Mind the gap

I’ve written a bit on the “God of the Gaps” fallacy (ie that the accusation is itself a fallacy!) in the past. This post still covers most of the bases. But hearing a recent interview with Denis Alexander, of the Faraday Institute, in which he repeated the fallacy with pejorative reference (as one would expect) to the Intelligent Design Movement, made me think about it again after nine years.

Alexander’s statement of the idea was in the context of “fallacious proofs for God” (which ID has never claimed to be) and he seemed to suggest that science has been slowly pushing back the boundaries of what were once thought to be the direct actions of God, potentially leaving “divine acts” standing on a small patch of sand soon to be washed away entirely by the steady march of science.

As I stated in the linked article, that was always a foolish idea, since (to repeat the analogy I used in 2015) our scientific knowledge consists of isolated islands in three-dimensional space, which may possibly never coalesce however much we discover. I might also have added that, not infrequently, some of those islands sink beneath the cosmic waves altogether, as Kuhnian paradigm shifts render them illusory. Such are phrenology, psychoanalytic theory, and (once the asylum is brought back under control) critical race theory and “assigned sex.” There is also the little matter of the reproducibility crisis in the sciences which necessarily casts doubt on the reality of some of the islands on the maps anyway.

But thinking about it again, the whole concept that “God of the Gaps” is a rearguard action of supernaturalism seems to me historically plain wrong. The fact that it is nearly always Newton’s dispute with Leibniz that is trotted out as evidence reinforces that, since as I showed way back, it is a mistaken example. Newton’s appeal to God’s direct action was innovative, theologically considered – and not even wrong scientifically.

But the real error lies in failing to have a basic understanding of “pre-scientific” thought forms. Just because Baconian science proposed a systematic method of building on existing knowledge, that does not mean that natural philosophers before him put every interesting phenomenon down to miraculous intervention. Thomas Aquinas, following Aristotle, thought in terms of chains of efficient causation whose ultimate (and probably unknowable) origin indeed lay in God. But those chains of secondary causes depended on powers given to the various substances involved, at their creation.

“Powers” is a different way of looking at events than “laws of nature,” though not without its advantages even now, but both refer to the same truths: that in nature, things can be said to cause other things, and those causes can be investigated. In other words, everybody with an education knew that there were “natural causes”: the advantage that Aquinas had over modern scientists was that God retained his involvement however much those causes were discovered. In other words, God was never inserted into gaps in natural philosophy, except for clear cases of the miraculous that even Denis Alexander concedes, as a Christian.

A good demonstration of this is in the work of St Bede on the tides, which he documented several centuries before Aquinas and which I described here. To summarise, as he considered the mysterious phenomenon of sea-tides (on whose timing he collected data from around Britain) Bede the monk made no attempt to suggest that God works a daily miracle by his supernatural power. Indeed, a millennium before Newton, he attributed the tides to the influence of the moon’s “exhalations,” as if the moon was dragging the sea around – which indeed it is. As I re-read what he wrote on this, I see that he suggests even the Greeks were aware of this lunar influence long beforehand, terming it rheuma, so that he was aware that even classical authors considered this strange action at a distance to be a “natural” power, not a divine intervention. There seems no reason to doubt that such assumptions applied to every regular process in our world. There never was a God of the Gaps.

Let me venture to suggest that the real situation historically was that, beginning in the late eighteenth century I suppose, scientists began to move beyond studying the phenomena seen in nature to speculating on efficient causes for what had previously been God’s exclusive domain – creation. It needs to be recognised that this marked a “paradigm shift” in metaphysical approach from discovering God’s laws or powers, embodied in nature, to excluding God from nature. In effect this meant a new definition of “nature” as “the material realm apart from God.” Only under that new definition can there be gaps for God to vacate.

In theory, it might have been a relatively small step to include origins in the scientific enterprise. In practice, the essentially religious, or rather anti-religious, purpose of the change is shown by the “God of the Gaps” accusation itself. Instead of something like Darwinian theory being seen as how God worked through nature, as natural philosophy had done for centuries, each new discovery led materialist apologists to say, “There! Science has pushed God out of yet another area.” And so Darwin, from the first, opposed evolution to “special creation” rather than proposing it as the means of special creation.

Yet we must not forget that science was indeed encroaching on controversial ground by claiming the origin of things for naturalism. And nine years on from my original article, it appears to me that far from filling up the gaps previously attributed to God’s creative power, new knowledge has increasingly raised serious questions as to whether science has explained much in the way of origins at all. It is even becoming more apparent to me that the bold claims of evolution by natural selection, whether applied to biology or cosmology, may end up being one of those once proud islands of knowledge washed away by another paradigm shift.

On cosmology, hopes were not long ago pinned on string theory to allow for a multiverse theory to negate the embarrassing beginning of everything implied by the Big Bang. String theory is now something no longer mentioned in polite society, since the Large Hadron Collider smashed it.

Even back in 2015 and before, gaps of complexity in biology were multiplying exponentially as knowledge increased arithmetically. I’ve just re-read Michael Denton’s 1998 Nature’s Destiny, and even there was expressed the realisation that (in David Berlinski’s analogy) life could no longer be considered to be as complex as a car, nor even a jumbo-jet, but rather a galaxy.

In 2015 the ENCODE project had recently shown that above 80% of the genome, because it is transcribed, is likely to have function. Since then hundreds of papers have come out describing functions in “junk DNA.” What is seldom noted is that the concept of junk DNA arose not simply because much DNA did not code for proteins, but because Kimura had shown that natural selection could not possibly work on so many more traits than those coded by the protein-coding genes. Even apart from that, the capacity of natural selection is swamped by multiple transcription, reverse transcription and so on. Kimura’s neutral theory is therefore mathematically necessary, yet cannot explain the efficient and complex functions of life plausibly apart from retaining a fig-leaf of natural selection, which is actually far too small to cover its modesty.

On top of that, the waiting-time problem, for all the bluster against Michael Behe who popularised it in The Edge of Evolution, fails to go away. And it fails to go away against a background of a body of paleontology that comprehensively refutes the gradualism Darwinism absolutely demands if it is to explain anything. Mathematically, then, natural selection doesn’t do the heavy lifting required of it, and there is no other viable naturalistic theory of biological fitness and diversity. That leaves a pretty big creative gap, which had been believed to be filled by science since Darwin wrote, but actually isn’t.

Then again the study of the origin of life has been moribund since I wrote my article, as a series of unmet challenges by chemist Dr James Tour has shown to the public. Denis Alexander’s suggestion that we should accept a promissory note that future research will reveal all, lest we fall headlong into the God of the Gaps trap, is actually nothing but a bluff, on existing evidence. You cannot promise a destination when your boat is drifting in circles.

In the cosmological field, Michael Denton’s 1998 book aforementioned took a view that, because so many of the universe’s physical and chemical properties favour life, we are likely to find it throughout the cosmos. Such a conclusion poses relatively few problems for believers. Yet the increased knowledge of planetary science that has come, largely, through the study of exoplanets now suggests that we would probably have to scour 10,000 galaxies to find one truly earth-like planet (and even that leaves open the question of whether it would develop life). Such rarity, contrasted with such a terrestrial richness of plants, animals, telescopes, science and human wonder on earth, begins to look like a fine-tuned exception rather than repeatable science. And that, once more, tends to put the minds of men, and perhaps God, at the centre of things as the sacred texts of God suggest.

In summary, it appears to me that it is not the gaps-filled-by-God that are shrinking, but rather the territory that naturalistic science can claim for itself, apart from God. To quote Sir Fred Hoyle, “There are no blind forces worth Speaking about in nature.” He said that – perhaps only half-seriously – in 1981. Forty three years later it seems truer than ever.

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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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