In this article I am going to address the concept of “God-of-the-gaps”. Any person who spends any time reading in the theology/science literature will find that the term God-of-the-gaps is often wielded as a sort of accusation. In other words, people don’t typically accept God-of-the-gaps. Instead, they accuse others of falling into the God-of-the-gap-trap (aka “the gap-trap”). In this regard, God-of-the-gaps functions in theology/science discourse analogous to the way “modalism” or “tritheism” functions in Trinitarian discourse, i.e. as an accusation rather than a position that anybody would accept as a self-description. In the worst cases, the God-of-the-gaps designation functions as a rhetorical kibosh by which interlocutors attempt to shut down theoretical proposals on divine action. Game over.
An excerpt from the game show “God or Nature!”
Contestant 1: “I think God put the rainbow in the sky.”
Game show host: “And the judges say…?”
Game show host: “Oh no! That’s clearly God-of-the-gaps. Thanks for playing ‘God or Nature!'”
What is so odious about God-of-the-Gaps?
Influential theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (d. 1945) never actually uses the familiar phrase, but in a famous passage in Letters and Papers from Prison he raises concerns about the practice of locating God’s divine action in the areas of the world where we do not presently have known natural causes:
“It has again brought home to me quite clearly how wrong it is to use God as a stop-gap for the incompleteness of our knowledge. If in fact the frontiers of knowledge are being pushed further and further back (and that is bound to be the case), then God is being pushed back with them, and is therefore continually in retreat. We are to find God in what we know, not in what we don’t know….” (c. 1943-45; Eng. trans. 1953)
The fact that this passage is often invoked in discussions of God-of-the-gaps helps illumine what the problem is. It suggests that God-of-the-gaps is understood to be, in Bonhoeffer’s phrasing, “a stop-gap for the incompleteness of our knowledge.” The term “stop-gap” means “temporary substitute”. Thus, Bonhoeffer is objecting to the practice of invoking God to explain some phenomenon which will eventually be explained through purely natural means.
The point is highlighted in the last sentence: “We are to find God in what we know, not in what we don’t know….” In other words, we should refrain from identifying God’s action in aspects of the world where our knowledge of natural processes is currently lacking but could (or will) be filled in the future.
Even today when people think of dirigible flight, the Hindenburg disaster is never far away in people’s minds. Similarly, when one talks of God-of-the-gaps, the Newton-Laplace disaster is never far away. The story begins with Newton’s appeal to divine action to explain why accumulated inter-planetary gravitational perturbations do not destabilize the solar system and why the planets are all rotating around the sun on the same plane and in the same direction. Then along came Pierre Simon de Laplace. As a BioLogos article tells it,
“As legend goes, Laplace was questioned by Napoleon about the absence of God in his theory: “M. Laplace, they tell me you have written this large book on the system of the universe, and have never even mentioned its Creator.” To this, Laplace famously replied, “I had no need of that hypothesis.” Of course, God can be still be used as a hypothesis for the existence of the universe. But because Newton had used a deficiency in scientific explanation as an argument for God’s existence, Laplace’s theory delivered an unnecessary blow to the apologetics of the time. Herein lies the danger: If gaps in scientific knowledge are used as arguments for the existence of God, what happens when science advances and closes those explanatory gaps?” (“Are gaps in scientific knowledge evidence for God?” , BioLogos)
As the article makes clear, the problem is that God-of-the-gaps proposals locate God in areas of ignorance that are eventually closed by future scientific advance. The article gives the following salutary warning:
“God-of-the-gaps arguments use gaps in scientific explanation as indicators, or even proof, of God’s action and therefore of God’s existence. Such arguments propose divine acts in place of natural, scientific causes for phenomena that science cannot yet explain. The assumption is that if science cannot explain how something happened, then God must be the explanation. But the danger of using a God-of-the-gaps argument for the action or existence of God is that it lacks the foresight of future scientific discoveries.”
So what’s the problem?
Obviously no Christian theologian or philosopher or scientist intends to invoke divine explanations of putative phenomena that will soon be rendered otiose by scientific advance. So why don’t we just backfill the Gap-trap and stick to finding God in what we do know?
The problem with that suggestion is that theologians, philosophers and scientists disagree on the boundaries of potential scientific advance. This is an absolutely crucial point and one to which I will return in just a moment. But first, let’s line up some formal definitions of God-of-the-gaps from some contemporary philosophers of science.
Our first example comes from Bradley Monton, a philosopher of science (and atheist) at the University Colorado Boulder. He defines a gaps argument as
“an argument where one points to a gap in our scientific understanding of the world and claims that that gap provides evidence for the existence of God.” (Seeking God in Science, 114.)
Next, let’s turn to the work of Willem B. Drees, editor-in-chief of Zygon:
“In conversations on ‘religion and science’, there is the critical expression ‘God of the gaps’. This refers to the tendency to focus on gaps in our knowledge, on limitations in our current understanding, and to assume that such gaps are where God’s actions might be.” Religion and Science in Context: A Guide to the Debates, 121.
Finally, let’s consider Del Ratzsch, a professor of philosophy at Calvin College. According to Ratzsch, gaps explanations
“appeal to supernatural activity, on grounds of allegedly otherwise unbridgeable explanatory gaps in broadly scientific accounts of relevant phenomena.” (Nature, Design, and Science: The Status of Design in Natural Science, 47.)
As I noted above, the problem is that theologians, philosophers and scientists disagree on the boundaries of potential scientific advance. In other words, they disagree on where “otherwise unbridgeable explanatory gaps” may exist.
We can all agree that the gaps Newton sought to plug with divine action were bridgeable (since, in fact, they’ve been bridged). But that doesn’t mean all gaps are bridgeable, does it?
Scientism and Metaphysics-of-the-gaps
In his best-selling 1999 book Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, scientist E.O. Wilson states his confidence in the future of scientific advance. According to Wilson, the world is revealing an inextricable unity in all knowledge. And he proposes that from this fact we can look forward to a time when science will offer a sweeping, unified account of reality from particle physics up to the humanities:
“Given that human action comprises events of physical causation, why should the social sciences and humanities be impervious to consilience with the natural sciences? And how can they fail to benefit from that alliance? It is not enough to say that human action is historical, and that history is an unfolding of unique events. Nothing fundamental separates the course of human history from the course of physical history….
“The unification agenda does not sit well with a few professional philosophers. The subject I address they consider their own, to be expressed in their language, their framework of formal thought. They will draw this indictment: conflation, simplism, ontological reductionism, scientism, and other sins made official by the hissing suffix. To which I plead guilty, guilty, guilty.” (11)
“If the world really works in a way so as to encourage the consilience of knowledge, I believe the enterprises of culture will eventually fall out into science, by which I mean the natural sciences, and the humanities, particularly the creative arts. These domains will be the two great branches of learning in the twenty-first century. The social sciences will continue to split within each of its disciplines…. In the process the humanities, ranging from philosophy and history to moral reasoning, comparative religion, and interpretation of the arts, will draw closer to the sciences and partly fuse with them.” (12)
This certainly is a grand and optimistic vision. Wilson believes there are few if any “otherwise unbridgeable explanatory gaps”. In his doe-eyed view, the advance of science is such that we can have a reasonable hope that eventually we will have a unified (scientific) knowledge of reality from physics to chemistry and biology straight on up to psychology, and even ethics and aesthetics. But for others, including the “few professional philosophers” that Wilson mentions, this breathtaking vision is little more than misbegotten scientism. On their view there are many more “unbridgeable explanatory gaps” than Wilson is willing to recognize.
Now we come to another essential point: Philosophers who advocate for the limitations of scientific explanation are not necessarily proposing the need for theological explanations. But they are appealing for metaphysical explanations. Theological explanations are, thus, a subset of possible metaphysical explanations. Consequently, the real issue is not simply about God-of-the-gaps. It is, instead, about metaphysics-of-the-gaps. Are these “few professional philosophers” correct that science faces unbridgeable explanatory gaps which require metaphysics (and possibly theological metaphysics)? Or is Wilson correct that all these explanatory boundaries are, in principle, bridgeable? Consider the following list:
Putative Unbridgeable Explanatory Gaps
1. Origin of the universe at T-0.
2. Contingent existence of the universe.
3. Objective moral values and obligations.
4. Mathematical entities and other prima facie abstract objects.
6. Unity of the self / personal identity through time.
7. Free will.
9. Objective aesthetic value.
10. Religious experience.
11. Near death and out of body experiences.
In each of these cases there are those who believe the explanatory gap is scientifically bridgeable (or, indeed, that it has already been bridged) and there are others who believe that it is and will remain unbridgeable by the advance of science. The latter (i.e. the “few professional philosophers”) are de facto proposing a metaphysical explanation over-against what they perceive to be a misbegotten scientism. Meanwhile, the former (e.g. E.O. Wilson) are decrying what looks to be a misbegotten metaphysics-of-the-gaps.
In closing, let me make two observations. First, as we can see the real issue is about the boundary between “physics” (or science) and “metaphysics” (or philosophy). The invocation of God (as in God-of-the-gaps) is but one of many possible metaphysical explanations. Other possible metaphysical explanations include Platonism, substance dualism, panpsychism, synchronicity, etc.
Second, every Christian should accept that at least some of 1-12 represent unbridgeable gaps in scientific explanation. And thus, every Christian should accept that there are at least some true metaphysical gaps. Needless to say, it follows that Christians will find at least some of those metaphysical gaps best explained theologically, and thus every Christian ought to embrace at least some theological appeals in response to perceived unbridgeable gaps in scientific explanation. In other words, every Christian should embrace God-of-the-gaps.