Challenge: It’s Just “God of the Gaps”

Posted: April 26, 2011 by Amy Hall in Intelligently Designed, Weekly Challenge

At the end of a debate between Michael Behe and Michael Reiss on the subject of Intelligent Design, this challenge was raised by an audience member:

ID is a counterproductive apologetic device for this reason: If you introduce the idea of specified complexity, or irreducible complexity, the argument is that there are certain things that are so complex that you can’t give a natural explanation to them, but they have to invoke the idea of a designer. That entails that there are some things that are not sufficiently complex, so you don’t have to introduce the idea of a designer.

Now that seems to be contrary to Christian theology because God is the maker and upholder of everything there is–the things we do understand and the things we don’t. And to substitute God in the places that we can’t understand is that traditional philosophical error…of the “God of the gaps,” where you substitute God in where you can’t do the science. Now, C. A. Coulson was our first professor of theoretical physics, a Christian man, and he said, when that happens, the challenge is to become a better scientist, not to try and say, “Ah, here we’ve found a bit you can’t explain in science. That’s God.” And I think that’s inescapable as a problem in the Intelligent Design movement.

Now put yourself in Behe’s position. You’ve finished your presentation on ID, and you get this challenge. How do you respond? In a situation like this one, you want to zero in as closely as possible on whatever you think is most important. Though there are a few things to address in this question, if your answer wanders on too long, you’ll lose the audience. So pick out the main thing you need to clarify, and state your answer as clearly as possible. Let’s see what you’ve got! We’ll hear from Alan on this one on Thursday.

  1. Sam Harper says:

    The “God of the gaps” response to any theistic argument is just an argument of the gaps when somebody doesn’t know how to respond to theistic arguments. Various attributes of God are DEDUCED in theistic arguments, so God isn’t an arbitrary place holder for things we don’t understand. Rather, God is a conclusion we arrive at because of things we DO understand.

    In the case of intelligent design, the theory, strictly speaking, doesn’t identity the designer as God. Most of its adherents believe the designer IS God based on other considerations besides intelligent design, but the theory only goes so far as to postulate a designer because that’s all the evidence supports.

    It’s plainly absurd to dismiss any sort of design inference as a “designer of the gaps” argument because we all know good and well that there are designers who have influence in the world, we ourselves being a prime example. And we know what sorts of things designers are capable of, and we are able to develop criteria for distinguishing between what is the result of intelligent agency on the one hand and what is the result of natural occurrence on the other. That isn’t to say we don’t make mistakes sometimes, but it is hardly arbitrary to attribute design to some things we observe in the world (e.g. machines, books, etc.).

    The questioner makes a legitimate point, though. Intelligent Design (as well as other teleological type arguments) depend on making a distinction between what is the result of design and what is the result of natural occurrence. But when it comes to Christian theism, it turns out that EVERYTHING is designed.

    But I would respond by saying that design appears in different levels of explanation. For example, say you want to explain how the gas in a car gets from the gas tank to the fuel injectors. There are two ways to explain that. You can explain it by saying the car was designed that way, or you can explain it by appealing to fluid mechanics, differences in pressure, etc. The fact that the car is designed does not mean it doesn’t obey the laws of nature. It is natural for fluid to move from high pressure to low pressure

    One can look at an entire ecosystem, notice that it seems to be geared toward promoting life, and infer that the ecosystem was designed. But in doing so, one isn’t negating the fact that rivers, rain, and reproduction are entirely natural. If water collects at the top of a hill and overflows, it will flow down the hill. Eventually, erosion will form a groove, and you’ll have a little stream or a river. That’s perfectly natural. But that shouldn’t prevent somebody from inferring that the river is part of some design.

  2. Glenn Gardner says:

    In the opening paragraph the challenger asserts that ID “entails that there are some things that are not sufficiently complex, so you don’t have to introduce the idea of a designer.” Unpacking this straw-man unseats the rest of the challenge IMO.
    Any strictly naturalistic mechanism that is postulated as being sufficient can ultimately be shown to be reducible to some “natural law” which is itself inherently irreducibly complex and merely an approximation of the reality which we are attempting to explain via our imperfect perceptions of that reality.

  3. William Soo Hoo says:

    I think the challenger is creating a false dichotomy when he makes the claim that there are “things” that are not sufficiently complex. What is missing from this challenge is the fact that this level of molecular complexity is absolutely fundamental to the biological process not only at the molecular level but ultimately for the entire biological system as a whole.

    One should ask the challenger, “What are some examples of things that are not ‘sufficiently complex’?”

    He may choose to mention some biological system and argue that it is not irreducibly complex but the reality is that the underlying molecular mechanisms of that particular system are. So it seems that the person is making the mistake of assigning different properties to the whole while ignoring properties of the parts. Ultimately then the notion of design is still a reasonable hypothesis and no “ID of the gaps” is warranted.

  4. Elliot Neff says:

    Well, I think it is true that we as Christians occasionally tend to “punt” to this idea too quickly– that since we cannot explain a specific phenomenon or fact, we must invoke God as the explanation.

    I know it can seem a bit frustrating to Atheists/skeptics, and understandably so, when a Christian seems to say to every honest inquisition, “God is just a mysterious being. Who are we to know/ask God of that?” Now– it is true that God has a side of mystery that should ultimately bring us to worship. I do not wish to downplay that. I only want to point out that sometimes that line becomes “overplayed”. Or perhaps (another common line we may use), “You just need to have faith”. Well, we should have faith– but that does not mean “blind faith” as it is so commonly misinterpreted to mean. What I feel in my heart must also make sense in my head. Instead, when it is appropriate, we should simply say “I don’t know, but I’d be happy to look further into for you!”

    This is just a general principle that may help us reduce unwanted frustration on both sides. 🙂

    In Michael Behe’s case however, it might be beneficial to clarify what specifically they are objecting to. In the brief objection that the challenger offered, I personally had a bit of trouble following his/her logic. Ask them to point out an example or two in order to deal with the objection sufficiently.

    Secondly, I would point out (not just in this debate, but also others) that the arguments presented are not structured that way; they are built deductively in order to reach a certain conclusion. It is not because of what I am ignorant of that I am a Christian, but because of what I do know to be true. I would also briefly recap the arguments provided in order to further assure that the conclusions have not been drawn from “gaps” in our knowledge, but rather premises which are well supported and more plausibly true than not.

    So, all in all, I feel that I can agree with this skeptic’s view point: we cannot afford to reach a conclusion based on gaps in our knowledge. That would be irresponsible. This argument though is not based off of gaps.

    The point is well taken, but in this case, it does not apply.

    • Philip Motes says:

      Well said, Elliot! The overplaying of the “God is myserious” card just betrays the ignorance of many Christians, quite frankly. Anti-intellectualism has been detrimental to the church and our influence in the culture. It demonstrates the need for people like Brett and STR to get out there and do the atheist role plays and train Christians in apologetics. I know this is way off topic, but I have a dream- to see the day when every church in America has an apologetics pastor on staff who regularly teaches the congregation how to defend their faith and address current issues from a Christian worldview. What do you think?

  5. tlogical says:

    Intelligent Design simply is not “God in the Gaps.” The reason for this is that Intelligent Design is a viable theory in the creation of the world which has been trounced upon by naturalist presuppositions of the impossibility of the supernatural. Intelligent Design is not merely throwing the name of God out there as answer. It is an explanation for the beginnings of the universe that is consistent with scientific evidence that is present. Notice that it is not consistent with naturalistic philosophy but with the evidence. The evidence cannot be only read through the naturalistic lense of understanding but also must take into consideration supernaturalistic explanations as well, and it should be pointed out that naturalism cannot provide a suitable explanation of the metaphysical therefore making it necessary to allow for the super-natural explanation to be available.

  6. Philip Motes says:

    This is far from an “inescapable problem.” I think Sam really nailed this one. The arguments from ID are simply deduced from the evidence at hand. For example, Steve Meyer’s argument from DNA might (roughly) go as follows: 1.) From our known experience, information comes from an intelligent mind. 2.) The genetic code of DNA contains massive amounts of information. 3.) Therefore, the genetic code of DNA comes from an intelligent mind. This is a positive case to design, NOT a “God of the gaps” argument from ignorance. So, the charge is simply a false one.

    It may also be useful to point out that the punt to science to eventually find a natural explanation amounts to a “science of the gaps” argument. Greg Koukl explained this quite well on the last show. Richard Dawkins is a textbook example of someone who does this. One of his responses to the fine tuning of the universe is that science was able to explain “apparent” design in biology with the theory of Darwinian evolution, so “just give science a chance” and they will find an explanation for the apparent design in the cosmos as well. Now, who is really making the argument from ignorance here?

    I suppose the crux of the matter is a philosophical one. Their naturalistic assumptions force them to rule out the supernatural explanation a priori. I recommend Phillip Johnson’s book “Darwin on Trial” on that subject.

    I’m curious how Behe responded to this. Did anyone watch the debate?

  7. LukeN says:

    First, let’s look at the idea that God of the gaps is incompatible with Christianity. Obviously, God created everything. However, he did create systems that can produce and exhibit the design of the original template- much like a manufacturing plant- the end product is the product of dumb machinery, but it reflects the design of an intelligence. Hence, just because we attribute a final product to a natural process, does not mean that we attribute the natural process to nature- the process is also the result of an intelligent designer- thus so is the finished product.

    Second, let’s look at the idea that God is just stuck in where we don’t know something. ID is mainly founded on the idea that specified and irreducible complexity are products only of intelligence. When the only source of intelligence is eliminated from the realm of possibility (man did not design his own DNA), then another source must be posited. To avoid the conclusion that God is the source, some people have resorted to an extraterrestrial species, but that only pushes back the problem one step. Another possibility is to avoid attribution of specified and irreducible complexity necessarily to intelligence altogether- the idea of the multiverse. However, since there is no direct evidence of such a multiverse, this is a sort of “naturalism”-of-the-gaps, and it is subject to the same criticisms, yet does not have the scientific or philosophical support that God enjoys.

    • Sam Harper says:

      Luke, if there being no direct evidence for a multiverse means the multiverse theory is a “naturalism of the gaps,” would you also say that if there were no direct evidence for God that intelligent design would be a “God of the gaps”? In other words, do we really need direct evidence for God or for a multiverse before we can invoke either one as an explanation for the apparent design in the universe?

      If so, then it seems to me that teleological arguments are not sound arguments apart from other arguments for God. We’d need independent arguments for God before we could make a sound teleological argument.

  8. LukeN says:

    Sam, I’m saying that there is more evidence for God than a multiverse. Also, many people complain that God is not directly testable; I’m pointing out that neither is the multiverse, since by definition it is outside our physical universe and beyond what our instruments can test. If, however, it interacted directly within our universe (as God does), it can be directly testable. That is what makes religions so easy to test- if they make a claim about reality (through the interaction with man- writing of a “holy book”), then that claim can be tested directly for truth.

    Its a nuanced point, but I think it stands. What do you think?

  9. Todd Overbeek says:

    I haven’t seen the debate and am only reacting to the note above. First, science is incapable of revealing absolute truth. Period. Absolute revealed truth comes from God. The only reason that we can even use science is because God has granted us the privilege of some knowledge as human beings and even more as regenerated Christians. An atheist once challenged me with the “proof” that science reveals truth from what we know about gravity as an example… I asked him to explain to me how gravity works. “What makes two bodies in free space attract each other?” He couldn’t. Even with all we know today, man STILL doesn’t know why or how gravity works. Christians can do better science than non-Christians only because they have been granted wisdom by a holy and righteous God, but if we think that we are learning truth in and of ourselves by our “good” science? We become as bad as the non-Christians…we should know better.

    This response reveals what the audience member is, stupid and a fool. Here’s a scenario to make this simple, I am a master painter on the caliber of a Thomas Kincade. If I paint my room a solid color does that mean I didn’t paint it because it is simple? His argument has not only revealed that he doesn’t understand God, doesn’t understand the topic, but he is incapable of understanding a simple analogy. This audience member has simply confirmed 2 Corinthians 4:4 and Romans 1:22. He is a fool, he is under God’s wrath and this person will remain under God’s wrath until he confesses his sin and repents.

  10. Udaybhanu Chitrakar says:

    God of the gaps

    I will begin this article with two postulates:
    1) God has created this universe,
    2) He has brought man in this universe with some purpose.
    I am not claiming here that these two postulates are true, or that I can prove them to be true. But I want to show here that if these two postulates are true, then God will always be the God of the gaps. Anyone who will be reading this article should not forget that there is an “if” clause in the last sentence.
    Now I will begin with the supposition that God has created this universe. If God has created this universe, then He could have created it in four different ways:
    1) He created it in such a way that there was no necessity for Him to intervene in it after creation,
    2) After creation He intervened in it, but these interventions were a bare minimum, that is, He intervened only when these were absolutely necessary. In order to clarify my point here, I will say that He intervened only when He found that without His intervention the universe would come to a standstill,
    3) He created the universe in such a way that in order to keep it going He had to make very frequent interventions in it,
    4) God’s total intervention after creation.
    If it was the purpose of God to keep mankind crippled in every possible way, then He would have adopted either the third or the fourth way while creating the universe. This is because in these two cases man, in spite of his having sufficient intelligence and reasoning power, will fail to unveil the secrets of nature, because in almost every phenomenon of nature that he will decide to study he will ultimately find that there always remains an unknown factor, for which he will have no explanation. For him the book of nature will thus remain closed forever. But if it were God’s purpose that man be master of His creation, then it is quite natural for Him that He would try to keep the book of nature as much open to him as possible, so that with the little intelligence he has been endowed with man will be able to decipher the language of nature, and with that acquired knowledge he will also be able to improve the material conditions of his life. In that case God will try to adopt the policy of maximum withdrawal from His creation. He will create the universe in such a way that without His intervention the created world will be able to unfold itself. However that does not mean that He will never intervene. He will definitely intervene when without His intervention the created world would become stagnant. In such a scenario man will be able to give an explanation of almost all physical events in scientific language. But in those cases where God has actually intervened, he will fail to do so.
    So I think there is no reason for us to be ashamed of the “God of the gaps” hypothesis. Yes, if God has created the universe, and if God’s purpose was that man be master of His creation, then He would try to keep as little gap in His creation as possible. But the minimum gap that would be ultimately left can never be bridged by any sort of scientific explanation. God will also reside in that gap. Why should we be ashamed of that?
    The whole matter can be seen from another angle. Those who strongly believe that God has created this universe also believe that He has created it alone. Now is it believable that a God, who is capable of creating such a vast universe alone, is not capable enough to keep a proof of His existence in the created world? So I think it is more reasonable to believe that while creating the universe God has also kept a proof of His existence in something created. This proof is open to us all, but we have not found it, because we have not searched for it. So even if it is the case that God has never intervened in the created world after its creation, still then there will be a gap in this natural world, purposefully left by God, for which science will find no explanation. This will be the ultimate gap that can only be filled up by invoking God.
    Therefore, I can conclude this article in this way: If God created this universe, and if God wanted man to be the master of His creation, then God would willingly choose to be “God of the gaps”.
    A theistic God will always prefer to be the God of the gaps.

  11. Hey, like reading your blog although I have noticed that the images look a bit discoloured on my mac.