Ignorance and God of the gaps

Having one’s argument labeled “God of the gaps” is almost as damaging to one’s credibility as being called a fundamentalist.  But what exactly is the issue here?

For example, Christians claim that God created the universe (never mind exactly how).  Arguably the universe has a physical beginning.  Lacking any naturalistic explanation for this, is it fair to say that we have a supernatural explanation on our hands?  “Not so fast!” my friend the skeptic is apt to interject.  “You’re about to offer a ‘God of the gaps’ argument.”

When is it appropriate to claim that God is responsible for a phenomenon or event?  Gregory Ganssle offers a helpful discussion of “God of the gaps” arguments (gap arguments for short) in a chapter of the recent Blackwell Companion to Science and Christianity.[1]  I’ll provide a brief overview below.800px-Keyhole_Nebula_-_Hubble_1999

Suppose that I offer you the following argument:[2]

(1)   Natural means cannot explain event E.

(2)   Therefore there is a supernatural explanation of event E.

Have I made a logical error?  Of course, there are hidden premises—I have also assumed that event E has an explanation and that said explanation is either natural or supernatural.[3]  With these hidden premises, however, the argument is sound.  The only question is whether the premises are justified.

Ganssle suggests that the skeptic is likely concerned with premise (1).  How do I know there’s no natural explanation?  Perhaps I have offered the dreaded argument from ignorance.  God forbid!  Having no proof that E has a natural explanation does not entail that event E does not in fact have a natural explanation.[4]  Such an inference would be logically fallacious.  Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

However, how would this apply to a Great Dane in the bathroom?[5]  Suppose I check in my bathroom and do not see evidence of a Great Dane.  Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.  Should I therefore remain agnostic about whether or not there’s a giant dog in the bathroom?  By no means!  If there were a Great Dane in the bathroom, I would expect to see evidence.  Not seeing the evidence, I am justified in concluding that there is probably no Great Dane in the bathroom.

With this in mind, we can refine premise (1) to make it more precise:[6]

(1a) No natural means we know of can explain event E.

(1b) If there were natural means to explain event E, we would probably know that this is the case.

(1c) Therefore probably no natural means can explain event E.

What follows from this?  If we also include our reasonable yet hidden assumptions, the argument proceeds as follows:[7]

(2a) There is an explanation of event E.

(2b) Every explanation is either natural or supernatural.

(2c) Therefore, it is probably the case that there is a supernatural explanation of event E.

The argument (1a) to (2c) is logically sound.  Most of the controversy likely comes from premise (1b), which Ganssle calls the “relevant conditional.”[8]

A few remarks are in order.

First, this argument does not appeal to ignorance.  That’s because premise (1b) requires that one has confidence as to whether a natural explanation is likely to exist.  One cannot affirm the relevant conditional (1b) without studying the event E.  One must consider the failed natural explanations and the obstacles that prevent the discovery of natural explanations.  As such, “an argument of this kind is not about gaps in our knowledge after all … Unless we have sufficient knowledge of natural explanations, we cannot make the inferences in question.”[9]

Second, the skeptic may tell me that the gaps in science are shrinking and my argument is weak as a result.  How does the advance of science affect arguments of this sort?  This is more complicated.

Likely science will affect how we evaluate the relevant conditional (1b).[10]  With greater knowledge, we will be able to see more clearly whether a natural explanation is forthcoming or instead likely to elude us forever.  It is unclear to me, however, that science will favour the skeptic over the Christian in this regard (fine-tuning for example).

Science may also reveal new explanations or overturn old ones.  This will affect premise (1a).  Does that mean this argument is somehow intellectually reckless?  Not really.  Many good arguments rest on empirical evidence and are falsifiable as a result.[11]  Being subject to scientific testing ought to be a virtue.

But recall that the skeptic claims to know that the gaps in science are shrinking.  In due course science will triumph and give us an explanation for E.  How does the skeptic know that?  Perhaps they offer an inductive argument here based on the history of science.[12]  Ganssle makes two points here.  Science may lend support in either direction as it advances.  “We may discover new facts that generate new arguments in favour of supernatural explanations.  Surely advances in cosmology have done so in recent years.”[13]

Additionally, “what looks like an appeal to an inductive generalization might serve to conceal an a priori commitment to naturalism.”[14]  The skeptic may very well believe that science will come through with a naturalistic explanation since they believe that there are no supernatural explanations.  Lacking this bias, I am less likely to fear shrinking gaps.

In summary, Christians ought to be careful to justify both (1a) and (1b).  If God is to be invoked due to lack of a natural explanation, one must also demonstrate that we would likely know if such an explanation existed.  This takes extra work.  Conversely, the skeptic ought to examine their faith in the closing gaps and justify their belief that a natural explanation is forthcoming.


[1] Gregory E. Ganssle, “‘God of the Gaps’ Arguments,” in The Blackwell Companion to Science and Christianity, ed. J. B. Stump and Alan G. Padgett (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012), 130–139.

[2] Ibid., 130.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 131–132.

[5] Ibid., 132.

[6] Ibid., 136.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 133.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., 134.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid., 135.

[14] Ibid.

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14 responses to “Ignorance and God of the gaps

  1. For Christians who are willing to do the extra work to “demonstrate that we would likely know if such an explanation existed” (1b) and skeptics that “believe that there are no supernatural explanations” and feel, based on increasing progress in science, that science will ultimately solve the unsolved problems and answer the unanswered questions I offer this list of unsolved problems of physics: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unsolved_problems_in_physics
    Clearly many unexplained events in the past that were given supernatural explanations were later shown to have natural explanations. Science has advanced to the point now, however, that in some cases it will likely rule out all possible explanations other than supernatural. I am agreeing with Ganssle’s first point: “Science may lend support in either direction as it advances. “We may discover new facts that generate new arguments in favor of supernatural explanations. Surely advances in cosmology have done so in recent years.” In my opinion It would appear that the so called supernatural and the so called natural are overlapping each other and merging together.

  2. It’s me, Bruce Nasmith, again! I like that Einstein quote I posted, but it doesn’t logically follow that I therefore like all Einstein quotes! For Albert to assume that it is from fear or absurd egoism that I cherish the thought of I or loved ones surviving physical death is disappointing to me and sounds narrow and quite judgmental. Shame on you Albert!

  3. Hi Ben… I won’t get in-between you and Club here, but you say you have evidence for the supernatural. I can’t let that pass without asking you to demonstrate/show/explain/list what evidence you are in possession of. (and please don’t say its ‘personal’ :) )

    • Hello John. What evidence do I have for the supernatural? I’m sure you’ve heard it all before and likely won’t be impressed, especially if you don’t want to consider ‘personal evidence’. Nevertheless,

      1. Arguments of natural theology – the existence of the universe, the beginning of the universe, the intuitive reality of moral facts, the human phenomenon of consciousness, the existed of human reason, the apparent fine-tuning of the universe for the possible existence of intelligent life, etc… Philospher Alvin Plantinga mentions two dozen such articles in lecture notes to be found here.

      2. Personified evidence – Philosopher Paul Moser actually argues against natural theology, suggesting a better way to evidence for God. On Moser’s view, a God worthy of worship will actively hide himself. To deny that God is hidden to some extent would be a big mistake. He can be found, however, at times and places of his choosing. Moser defends his religious epistemology against the predictable objections. I find his view quite sensible and realistic. Of course, the skeptic likely will not. That’s ok.

      3. Counter evidence – There is also natural atheology to consider. The problem of evil, divine hiddenness, pluralism, origin of religions theories. At face value these seem to be a big threat. But on closer inspection, I find that the threat tends to dissolve or even reverse direction to support supernaturalism.

      4. Personal testimony – I’ve personally experienced the supernatural. I don’t expect anyone to take my word for it but it is evident to me nonetheless.

      Hope that helps.

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  5. It’s unsuprising that you’ve chosen to not allow my follow-up post. I understand. It is long and it has many questions that Christians find very uncomfortable. You have asked what my most “pressing concern”. Well, let’s take a look at this part of that missing post. This part is addressing your claims about the nature of god, why it would play hide and seek and what evidence I would require to show that your particular god exists.

    Your excuse for your god “Why do you think that God would make himself obvious to a skeptic on demand?” is nothing new and demonstrates a certain convenient ignorance of your own bible. Remember Thomas? Tell me why it was okay for Thomas to ask for evidence and not me. Tell me why JC said that it’s better to have just faith, but also indicated that it’s okay to ask for evidence. He didn’t damn Thomas.

    You also ask what kind of evidence I would expect. Well, I’m not greedy so how about a burning bush? An amputee getting his limb back? And sure, a neon sign in the sky, why not? The commandments carved in letters 60 feet high along the walls of the Grand Canyon? All sound good to me. Now, here is where a Christian will usually say “then you’ll just say it’s aliens” or something like that. If I witnessed something that I could not explain, I would definitely examine it as well as I could. If there was no answer left but a supernatural event, something entirely against the laws of physics, then I would accept it (I may still not worship such beings if they are genocidal asses). Of course, the problem then becomes, how do I know it was *your* god doing it? But we’d at least be half way there. I rather like the Egyptian pantheon myself.

    Anyone who is intersted in the entire post may find it later today at my own blog. It further addresses Ben’s claims.

    • Thanks for narrowing things down. I’ve addressed your question partially in “Why isn’t God obvious?” and “Why believe that Jesus rose from the dead?“. I’d refer anyone who has the same question as you there.

      I think you’ll find that the New Testament accounts of Jesus are more subtle than you indicate. Jesus performed miracles as evidence to support his divine claims at times and places of his own choosing. He deliberately would not provide further miracles to his opponents (who had already seen some and chalked them up to Satan). Evidence for God is evidence for a person, a person who will have reasons for offering evidence (or not). The attitude of the one asking for evidence is a large factor affecting whether evidence will be forthcoming. I’m sure that won’t be to your satisfaction, but I thinks that’s how it really works. That is my honest answer.

      As far as which god goes, I’d be quite happy if you were to admit that any deity (or even a ghost) existed so I won’t quibble. Thanks for your question.

  6. Pingback: Not So Polite Dinner Conversation – A new Christian apologist – Part 1 trying to show that the “supernatural” exists | Club Schadenfreude·

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