Mar 31, 2011 | By

The Inadequacy of “God of the Gaps”

I was recently explaining the Concept of ISAS to someone who said, “oh, like God of the Gaps.” I later took a quick scan of the postings that showed up on a web-search and confirmed that this is another buzz-word mine-field, treating science and spirituality like battlefield competitors. In contrast, ISAS is based on the concept that science and spirituality belong together – complementary rather than antagonistic.

“God of the Gaps” is the idea that religion explains the things that science cannot. This is an easy solution for resolving potential areas of conflict, but it unfortunately reinforces misunderstandings about both science and religion. It implies that religion is what is left-over when science has been unable to explain some phenomenon – and implies a diminishing sphere for religion as science continues to progress. At the same time it ignores the role of religion in dealing with questions of metaphysics, morals, aesthetics and other key areas of human life that extend beyond the natural / testable propositions that science can address.

It’s interesting to contrast this approach with that of Francis Bacon, a thinker often credited as the founder of the scientific method. Bacon’s view was that we should continue to study both the “Word of God” and the “Works of God”, and that we need to bring humility to both.

“To conclude, therefore, let no man upon a weak conceit of sobriety or an ill-applied moderation think or maintain that a man can search too far, or be too well studied in the book of God’s word, or the book of God’s works, divinity or philosophy; but rather let men endeavor an endless progress or proficience in both; only let men beware that they apply both to charity, and not to swelling; to use, and not to ostentation; and again, that they do not unwisely mingle or confound these learnings together.” (emphasis added) Francis Bacon, from The Advancement of Learning; Colours of Good and Evil, originally published in 1597.

One hundred fifty years later, Emanuel Swedenborg, in an entry in his Spiritual Experiences (#5709), written in about 1757, a point in his life after he had turned from scientific study to his theological writings, elaborated on Bacon’s recommendation by noting the two foundations of truth – natural and spiritual – and affirming that there is no conflict.

“Afterwards, I spoke about the foundations of truth, that they are two, one from the Word, the other from nature or from the truths of nature; …… But, still, they agree the one with the other; which is proved by a contemplation of certain things in the Word…… (continued) Since sciences have shut up the understanding, therefore, sciences may also open it; and it is opened so far as men are in good.” (emphasis added)

Bacon and Swedenborg emphasize the importance of both natural and spiritual truth, and both point out that the inquiry must be approached “in good”, i.e. from “charity” and “use”, rather than from selfish motives.

This is a useful starting point for what we are trying to accomplish in the ISAS forum. If we approach these questions, and our dialogue, with humility, and with the objective of gaining the best value from both science and religion, then hopefully we can appreciate the truth available from both modes of thoughts. By approaching the conversations with an open mind, and an open heart, we can find the higher truths that will help us be more “useful”, “charitable” and “good”.

3 Responses to “The Inadequacy of “God of the Gaps””

  1. […] both had to say about the effort to learn the truth about the natural and spiritual realms (see God of the Gaps). By all means seek to perfect your understanding, but do so with humility. You are in the face of […]

  2. Justin says:

    A Reply to God in the Gaps

    Here I’ll briefly summarize the original argument, and add a few thoughts.

    “Gaps” refers to unknown realms and mysteries.

    One property or dimension sometimes attributed to God is mystery; existence beyond human comprehension.

    Original argument:

    As science advances and casts light on previously unknown realms, it shrinks the domain where we must invoke God as an explanation. Implication: If this process continues to a complete description of nature, eventually we will not need to invoke God at all.

    There are a number of problems with this argument, and three issues will be addressed here.

    Issue 1, Freedom

    If I were indisputably forced to invoke God as an explanation, that would violate my freedom to choose faith. Implication: for every possible phenomenon, there will be equally predictive / accurate models (theories or conceptions) including and excluding God, thus leaving the free choice of interpretation to each of us.

    Issue 2, Progress

    The original argument assumes continuous and unrestricted progress for scientific observation and explanation. In fundamental physics, that assumption has been roundly defeated, and we now better appreciate several fundamental limits of observation. For example, limits exist beneath very small scales (called “Planck length”) and for the collective imprecision of measurement to particles (velocity-plus-location can never be precisely determined for particles in motion; called “Heisenberg uncertainty”). There are many are other limits as well (e.g. beyond the observable horizon of the universe, about 93 billion light years wide), but the first two limits are right under our noses, present in every object ever seen or touched. An upshot of modern understanding is that science will never close these gaps; not in practice, and not in principle. The assumption of continuous scientific progress into all gaps has been proven false. Progress continues, but several unassailable limits are well defined and observation-proof. As one simple reply to the argument from gaps, these limits defeat the premise of unlimited progress and render the argument invalid.

    Issue 3, Randomness and Order

    Some philosophers choose to call anything outside the fundamental limits of observation or prediction “intrinsic randomness.” This acknowledges the principled gap, but provides a biased interpretation, suggesting that anything beyond the limits is meaningless muddle. There is an equally accurate alternate conception. It would not require changing a single variable or parameter in the mathematical equations throughout all of science to assume that God acts through phenomena at the cusp of observational limits. Unlike the picture of shrinking gaps implied by the old framing, these modern “gaps” are the bedrock of all material existence. Both beneath the smallest scales accessible to science and above the largest scales accessible to science are potential infinities, and we occupy the medium sized space between these infinities, where science is possible. With due perspective, science is limited to work between the miniscule Planck length and the observable universe. One potential reply to the argument from gaps is that God enters in the small and large, and leaves some set of things in the middle to the freedom of human action and belief.

    Concluding Remarks

    Two potential misunderstandings still need to be addressed. First, I am not suggesting that we must equate God with any specific scientific phenomena, such as all the tiny quanta, or all the largest scale phenomena, or that we are forced to replace intrinsic randomness with intrinsic Godliness. However, merely adding these alternate conceptions and possibilities to the discussion, as compatible with the scientific enterprise, may keep us open to truth above and beyond.

    Second, many luminaries, including Einstein and Swedenborg, would reject the proposal that God should ever be identified with phenomena of randomness. Under their views, God is evident in the laws of nature, and identified with (the source of) order. Despite a common vision of God partially revealed through the laws of nature, Einstein and Swedenborg differed in view on the relationship between humans and physical laws. Einstein tended to see the universe as deterministic, while Swedenborg was a strong advocate of free will (a topic for future discussion).

    In summary, the premise for the argument known as “God in the gaps” has been demonstrated false, and several implications of this argument are shown to be mistaken. However, it remains a commonly referenced line of thought, and understanding the flaws may prove useful for moving discussion forward. If fundamental gaps exist for determining the progress of physical events, these gaps may provide space for human freedom and / or divine intervention. Many other possibilities exist, and our understanding of nature and God can overlap partially or completely, mutually enriching the progress of knowledge.

  3. Matthew Genzlinger says:

    Thanks for this great post. “God of the Gaps” sounds so nice, and yet as you say it separates God from the world of science and the natural world in general. One thing that this got me reflecting on is how when we talk about the relationship between science/nature and what we might call the “spiritual”, we tend to talk about them as being “next to” each other or almost as brothers. I think it’s more helpful to think of them as existing on two descretely different degrees – What is spiritual is above what is natural; what is natural comes forth from what is spiritual. This doesn’t mean they are separate from each other. On the contrary, it means that what is “spiriutal” interacts with the natural world on every level. God doesn’t “fill the gaps”; He “infills” all of His creations from within.

    One thing I love about this idea is that it allows us to be fully engaged on all levels of life and creation. My soul interacts with and brings life to every part of my body. Because they interact and yet exist on two descretely different levels, I can both appreciate their interaction AND exlore each on it’s own. Not sure I phrased this well???

    I also appreciate your point about “charity” and “use”. It strikes me that it is as we bring these two concepts into our exploration of science and the natural world that we bring true spirituality into the picture.

    Looking forward to the series! – Matthew

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