Why Intelligent Design Isn’t a God-of-the-Gaps Argument

Author Tim Barnett Published on 12/27/2017

“Intelligent design is just a God-of-the-gaps argument,” exclaimed a prominent theistic evolutionist. We had just met, but I was shocked at what I was hearing. This kind of ignorance might be excusable from a person on the street, but not from an accomplished theistic evolution advocate associated with Biologos.

Unfortunately, this is a common tactic in these discussions. Rather than honestly dealing with arguments that Intelligent Design (ID) theorists make, theistic evolutionists dismiss ID as God-of-the-gaps.

Consequently, Crossway publishing and Stephen Meyer from the Discovery Institute have teamed up to produce a short video debunking this objection. In this clear and concise video (see below), Meyer carefully describes the salient difference between a God-of-the-gaps argument and the case for ID. Allow me to summarize.

Argument Based on Ignorance

The God-of-the-gaps argument is a particular kind of argument known as an argument from ignorance. This is an informal fallacy. It takes the following structure:

Cause A is insufficient to produce Effect E.
Therefore, Cause B must have produced Effect E.

This is obviously fallacious. Just because we know Cause A isn’t sufficient to produce the effect, that doesn’t mean we know Cause B did it. We would need independent reasons to believe Cause B is capable of producing the effect. But that important premise is missing in this form of argumentation.

It is fairly easy to see how this relates specifically to the God-of-the-gaps argument. Here is how the ID argument is often caricatured by its opponents:

Natural processes are insufficient to produce the information in DNA.
Therefore, God must have produced the information in DNA.

If this were the argument made by ID proponents, then it would be a God-of-the-gaps argument. But this is not their argument. This is a straw man, a misrepresentation of their argument.

Argument Based on Information

The case for ID takes an entirely different structure than the God-of-the-gaps argument. An additional premise is added. And this makes all the difference.

The ID argument looks more like this:

Natural Processes are insufficient to produce the information in DNA.
ID is sufficient to produce the information in DNA.
Therefore, ID is the best explanation of the information in DNA.

In taking this structure, the argument becomes valid. It’s called an inference to the best explanation. And we use this as a form of reasoning all the time.

I was recently speaking on the West Coast at a camp and had the opportunity to walk to the beach in Twin Rocks, OR. It was a cold and windy day. As a result, there wasn’t another soul on the beach as far as the eye could see. While walking alone, I stumbled upon a message in the sand. It read, “Jesus loves you.” Without hesitation, I concluded that someone must have written this precious truth in the sand. But how did I arrive at this conclusion? The answer is quite simple. This was the best explanation.

Natural processes are insufficient to produce “Jesus loves you” in the sand.
ID is sufficient to produce “Jesus loves you” in the sand.
Therefore, ID is the best explanation of “Jesus loves you” in the sand.

Wind, waves, sand, and erosion are not capable of producing a simple message like “Jesus loves you.” On the other hand, an intelligent mind can.

We know of a cause that is capable of producing this kind of information. Our uniform and repeated experience points us to an intelligent mind. This is not an argument from ignorance. It’s not a mind-of-the-gaps.

This is the argument ID theorists are making. After showing that natural processes are incapable of producing new functional information in the DNA digital code, they look at what causes are capable of producing new functional information. And that cause is intelligent agency. This is bolstered by the fact that we have all kinds of independent evidence that minds produce information.

Now, identifying exactly who that intelligent designer is requires further investigation. For instance, I found out later that the message “Jesus loves you” was written by one of the students from the camp where I was speaking. But even if I never figured out who the designer was, I would still know that design was the best explanation.

In sum, ID is not based on ignorance; it’s based on information. That is, ID theory rests upon what we know. First, we know that natural, undirected processes are insufficient to produce new functional information, like that found in the DNA digital code. Second, we know that minds are sufficient to produce new functional information, like that found in the DNA digital code. Taken together, it follows that ID is the best explanation.