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.