Science’s self-imposed gaps

Is the cosmic fine-tuning argument an example of the “God of the Gaps” argument? Biologos likes the first, as opposed to Intelligent Design, and dislikes the second, so their answer would presumably be “no”. I contend, however, that CFT does point to empirically obvious gaps in the understanding of the natural world which are instructive for answering the question of whether God’s activity is distinguishable in nature in the affirmative.

The main reason given for finding that CFT avoids the “Gaps” accusation is that it is about the initial conditions of the Universe, rather than “miraculous intervention” within it as, it is depressingly often claimed, ID postulates. In other words, although the Big Bang itself is (the current standard model in) science, its cause is necessarily outside science, because the laws, matter, energy and time which science studies only came into being at that point. It is therefore outside the purview of science to say more about its cause.

This, of course, does not preclude future scientific evidence overturning the Big Bang Theory, though current attempts by those like Hawking and Krauss to circumvent the need for a Creator have clearly failed, and only push the question back a stage. BioLogos, at least, sees no urgent need to search for a naturalistic explanation behind the Big Bang, but accepts it as the genuine “starting point of science”. The only legitimate way to deny a Creator is to show that the Universe is eternal and infinite, and that never looks likely to be demonstrable again, if indeed the very possibility of our existence in an infite time-bound Universe hasn’t been disproven.

Nevertheless, BioLogos considers CFT, though not scientific, to be “a pointer to the existence of God”. It does not, I believe, spell out what kind of argument this is if it is not scientific, but that perhaps isn’t crucial here, because we can say it is the kind of argument that Evolutionary Creation finds acceptable within its own project.

Still, I guess most would call it, like the Multiverse or string-theories strictly considered, a philosophical argument (though EC doesn’t self-identify as a philosophical project, but as a scientific and theological one). But as I’ve said, it is by its very nature beyond the methodological naturalism of science, and clearly is not a matter of divine revelation in theology, making it philosophical by default.

In fact, though, all inferences of design behind the Big Bang arise from the configuration of the universe that exists in empirical experience. One can see (if one accepts CFT) that the basic constants of the Universe, and values deriving from them, are absurdly suited to the existence of intelligent life, and infer that such a situation cannot derive from law (the business of science) or chaos (the Epicurean philosophy), and one can therefore postulate an Intelligent First Cause as the best explanation (and, to quote Aquinas, “This Cause we call ‘God'”). Perhaps, then, CFT is best described as a scientifically-grounded inductive philosophical argument to a theological conclusion.

The first point I want to make from this is that it is, willy-nilly, a “Gaps” argument: it’s just that the gaps crying out for a divine explanation, though observed empirically within the created order, have a cause outside the purview of science because it is outside the created order. The gaps to be explained are, to be precise, the strange absence of every other conceivable universe than the fine-tuned one we are in: this universe has a specification. That’s why, of course, the only reasonable alternative to God is that all those other Universes must exist elsewhere invisibly. The only alternative to design, ie to intelligent information restricting the possibilities to a single, orderly, actuality, is an infinity containing every specification indiscriminately.

As far as I can see, logically this means that there truly is an observable hiatus in the scientific order, consisting of the empirically detected information inherent in CFT, for which the best explanation available is God – or this, at least, is the inductive case made by the EC organisation BioLogos. If there were no epistemological gap, there would be no possibility of a fine-tuning argument.

Let’s turn now to my next, separate, argument, which is to deny the uniqueness of the Big Bang as a creative act, despite its priority in time. For Christian (indeed even philosophical theistic) doctrine is not deistic. It does not believe that God created a closed, mechanical system at a point in time, nor even that additionally God stops such a clockwork system from collapsing. Rather God’s act of creation is the configuration of everything in all creation, not just an initial causation in time.

It’s worth just pointing out as an aside that Deism, dependent as it was on Enlightenment mechanical philosophy, never had a solid basis for believing the Universe to be a closed system, and that the new physics empirically overturned the philosophical prejudice that made the self-sufficiency of natural causes the basis both of the scientific enterprise and deistic religion.

Creation doctrine, then, is not about the beginning of time, but holds that everything that exists, at any and every point in time, derives from God’s eternal wisdom and power. Every entity and every specific event, therefore, is at all times ontologically dependent on God. That’s why Thomas Aquinas was able to frame his various arguments for God in the same way whether the universe had a begining or turned out to be (according to the science of his time) eternal: all was in either case dependent on the First Cause for its particular being.

For this reason, there is no justification for restricting the inference of design to the data of cosmic fine tuning alone, as if the beginning of the universe was especially privileged vis a vis God’s creation power.

A third strand in my case is to point out that, properly speaking, science only studies, and can only study, repeatable causes, that is, lawlike behaviour. Laws themselves, of course, cause nothing, being merely human descriptions of order, but we can speak of the regular powers built into nature (or God’s habits, if one prefers) as the stuff of science. Likewise, “natural” is not a description of a cause. In Enlightenment times, when science was completely deterministic, “nature” could be taken as a proxy for “law”, and “law” for the clockwork mechanisms of the closed universe.

That’s important because, despite the demise of scientific determinism, science has tended to maintain its claim to the entire category of “natural causes”, but to include within them the irregularities of chance as well as the proper study of the regularities of law, and that is scientifically illegitimate, except insofar as science is merely descriptive.

Under determinism, chance was merely the humanly unforeseen intersection of lawlike events (it was entirely epistemological), but under modern non-deterministic science, where it is not legitimately treated statistically (as in quantum mechanics), ontological chance is often treated as if it were itself an cause. But even if that were true, it would not make chance a scientific cause, because the non-repeatable is not the proper business of science, any more than the “fortuitously” fine-tuned cosmological constants can be explored scientifically. As we have seen, the constants can be explained by a philosophical recourse either to infinite chaos (multiverse theory) or to intelligently designed information (theism).

We’ve got to the point, then, where science has abandoned complete physical determinism (though the practical effect of that on the macro-scale is still not clear), which means that it must logically accept that not all that may be observed is lawlike. And that is only to say there are, uncontroversially, true gaps in nature that science cannot explain. We have also seen that these gaps, which are inevitable given post-determinist science, occur in the area of the unrepeatable – that is, in the area science calls “chance”, which I have shown  science to have no business studying other than to uncover the hidden order of as yet unknown laws – yet already knowing from first principles that laws cannot explain everything in a non-deteministic cosmos.

The gaps that interest us in cosmic fine tuning consist of specific information responsible for order, rather than chaos, which is considered a legitimate pointer to God as the author of that information. Therefore what applies to the Big Bang applies equally to anything, outside the realm of regular scientific laws, which provokes that same “properly basic” intuition of design. If specific information is not accounted for by the demonstrable regularities of nature studied by science, then it points towards the First Cause (who is outside the creation), or conceivably to some unknown intermediate cause such as superhuman intelligence, just as much as does CFT.

Two things follow from this. The first is that it is invalid to insist that observation, or inference, could say anything more about the Cause than that it was an intelligent being. Nobody suggests that the God “pointed to” by CFT can be described in detail from that information alone – conceivably, it could be a created demiurge or (the latest materialist fad) a teenager running a virtual world in his bedroom. CFT has the same profound limitations as all natural theology: it can indicate God, but not reveal him. By the same token, though, it is unreasonable to insist that the full nature of God can be specified by any design inference made by others. That is, unless one is also willing to forswear the CFT argument for oneself.

The second sequel is that we must conclude the whole basis of the “God of the Gaps” accusation to derive from an outdated and untenable philosophy of nature as a closed system. Science already knows this to be false, and I have shown that this necessarily implies that science knows there are epistemological gaps, which can be discerned empirically as whatever is attributed to “chance” (which is both non-scientific because unrepeatable, and a non-cause in metaphysical terms).

The phrase “chance of the gaps” is occasionally thrown back at scientists by critics, and this is an entirely legitimate charge if a scientist should claim that a chance event (as distinct from a statistical pattern of chance events) is a legitimate aspect of nature for science to study. Chance, like design, belongs outside science in philosophy or theology, except where it merely means “lawlike cause yet unknown” – and science can in that case only legitimately wait until it finds the regular explanation it suspects, before allowing itself to speak on the matter. If a cause is unknown, no rational scientific argument can assign it preferentially to “natural law” rather than “divine specification”.

It follows that where we find a series of chance events producing order, for which no purely lawlike explanation is forthcoming (and which is therefore by definition beyond science), we are entitled to see that as a pointer towards God to exactly the same extent, and in exactly the same manner, as we might in the case of cosmic fine tuning. The universe is not a closed system, and scientists have no inside information about the limits of its openness.

But contingent order is the business of creation, whether that order rises from the Big Bang or from a series of stochastic mutations or the chance isolation of a group of hominids. Wherever nature is not explained by lawlike processes, then it’s outside the methodological limits science has imposed upon itself  of “repeatable material efficient causes”. Contingent order is intrinsically the business, I suppose, of philosophy – though just one step removed from theology if Epicurean appeals to order from chaos fail.

One concluding thought: the CFT argument can be turned on its head. If there is a God who creates by specifying the information content in his creation (in other words, by designing it), then one would expect to find that the universe is highly contingent, with highly specified parameters like the cosmological constants. An Epicurean, naturalistic universe would contain, in contrast, all possibilities. Our universe therefore fulfils the predictions of theism, and falsifies Epicureanism, on purely empirical grounds. There are no other realistic contenders.

But likewise, that same designing God would be expected to create other levels of contingent order, indeed wherever order appears in his work. And in the same way as it is with CFT, this order will often be empirically observable. It will either show up as regularity, in which case science may study it, arbitrarily call it “natural law”, and so “point to God” because the only alternative is pervading regular order arising from chaos, which is absurd.

Or else the order will show up as contingency, not referrable to scientific law and therefore properly outside the purview of science (and justly definable as a “scientific gap” if one so chooses). As in the case of CFT the inference to be drawn is either that chaos can produce order (and then CFT would be sheer dumb luck), or design by a Creator. Once cannot infer “natural causes”, unless one first determines that nature has chaotic elements that lead, implausibly and in theological terms incoherently, to order.

In the case where underlying lawlike processes can be demonstrated, of course, and only in that case, science can legitimately invoke “natural causes”. But then, the very existence of such order points to God rather than chaos, just as much as does cosmic fine tuning.

You see, those gaps are absolutely everywhere, and every one of them is shaped like God. What are these “natural causes” anyway?

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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2 Responses to Science’s self-imposed gaps

  1. Avatar photo Sy Garte says:

    This is a brilliant piece Jon, and beautifully stated. I have heard several modern atheists say that the universe looks exactly the way it should, if there were no God. By this they mean that with the natural laws we have, we dont need God. But there are some very suspicious things about those natural laws. As Wigner famously wrote “The unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in describing the world”, it is in fact highly surprising that we can describe the laws of motion, the action of gravity, electromagnetic force and so on with some fairly simple mathematical equations. Is that how one might expect a universe to act? Why should it? How convenient that gravity falls off as the square of the distance, and not as a multifactorial Hamiltonian with 6 dimensions. The behavior of gas molecules have no particular reason to be so easily understood as the insanely simple fact that the pressure times the volume is equal to the number of molecules times the temperature (times a constant of course).

    How do we know ours is what a God less universe would look like? It might in fact be terribly different. Actually most of the universe (possibly all of it) is very different from our planet. Which itself was also once a hellish rock of barren chaos.

    I am a firm believer in evolution, but so many “lucky” accidents had to happen for me to be typing these words, that one wonders about chance as a viable force (as you elegantly explain) in a God less universe, to bring it all about. We could talk about the unreasonable effectiveness of the blue green algae that evolved to emit a toxic gas, killing all other life on the planet, but that eventually made oxygen breathing large animals possible, since only oxygen can serve as the highly efficient energy source that large creatures need to survive. The very lucky accidents of our large moon, our tectonic plates, our large neighbor Jupiter, our distance from our star, not to mention the evolution of large brains (despite their evolutionary non adaptive nature) should all be seen as quite fortuitous in an unplanned and undesigned universe.

    I will also confess that like you I am becoming weary of Dawkins phrase God of the gaps, and wearier still of exhortations from Christians to avoid falling into it. We havent been basing our beliefs on the mysterious nature of thunder and lightning, or the apparent miracle of plant growth for quite a few centuries now, and it is high time for atheists and some of their allies to stop using that odious strawman phrase “Godidit” as if somehow this is different from a scientific explanation for anything.

    We do not believe in a God of the gaps, but in a God of the bridges. When science learns to build a bridge spanning a former gap of our knowledge, that is where God is manifest, whether it is in the physics of particles or the synthesis of proteins.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


      Thanks once more for your kind words. As in so many of these issues, realising where and why ideas arose helps to free one from patterns of thought that are insufficiently grounded.

      The idea of the universe as a closed system has a peculiarly local resonance (Europe and its western colonies for the last 2 or 3 centuries only) with historical roots in quite “random” things like the disputes between Catholics and Protestants and so on.

      In theory we should have abandoned it in the light of 20th century physics alone, but it still underpins the way we tend to think. One hears it in the way that methodological naturalism is applied even by Christians: “In the remote possibility that you encounter an anomaly, put on the oxygen mask over your head whilst searching for a natural explanation – any natural explanation – before conceding that God might rarely disturb the settled course of nature.”

      I’m just reading Keener’s work on miracles (as I’ve mentioned in passing a couple of times), whose main contribution is to show that outside the west (and even outside the cloister of western academia) virtually the whole world believes that nature is in dynamic relationship with “supernatural” powers. Survey results suggest that several hundred million people believe they have witnessed miracles, and of course almost universally people pray to God (or gods) expecting that he (they) will be providentially propitious towards their requests, ie that nature is not a closed system.

      My point is that, only here and particularly amongst our intellectual elite, is there any idea that that somehow makes the world a chaotic and unreliable place. People in the East and South can still get on with regular lives – even studying science – whilst believeing the world to be porous to God’s activity.

      Sure God is unpredictable – but we knew the world was unpredictable when we started designing experiments to exclude all the variable aspects of reality to pin down some underlying principles. And even then, as you pointed out in your previous comment, the points are never exactly on the graph!

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