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The “God of the Gaps” Argument: A Refutation

From Issue: R&R – Issue 44 #2

If you read literature or watch videos that deal with Creation, the existence of God, evolution, the Big Bang, or any number of issues similar to these, you most likely have come across the “God-of-the-gaps” argument and accusation. Why is it called an “argument”? Certain Christian apologists and those who believe in Creation have used the “God-of-the-gaps” idea as evidence that God must exist. The process goes something like this: Scientific evidence is presented that explains certain natural phenomena. That data is limited and there are gaps in our knowledge or understanding of how things work. Since there are gaps that no scientific evidence explains, those who use the “God-of-the-gaps” argument suggest that the concept of God should be inserted to fill all such gaps, and His existence (or the activity and existence of other spiritual entities) provides an adequate and scientific explanation for human gaps in knowledge. Many skeptics explain this “God-of-the-gaps” thinking by pointing to ancient times when people did not understand thunder or lightning so they claimed these disturbances were the activity of sky gods. Or, skeptics compare theists today to ancient people who did not understand the natural causes of plague and disease and would often attribute such to the work of witches, evil demons, or other spiritual forces.

One can easily see the problem with using a God-of-the-gaps argument to reasonably or logically establish any idea. First, a gap in knowledge never proves anything other than that the person in the discussion does not know something. As those in archaeological circles are fond of saying, “The absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence.” An idea cannot be proven to be true simply because we do not currently know the answer. This is a form of a logical fallacy known as an “argument from ignorance.” Imagine using this kind of reasoning in a criminal case. We do not know who committed the murder of the company CEO, so we conclude it must have been the janitor. What evidence do we have for the janitor? None, but someone had to do it, so we just plug in a janitor-of-the-gaps argument and whisk the poor cleaning professional off to jail. Without adequate evidence, we cannot reasonably assert that we know what is the cause of something just because all our attempts to explain it have failed.

Another obvious problem with the God-of-the-gaps argument is that all it takes to disprove it is to provide a piece of positive evidence that shows another answer to be correct. Since the ancients did not understand thunder, they claimed it was proof that a sky god was angry. As modern science has advanced, we now have an excellent understanding of the physical causes of thunder and sky god activity is unnecessary to explain it. The field of archaeology provides many excellent examples that illustrate this type of failure of arguments from ignorance. In 2008, a skeptic named René Salm wrote a book that claimed the Bible could not be inspired and Jesus was not a real person, because no archaeological evidence existed that proved that the town of Nazareth was inhabited during the first century.1 He was using a lack of evidence to prove a positive assertion. The next year, in 2009, archaeologists working in the area of ancient Nazareth uncovered a home that dated back to the first century. This discovery completely refuted Salm’s incorrect thesis. Similarly, the God-of-the-gaps argument is a logical fallacy that should not be used by anyone who is trying to make a reasonable case for the existence of God.

We stated, however, that the God-of-the-gaps is an argument and an accusation. It fails miserably as a legitimate argument that can validate any conclusion. Most often, however, when it appears in the writings of skeptics and unbelievers, it is being used as an accusation. The gist of the accusation is that those who believe in God do not have evidence for God’s existence, they just see concepts and phenomena in nature that scientists have not yet explained, and they insert the idea of God as the explanation. For instance, when Michael Shermer, well-known unbeliever and founder of Skeptic magazine, was asked, “What are the fallacies that people use to supposedly prove that there is a God,” he responded by saying, “Probably one of the most common ones is God-of-the-gaps argument, ‘You scientists can’t explain x, therefore x must not have a natural explanation, ergo there must be a super natural explanation.’”2 In a video titled “Scientist Destroys the God of the Gaps,” atheist Richard Dawkins was asked, “How would you respond when people say, ‘Look, we don’t understand the origin of life on Earth, and therefore God must have done it.’” Dawkins responded by saying, “Even theologians don’t buy that, at least sophisticated theologians. It’s what they call a God-of-the-gaps argument. It’s pushing God into the few remaining gaps in our understanding…. [I]t would be bad logic, bad science, and bad philosophy to say, ‘Oh, I don’t understand it, therefore God did it.’”3 Dawkins is correct, most theologians and Christian apologists do not argue this way. But, as the reader can see from Michael Shermer’s statement and the title of the video of Dawkins, skeptics and unbelievers accuse theists of using the God-of-the-gaps argument as one of their primary approaches to establishing the existence of God. How can Christians answer the accusation that belief in God rests upon the fallacious God-of-the-gaps idea?

Answering the 
God-of-the-Gaps Accusation

In 2021, Stephen Meyer authored a book titled The Return of the God Hypothesis.4 Dr. Meyer received his Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge in the philosophy of science. He is the director of the Center for Science and Culture at the Discovery Institute in Seattle. He titled chapter 20 of his book, “Acts of God or God of the Gaps?” And, while we at Apologetics Press would disagree with his old-Earth conclusions and his acceptance of certain aspects of evolution, his discussion about how to answer the God-of-the-gaps accusation is one of the best I have read. He begins by showing what an actual, incorrect logical fallacy and “argument from ignorance” would look like. He stated, “Arguments from ignorance occur when evidence against one proposition is offered as the sole grounds for accepting an alternative. Thus they have the following form:

Premise: Cause A cannot produce or explain evidence E.

Conclusion: Therefore, cause B produced or explains E.”5

He notes how easy it is to identify this type of fallacy and how unreasonable it would be to use such thinking to try to prove any conclusion. He states that skeptics often claim that the argument for God’s existence based on intelligent design is guilty of this type of illogical thought. How can the theist who is using the design argument show that it is not a God-of-the-gaps argument from ignorance? Meyer states: “To depict proponents of the theory of intelligent design as committing the GOTG fallacy, critics must misrepresent the case for it.” He summarizes this misrepresentation by showing that skeptics are claiming that the theistic argument looks like this:

Premise: Material causes cannot produce or explain specified information.

Conclusion: Therefore, an intelligent cause produced the specified information in life.”

If this were how the design argument actually worked, there would be serious problems with it, and the skeptic would be right to challenge it as false. Meyer points out, however, that this misrepresentation of the design argument leaves out a very important premise. Meyer reconstructs the design argument to include the positive evidence that it implies:

Premise One: Despite a thorough search, no materialistic causes have been discovered with the power to produce large amounts of specified information necessary to produce the first cell.

Premise Two: Intelligent causes have demonstrated the power to produce large amounts of specified information.

Premise Three: Intelligent design constitutes the best, most causally adequate explanation for the origin of the specified information in the cell.”6

Notice that there is no gap in the properly stated form of the design argument. We have been doing scientific research for hundreds of years. We have discovered that intelligence is the only entity capable of producing large amounts of specified information. We see large amounts of specified information in cells. Therefore, we are forced by what we know about intelligence from centuries of scientific research to conclude that the specified information in cells is the product of an intelligent Creator. On the other hand, we also know enough about how matter behaves to conclude that it is impossible to get the specified information from materialistic causes. Origin-of-life experiments have been done for decades that have shown how matter does and does not behave. In every single experiment done to date, we have seen that natural processes not only do not produce life, but they cannot produce life. This is not a gap in our knowledge. The argument for design is based on what we know to be scientifically valid in every instance.

Why, then, are so many skeptics convinced that the design argument is a God-of-the-gaps logical fallacy? The reason for this is a prior commitment to naturalism. If a person begins by assuming that there has to be a naturalistic process that brought about life, then that person is forced to see a gap in our current knowledge, since no naturalistic processes have ever (in any experiment under any circumstances) even come close to producing a living cell. As Meyer explained, the question is often posed, “What chemical process first produced life?” Since no such chemical process has been discovered, we are told this is simply a gap in our current knowledge that will be filled in the future. But, as Meyer notes,

Nevertheless, our present lack of knowledge of any such chemical process entails a “gap” in our knowledge of the actual process by which life arose only if some materialistic chemical evolutionary process actually did produce the first life. Yet if life did not evolve via a strictly materialistic process but was, for example, intelligently designed, then our absence of knowledge of a materialistic process does not represent “a gap” in knowledge of an actual process.7

Meyer offers a great illustration of the point that a “gap” only exists if a person begins by assuming that all scientific explanations must be materialistic. He writes:

Imagine someone mistakenly enters an art gallery expecting to find croissants for sale. That is, he thinks the gallery is actually a fancy bakery. Observing the absence of pastries and rolls, such a person may think that he has encountered a gap in the services provided by the gallery. He may even think that he has encountered a gap in the staff’s knowledge of what must definitely be present somewhere in the gallery. Based on his assumptions, the visitor may stubbornly cling to his perception of a gap, badgering the gallery staff to “bring out the croissants already,” until with exasperation they show him the exit. The moral of the vignette? The gallery visitor’s perception of a gap in service or in knowledge of the location of the croissants derives from a false assumption about the nature of this establishment or about art galleries in general and what they typically offer to visitors.8

There is only a gap if a person will not accept what we know scientifically to be true. We “do have extensive experience of intelligent agents producing finely tuned systems such as Swiss watches, fine recipes, integrated circuits, written texts, and computer programs.”9 Furthermore, “intelligence or mind or what philosophers call ‘agent causation’ now stands as the only known cause capable of generating large amounts of specified information.”10 And “it takes a mind to generate specified or functional information, whether in ordinary experience, computer simulations, origin-of-life simulation experiments, the production of new forms of life, or, as we now see, in modeling the design of the universe.”11

Conclusion

The design argument for the existence of God is not an argument from what we do not know or we do not understand about the Universe and life in it, but instead is an argument based on the aspects of nature that we know to be true. As John Lennox stated in his debate with Michael Shermer, “I see God not in the bits of the Universe that I don’t understand, but in the bits that I do.”12 “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead…” (Romans 1:20).

Endnotes

1 Rene Salm (2008), The Myth of Nazareth: The Invented Town of Jesus (Cranford, NJ: American Atheist Press).

2 Michael Shermer (2022), “Fallacies in Proving God Exists,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d-_Tlsj4i-k.

3 Richard Dawkins, “Scientist Destroys the God of the Gaps,” https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=1707548059332046.

4 Stephen C. Meyer (2021), Return of the God Hypothesis: Three Scientific Discoveries that Reveal the Mind Behind the Universe (New York, NY: HarperOne).

5 Ibid., p. 414.

6 Ibid., p. 415.

7 Ibid., p. 424.

8 Ibid., p. 424.

9 Ibid., p. 338.

10 Ibid., p. 187.

11 Ibid., p. 385.

12 Debate between Michael Shermer and John Lennox at the Wesley Centre in Sydney Australia, 2009, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y_OPWiXbSDA&t=112s.


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