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God of the Gaps - Engineering God in the scientific image

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From both sides of the debate God of the Gaps is used as a disparaging critique of an argument. The non-theist often considers the accusation sufficient to refute the argument. The theist is keen to assure us their arguments aren’t God of the Gaps.

Which means everyone agrees to be guilty of God of the Gaps is to suffer intellectual damnation.

But an alliterative slogan isn’t a good reason to dismiss an argument, the logical mistake needs to be made explicit. If the reasoning is fallacious, what logical fallacy is being committed? God of the Gaps isn’t in the standard list of logical fallacies and judging from its name, it’s only a logical sin when it applies to God.

All this should make us suspicious we’re dealing with a rhetorical ploy rather than any substantial logical critique. The vague suggestion is we shouldn’t be inserting God into any gaps in our scientific knowledge. But gaps in our knowledge are areas of ignorance. Why would anyone object to removing ignorance?

Removing ignorance by filling gaps in our knowledge is literally how gaining knowledge works. When we propose the existence of any entity, it’s because we need it to fill an explanatory role to illuminate something shrouded in ignorance.

When we assume atoms, or dark matter, or quantum fields exist, it’s to fill gaps in our knowledge. So, it can’t be filling knowledge ignorance gaps that’s a problem. It also can’t be filling gaps with God is a problem. This would be atheism by declaration, or the logical fallacy of begging the question.

Is it an argument from ignorance?

Could the slogan mean we’re using God to plug a hole in our knowledge, only on the basis of the hole? If that was the case, it would be guilty of the logical fallacy of an argument from ignorance.

An example of this sort of argument would be - You can’t prove aliens do exist, therefore aliens don’t exist. Or the reverse version — You can’t prove aliens don’t exist, therefore aliens do exist. In both cases the argument uses ignorance as the only reason to think something is true.

But if we look more carefully at arguments that appear to be guilty of this fallacy, it’s rarely the case anyone argues this way. Often what we take to be an argument from ignorance is using legitimate reasoning, but it’s not made explicit.

Ignorance isn’t unstated background knowledge

Sometimes there’s background information we’re relying on which goes unstated because it’s common knowledge. Everyone knows the universe is vast, and if life arose from natural processes on Earth, then it’s likely to evolve in other places with similar hospitable conditions.

With this background knowledge we can reasonably say, if we have no reason to think aliens don’t exist, it’s more reasonable to think they do. This isn’t arguing from ignorance or from a gap in knowledge. It’s arguing on the basis of what we do know to a conclusion about the existence of aliens.

Ignorance isn’t negative evidence

Sometimes we mistake an argument which relies on the absence of evidence for an argument from ignorance. But negative evidence is a valid way of reasoning. We have another catchy slogan for this, absence of evidence is evidence of absence.

The slogan is vague, but the general idea is right. If we’ve looked for evidence of something; and we should find that evidence if we looked; but it’s clearly not there; that absence of evidence is evidence it’s false.

There is more to say about our methods of looking for the evidence, but this is a valid form of logical inference called modus tollens. The logic takes the form:

  • If P, then Q.

  • Not Q.

  • Therefore, not P.

An example of this would be -

  • If Santa exists, then a toy workshop at the North Pole exists.

  • There is no toy workshop at the North Pole.

  • Therefore, Santa doesn’t exist.

Despite the popular meme saying you can’t prove a negative, it’s often a simple procedure. When you look in the fridge for milk and see none, that is evidence the milk doesn’t exist.

Inference to the Best Explanation

If God of the Gaps isn’t an argument from ignorance, it looks like it’s objecting to making an inference to the best explanation. But inference to the best explanation is a bedrock of scientific inquiry. It starts with an observation, and then chooses the simplest and most likely explanation for that observation.

If I go outside and observe everything is wet, I logically infer it’s rained rather than Ragnor Thorarinsdottir traveled from Iceland with his watering can. The best explanation is the simplest and the most likely to produce the observation.

Rather than being a method we should avoid, inference to the best explanation is a reliable way to fill gaps in our knowledge with the explanation most likely to be true.

Agency explanations are legitimate

Maybe the objection is filling gaps with intelligent agents instead of physical phenomena. But agent explanations are routine in many disciplines. No one objects to archaeologists explaining human agents as the cause of chipped flint arrow heads or the construction of the pyramids.

The SETI project searches for intelligent life in the cosmos by looking for phenomena nature can’t produce. But we don’t dismiss this as aliens-of-the-gaps.

In all these cases we have an inference to the best explanation. When some phenomena is unlikely, or inexplicable on naturalist grounds, it’s rational to conclude something other than nature is the cause.

There is no reason in principle that cause can’t be God.

Science is full of instances that use the same kind of reasoning. Knowledge of natural laws tells us that perpetual motion machines or faster than light speed travel is impossible. Every natural law is a claim about the limitations of natural processes.

When theists make arguments about design in biology, arguments from consciousness, the fine tuning of the physical constants, arguments from miracles or cosmic origins, they appeal to the limits of natural law. These claims argue that according to our knowledge of natural law the observed phenomena are either impossible, or natural laws aren’t the best explanation.

Limiting God to our cultural paradigm

It’s not surprising naturalists are inclined to dismiss theist arguments with God of the Gaps slogan since they assume science will eventually explain everything. The more interesting anomaly is that theists agree the procedure is illegitimate. That’s usually a clue we’re dealing with unquestioned cultural paradigms.

The modern cultural narrative says our ancestors appealed to gods to explain natural phenomena and then we invented science. Now we know the natural causes of thunder and we have no further explanatory need for Thor. Despite being historically naive, it does make sense if the only purpose Thor served was an explanation for a natural mechanism.

But this imposes our modern paradigm on a culturally distinct mythology. The idea nature is mechanism is a modern invention. The scientific reductionist method of inquiry accepts that we can understand nature by understanding its parts and their interactions. We can investigate nature as if it was a machine.

And not just any type of machine, it’s a self-sustaining analog machine. This is a picture of a deist God who creates and winds up his machine. We impose our mechanistic way of thinking on God, and he becomes a scientific God, an expert engineer.

God tinkering with the machine is a revelation of his engineering incompetence.

But why isn’t God allowed to tinker and intervene in any gap he chooses? Even staying with the machine metaphor we could conceive of the machinery of nature like a musical instrument. Something which requires continual intervention to sustain its harmonious and rhythmic movement.

Why does our conception of God mean he can’t take a continual and active interest in his creative project? Or be personally invested in its outcomes and the lives of its participants?

Our conception of God is shaped by our conception of the world. We view nature as a particular type of machine, therefore the creator of the machine is an anthropomorphic reflection of our world.

We arrive at a conception of God as a detached observer of his scientific experiment. God the scientist. A God created in the scientific image.




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Written by   14
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