Shermer's god of the gaps

Tenzin Gyatso (aka the Dalai Lama) has a new book out. A friend was kind enough to forward me a book review from eSkeptic magazine written by Mr. Skeptic himself, Michael Shermer. Chuck Colson also has a Breakpoint essay which references Gyatso's new book.

Colson points out that Gyatso's assertion that scientific materialism (i.e. matter is all there is, was, and will be) is completely metaphysical in nature, and his conclusion that materialism is “an invitation to nihilism and spiritual poverty" are both spot on. I agree.

Shermer, ever the skeptic of everything but science, disagrees. He calls Gyatso's warning about scientific materialism a straw man. Well, ok. But why? Shermer never says. Moving on.

The most interesting piece of Shermer's critique is his conclusion that the Dalai Lama falls back on a Karma of the gaps position. While complimentary of the Dalai Lama's attempts at humbling himself before the supreme ruler (that being scientific knowledge in Shermer's gestalt) he accuses Gyatso of committing the same mistake as Creationists. Shermer insists that Gyatso uses Karma to fill in what he cannot explain.

Shermer writes, "In my opinion, God/karma does not explain anything; it is just a linguistic place-filler until science can discover the actual cause."

I think this is an interesting case of the pot calling the kettle black. I think Shermer is right that the Dalai Lama's ultimately falls back on a karma of the gaps explanation. But you know what? We all have gaps in our knowledge. We are all limited. We cannot explain everything under the sun. The Dalai Lama has gaps. I have gaps. Shermer has gaps. Sagan had gaps (though some of his gaps have no doubt been filled since his death in 1996).

The key question is, what fills your gaps?

The answer turns out to be the same. For everyone.

Faith fills the gaps.

Since faith sounds so religious, let me substitute an easier word for some to swallow. Trust. Trust fills the gaps.

For the Dalai Lama, it is a trust in Karma and a magical life force called prana. For me, it is trust in the whole counsel of the one true God and in His revelation. For Shermer, it is trust in his metaphysical system which is predicated on the assumption that it is possible for science to eventually explain everything.

We all have our placeholders. Our gap fillers. Even Shermer, though he cannot see the plank in his own eye, has a god of the gaps. In fact, he names three of them.

In pondering the mystery of the origin of life, sentience and consciousness, Shermer writes: "Yet the solution to these and other problems, in my opinion, is through the new sciences of complexity, emergence, and self-organization."

Pish posh. Complexity, emergence, and self-organization amount to hand-waving. They don't offer explanations. Drill down into them and you will strike air, not answers. Yet Shermer is willing to place his trust in them. The gap in his knowledge has been filled by his faith.

At the end of the day, we all rely on faith and trust. The critical question is not who has gaps and who does not ... it is what reasons do you have to justify your trust in whatever or whoever is filling those gaps. Do your reasons correspond with reality? And, does your system of belief cohere consistently within itself?

Or, does your faith, like Shermer's, amount to wishful thinking?


Uchitrakar said…
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 for ever. 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?

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 the “God of the gaps”.
A God who will create man with some purpose will always prefer to be the God of the gaps.

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