later conversation), no one accuses him of arguing from an atheism of the gaps.  Maybe science will later show that the mutations that drive the theory of evolution are not random, but programmed into DNA?  Or maybe they will show that the whole mechanism just can’t work, that the whole theory is just unworkable.

And yet, no one accuses Dawkins of making an atheism of the gaps argument.  Why not?  One reason is probably social – Dawkins atheism is more in tune with the cultural norm today then a serious belief in G-d.  However, another reason is purely logical – the fact is that Richard Dawkins is not basing his argument on any gaps, but rather on his theological interpretation of his understanding of the theory of evolution.  Now, Dawkins interpretation or understanding may be logically flawed, but the enterprise of religiously relating to current scientific knowledge is not flawed (so long as one is relating to the knowledge and not to the gaps in knowledge).

So too here, there is no reason why one can’t look at the fine-tuning of the universe and say here is evidence for G-d.  So long as the theory of fine-tuning holds the inference also holds.  It’s a piece of evidence.

Rethinking the Gaps

With that said, we need to spend a bit more time thinking about these gaps.  For there is an important and related question that needs to be asked – namely, is there an end to scientific inquiry?  Is there a point where science can no longer lead or discover?  I have heard more than one scientist claim when speaking about the Big Bang theory that they do not like the idea that something can come from nothing.  Things don’t just come from nothing, they state.  As such, there must be something before the Big Bang.  And so they are looking for that something.

That, of course, is a natural scientific perspective.  Something doesn’t scientifically make sense, so let’s look for a scientific explanation.  I heard Martin Reese say something similar about the fine-tuning of the universe.  “Some people,” he said, “like to invoke a religious answer to explain the fine-tunings of the universe. I, though, prefer a scientific explanation” [please note, I am quoting Professor Reese from memory, so this is not an exact quote, but the content of what he said is accurate].  Scientists, obviously, prefer scientific explanations and they have shown that this preference can bear intellectual fruit.

But is there ever an end?  Does everything have a scientific explanation?  When we probe the ultimate nature and origins of the universe, life and man does science reach a point where it has no more to say, where it’s methods are no longer effective?  After all, science has entered radically new ground in its attempt to determine how the universe and life began and developed.

If, as some believe, the answers to those questions are 100% naturalistic then presumably or at least theoretically science can discover those answers.  But what if, as I believe, the answers to those questions are not 100% naturalistic.  If a G-d beyond space and time did bring the universe into existence and did create life then doesn’t that imply a limit to scientific inquiry?  Does that not imply that there are some areas where the scientific method simply can’t go, because the answers sought are not natural or material?

Of course, we don’t necessarily know where the dividing line is, but modern science itself has at least suggested some possibilities.  The Big Bang theory certainly leaves open the possibility that the universe started from absolute nothing.  True, other options are being scientifically explored – such as multiple universes, but nothing is still a leading option on the table.  If the reality of the situation is that the Big Bang did start from nothing, then where does that leave science?  What can they say about that absolute and total nothing?  What can they say about what brought that nothing into existence?

Similarly, DNA and the fine-tuning of the universe certainly suggest an intelligent coder and fine-tuner, one that seems to be beyond the confines of the universe that we live in.   These elements are not neutral facts, they have real, logical, inherent implications.  Perhaps scientists don’t like these implications and perhaps they will discover naturalistic explanations.  But maybe they can’t discover a naturalistic explanation because maybe there is none.

In short – to what extent can science fill in the gaps?  Filling in the gaps of how the planetary orbits work may be fundamentally different then filling in the gap of how the universe and life ultimately began.  One question deals with the nature of things as they currently are, the other deals with their origins.  The fact that science has been extremely successful at explaining how things are does not necessarily mean that they will have the same success in terms of explaining how those things ultimately came to be.  Those ultimate answers may, ultimately speaking, be closed to science.

Going to Where Science Can’t Go

At the end of the day, the G-d of the gaps argument is an important point to bear in mind, but with some important qualifications.  Some scientific theories and ‘facts’ have real philosophical and theological implications and it is totally legitimate to draw out those implications.  And those implications may lead to areas where science can’t go.  It is likewise illegitimate to accuse people of making those inferences of being guilty of invoking a G-d of the gaps.  The term needs to be used skillfully and insightfully.

The simple fact is that some scientific theories and ideas may indeed imply a Creator and a designer.  They may have theological or philosophical implications beyond the material world that the scientists who come up with those theories are studying.  Science’s methods may be natural, but the theological implication of their theories need not be.

 

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