God (of the Gaps) is Dead

Robert Larmer of the University of New Brunswick has written an outstanding article for International Journal for Philosophy of Religion entitled Is there anything wrong with “God of the gaps” reasoning? This article, copyrighted 2002, has popped up on several of the websites to which we link (The Thinking Christian and Dangerous Idea to name two), and I thought that I would add my own comment.

The point of Dr. Larmer's lengthy article is that the leap to the conclusion that any appeal to God where science fails to provide an answer is often immediately, but wrongly, dismissed as an appeal to "God of the Gaps". The only problem is that the underlying logical fallacy, argumentum ad ignorantiam, is being misused in most cases. Dr. Larmer says:

The artificiality that plagues the short discussions of argumentum ad ignorantiam found in so many textbooks on informal logic results from the fact that in real life it is difficult to find arguments based simply on ignorance. It is clearly fallacious to argue that a statement must be false solely on the basis that it has not been proven true, or that a statement must be true solely on the basis that it has not been proven false. Typically, however, people do not argue in such a manner. Usually, we find them utilizing a premise, whether it be implicit or explicit, that if a proposition P were true (or not true) then we should reasonably expect to find evidence for it being true (or not true). When we do not find such evidence we can take this as a kind of evidence that P is false (or true). If my son tells me that there is a Great Dane in our bathroom and I go look and find no evidence of a Great Dane, I conclude that it is false there is a Great Dane in our bathroom. My lack of evidence for it being the case that there is a Great Dane in our bathroom is good evidence that there is not a great Dane in our bathroom because I have knowledge that if a Great Dane were there, there should be positive evidence to confirm its presence. Walton is, therefore, correct to note that presumed examples of the fallacy of argumentum ad ignorantiam can often be redescribed in a positive way that makes them seem not to be arguments from ignorance at all.

This redescription or transformation turns an argument from ignorance into a more positive-appearing kind of argumentation using modus tollens, and an implicit conditional assumption .. . The transformation is based on the conditional that if you have looked for something, and clearly it is not there, then this observation can count as a kind of positive evidence that it is not there. 10

It seems that examples of the fallacy of argumentum ad ignorantiam are rare.11 In most instances, arguments which might at first glance appear to commit the fallacy of simply appealing to ignorance, reveal themselves on further inspection not to be arguing that a particular proposition P has been proved false simply on the basis that it has not been proved true, but rather on the basis that there is good reason to believe that if P were true then we should have been able to find evidence for its truth. The fact such evidence is lacking provides good reason, via modus tollens, for concluding that P is false. In such instances, it is a mistake to insist that the argument for concluding -P is based simply on ignorance and thus commits the fallacy of ad ignorantiam.

This is an excellent point. While I suspect that people making true ad ignorantiam arguments exist, most people who challenge the scientific paradigm of a totally naturalistic universe (Carl Sagan's "the universe is all there is, all there was and all there ever will be") by pointing out failures of science to provide explanations do not do so because they are ignorant about the workings of science or because they are saying "you haven't proved it so it doesn't exist." These are straw man characterizations of what the opponents to the purely naturalistic view of the universe are saying.

I have previously made my own arguments along these same lines. In an old blog entry entitled The Loch Ness Monster, the Appeal to Ignorance and Intelligent Design, I noted that people who claim that the Loch Ness Monster doesn't exist because there is no positive evidence for its existence are not committing the fallacy of argumentum ad ignorantiam. Rather, there have been detailed sonar searches of the entire Loch to try to locate Nessie, but those efforts have failed to turn up any creature anywhere near the size or description of Nessie. Is it possible that Nessie exists despite these searches? Of course, but the point is not to disprove Nessie's existence but rather to make the case that based upon the evidence available there is insufficient reason to believe that Nessie really exists. This conclusion is not a logical fallacy of argumentum ad ignorantiam; it is an application of the logical principle of modus tollens.

Likewise, in the case of the search for a naturalistic cause for the universe, the person pointing out problems with the scientific evidence is not committing the logical fallacy of argumentum ad ignorantiam, either. As I stated earlier:

[The misrepresentative claim that Intelligent Design is merely a "God of the Gaps" argument] is that ID argues, "There is no evidence for a naturalistic rise in complexity in the most basic of all living cells, therefore the complexity in cells did not arise naturalistically." But that is not what the ID proponents are saying. They are making a valid inductive argument:

Premise 1: If there were a purely naturalistic explanation for the complexity that we see in even the simplest of living cells, then, given the extensive and protracted research by generations of scientists, it would have been found by now.

Premise 2: No purely naturalistic explanation has been found for the complexity that we see in even the simplest of living cells.

Conclusion: 3. There is no purely naturalistic explanation has been found for the complexity that we see in even the simplest of living cells.

Moreover, as noted by [a blog entry on Bill's List], the ID proponents go beyond this inductive argument alone. They also make the positive claims, to wit:

(1) the work of intelligent agents has certain earmarks, which (2) we are capable of recognizing, and (3) those earmarks are on display in some scientifically-investigated phenomena.

In no way are the advocates of ID committing the ad ignorantiam fallacy. They are not arguing for a God of the Gaps. Rather, like the BBC researchers at Loch Ness they are saying that a thorough search of the field has not turned up any evidence for a naturalistic explanation for the rise of even the simplest of living cells due to the immense complexity study of these cells has revealed. On that evidence, it is reasonable to infer that such a naturalistic explanation did not occur and we need to investigate more thoroughly the possibility that design played a larger role than the Darwinists would care to acknowledge. In that area, ID proponents are seeking to identify the earmarks of design.

Where does that leave the Darwinists? Well, if the advocates of ID are right and that the lake of possible purely naturalistic explanations has been searched relatively thoroughly, then the Darwinists are the Nessie-apologists arguing that she is hiding under the surface in some undiscovered cave. Possible? Of course – but contrary to the presently existing best evidence.

Regardless of the way in which the God of the Gaps argument is dead, Dr. Larmer's article brings some long needed evaluation to the use of the argument by naturalists as a sure-fire end to any argument that those who refuse to toe the naturalistic line are somehow automatically engaging in some intellectual sleight-of-hand. Few efforts to point out failings in the naturalistic system are really argumentum ad ignorantiam, and the accusation that someone is making a "God of the Gaps" argument has become an excuse to simply dismiss excellent arguments against a particular worldview disguising itself as the only proper way to understand science.


Anonymous said…
Isn't it interesting that before the rise of modern science when people could not explain much at all, theists would often utilize the very god of the gaps argument that they now what to distance themselves from? Whatever they could not be explain, "God did it," or "God explains it." The list of such things is probably endless, from a healing, to the rain, to the birth of a child, to winning a war.

Christian philosopher W. Christopher Stewart objects to the “god of the gaps” epistemology because, as he says, “natural laws are not independent of God. For the Christian theist, God upholds nature in existence, sustaining it in a providential way.” From his perspective this is true. But his rationale is a bit strange. He says, “To do so is to make religious belief as an easy target as the gaps in scientific understanding narrow with each scientific discovery,” in “Religion and Science,” Reason for the Hope Within, ed. Michael Murray (Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub., Co., 1999), p. 321-322.

Why should he be concerned with this unless science truly is leaving less and less room for the supernatural? He’s admitting the evidence does not favor his faith. He’s trying to explain away the evidence.
Anonymous said…
It is not 'explaining away the evidence' for Stewart to try to shield theistic apologetics from what he thinks is a dead end. There are good arguments and bad arguments for theism. Rejecting a bad argument is not trying to 'cover up' for a failure of theistic apologetics. On the contrary, by identifying bad arguments through the use of critical philosophical skills one only strengthens the case for theism.

Personally I agree with Stewart that 'god of the gaps' is a bad strategy to pursue, also apparently pace BK. But my rationale is theological. It has nothing to do with trying to make my faith immune to empirical disconfirmation.
Anonymous said…
I admit that the the god of the gaps epistemology is a logical failure when used by either side. But if the standard of belief is logical proof, then there isn't much any of us can believe. We're talking about probabilities here. The real question is who must retreat more often to the "merely possible" in order to defend his views.

The fact that Christians have abondoned the god of the gaps defense when they previously used it so often, it a testimony to the fact that the evidence in nature does not support the belief in God. The evidence from nature is that there is no active supernatural being in this world. Now he might exist anyway, but there is no evidence of his activity in our world. That's what Christians have learned to give up by abandoning the god of the gaps defense. Others like me simply say that if there is no evidence of God's activity in our world, then it's likely there is no God (given this information alone). This is a reasonable conclusion to make.
BK said…
As time passes and knowledge increases, arguments change. But even so, I don't think that the people in olden days used the "God of the Gaps" argument in the way that you are saying. They weren't arguing that "we don't know how this happened so it must be God." That's a straw man version of the argument that theists used to make. Rather, the argument actually went, "We have reasons to believe that God exists independent of science, so when science fails to provide an answer that is further evidence for God." That tactic, to the extent it went, was not a particularly good argument because it's obvious that if the extent of knowledge changed it could effect the argument. This is a far cry from today's efforts taht argue not simply that we don't know how it happened, but rather that it seems not possible to have happened based upon the best evidence available.

Of course, if that is "God of the gaps", then science regularly uses "naturalism of the gaps" as well. They point to the record that science has discovered more information which explained the previously unexplainable as proof that it will continue to do so. This, while not unreasonable, is no more reasonable than the arguments being made by theists.
Anonymous said…
BK said…Of course, if that is "God of the gaps", then science regularly uses "naturalism of the gaps" as well.

There will always be gaps in our understanding until we come up with a theory of everything, if that’s possible. The question is this: "who is closing more gaps, science or religion?" In this regard science wins hands down. What should theists do in the face of this onslaught? That's the question I leave you with. I suspect your answer is to "have faith in the hiddenness of God" on this particular issue.
BK said…
Please don't try to put words into my mouth. My answer is very simple: science is, of course, closing the gap much faster. Science is based upon studying nature and as technology progresses the tools that we need to study nature progress. Faith, meanwhile, is based in large part upon God's revelation. Thus, we don't control how much and at what rate we learn about God. However, just because science is revealing more does not mean that religion is any less true. At most, science can give us data from which answers about nature can be derived. Science has no answers to many of the great questions and can never give us those answers.
Anonymous said…
As time goes by we learn more about the empirical world's regularities and dynamics through science. In this sense science is 'closing gaps' in our knowledge. But the real question is whether in so doing it provides support for a naturalistic worldview. Given that a robust theism can embrace all the findings of science within the conceptual framework of a providential Creator and Sustainer and still also make good sense of religious experience, the moral law and the intelligibility of the world (among other things), whereas all naturalism can do is ride piggy-back on the successes of science while providing a very poor account of these other areas of human existence, I pronounce theism the superior worldview.
Jason Pratt said…
I don't consider it much of an 'onslaught' personally. {shrug} Not because scientists aren't doing many great things, but because I'm not hostile to science, any more than I'm hostile to (say) martial arts. A study of discovering the operations (including the history of operations) of the natural world and how to more effeciently manipulate those operations ourselves, is entirely proper. So is a study of metaphysics, which is where most of the religious/anti-religious/alt-religious disputation is happening.

I look at such things critically (to guard against fudging by any side on any topic--no side or topic is intrinsically immune, including myself {s}), but also positively. Since I consider physics and metaphysics to be both proper areas of study, I don't consider real advances in either area a threat but rather something to be grateful for. Nor do I necessarily expect those advances to occur simultaneously in human history (though the refinement process may do so.)

That being said, I reserve the same right I recognize for all responsible thinkers--the same right I recognized for you John when I titled a post by declaring you were _NOT_ a Socratic cabbage--to dissent where I detect problems, as well as to assent where I see light worthy of assenting to.

I walk according to what light I can see, looking for more light thereby. (Which allows room for making corrections to my understanding about the light, too.) When I don't do one or both of those things, then to put it mildly I am not being as properly efficient as I can be. (And I could put that much less mildly, as in my recent Eth&t3rdPers series.)

But because doing that is a positive process, my attitude about searching and discovering is generally positive, too. Which explains why I am a positive (kataphatic) theologian, as well as a positive mystic, in my religious operations.

(That means, incidentally, that I don't have an especially high opinion of the kind of negative theology you expect us to hide behind: "having faith in the hiddenness of God", etc. It's kind of ridiculous to have faith in _hiddenness_ anyway. I have faith in God, whether He is hidden or not; but I wouldn't have faith in God if all I could see was 'hiddenness' so to speak. Nor do I expect anyone else to either. No one ever died for a cloud of unknowing {s}, and I don't expect people to start doing it now.)

BK said…
I think JD and Jason have both expressed my view from different angles. I don't fear advances in science -- in fact, I welcome them. I hope that science comes up with lots of answers to questions that need answering. But at the same time, I don't believes science can answer anything more than it is equipped to answer -- questions regarding the natural world that can be determined based upon a sane, limited evaluation of the evidence. It's only when science creeps into the areas of metaphysics and philosophy that I have a problem with science. So, when science flourishes, I say "Great!"

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