The “God o’ The Gaps” fallacy is an especially pernicious, yet easily dismissible, form of the argumentum ad ignorantiam. It is pernicious because religious dogmatists, with no interest in or capacity for rational thought, swing this fallacy about with the most abysmally childish enthusiasm, like blind persons with a sledge hammer in an empty field, who fancy themselves to be building a tent city. It is easily dismissible because anyone possessed of nothing more exotic than the mere abstract possibility of intelligence can readily see through it, for no more time or effort than it takes to have such infantilism articulated. All that being said, an analysis of the fallacy does invite some reflections upon the character of explanation, a character which the title of this blog ought suggest is a thing of interest at this site.
This will be a longish argument, so I’ll be breaking it into two parts. In this part, I will discuss the argumentum ad ignorantiam particularly in light of the God o’ The Gaps (which I’ll simply abbreviate “GotG”) variant, and generically mention some of the places it crops up. The argument will show how the concept/idea of God can play no useful role in natural science, even when the GotG fallacy is avoided. In part 2 I’ll turn to what, in many respects, is my primary question: What might the role of “God” in explanation &/or interpretation be? I’ll review (in a crude way) the distinctions between the religious, the theological, and the philosophical uses of the “G” word (although, I’ve already said a bit about this elsewhere.) With that said, let us turn to the argument itself.
The argumentum ad ignorantiam, or the “argument from ignorance,” is the attempt to move from what we do not know to a claim about what we actually do know. This can come in both a positive and a negative form: from our ignorance we can fallaciously conclude that we know that “X” is (or, worse, must be) the case, or, from our ignorance, we conclude that “X” is not (or, worse, cannot be) the case. Notice that there is a modal version of both – a “must be” or a “must not be” pair of cases. Such modal claims are, logically, vastly stronger than the basic assertoric versions. So basically, one has a fallacy raised to a power of necessity, committing a far more egregious error than merely saying “is” or “is not.”
It also must be pointed out that the negative situation requires a great deal more care than the positive one. Positive claims can be directly tested and, failing that test, rejected as false. (If such claims actually pass the test, then there is indeed positive evidence for the claim being made, and it is no longer an argumentum ad ignorantiam.) Negative claims – there are no unicorns, there is no Bigfoot – are much trickier because they are, in a sense, supported only by the absence of evidence. And, as the saying goes, “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” Except that when there is an overwhelming and unbroken history of innumerable observations, all of which fail to produce a single credible shard of fact, then such absence really does achieve the probative status of evidence. At this point of inquiry, it is entirely upon the shoulders of those who would assert the reality of unicorns or Bigfoot to provide substantial positive evidence; evidence that is worthy of the name, and not just a blurry photo of some doofus wearing a gorilla suit in the woods. (Especially since we’re talking about very large creatures who must exist in the form of a viable breeding community, the existence of which could hardly remain hidden, and yet for which no physical evidence has ever been produced.)
The God o’ The Gaps variant pretends to fill in our ignorance with a declaration that the connecting fiber (between what we do know and what we do not) is God’s will or action: the gap in our knowledge is filled by God. Thus, “Why did such and such a thing occur?” “Because it was God’s will,” and so on. This is a favorite move amongst creationists and their pseudo-scientific poseurs, the “intelligent design” people, for legislating that puzzles in evolutionary biology are unsolvable, and then declaring – ex cathedra, as it were – that the only way to close those gaps is by asserting that God directly intervened to make it all “just happen.”
The laughable history of the “intelligent design” nonsense is not something I need rehearse in detail here; anyone reading this blog has a browser and can look it up for themselves. What is so particularly notable in this regard is the number of times ID advocates have claimed this or that puzzle is unsolvable by existing scientific criteria, only to have that claim debunked with concrete examples that fill in the supposed “gaps.” These examples remain hypotheses, but they provide a well determined route where a complex biological feature might easily emerge by tiny steps of evolutionary selection, each step conferring an extra margin of survivability upon those creatures that take that step, and pass the development on.
It is here that we encounter what is saddest about the vacuous twaddle spouted by “intelligent design” enthusiast: namely, even if their claims were simply true, those claims would remain vacuous blather because they’d be devoid not just of any actual scientific content, but of any possible scientific content what-so-ever. (Note that what I am asserting here is the logically stronger modal claim.) GotG claims are, by definition, incapable of any form of genuine test. No testable observations are suggested, no relationally-rich connections are posited or advanced, no experiments proposed, no further observations demanded.
Indeed, my modal claim above is justified because GotG is itself a modal claim, declaring that no amount of research can possibly fill in the putative gap, and we are left in slack-jawed stupefaction puling that it could only have been a miracle. GotG claims amount to nothing more than the logic- and evidence-free demand that inquiry be terminated, and no further attempts be made to fill in the supposed gap. Because, after all, since “God did it,” no further investigation on the parts of mere humans can say any more on the subject. This is blocking the road of inquiry, and as Charles Saunders Peirce repeatedly observed, this is THE cardinal sin of human thought.
Puzzles and mysteries in science are not gaps to be closed at any cost, but the driving force in scientific inquiry of any and all kinds. Demanding that we declare those gaps magically closed by God’s miraculous intervention (because, notice no intelligible system of relations is ever proposed to make sense of HOW God supposedly closed this gap.) The ex fiat demand is simply made that the gap IS closed, and no further pursuit of this topic will be productive. Furthermore, the development of scientific inquiry is such that each hypothesis that is fruitfully tested does not simply provide us with answers – which is all the GotG creationists and ID ideologues can imagine. These genuinely scientific developments pose a new set of questions – fresh puzzles and mysteries – that drive scientific inquiry even further. These questions in turn lead to the development of what Imre Lakatos called “research programmes.” (Lakatos was Hungarian by birth, but he taught and wrote in England, hence the spelling.) Such “programmes” are exactly what GotG demagogues do not provide. Real science requires that we ask more and better questions, not (as the creationists do) demand that we stop asking questions altogether.
While there are problems with contemporary evolutionary theory (that I’ll discuss a bit in part 2), being unscientific is not among them. Creationists and ID propagandists have often argued that we need a new definition of science, a definition that would enable them to force-feed their drivel to school children and claim the mantle of “science” in doing so. What I will be suggesting in part 2 is that, insofar as there is a problem, it is not with the definition of science. Rather, it is our current concept of nature.