What’s in the gaps?

The Apologetics 315 blog quoted William Dembski of the Discovery Institute not too long ago, making what I’m sure he and they thought was a clever argument:

“Scientists rightly resist invoking the supernatural in scientific explanations for fear of committing a god-of-the-gaps fallacy (the fallacy of using God as a stop-gap for ignorance). Yet without some restriction on the use of chance, scientists are in danger of committing a logically equivalent fallacy-one we may call the ‘chance-of-the-gaps fallacy.’ Chance, like God, can become a stop-gap for ignorance.”

—William Dembski

You hear this weird turnabout argument a lot. “Oh yeah, well atheism‘s just another religion too!” “Do you ever apply your skepticism to skepticism itself?” It’s an elementary school playground retort — “I know you are but what am I?” — and it usually betrays a very deep misunderstanding of the point being responded to.

Let’s break this one down, shall we?

Theists are arguing that their deity’s existence is the best explanation for every natural phenomenon. But they’ve defined their deity to essentially be “the entity that does everything and is in control of everything that ever happens,” so it’s not surprising that they are able to offer it as an explanation for just about anything they like. What they haven’t done is offer compelling reasons to believe that such an entity exists in the first place. This is why we call it “god-of-the-gaps”: whatever gap in your knowledge there is, this concept of an omnipotent god rushes in to fill it, blocking out any potential for real scientific inquiry as well as any informative, useful explanation. If we think “God did it” is the explanation of that event, does that tell us anything about what might happen next? Does it allow us any sort of deeper understanding of how the universe functions? No, it doesn’t. It doesn’t even include any sort of predictions about how this “God” creature might tend to behave and what sorts of decisions it’s likely to make in the future. Basically, positing a “god-of-the-gaps” is just a fancy way of saying “I don’t know.”

Meanwhile, we know that probabilistic events really do happen in our world. See: genetic mutations, variation in inherited traits, radioactive decay … which dispersed seed pod happens to make it to fertile soil and which one dries up on hot pavement. We could make a ridiculously long list like this. Now, noteverything happens entirely due to chance, but no one actually claims that, and I don’t think that is Dembski’s objection; otherwise, he should equally object to gravity ever being used to explain an object’s motion because sometimes it’s actually electromagnetic forces. So, what limits should we place on “the use of chance” as a scientific explanation? How about: only say that chance plays a role in a phenomenon when we have a preponderance of evidence suggesting that it is in fact probabilistic. Never just say “chance did it” without doing any sort of investigations first. What’s that, you say? That’s the heart of the scientific method? Why yes … so it is.

Creationists tend to object to chance as an explanation for biological diversity because they can’t comprehend the large numbers and long timescales involved. (They’re not unique in having this handicap; just look at how many people play the lottery. Human brains aren’t well-equipped to deal intuitively with the very large or the very small.) They also tend to ignore the fact that the scientific explanation includes more than pure chance. We are not shaking up a bunch of springs and cogs in a box, then removing a fully-built airplane. We’re talking about random genetic mutations happening to different organisms all over the planet, plus natural selection pressures that caused organisms with the most beneficial mutations to go on to live longer and reproduce more. We have gobs of evidence that these processes of mutation and selection really do occur. Those processes have had something like 3.8 billion years in which to work… and chance can do a whole lot in that amount of time.

On the other hand, do we have any evidence pointing to divine intervention in our world? Do we have any indication of the mechanism by which that would take place? Do we even have a clear definition of which god is doing the intervening, or even what it means for something to be a god? No, we don’t. So don’t tell me that scientists are committing a “logically equivalent fallacy” to that of the creationists. That’s just wishful thinking on the creationists’ part. No, they have to shoulder the burden of their shame all alone. And scientists are going to continue admitting that they don’t know everything, keep collecting more evidence, and go on making claims only when they actually have evidence to back them up.

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6 Comments

  1. I don’t have much time for this, but I thought I’d point out a few things:

    “Theists are arguing that their deity’s existence is the best explanation for every natural phenomenon.” …no. That’s simply not true. There are theists who, for example, accept that the earth is round and that its tilt is complicit to the seasons.

    “What they haven’t done is offer compelling reasons to believe that such an entity exists in the first place.” The key word being “compelling.” Just because you are not compelled by the reasoning does not mean it does not exist. Young Earth Creationists use much the same argument against “Evolution.”

    “It doesn’t even include any sort of predictions about how this ‘God’ creature might tend to behave and what sorts of decisions it’s likely to make in the future.” Granted, not from a creation standpoint, no. YECs believe God is done creating… at least until this New Earth. And, yes, Creationism does feel a lot like “I don’t know” for a great many things… but that’s not all bad. Science is built on the same statement, but instead of accepting ignorance as to things too wonderful to fully comprehend, it seeks out naturalistic explanations for the unexplained. Not a bad thing–indeed, early scientists used this very thinking as an act of devotion/worship of God. One of the big differences I see is that where science cannot allow for the supernatural–indeed, it shouldn’t–theism is open to the divine. That’s not to say that creationists shouldn’t be more interested in learning about the mechanics of how things work.

    “I don’t think that is Dembski’s objection. [Instead,] only say that chance plays a role in a phenomenon when we have a preponderance of evidence suggesting that it is in fact probabilistic.” And this, I’m guessing, is Dembski’s point: There is little/no evidence that life springs from “probabilistic” events. All of your examples require creation to be “up and running”–if you will–and then contain many probabilistic events that you rightly point out. But, it seems, that the “chance of the gaps” rushes in whenever a mechanism isn’t in place. Indeed, I sense you do exactly this when you say: “Creationists … can’t comprehend the large numbers and long timescales involved.” Those timescales only work, again, if the machine is “already running.”

    “We’re talking about random genetic mutations happening to different organisms all over the planet, plus natural selection pressures that caused organisms with the most beneficial mutations to go on to live longer and reproduce more.” As I’ve said many times: I don’t know of many people who study this stuff who reject descent with modification… that’s a very Biblical idea with the Flood. I, myself, have been very impressed by the work of “Information Theorists” who point out that DNA seems designed to move us forward. But descent with modification and DNA mutation all presuppose creation/abiogenesis. Creation invokes a supernatural God to fill the gaps, and abiogenesis invokes a non-mechanized Chance to do the same. At least, aside from the highly flawed Miller-Urey experiment (due to the chirality of life), I am unfamiliar with any other study into abiogeneses. Granted, I haven’t spent any time studying this in well over a decade, so I’d love to be updated on what’s been going on in that field of study, as–naturally–it is a very important one to the scientific community.

    “On the other hand, do we have any evidence pointing to divine intervention in our world?” Yes, but you reject it. That’s your choice, and you have reason to do so. My point is merely that there is also reason–however (un)equally flawed–why YECs reject “evolution” as the explanation for how life got here in the first place.

    “And scientists are going to continue … making claims only when they actually have evidence to back them up.” Perhaps. In fact, I’m happy to give scientists the benefit of the doubt on this one. But the general populace–myself very much included–who know only what we were taught in school about things like evolution and the mechanisms of life, come to believe statements that are simply not at all evidence backed. This is, I believe, largely due to a misunderstanding of very poorly defined terms; “Evolution” being one of the worst. When I talk with people about “evolution” I try my best to keep them focused: What are you talking about? Descent with modification? “Random” DNA mutations? Some other form of mutation? Natural selection? Common descent? Abiogenesis? Because each of those are rather different fields of study, use very different evidence, lead to very different statements about the world, and are used in very different ways.

    Okay, sorry for the rambling response. Just a few thoughts rattling around in my head. Unfortunately, now, I have to move on. Thanks for writing this up! I appreciate you taking the “chance of the gaps” argument on because there are significant flaws in the general populace’s–my own included–as to what all that means. I used to, for example, gravitate strongly to the “stick parts in a box, shake it, and get a plane” argument against evolution… but that was because no one–certainly not my biology teachers in high school–bothered to actually help me understand what “evolution” was and how it worked. Instead, I was fed a steady diet of statements that were “facts” when, indeed, they were little more than poorly defined words. But, again: I’m not a scientist.

    ~Luke

  2. Wow! For not having much time, you sure said a lot. :) Let’s see…

    - Fair enough, I should have said “Many theists…” or “These theists…”. I think I generalized because i have heard so many religious people, Christians especially, cite God when talking about volcanos, or springtime, or sunrises, things we understand very well in terms of boring old natural phenomena.

    - I do not mean “compelling” in terms of a personally convincing argument, though you are right that that must be part of it. I mean, creationists’ arguments look like: “The Bible says that divine creation is reality, therefore it must be true” or “I have not taken the time to learn about evolutionary biology, therefore it must be [insert silly strawman] which is obviously false.” Anyone with a basic grasp of logic or appreciation for evidence-based inference would not consider these arguments compelling.

    - You say that “theism is open to the divine.” If the divine is a possible explanation for how reality came to be the way it is today, science should be “open” to it, too. And frankly it is — provided that we get some definitions of what we are talking about, and some evidence for whatever that divine thing is. In the absence of any evidence in support of this claim, we default to the null hypothesis.

    - Much of the rest of what you’ve written conflates evolution by natural selection with abiogenesis. These are separate concepts. Saying “evolution doesn’t explain how life came to be in the first place!” is like saying “calculus doesn’t tell me the best recipe for chocolate chip cookies!” Chocolate chip cookies are good, but calculus is still mathematically valid and very useful in its context. I think that at least on some level we are on the same page here; you do talk about the importance of a clear definition for “evolution.” You’re absolutely right that much of our country’s education system is not at all clear on this point, and many many people have developed wild misconceptions as a result. I hope that eventually we can change that.

    Thanks, as always, for your thoughtful comments, Luke!

  3. Ah, your mistake was not laughing like a loon and shouting NEXT when you saw the Discovery Institute mentioned ;)

    Eva

  4. “What they haven’t done is offer compelling reasons to believe that such an entity exists in the first place. ”

    Why should I read past the point where the prejudice of the existing has made the monologue wronger than wrong.

    Do not take the assumption of “entity”.
    Do NOT assign a a priori assumption of “entity-ness” to “God”. That is only a small step removed from the “big guy with white beard in the clouds” strawman.

    Replace “entity” with the term that fits an entirely unknowable ungnosticable blackbox. There is one word in the English language that I know of that fits such a vague description.

    Using “entity” in it’s normal usage, or to fall back into the habit of confusing religion and God is to fall back into setting up yourself a straw man to attack.

    To whit: “”What they haven’t done is offer compelling reasons to believe that such an ‘unknowable ungnosticable blackbox exists in the first place. ”

    well is exhibit B, True?

  5. mist42nz: An entity is simply “something that exists.” Could be a big guy with a white beard in the clouds, could be an elephant with eight arms, could be a higher-dimensional being capable of looking “down” on our world, could be a sort of cloud of love-energy or whatever. If in a conversation about gods I cannot presume that those who believe in gods believe that those gods are entities, then nothing makes any sense anymore. It seems like you are trying to redefine theism as including atheism (i.e. those who believe that gods are not things that exist).

  6. Your Reason Ray is inneffective!

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