Is Intelligent Design Just God-of-the-Gaps?

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Author Alan Shlemon Published on 04/19/2013

Alan’s monthly letter for October 2012

Dear Friend,

Centuries ago, scientific knowledge was in its infancy. Although our understanding of the natural world progressed, there were gaps in the explanations. Sometimes a scientist would insert God in this gap of knowledge to explain the unexplainable. But over time those gaps were filled with satisfactory natural explanations. Theists worried that if this trend continued, God would be relegated to the role of passive bystander to creation or worse, a wishful invention of their minds.

Many atheists think that intelligent design makes the same mistake. They argue that we just insert God into aspects of science that are too complex and that we don’t understand. But the opposite is true. Intelligent design isn’t a God-of-the-gaps explanation. Rather, it’s a scientific theory that holds that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not a natural or undirected process. In other words, intelligent design makes an inference to the best explanation, something that many fields of science do on a regular basis.

For example, forensic science makes distinctions between natural and intelligent causes. When detectives find a human corpse in a back alley, they look for clues for foul play. It’s possible the man died of natural causes. But bullet holes in his chest would be unmistakable evidence that an intelligent mind was responsible for his death. This conclusion is drawn not by the absence of evidence (a gap in the investigation), but by the presence of it.

Archaeologists make similar distinctions. When they discover an arrow-shaped piece of flint, they reject a natural explanation and reasonably conclude that an intelligent agent produced its shape. Again, they arrive at this conclusion not because they’ve thrown up their hands with no idea how to explain the artifact. Instead, there are unmistakable signs that the object was designed.

Both of these examples engage in a legitimate form of logic known as abductive reasoning. You survey the available clues and then find the explanation that best fits all the relevant data.

The same is true with intelligent design. Scientists have discovered clues in the natural world that point to intelligence. For example, the information-rich molecule known as DNA contains a four character digital code that contains the blueprints to manufacture every part of your body—from the smallest protein to the largest organ. What’s the best explanation for the information in DNA?

Natural forces can’t produce the information coded in the molecule. Whenever we see blueprints for cars, houses, and planes, they are always the product of intelligent agents. By the same reasoning, the blueprints in DNA, which are far more complex than any man-made blueprints, must also be the product of an intelligent mind.

Notice this conclusion is not made by discovering that DNA is complex, determining we can’t explain it, and then deducing that God must have done it. That would be a God-of-the-gaps explanation. Rather, we have evidence that an intelligent mind was at work to produce this information. It’s based on our universal experience of what creates design code. That explanation has the greatest explanatory power—it makes sense of all the details in DNA that need to be explained.

Here’s the irony. Despite the claim that Christians use a God-of-the-gaps approach to account for unexplained data, it’s evolutionists that are sometimes guilty of this mistake. Eugenie Scott, who’s been the Executive Director of the National Center for Science Education since 1987, is a vocal critic of theism and a passionate defender of evolution. She’s written that, “Scientists do not agree on how life began—yet. And ’yet’ is a very important word in science. One should not assume that just because something is not currently understood that it never will be understood.”*

According to Scott, the origin of life (abiogenesis)—the massive leap from no life to the first living organism—is unexplainable. Evolutionists can’t account for its origin by natural causes. But, she claims, science will one day fill this gap in knowledge. That’s not an evidence-based conclusion. It’s a science-of-the-gaps approach. They’re inserting science to plug the gaping hole in their knowledge.

Thankfully, the presence of evidence—not its absence—favors intelligent design. We don’t have to be afraid of science. It doesn’t reveal a cold and meaningless universe. The fingerprints of God are all over creation. Science is simply a tool to help us discover what He made.

This month marks my eighth year working for Stand to Reason. I’m privileged to have contributed to the kingdom in many ways. It’s only been possible because you have stood with me. That’s why I’m more excited about the work ahead than I was when I began. We’re a team. So thanks to you, I’ll continue to train effective ambassadors for Christ.

Serving our great Designer,

Alan Shlemon

* Eugenie Scott, “Keep Science Free from Creationism,” on National Center for Science Education website, 1994.