In Defense of the God of the Gaps

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Photo Credit: A Perspective On REALITY

Acts 17:27 That they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after him, and find him, though he be not far from every one of us[.]

The “god of the gaps” is much maligned. He could also be called the “god of the not-yet-explained,” and his domain has been steadily shrinking as science explains more and more. People whose sympathies are both with science and against religion may use the label to express the view that religion is founded wholly on ignorance. We did not know why the sun rises in the east so we attributed it to Apollo. We did not know how the animals came to be so we attributed their creation to God. The god of the gaps is the god of uncharted territory—instead of “here there be dragons,” it is “here there be god.” Then astronomy and biology supply alternate explanations that are supported by empirical inquiry, and the god of the gaps has (supposedly) been ousted from the scene. But is religion now—or was it ever—fully explained as a “gap filler”? And when science explains something, is God thereby ousted?

Those who rail against the god of the gaps most bitterly presume that we may safely extrapolate the expansion of science’s territory and the diminution of the gaps to the point where science explains everything without any reference to god, and he becomes a perfectly superfluous entity, a vagrant with no place to lay his head because every place has been mapped and it turns out that none of them belong to him. And that is ineluctably the fate of God—if it is true that science will someday explain everything without reference to god.

I have also heard two religious people use the phrase—both of them scientifically-minded members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who went on to become physicians. One of them is still in the Church and one is not. I got the sense that they were trying to reconcile themselves with this vagrant god-who-was-ousted.

This is the wrong approach to the supposed problem. If science were to conquer all mystery and wonder, and place under its heel all that is spiritual or holy, reducing all things to mere matter in motion, then God would indeed be functionally dead, reduced to the same status as Santa Claus—a purely literary figure unworthy of the sane belief of any adult.

Thankfully, science has never come close and can never come close to accomplishing this terrible conquest, though to be clear we should all wish it well in its efforts, which are (atom bombs notwithstanding) mostly benevolent.

Theoretically, science could at least exhaustively map out all that comes within its own scope—the things accessible to explication by the empirical methods of science. In reality, even this comparatively modest conquest is almost infinitely beyond the realistic hopes of the scientific community because of the sheer vastness of the terrain to be mapped and the limitations of human observation. For example, supposing the existence of another intelligent species in another galaxy somewhere, the probability of science learning about it using any technology that can realistically be foreseen at this point is almost zero.

But even leaving aside other galaxies, there are entire dimensions of the everyday reality with which we actually interact that elude the grasp of science.

  • The past yields its mysteries only partially and grudgingly, and the future even more so.
  • History is irreducibly ambiguous, a matter for endless debate amongst historians. We cannot even agree about whether the democrats or republicans are to blame for the last government shutdown, much less what caused the fall of Rome.
  • Causality cannot be observed or proven without making assumptions independent of observation. What we observe empirically is that A happens and then B happens. The presence or absence of causality is something we all usually understand and agree about, but it is something we infer rather than directly observing. This was one of Hume’s most important contributions to philosophy, and it spurred Kant to rethink everything.
  • Human consciousness (as distinct from the synapse firings and neurological activity that science can trace) is inaccessible to empirical experimentation. Psychology is not properly a science and to the degree it attempts to be genuinely scientific, it must substitute some other object of observation and measurement for human consciousness. The substitutes include the biological apparatus that supports consciousness in living human beings (the brain, etc.), the subjective interpretation of individuals’ consciousness (as when surveys are used), measurable indicators of certain states of consciousness (eye movements, etc.), and the like. There is an irreducible gap between the substitutes and the object itself. For this and many other reasons, there is currently no prospect of any unified theory of psychology. Yet psychology persists in attempting to join the “science club” and to leave its proper place in the humanities.
  • The infinite number of alternate histories that arguably might just as well have been the case: for example, if another sperm had joined its genetic information with that of the egg a millionth of a second before what would have been the conception of Constantine or Shakespeare or Hitler and another person was conceived instead, how would history have played out?
  • The idea of alternate histories suggests the problem of free will versus determinism—a problem science cannot resolve. If free will exists (and we all seem to act as though we thought it did and to experience our choices as free within limits), then the reality of human choice is a whole world that escapes direct observation for many of the same reasons as human consciousness does.
  • Science leaves many (all?) of the great philosophical problems unresolved or utterly untouched. The nature and origin of categories and language (not resolved), the nature and origin of knowledge (hardly touched), the reason there is not nothing (utterly untouched), etc.
  • Ethics is a strictly non-scientific field. Science cannot say whether a system operating on the principle of survival of the fittest is moral, because it knows nothing of morality.
  • Indeed, any value judgment (good or bad, worthwhile or worthless, praiseworthy or blameworthy) is strictly non-scientific. Science cannot even approach the question of its own value.
  • Aesthetic judgments are also essentially non-scientific, despite concepts such as symmetry and balance that are in some degree amenable to scientific explication.

The foregoing suffices, I hope, to demonstrate some of the unmapped territory, which is incomparably vaster than the territory that has been mapped.

I would draw a distinction between the unmapped and the unexplored. “Mapped” means brought within the realm of public knowledge and generally accepted fact. Settled scientific truth is “mapped” (and I include in that category at least the general principles articulated by Newton, Darwin, and all their illustrious company). Also “mapped” are certain non-scientific but non-controversial platitudes of “common sense,” such as “don’t sit on a thumbtack,” “a penny saved is a penny earned,” and “treat likes alike.” And then there is the unmapped territory that has been explored. It is much larger than the mapped area, and is the realm of ideology, philosophy, political debate, spirituality, aesthetics, ethics, psychology—the realm of the humanities. It is the worthy goal of science to expand the mapped territory further into the realm of the explored by settling questions previously subject to debate. But with each settled question, a host of new questions seem to pop up, hydra-like—so as the mapped area expands, the unmapped but explored area expands more. Then there is the unmapped and unexplored but potentially explorable. This is the realm of the pioneers in literature, philosophy, art, etc. And then there is the realm of the unexplored and unexplorable, about which almost nothing can be said. I believe that each outer category is orders of magnitude larger than the category it encompasses: the mapped area is vast and growing vaster, but it is tiny compared with the explored and unmapped area, which is tiny compared with the unexplored but explorable area, which is tiny compared with the unexplorable area.

Where in this schemata does the idea of God reside? Certainly not in the mapped area, except for the historical fact that most people have believed in a god of some variety. At least partly in the explored. At least partly in the unexplored but explorable. And most probably also in the unexplored and unexplorable.

Those who rail against the god of the gaps do so because God has not been mapped. Speaking symbolically, we sent rocket ships into heaven and did not find him there. But there are many plausible explanations for this besides his nonexistence. The one I find most persuasive is that God does not wish to be mapped—he wishes to be explored. With a few notable exceptions, he reveals himself to our spirits and not to our sense, on purpose to keep from being mapped. He does not deign to stand on our scales or have thermometers stuck under his tongue. He wishes instead to lead us with music, with love, and with sweet longing, and to reside, not in our textbooks, but in the fleshy tables of our hearts, throbbing with the things we hope for but do not, as yet, see.

4 thoughts on “In Defense of the God of the Gaps

  1. I enjoyed the challenge of reading this. There are some things which I think (and feel) that I do know to be true. I know that I love my children and it is not difficult for me to believe that God loves His children. “I do not know all things, but I know that God Loves His Children.” There is precious comfort in this truth.

  2. Loved this. I do have a question. Can you explain what you mean by the idea of God not being found in the mapped area? Can He not be present even there?

    1. Hannah, good question. What I mean by the “mapped area” is the realm of settled and publically accessible truth–what is beyond speculation or controversy in mainstream society because it can be verified using valid and generally acknowledged authorities. We know the shape of the African coast and we know that shoes were intended for feet and not for ears. When God comes to reign on earth and everyone bows before him, at least his existence and his mastery will then be “mapped” in my sense of the word. Meanwhile there is plenty of room for disagreement. Make sense?

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