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The god-of-the-gaps charge doesn’t stick

Published: 18 July 2015 (GMT+10)
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Dr S.K. from the US was surprised to read about an objection to intelligent design from a prominent theistic evolutionist (in a book he co-authored with his wife), and asked for our input.

Alister McGrath, with whom I find myself in agreement on virtually ever occasion, wrote, in “The Dawkins Delusion” (page 30), a paragraph condemnatory of intelligent design:

“The real problem here, however, is the forced relocation of God by doubtless well-intentioned Christian apologists into the hidden recesses of the universe, beyond evaluation or investigation. Now that’s a real concern. For this strategy is still used by the intelligent design movement—a movement, based primarily in North America, that argues for an "intelligent Designer" based on gaps in scientific explanation, such as the "irreducible complexity" of the world. It is not an approach which I accept, either on scientific or theological grounds. In my view, those who adopt this approach make Christianity deeply—and needlessly—vulnerable to scientific progress.”

I am flabbergasted, and in total disagreement. I am however, at a loss for words. I would most appreciate your thoughts on this.

S.K.

CMI’s  responds:

Hi S.K.,

I’m glad you haven’t fallen for the mistake that Alister and Joanna McGrath are making here. This is a common charge leveled against creationists and intelligent design proponents, but it simply fails to stick.

The paragraph you quoted is part of a section in the McGraths’ book about the ‘god of the gaps’—a form of argument in which a person begins with his ignorance about the cause of some phenomenon and then, in an ad hoc way (based on no positive evidence), proposes that God must be the cause. If anyone actually argued in this way, they would be rightly criticized, since the conclusion would be too hasty.

However, this is not the form of argumentation that creationists or intelligent design proponents use, so the McGraths are misattributing this fallacious reasoning to us. Instead of arguing from ignorance, we offer good reasons to think God is the supernatural cause of certain phenomena.

For one thing, we often show how various naturalistic explanations are implausible or inadequate, either in principle or in practice. Although this consideration alone may not definitively prove that there was a Divine Designer, this part of the argument is based on knowledge, not ignorance. For example, it is exceedingly rare (if it occurs at all) to find any examples of highly complex, specified genetic information spontaneously arising in nature—even though, if evolution were true, we ought to see thousands of examples all around us. An evolutionist could always cling to the idea that an unknown naturalistic cause for such features might one day be discovered, but in many cases (especially in origins science) this begins to look desperate—a resort to naturalism-of-the-gaps. Defaulting to naturalistic explanations without justification is equally as problematic and precarious as the god-of-the-gaps, yet no evolutionist ever seems to warn against making that mistake. Instead, they seem perfectly at home presuming naturalism, even when it defies common sense. However, if the most plausible naturalistic causes are eliminated, that at least makes the conclusion that God is the Designer more convincing than it would have been otherwise.

Furthermore, our case does not merely rely on evidence against naturalism. Rather, we have positive reasons to think God is the cause of the apparent design we see in biology and cosmology. For example, we not only know that proposed evolutionary mechanisms cannot produce the high degree of complex, specified coded instructions, like we find in the DNA of living things, we also know that intelligent agents do exactly that, on a regular basis. So we know that intelligent beings are capable of producing the effects in question, and that natural processes are not. But many of the effects under discussion, like trilobites, the human genome, and the physical constants embedded in the laws of nature could not have been produced by mere human beings. Somebody vastly more intelligent and powerful must have been responsible. So, these clues point to a Divine Designer, not evolution.

The McGraths mentioned irreducible complexity, in particular, as an example of god-of-the-gaps reasoning. But this just exposes their own misunderstanding of the argument. Irreducible complexity is not a gap in understanding. We recognize its presence in a system when we can remove any one of a number of parts, after which that system ceases to perform its function. Irreducible complexity points to design because, first, impersonal evolutionary mechanisms cannot build such structures by direct routes since they are too improbable, and they cannot build such structures by circuitous routes since these lack both plausibility and evidence. On the other hand, we see designers making irreducibly complex objects all the time because they have the advantage of foresight. Again, this is based on what we know—it’s not ‘god of the gaps’ but inference to the best explanation.

By contrast, to insist that we should hold out for a natural explanation when the clues so clearly point to an intelligent cause is like refusing to believe that a dead body containing nine bullet holes points to murder, because “maybe we just haven’t yet figured out the natural explanation.” Nobody charges detectives with believing in a ‘murderer of the gaps’ in such cases, because we know from experience that murderers shoot people and nature does not.

In addition, we have extra-scientific reasons to affirm God as the Designer, like the revelation He has given us in the Scriptures. See Whose god? The theological response to the god-of-the-gaps. The scientific and biblical conclusions serve to reinforce each other, so God’s supernatural involvement isn’t some premature guess. It’s a conclusion based on careful reasoning.

It’s a shame the McGraths can’t see this. They are concerned about creationists making Christianity “vulnerable to scientific progress”, but in their attempt to make it invulnerable, they are evacuating it of its authority to speak to such important issues as science and origins and they are undermining its relevance to the real world.

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Discovery of Design
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