God of the Gaps?

When scientists claim that any intelligent design inference is an example of God of the Gaps, they are presuming that there actually is an explanation gap, that is, there simply is no explanation for the phenomena in question.

The “God of the Gaps” complaint comes up when theists suggest that design is a better explanation than a naturalistic one in certain areas of science, particularly the beginning of the universe, the origin of life, and the development of life from simple to complex over time.

The complaint arises when there does not appear to be an adequate materialistic explanation for some phenomena observed in nature, leaving an alleged “gap” of knowledge. In the past, some have appealed to supernatural agents to fill the gap, only to have science (in many cases) eventually resolve the issue by discovering a naturalistic explanation.  

Darwinism is probably the premier example. God seemed the only explanation for the apparent “design” of the biological realm, until Darwin stepped in with a naturalistic alternative, making it possible, as Richard Dawkins famously noted, to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist. 

The “God of the gaps” objection is especially frustrating because the challenge often comes not just from materialists, but from other theists who are committed to the Darwinian model. That’s the backdrop.

There are a few important things going on with the challenge that you need to see. 

Notice first the assumption that naturalistic science is the only discipline allowed to weigh in legitimately on these kinds of issues. Any reference to God as a causal agent is dismissed as “religion masquerading as science,” inviting the God-of-the-gaps challenge. 

Notice also the underlying sense that, at the most, “God” is just a temporary placeholder until science discovers what really happened. Science is the source of true knowledge.  Any “God” appeals merely signal ignorance.

How do we respond to this? There are a couple of things we need to keep in mind. 

First, whenever the God of the gaps challenge is leveled, it’s a tacit admission that an explanatory gap exists, that is, no materialistic alternative seems adequate to resolve the problem in question at the moment. Sometimes it’s hard to see how some of these things can be resolved naturalistically even in principle.

Second, when ID theorists offer intelligent design as an explanation, they are not like some in the past who tried to plug a knowledge hole with G-O-D. To suggest that ID explanations are blindly appealing to the divine is to seriously misrepresent the view and commit the “straw man” fallacy.

ID scientists and philosophers have published substantial amount of serious research showing that the design inference is based on positive evidence for design, not the absence of evidence for materialistic alternatives. Yet this detail is constantly overlooked, as if the critics of ID haven’t read a word of what their colleagues on the other side of the aisle have produced. 

Now, it might be that the ID crowd is mistaken in its conclusions given the evidence. But that’s a different discussion. As it turns out, instead of their ideas being weighed and considered, they’re dismissed out of hand as an empty appeal to the “God of the Gaps.”

Third, the “God of the Gaps” complaint is an example of circular reasoning—presuming that your point of view is true as part of the process of defending your point of view (e.g., the Bible is God’s Word because it says it is, and if it is God’s Word then God wouldn’t lie). Here’s how.  

When scientists claim that any intelligent design inference is an example of God of the Gaps, they are presuming that there actually is an explanation gap, that is, there simply is no explanation for the phenomena in question. But in many cases, a “gap” only appears to exist because they are presuming that all explanations must be materialist ones, which is the very point at issue. If the “gap” can be explained by an appeal to design when the evidence justifies it, then there is no gap, just a different kind of explanation. However, if one first presumes that every event in the natural world must have a materialistic, naturalistic cause that he just hasn’t found yet, he’s presuming what he is required to prove.  

Is the materialistic, mechanistic view of the universe adequate to explain everything? It doesn’t look like it, but materialists presume it is, asserting a gap of knowledge because there’s no materialistic explanation. That’s circular reasoning.  

Finally, did you notice something else going on? When materialistic scientists claim there must be a natural explanation we haven’t discovered yet, they are not only begging the question on the truth of naturalism (circular reasoning), they are also guilty themselves of a gaps fallacy—a naturalism of the gaps, claiming that some future discovery of science will solve the problem. The only evidence they have that science will fill any particular gap is that science has been successful in the past. They could be right, but notice they are filling the alleged gap with their own faith in the future success of materialism, while ID researchers are filling the “gap” with a design explanation that’s based on positive evidence, not a leap of faith.

As it turns out, for many of the “gaps” of materialistic explanations there are perfectly reasonable design explanations that fit the evidence, if they’re allowed to be considered.  

The basic rule of good research should be: Follow the evidence where it leads. Don’t fill gaps of knowledge with any kind of unjustified placeholder: either God or faith in some unknown scientific discovery of the future. Don’t opt for a “God of the gaps” or a “science of the gaps,” or a “naturalism of the gaps.” 

When the evidence strongly suggests a materialistic explanation, go with that. If a materialistic explanation seems inadequate to the phenomena and positive evidence suggests intelligent design, go with that. Dismissing justified ID alternatives as a “God of the gaps” fallacy will not make the evidence for design go away. Rather intellectual honesty requires one always follow the evidence where it leads, regardless of how philosophically distasteful the conclusions may be.

Greg Koukl