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Feedback archiveFeedback 2015

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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Readers’ comments
michael S., United Kingdom, 19 July 2015

The heart of misotheists' abuse of the god-of-the-gaps fallacy is a motive that would imply that every theistic argument is automatically invalid because of the god-of-the-gaps. This is not actually what the fallacy is, otherwise logical-notation would teach the following; "theistic conclusions are impossible to use in formal syllogisms, nor can there be any premise that is theist or includes God". That is simply not the case. It is entirely possible to create a reasonable argument where God can be inferred or is a very strong possibility, within a formally sound syllogistic argument, that is in congruence with logical rules.

So the true heart of this issue is that atheists are using the fallacy as a blanket-term, so that you are not allowed to come to any conclusion that includes God without it being automatically invalid because of the gaps. This MOTIVE by atheists is highly blatant in debate, and I come across the tactic very often. The best way to deal with it is to teach them what the fallacy actually means, they are usually pretty silent once you tell them that logic does not teach that God can't be inferred soundly, it only in fact teaches that He can't be inferred unsoundly, which does not mean that all theists are automatically inferring Him unsoundly, just because the atheist states we are. (Begging-the question).

Keaton Halley responds

As a point of clarification, the McGraths are not atheists, but theistic evolutionists, and they do offer other reasons to believe in God. But they are still wrong to dismiss these types of design arguments, as explained above.

R. D., United Kingdom, 18 July 2015

It really is quite remarkable (and disappointing) to see this line of faulty reasoning from Dr. McGrath and his wife - who, as the correspondent alludes to, generally tend to get an awful lot right and are excellent in their capacity to rebut misleading anti-Christian arguments.

It seems that those who exhibit this attitude of "it makes Christianity vulnerable to new scientific discoveries" (and the McGraths are far from alone, of course) simply don't trust God to create in a way which makes it impossible for humans to explain away with naturalistic hypotheses. He seems to take it for granted that new scientific discoveries will make it harder to defend a position which is deduced from canonical premises.

The progress of history, of course, shows that it is quite the other way around. Creationists have far MORE empirical ammunition at our disposal today than we had even 50 years ago, never mind 150, and doubtless that is only going to continue apace in the coming years and decades. I wonder how much more absurd and implausible will be the hypotheses which the evolutionists of 2060 will be clinging to than those of today are. Hopefully one day Dr. McGrath might investigate this!

R. R., United States, 18 July 2015

@Andrew R. "...we should search for and accept only material explanations..."

And yet, by Lewontin's own self-defeating reasoning, his non-material explanation has to be rejected. It's like the person that goes around saying "don't let anyone tell you what to do". Well, guess what just happened... :/

It's probably a good thing they don't have creationists checking the soundness of their logic before they make statements like those. That way, we get to have a chuckle at their fails and the irony that comes with them (Psalm 2:4 KJV).

Robert B., United States, 18 July 2015

Dr. S.K. and Allister McGrath are being accurate when they accuse advocates of intelligent design as resorting to "God-of-the-Gaps" style arguments. But the Gaps are real and need to be crossed. It's just that as more becomes known about living systems; the "gaps" increasingly become "vast uncrossable chasms".

For instance, finding naturalistic origins for ribosomes or ATP-Synthases are chasms that defy any hope of ever being crossed. At some point the "God of the Gaps" arguments become more plausible than the materialist's hope that some means of spanning these gaps will eventually be found. I feel we can embrace this accusation with a caveat.

Dan B., United Kingdom, 18 July 2015

The oft-made charge of relying on gaps actually cuts every which way whatsoever. Everyone will admit that we have only a minute fraction of a fraction of all the knowledge that there is to be known, so any conclusions we draw from what we know are always vulnerable to later discoveries. That of course will include beliefs in evolution and billions of years - the latter now taking yet more hammer blows from the results of the New Horizons mission which (presumably) none of the team researchers could ever have predicted from 'theory'. Here's looking forward to the next 16 months of Pluto data coming in, and to an 'official' CMI analysis of it all.

Andrew R., New Zealand, 17 July 2015

"...we often show how various naturalistic explanations are implausible or inadequate, either in principle or in practice."

Indeed, if we were to accept the scientific method suggested by Richard Lewontin, that we should search for and accept only material explanations, then such things even as simple as the forming of Stonehenge would be impossible to explain.

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