God of the Gaps, the ultimate argument from ignorance

Big BangA recent discussion reminded me of how often I hear arguments for God’s existence that stem from a lack of any explanation for our existence. I can see the appeal of such a position, and it used to be just about the only thing I could cling to when religion made no sense. The universe must have come from somewhere, therefore God.

In more sophisticated forms, or possibly in the hands of skilful bluffers, this argument would also incorporate claims that there is no experimental or observational evidence for abiogenesis, for example, or some similar position. Fundamentally, though, the argument remains the same and has the same flaws.

Even if we have no answer to the question of the origins of life and/or the universe (and on these matters, I’m happy to defer to people with much greater expertise than me), God isn’t an answer, because saying God did it tells us nothing; it has no explanatory power. Under this approach, God is just the name we give to the things we don’t (yet) understand – God of the Gaps rides again.

Supposing I live in a primitive culture and don’t know why the sun comes up every morning, so I say it’s pushed by a beetle. Quite apart from being completely wrong, what practical difference would that make to my knowledge? Or if I don’t know why boiling water becomes steam, so I say pixies do it – it’s not an explanation, I’m just dressing my ignorance up in different words.

If we’re going to actually understand anything, the concept of God (or sun-beetles or pixies) needs to be rigorously defined and tested as science. Otherwise, it’s no more enlightening than an exaggerated shrug. Maybe some people find it helpful to give the gaps in their knowledge a special name, but it doesn’t actually change the level of our knowledge, and William of Ockham starts looking distinctly cross.

Mind The GapFor God to be an answer to these questions, there would have to be scientific explanations for who or what God is, how He created everything, why He can be defined as having no prior cause when His existence was only postulated because the universe must have a cause, and so on.

And that’s without addressing all the claims about God which aren’t necessary for a First Cause but tend to sneak in under the radar – all the “Omnis”, for a start, and then moving swiftly on to all the various different religions and their particular individual beliefs.

There’s a reason why God of the Gaps is such a discredited approach. It chases its own tail in ever decreasing circles as the niches for God to hide in get ever smaller, with a desperation that resembles cherry-picking more than seeking after truth. It’s not just bad science, it’s positively anti-science, as further discoveries are feared and avoided lest they shrink God’s domain even further.

When I don’t know the answer to something, I try to find the answer. That’s how we make progress, both individually and as a species. Not by saying anything we don’t understand must be magic.

Images courtesy of ba1969 and Suserl, used with permission

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About Recovering Agnostic

I'm Christian by upbringing, agnostic by belief, cynical by temperament, broadly scientific in approach, and looking for answers. My main interest at the moment is in turning my current disengaged shrug into at least a working hypothesis.

21 responses to “God of the Gaps, the ultimate argument from ignorance”

  1. Hausdorff says :

    Many people will try to say that science and God can coexist, but I think you are right, these ideas are anti-science. To really make progress, we have to say “I don’t know how that works, let’s find out”, God of the gaps is “we have an answer, it is God”.

  2. unkleE says :

    I have found that most thoughtful christians tend to avoid God of the gaps type arguments, but lately I am starting to think they, and you, are too critical of them. Let’s take a parallel question in science ….

    In trying to understand the structure of the universe, cosmologists have found that a number of important laws and numbers have to be “just right” to an amazingly fine degree, far more than could be explained by chance. Theists use these facts as the basis of a teleological or design argument for the existence of God.

    Scientists naturally look for a natural explanation, and have postulated the multiverse. It fits some mathematical models, but they seem to all agree that it can never be tested scientifically. And even if it could, we could then ask what is the origin of the multiverse, and how did it get to be so finely-tuned as to keep on producing zillions of new universes, each with different properties, as required to explain our universe.

    That doesn’t stop them postulating the multiverse and developing the maths, even though there is no experimental or observational evidence. But I don’t see anyone accusing them of using “science of the gaps” or postulating a solution that has “no explanatory power”!

    Surely the truth is that we will never have all the answers, we just have to build our beliefs on the best knowledge we have, and that will be true whether we are discussing God or science? If the evidence changes, then we re-assess our conclusions.

    “God isn’t an answer, because saying God did it tells us nothing; it has no explanatory power.”

    This is commonly said, but I think it is very mistaken. Again, let’s take an analogy. Suppose we are on a spaceship and we land on an unknown and apparently uninhabited planet. Then we discover some machinery on it that is clearly a tractor, and we draw the conclusion that the planet is or was, after all, inhabited, but we can find no trace of them. Would it be sensible to reject the conclusion that the planet was inhabited because “this has no explanatory power”? Of course the conclusion is valid, even if we can go no further and find out who the inhabitants were or are.

    What you mean, I think, is that God isn’t an answer to the scientific question of the process by which the universe began, but that isn’t the only question, and maybe not the most important question. The question of a possible deeper reality in the universe than the merely physical or scientific is surely an important one (it even gives the name to your blog!). Who could think that the existence of a powerful eternal loving God had “no explanatory power” at all, and therefore didn’t add to our knowledge?

    So your statement about explanatory power is only true if you want to settle for a small part of the possible truth. Thus it seems to me that these arguments are commonly made to avoid facing an uncomfortable argument for God. Your aim is “to work out what I believe”, and I think that you will want to do better than that, and explore rather than close off paths to knowledge.

    • mgm75 says :

      Your tractor analogy falls down because there are many explanations and many ways to investigate possible conclusions.

      Are there signs of previous intelligent life on that planet?

      If the answer to the posed question is “No”…
      Therefore it is not indigenous. Is it human made? How would we ascertain this? Words written in known Earth languages. No known language – must be alien. Are there signs of intelligent life on other planets? Can we compare the evidence from these other races in terms of technology, any language written on it, design or by inference, coming from off planet?

      If the answer to the posed question is “Yes”…
      Compare the known archaeology of the extinct alien race from this planet. Does it fit their technology, design or language? If no then proceed with the same questions above. If yes, then we possibly have our answer… and a new discovery.

      You seem to have already decided that such a discovery ought to be put down to a mystery, perhaps something along the lines of shrugging our shoulders and proclaiming “god did it”. “god did it” is not an answer, it is the lack of an answer and intellectually lazy with it.

      • unkleE says :

        Hi mgm75, I am interested in your comments, because it seems to me
        that they illustrate exactly what I was saying.

        An analogy should only be applied to what it was intended to illustrate, and my analogy was illustrating that a fact shouldn’t be rejected just because we have no explanation for it, if it is in itself the best explanation. My analogy stated that “we can find no trace of them”, yet in your hypothetical reply, you didn’t say the tractor “tells us nothing; it has no explanatory power”; instead you said you would search for an explanation.

        I am saying the same about God. We likewise shouldn’t say the idea of God “tells us nothing; it has no explanatory power”, rather we should search further, just as you said.

        “god did it” is not an answer, it is the lack of an answer and intellectually lazy with it.

        This is only true if in fact God doesn’t exist, which is the question under discussion, so can’t be just assumed. If God does exist, then he is part of the answer to almost everything. Like I said to RA:

        “What you mean, I think, is that God isn’t an answer to the scientific question of the process by which the universe began, but that isn’t the only question, and maybe not the most important question. The question of a possible deeper reality in the universe than the merely physical or scientific is surely an important one. Who could think that the existence of a powerful eternal loving God had “no explanatory power” at all, and therefore didn’t add to our knowledge?”

      • mgm75 says :

        “god did it” is not an answer whether any gods exist or not (because let’s be honest, it is not just the Abrahamic god we are talking about here). If Zeus is his infinite wisdom decided to put the tractor there I would want to know why. Yet the religious response would tend to dismiss it “we are not worthy to know his reasons for doing so” or “he did it in his infinite wisdom and who am I to challenge that?”

        So even from your further explanation, “god did it” is not an answer we should ever be satisfied with.

  3. unkleE says :

    May I ask you a couple of clarifying questions please?

    1. Are you saying that no explanation is satisfactory if it cannot be explained itself?

    2. Are you saying that discovering that God exists and created the universe is not a significant discovery (if it was true)?

    Thanks.

    • mgm75 says :

      Are you asking me?

      1. No I’m saying that referring to a creator that you are unwilling and unable to provide evidence for is a cop-out and therefore proves nothing. You might as well say that the Flying Spaghetti Monster did it or that a chemical reaction between custard powder and invisible odourless miasma caused it.

      2. You’d have to discover it first for it to be a satisfactory answer otherwise any possible answer would do in that case. That’s another reason why it’s called “the god of the gaps”

      • unkleE says :

        “I’m saying that referring to a creator that you are unwilling and unable to provide evidence for is a cop-out and therefore proves nothing.”

        But mgm75, where have I said I was “unwilling and unable to provide evidence for “ God, or where have I exhibited such a behaviour? To accused me of “cop-out” is rather strong language without any evidence, don’t you think?

        But to get back to my question, do you then agree that an explanation can be satisfactory even if cannot be explained itself?

        “You’d have to discover it first for it to be a satisfactory answer otherwise any possible answer would do in that case.”

        But the matter I raised from RA’s post had nothing to do with whether one judged the evidence pointed to God or not, it was about “explanatory power”. Of course if something isn’t true it has no explanatory power, but RA didn’t say that, he just said that the idea of God had no explanatory power in itself.

        So do you agree that if God exists and created the universe that would be a significant discovery, even if that didn’t explain scientifically how he did it?

      • mgm75 says :

        I never meant you specifically, I meant the collective “you” that seems to want it both ways. Either you have proof for your “god did it” hypothesis or you don’t. If you do then present it so that it may be compared to other hypotheses and treated with the same critical analysis, tested and either adopted or disregarded as a plausible explanation.

        If you don’t, then you cannot use “god did it” as a rationalisation for anything. It is an answer that assumes its own argument and conclusions – it explains everything and in so doing explains nothing. Because in that case we could fill “god did it” with anything. “Baal did it”. “The spirit guides did it”. “The flying spaghetti monster did it”. “the custard powder and invisible miasma did it”

        he just said that the idea of God had no explanatory power in itself.

        I know and I’m explaining to you just why that is the case when you (the collective you) are unwilling and unable to prove this entity that you say was responsible for everything.

        So do you agree that if God exists and created the universe that would be a significant discovery, even if that didn’t explain scientifically how he did it?

        Of course, but you would have to prove that there are such things as gods first and by a process of elimination, prove that your god above all others was the one that did it. Of course, if such a proposition was proven it would overturn the laws of physics as we know it because then you would have to prove the existence of magic too.

        Good luck with all that 🙂

  4. unkleE says :

    “Either you have proof for your “god did it” hypothesis or you don’t.”

    Proof? A moment ago it was “evidence! You are changing the goalposts! Who has “proof” for anything except mathematics and logic?

    “I know and I’m explaining to you just why that is the case when you (the collective you) are unwilling and unable to prove this entity that you say was responsible for everything..”

    You are changing the subject. RA didn’t speak about evidence in the section I commented on, he spoke about explanatory power. He said: “God isn’t an answer, because saying God did it tells us nothing; it has no explanatory power”

    So let me ask you again. Do you think that an explanation can be ruled out simply because it can’t itself be explained?

    “but you would have to prove that there are such things as gods first and by a process of elimination, prove that your god above all others was the one that did it. Of course, if such a proposition was proven it would overturn the laws of physics as we know it because then you would have to prove the existence of magic too”

    This is an interesting statement.

    1. You use proof but what can you “prove”? As far as I can see, in most part of life (excluding maths & formal logic) we can only assess probabilities and what is more likely. Do you agree, or have you some contrary examples?

    2. How would the existence of God overturn the laws of Physics?

    3. What has “magic” to do with anything? Are you just using the word inappropriately to express your personal disdain, or do you have a definition that is relevant here?

    4. I believe there is plenty of evidence to show that the existence of God is more likely than not. I’m not expecting you to agree, but I am willing to discuss if you are interested. Would you be willing to accept evidence if I presented it? How would you judge it? (I ask this because your comments about “magic” and the laws of physics make me wonder if you are open to evidence.)

    So, where have we got on the matter I raised? In this latest comment you seem to agree with me that the existence of God would itself be a significant discovery, and you have previously said that you didn’t agree that an explanation was ineffective if it didn’t itself have an explanation. Those answers indicate to me that you are about 80% in agreement with my original point, which related to these two questions. So is that matter perhaps settled?

    Thanks, and best wishes.

    • mgm75 says :

      I think you are just running around in circles now to avoid answering any of my points. The god hypothesis has no explanatory power until the evidence to support it has been presented – that is what I am saying yet in all your sophistry this is the one point you are trying so hard to avoid.

      I believe there is plenty of evidence to show that the existence of God is more likely than not.

      I’ve been here so many times before so whenever you are ready please present it.

      • unkleE says :

        “I think you are just running around in circles now to avoid answering any of my points”

        I feel this conversation is becoming like so many internet conversations – admit nothing even when your argument is shown to be weak, see the other person as an ‘opponent’ and put them down even when you have no justification for doing so. I am not interested in such a conversation, it produces heat but little light.

        “The god hypothesis has no explanatory power until the evidence to support it has been presented “

        That is a distortion of the normal use of the statement, and how RA used it. People normally mean by it that even if true it has no explanatory power. Notice his wording: “God isn’t an answer, because saying God did it tells us nothing; it has no explanatory power.” Read the context – there is no mention of evidence. If someone wants to talk about lack of evidence, then there is no need to mention explanatory power.

        So I wasn’t discussing lack of evidence, I was discussing his post. I was discussing explanatory power. And from your answers, you have ended up close to agreeing with my comments.

        “I’ve been here so many times before so whenever you are ready please present it.”

        Like I said above, I am not interested in one of these discussions where we lock horns and argue ourselves to a standstill – it needs to be a discussion where each person offers something. So if you are interested in such a discussion, perhaps you could first answer the preparatory questions I asked please:

        1. You use ‘proof’ but what can you “prove”?
        2. How would the existence of God overturn the laws of Physics?
        3. What has “magic” to do with anything?
        4 Would you be willing to accept evidence if I presented it? How would you judge it?

        These were not idle questions, but an attempt to understand what you believe and were saying. Thanks.

      • mgm75 says :

        If anyone has failed to give an answer it is you. I have presented time and time again why “god did it” is not a valid proposition without evidence to back up the god hypothesis. The fact that you do not like my answer does not make it invalid Whether TRA feels the same way I do is irrelevant, I was addressing your points and explaining why I personally feel that “god did it” explains nothing without evidence to support its hypothesis. I don’t know whether to be surprised that you cannot grasp this this simple notion, or just to write you off as somebody who likes to waste time splitting hairs because he is unwilling and unable to provide an answer.

        You keep posing questions – which I have answered – but never provide answers yourself. I am not fooled.

    • Recovering Agnostic says :

      You are changing the subject. RA didn’t speak about evidence in the section I commented on, he spoke about explanatory power. He said: “God isn’t an answer, because saying God did it tells us nothing; it has no explanatory power”

      So let me ask you again. Do you think that an explanation can be ruled out simply because it can’t itself be explained?

      You’re either totally misunderstanding me or you’re deliberately twisting my words. Having no explanatory power and being unable to be explained are two different things. One means it tells us nothing, and one means it moves us a step on and then faces us with a (possibly temporary) roadblock.

      Consider the quantum double-slit experiment. We can observe a phenomenon, but it’s hard to explain. If you say the observed duality is caused by pixies, that tells us nothing – no explanatory power. If, on the other hand, you attribute it to the probabilistic nature of quantum mechanics, it tells us something even if that probabilistic nature can’t be understood.

      For God to be a genuine explanation for anything, He would have to be explicable and amenable to scientific investigation, when He’s traditionally defined as being neither. Given that, what exactly has been explained?

      • unkleE says :

        “You’re either totally misunderstanding me or you’re deliberately twisting my words.”

        I am sorry, I am not deliberately twisting your words, and I am disappointed and surprised that you’d think I would.

        “Having no explanatory power and being unable to be explained are two different things.”

        I understand that (and your subsequent example) clearly. My comments were not based on misunderstanding that.

        “For God to be a genuine explanation for anything, He would have to be explicable and amenable to scientific investigation, when He’s traditionally defined as being neither. Given that, what exactly has been explained?”

        This is one of the points I have disagreed with, and which I haven’t seen a satisfactory justification for, only the assertion. Do you think that scientific explanations (i.e. the physical processes by which something occurs) are the only valid explanations?

        Let me give an example. Suppose I come home and find the kettle boiling. I ask my wife: “Why is the kettle boiling?” She could answer something about heat applied causing the molecules to move faster until some escape from the liquid as steam. But she could also answer: “Because my mother has come to visit and I’m making tea for her.”

        The first is a scientific explanation which doesn’t add anything to my understanding, but the second tells me something that is helpful for me to know – namely that my mother-in-law is visiting.

        So, isn’t it clear that there are more than one type of explanation. Even if God tells us nothing about the science, his existence would still be a very useful piece of information.

        Whether you believe the evidence points to that is another question, but it wasn’t the question I was commenting on. What do you think about all that?

  5. unkleE says :

    OK mgm75, let’s have one last go to sort this thing out.

    I have presented time and time again why “god did it” is not a valid proposition without evidence to back up the god hypothesis.

    I have absolutely no problem with this statement; I agree with it. But this wasn’t the topic I raised and which you answered. You kept trying to link explanatory power to evidence, and they are two separate concepts. A good hypothesis has to have both. But RA only raised explanatory power, not (at that point at any rate) evidence, and I only chose to disagree with him on that one point.

    If all you want to talk about is evidence, you just need to say “You are right about explanatory power, but I don’t think you have any evidence.” Then we could have talked about evidence instead of wrangling about explanatory power which apparently didn’t interest you.

    “You keep posing questions – which I have answered – but never provide answers yourself. I am not fooled.

    We could have talked about evidence, and I am still happy to do so, but you made some comments about “proof” and “magic” and overturning the laws of Physics, which bear directly on evidence, and suggest to me that we would be talking at cross purposes right from the start. So I simply asked you to explain yourself.

    But since you say you have answered them, can you please point me to where you answered these questions.

    mgm75, I don’t think this is very productive, do you? We got off to a bad start by discussing explanatory power when it seems that wasn’t really your interest, and you have more or less agreed with the points I originally made. Let’s try something more cooperative. I suggest this – you answer the four questions I posed last time and which, despite your comment, I cannot see answered anywhere, and pose 4 quite clear questions to me and I will answer them. Then there can be no more misunderstanding.

    What do you say?

    • mgm75 says :

      If you fail to see link between “god did it” as an explanatory power and me asking for evidence to support the god hypothesis that I might accept is an an explanatory power, then I’m afraid there is no point in us continuing. All that will happen is that I will keep repeating it and you will keep scratching your head and pretending that you don’t understand what I’m talking about.

      I have absolutely no confidence that you will answer any questions I might pose. All you’ve done so far is create riddles that you think are answers and then sat back to congratulate yourself. I am not fooled by this.

      • unkleE says :

        TS Eliot wrote: “This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper.” And THIS is the way many internet discussions end, not with any understanding, but with recriminations and rancour. But I am not happy to leave it end like that. And as a person whose website says your “research project was praised as a pleasurable read and for its clarity, passion and eye for detail. I relish learning new subjects and eager to put my research and writing talents to the test”, I hope that you are not happy about this either.

        So I’m going to review in the hope of making a link across a divide where I hope you may be willing to meet in the middle. Here is my summary:

        1. We disagreed about the topic I raised (explanatory power) and you kept connecting it with evidence. The two are separate concepts (I can justify that statement with references if you wish me to), so it wasn’t obvious to me until now that evidence was your real interest. If you had conceded the point on explanatory power and stated your interest in moving on to evidence, I would have understood sooner.

        2. This aggravated you into making a number of personal comments that made inferences about my motives. I am not offended by that (you get a thick skin on the internet), but it makes for unpleasant conversation. (I don’t think I said even one thing of a similar nature.)

        3. You wanted to talk about evidence, and I have said I am willing to do so, but asked you some preparatory questions first. You said you don’t trust me to answer them – surprising for a person who says evidence is the important thing, because you could base your view on real evidence if you answered my questions and waited to see my response.

        So you have responded to me in several ways that I would be confident you wouldn’t do in face-to-face conversation. Why is that? Why won’t you answer the four questions I asked? Why didn’t you accept the olive branch I offered in my last post and give it a try? If it was so important before, why not now?

        So I say again what I have said all along – if you want to discuss evidence, or anything else, I am quite happy to do so. But I don’t see a lot of point in it being a rude internet argument where there is more heat than light. We don’t have to be in competition, we can discuss as friends rather than as enemies.

        So what’s it to be – mgm75 the internet brawler who says nasty things because someone disagrees with them, or MG Mason, the writer who (I’m guessing) treats people courteously and wouldn’t respond in real life as you have here?

        If you don’t want to discuss any more, let’s at least deport in peace. What do you say?

      • mgm75 says :

        If you think my intention was to offend then I would suggest that you have very thin skin indeed. Where is the offence? What is there to be offended at? I accuse you of muddying the waters – and that is exactly what you have done. You keep trying to drag me back to RA’s point. I have said time and time again that I would accept “god did it” as an answer when the evidence for the god hypothesis is presented.

        I am not willing to waste my time in answering your questions when all you will do is fire another list of questions because you want to pick holes in my answers rather than provide some of your own.

  6. Mark says :

    “God isn’t an answer, because saying God did it tells us nothing; it has no explanatory power” except if God sid do it.

  7. unkleE says :

    “You keep trying to drag me back to RA’s point.”
    I specifically said I was happy to move on.

    “all you will do is fire another list of questions because you want to pick holes in my answers rather than provide some of your own.”
    So again you “know” what I am going to do?

    I tried, I really tried. I’m sorry you are so unwilling. Goodbye, and best wishes.

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