Since Europe emerged from its dark ages, science has seen perpetual progress, and we have become increasingly aware of the world around us. In the ancient past, earthquakes, thunderstorms and diseases may have been ascribed to God. Now that we understand plate tectonics, electromagnetism and pathology, what need do we have of God? Are our knowledge gaps not shrinking day be day, rendering the notion of ‘divine intervention’ obselete? Perhaps our ancestors were just naïve, giving in to their emotions when they ascribed such events to God?
The term ‘God of the gaps’ has gained some traction to refer to the very line of reasoning just described. In the wider debate between science and religion, it is taken to be an argument from ignorance: mysterious phenomena are attributed to God because they are mysterious.
This article will argue that scientific arguments in support of the existence of God do not necessarily qualify as arguments from ignorance. The claim that they do actually backfires.
An Accidental Belief
The world’s major religions have always advocated for a personal God who reveals to his chosen ones – the Prophets – the purpose of our existence. In other words, religions teach us that we have been intended, and thus we could not be the by-products of accidents in nature. On the other hand, philosophical materialism is the belief that nothing exists beyond matter, and that everything, including the mind, consciousness and spirituality can be explained through physical principles. Materialism invariably leads to atheism because it leaves no room for the existence of an immaterial Creator. If there is no Creator, there is no personal God, and thus we could not have come into existence for a purpose. And if we do not have a purpose, we certainly could not have been intended – our existence is therefore a by-product of mindless, accidental processes.
Two examples of how philosophical materialism seeks to overcome arguments that the universe is designed are the multiverse hypothesis, and Neo-Darwinism. The multiverse hypothesis attempts to account for the life permitting, finely-tuned conditions of our universe, while Neo-Darwinian evolution attempts to account for the existence of complex life itself. The common denominator between both descriptions is an appeal to random processes acting on colossal units of time, space and matter in order to overcome towering improbabilities that undirected processes would otherwise have to confront. In another words, one devoted to materialist philosophy has no choice but to subscribe to random processes to account for our existence. There is no other alternative.
Thus, in a materialist worldview, every gap must be filled with accidents in one way or another. Yet, without a whiff of irony, the term ‘God of the gaps’ continues to be a favourite tool attacking scientific arguments in support of the existence of God.
There is more to this spectacle, however. Embedded in the term is the assumption that the gaps are insignificant or irrelevant. Had the case been otherwise, the critics would inadvertently be guilty of committing a ‘materialism of the gaps’ fallacy. This is because they assume that the gaps – insignificant or otherwise – will ultimately be removed with materialistic descriptions. Richard Dawkins, responding to his critics maintains that they “eagerly seek a gap in present-day knowledge or understanding. If an apparent gap is found, it is assumed that God, by default, must fill it.” One imagines the gaps as the few missing pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that is about to be complete, with the “creationists” (as Dawkins would like to call them) fighting tooth and nail to discover a missing piece.
Let’s take a closer look at the gaps.
Undoubtedly, we know a lot more than, say, the medieval period, but we can also be confident in asserting that our knowledge of the world today, as it stands, is a fraction of the sum total of what is out there. The more we observe, discover, and then reflect, the more we realize we don’t actually understand, and the more questions we have to ask. This trend is well known and is prevalent throughout the sciences. Albert Einstein himself once said that “all our science, measured against reality, is primitive and childlike.” The reality that confronts us, if we are honest to ourselves, is analogous to a gargantuan puzzle of which we only have a tiny collection of scattered, and yet broken pieces. The Holy Qur’an brings us to confront this reality:
Say, ‘If the ocean became ink for the words of my Lord, surely, the ocean would be exhausted before the words of my Lord came to an end, even though We brought the like thereof as further help.’ (18:110)
In other words, the true reality of how things operate is completely beyond our ken. Our understanding is still profoundly limited, no matter how much we exult in it – God’s words, or his secrets, are unlimited.
According to a tradition of the Holy Prophet of Islam, peace be upon him, this verse is among a collection of verses, in a chapter full of prophecies, the recitation of which is said to protect one against the spiritual onslaughts of the latter days. It hints to a future time period in which vast strides in science and technology, unparalleled in history, will entice many a scientist into a false pretence of glory. The 19th century is very much reminiscent of this. The German physicist and mathematician, Philipp von Jolly is known to have discouraged the young Max Planck from pursuing physics, advising him that “almost everything is already discovered, and all that remains is to fill a few unimportant holes.” This exemplifies the feeling which permeated 19th century physics. Results in classical mechanics were so profound that it was believed by many that all the fundamental laws of physics had been discovered, and that research would be left with merely filling in details. Though such attitudes had been interrupted by a multitude of scientific discoveries over the last century, this outlook still pervades today. A contemporary science writer by the name of John Horgan argues that “if one believes in science, one must accept the possibility – even the probability – that the great era of scientific discovery is over.” Indeed, if we are to invoke blind processes steering the development of the most sophisticated entities ever known in the universe: us, our consciousness, our languages, and our moral and spiritual impulses, this conclusion wouldn’t appear to be so far-fetched.
History however teaches us that it is the gaps that are ubiquitous which and overwhelmingly dominate the sphere of knowledge. The verse under comment retorts the anticipated ‘God of the gaps’ mockery, and is a reminder to all of us, scientist, or otherwise, that what our knowledge is currently and will always be profoundly insignificant compared to the inexhaustible wonders of the universe.
Even if the materialists are right, and in principle we’ve got it all figured out, the idea that God is being relegated only to scientific ‘gaps’ is absurd. Perhaps God is the God of both the gaps and the filled-in bits? Perhaps God is manifesting Himself through His support of the material universe, the same material universe we observe and examine? Science cannot point to a physical principle which uncovers the process by which God manifests Himself literally, and thus cannot in principle falsify His existence.
The question then arises of how God relates to the universe. Creation, at least from an Islamic perspective falls under two categories, Amr and Khalq:
“Verily, His is the khalq [creation] and amr [command]” (7:55)
Amr refers to that creation which is original, generated without the agency of any created object; whereas Khalq refers to that creation which is a product of pre-existing objects. The founder of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, explains the difference between the two:
“There is a subtle difference between khalq [creation] and amr [command]. Khalq denotes that God Almighty produces something through [physical] means and attributes it to Himself because He is the Cause of causes, whereas amr is that which proceeds directly from God Almighty without any intervening cause and cannot be attributed to any cause.”
In other words, when we attribute natural events to God it is a mistake to always infer de novo creation. It is customary among various religions to thank God for the provisions of life. What is not meant by such gratitude is direct divine ‘intervention’, or that the gifts were literally dropped from the canopy of the heavens. It is a mistake on the part of those who interpret it otherwise. Thus, over the ages, we do not see a gradual retreat in divine agency. What we do see is the misunderstanding of how God acts being corrected. This misunderstanding is partly the reason why the term ‘God of the gaps’ has gained some traction.
Even then, the hand of God can be discerned in the direction of the evolution of the universe. For instance, while we should not say that the Earth was suddenly created out of nothing without any prior cosmic evolution, we can say that the myriad improbable coincidences that make it perfect to harbour life is evidence of a Guiding Intelligence. This would be an example of creation by Khalq. On the other hand, the sudden appearance of human language is an example of something that must be explained by means of direct divine agency, ‘amr, where God injects new information into the material world through revelation, as the Holy Quran makes clear.
In Search of Design
There are instances however where we can infer intelligent agency more directly in the world around us. Just as we infer an intelligent cause being responsible for a ship found in the depths of the oceans, we can infer intelligence behind our universe through our observations of order, purpose, and the elimination of accidental causes. In fact, a whole range of careers are devoted to the inference of design without necessarily being contingent on causal explanations. Detectives, forensic scientists, archaeologists, lawyers and many others eliminate accidental causes and infer design, even conspiracy, to explain their observations. Was this death an accident or was it premeditated murder? Is this a piece of meaningless rubble, or is it a piece of ancient pottery? Was this crash simply unfortunate or was it insurance fraud? True certainty may be elusive, but scattered evidence may be pieced together, and dots may be connected to provide a compelling case that the facts on the ground are too improbable to be ascribed to mere chance.
But it is not simply the elimination of chance that is at work here. The collective evidence may point towards a purpose, a fulfilment of a goal, or an achievement of an objective. They may follow a specific pattern, leave a particular marking, or reflect specified information to a degree that can only be a product of an intelligent mind. It should be clear by now that we make inferences to design in human affairs all the time. Do we go any further?
The Search for Extra-terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) program does exactly that. Researchers monitor millions of signals from outer space in the hope of detecting intelligent life. In order for them to detect design the signals have to be sufficiently complex to be too improbable to be a product of chance. They have to be distinct, dissimilar to the echoes of the heavenly bodies, and must resemble a specified pattern to a degree that could only be a product of intelligence. While such signals would be too simple when compared to the complexities of life on earth, they certainly would pass for intelligence.
To decry the hard work of such individuals as ‘gaps-based’ explanations would be preposterous, and it is equivalently preposterous to decry the effort undertook by those who infer intelligent agency behind our existence. Thus arguments in favour of an Guiding Mind behind the universe do not rely on arguments from ignorance. They do not rely on what we don’t know. On the contrary, they rely on what we do know. They depend on observations from the meaningful direction in which the universe plays out, or on the appearance in the material world of things too improbable to be explained by chance, be it DNA or human language.
We end the article with the following verse of the Quran:
“In the creation of the heavens and the earth and in the alternation of the night and the day there are indeed Signs for men of understanding;
Those who remember Allah while standing, sitting, and lying on their sides, and ponder over the creation of the heavens and the earth: “Our Lord, Thou hast not created this in vain; nay, Holy art Thou; save us, then, from the punishment of the Fire.” (3:191-192)