God of the gaps

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This article is about a type of philosophical argument. For the "gap" interpretation of the biblical creation account, see Gap creationism.

God of the gaps is a type of theological perspective in which gaps in scientific knowledge are taken to be evidence or proof of God's existence. The term was invented by Christian theologians not to discredit theism but rather to point out the fallacy of relying on teleological arguments for God's existence.[1] Some use the phrase to refer to a form of the argument from ignorance fallacy.

Origins of the term[edit]

The concept, although not the exact wording, goes back to Henry Drummond, a 19th-century evangelist lecturer, from his Lowell Lectures on The Ascent of Man. He chastises those Christians who point to the things that science can not yet explain—"gaps which they will fill up with God"—and urges them to embrace all nature as God's, as the work of "... an immanent God, which is the God of Evolution, is infinitely grander than the occasional wonder-worker, who is the God of an old theology."[2][3]

During World War II the German theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer expressed the concept in similar terms in letters he wrote while in a Nazi prison.[4] Bonhoeffer wrote, for example:

"...how wrong it is to use God as a stop-gap for the incompleteness of our knowledge. If in fact the frontiers of knowledge are being pushed further and further back (and that is bound to be the case), then God is being pushed back with them, and is therefore continually in retreat. We are to find God in what we know, not in what we don't know."[4]

In his 1955 book Science and Christian Belief Charles Alfred Coulson (1910−1974) wrote:

There is no 'God of the gaps' to take over at those strategic places where science fails; and the reason is that gaps of this sort have the unpreventable habit of shrinking.[5]

and

Either God is in the whole of Nature, with no gaps, or He's not there at all.[6]

Coulson was a mathematics professor at Oxford University as well as a Methodist church leader, often appearing in the religious programs of British Broadcasting Corporation. His book got national attention,[7] was reissued as a paperback, and was reprinted several times, most recently in 1971. It is claimed that the actual phrase 'God of the gaps' was invented by Coulson.[8][9]

The term was then used in a 1971 book and a 1978 article, by Richard Bube. He articulated the concept in greater detail in Man come of Age: Bonhoeffer’s Response to the God-of-the-Gaps (1978). Bube attributed modern crises in religious faith in part to the inexorable shrinking of the God-of-the-gaps as scientific knowledge progressed. As humans progressively increased their understanding of nature, the previous "realm" of God seemed to many persons and religions to be getting smaller and smaller by comparison. Bube maintained that Darwin's Origin of Species was the "death knell" of the God-of-the-gaps. Bube also maintained that the God-of-the-gaps was not the same as the God of the Bible (that is, he was not making an argument against God per se, but rather asserting there was a fundamental problem with the perception of God as existing in the gaps of present-day knowledge).[10]

General usage[edit]

The term "God of the gaps" is sometimes used in describing the incremental retreat of religious explanations of physical phenomena in the face of increasingly comprehensive scientific explanations for those phenomena.[5][10][11]

R. Laird Harris writes:

"The expression, "God of the Gaps," contains a real truth. It is erroneous if it is taken to mean that God is not immanent in natural law but is only to be observed in mysteries unexplained by law. No significant Christian group has believed this view. It is true, however, if it be taken to emphasize that God is not only immanent in natural law but also is active in the numerous phenomena associated with the supernatural and the spiritual. There are gaps in a physical-chemical explanation of this world, and there always will be. Because science has learned many marvelous secrets of nature, it cannot be concluded that it can explain all phenomena. Meaning, soul, spirits, and life are subjects incapable of physical-chemical explanation or formation."[12]

Usage in referring to a type of argument[edit]

The term God-of-the-gaps fallacy can refer to a position that assumes an act of God as the explanation for an unknown phenomenon, which is a variant of an argument from ignorance fallacy.[13][14] Such an argument is sometimes reduced to the following form:

  • There is a gap in understanding of some aspect of the natural world.
  • Therefore the cause must be supernatural.

One example of such an argument, which uses God as an explanation of one of the current gaps in biological science, is as follows: "Because current science can't figure out exactly how life started, it must be God who caused life to start." Critics of intelligent design creationism, for example, have accused proponents of using this basic type of argument.[15]

God-of-the-gaps arguments have been discouraged by some theologians who assert that such arguments tend to relegate God to the leftovers of science: as scientific knowledge increases, the dominion of God decreases.[4][5][16][17]

Criticism[edit]

The term was invented as a criticism of people who perceive that God only acts in the gaps, and who restrict God's activity to such "gaps".[18] It has also been argued that the God-of-the-gaps view is predicated on the assumption that any event which can be explained by science automatically excludes God; that if God did not do something via direct action, God didn't do it at all.[19]

The "God of the gaps" argument, as traditionally advanced by scholarly Christians, was intended as a criticism against weak or tenuous faith, not as a statement against theism or belief in God.[2][20][21][improper synthesis?]

According to John Habgood in The Westminster Dictionary of Christian Theology, the phrase is generally derogatory, and is inherently a direct criticism of a tendency to postulate acts of God to explain phenomena for which science has yet to give a satisfactory account.[22] Habgood also states:

"It is theologically more satisfactory to look for evidence of God's actions within natural processes rather than apart from them, in much the same way that the meaning of a book transcends, but is not independent of, the paper and ink of which it is comprised."[22]

From a scientific viewpoint, God-of-the-gaps is viewed as the fallacy of claiming any gap in our scientific knowledge as evidence of God's action, as opposed to admitting that we do not currently have an answer or anticipating that, should an answer come, it will be a scientific one that leaves no role for God.[23] In this vein, Richard Dawkins dedicates a chapter of his book, The God Delusion to criticism of the God-of-the-gaps fallacy.

God-of-the-gaps arguments have also been criticized for doubting that, in a world created by God, the mechanics of how things happen can always be described by science.[23]

Some theistic scientists point out the danger of using a God-of-the-gaps argument and prefer (for example) the "fine-tuning" argument.[24]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ See, e.g., "Teleological Arguments for God's Existence" in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy [1]
  2. ^ a b See Thomas Dixon Science and Religion: A Very Short Introduction p. 45
  3. ^ Henry Drummond (1904). The Ascent of Man.  p. 333
  4. ^ a b c Dietrich Bonhoeffer, letter to Eberhard Bethge, 29 May 1944, pages 310–312, Letters and Papers from Prison edited by Eberhard Bethge, translated by Reginald H. Fuller, Touchstone, ISBN 0-684-83827-3, 1997; Translation of Widerstand und Ergebung Munich: Christian Kaiser Verlag, 1970
  5. ^ a b c Charles Alfred Coulson (1955) Science and Christian Belief, Oxford University Press, p. 20, Fontana Books 1958 and later (paperback) p. 32.
  6. ^ Coulson, Fontana edition, p. 35.
  7. ^ The Fontana edition cites reviews from The Times Literary Supplement, New Statesman, and Manchester Guardian,
  8. ^ C. Southgate et al.(1999), God, Humanity and the Cosmos: A Textbook in Science and Religion, T. & T. Clark, p. 247.
  9. ^ A. Hough, Not a Gap in Sight: Fifty Years of Charles Coulson's Science and Christian Belief, Theology 2006 109: 21−27. Hough writes, p. 24:
    The concept was certainly present, but according to Southgate it was Coulson who devised the actual terminology which we now use and which has been adapted to provide the title of the present article. The idea that Coulson coined this phrase is supported by the fact that he used it without reference or explanation and as a natural self-explanatory part of his argument.
  10. ^ a b Man Come of Age: Bonhoeffer’s Response to the God-of-the-Gaps. Richard Bube. Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society. Volume 14. 1971. pp.203–220.
  11. ^ Richard Bube (1971) The Human Quest: A New Look at Science and the Christian Faith
  12. ^ Harris, L. L, "The God of the Gaps". JASA. Vol.15.No.4. Dec. 1963. pp. 101–104.
  13. ^ Michael Shermer (2003) How We Believe: Science, Skepticism, and the Search for God, p 115 ff.
  14. ^ Robert Larmer, "Is there anything wrong with 'God of the gaps' reasoning?" International Journal for Philosophy of Religion, Volume 52, Number 3 / December, 2002, p 129 ff.
  15. ^ See, e.g., Mark Isaak (2006) The Counter-Creationism Handbook pp x, 11–12, 35.
  16. ^ Thomas Dixon "Science and Religion: A Very Short Introduction" p. 45
  17. ^ Man Come Of Age: Bonhoeffer’s Response To The God-Of-The-Gaps, Richard Bube, 1971
  18. ^ http://www.newdualism.org/papers/R.Larmer/Gaps.htm
  19. ^ http://www.asa3.org/ASA/education/origins/gaps.htm
  20. ^ Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison (1953, translated from the German by Reginald Fuller, 1962, ed. Eberhard Bethge)
  21. ^ Charles Alfred Coulson (1955) Science and Christian Belief, p 20.
  22. ^ a b The Westminster Dictionary of Christian Theology (Ed. Alan Richardson, John Bowden, 1983), p 242 [2]
  23. ^ a b http://www.dctech.com/physics/features/old/godofgap.php
  24. ^ http://biologos.org/questions/god-of-the-gaps

Bibliography[edit]

External links[edit]