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The story of the god of the gaps ends like a bad dream. The scientist has scaled the mountains of ignorance, he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries…

Atheists have a tale they love to tell: The Tale of the Ever-Shrinking God of the Gaps. It goes like this:

Man used to chalk up every natural mystery to the gods—lightning bolts, plagues, you name it. They stuffed a god into the gaps of their knowledge, shrugged, and moved on. The god of the gaps was a busy god. But as time went on, one scientific discovery after another filled in the gaps, shrinking the god of the gaps. The moral of the story: Even when the evidence seems to point to intelligent design, hold out for a purely materialistic, designer-free explanation. One is sure to come along—sooner or later.

The tale is a grand one. It’s also a myth. The myth says all the action’s been in one direction—design explanations collapsing in the face of purely materialistic, designer-free explanations, and never the other way around. But that’s a myth. Things have gone the other way around.

Microminiaturized Factories

In Charles Darwin’s time, science assumed that single-celled organisms were simple, and that creatures routinely sprang to life out of things like dew and rotting meat—spontaneous generation, it was called. So the chance origin of the first living cell, deep in the past, seemed like no big deal.

But in 1861 an experiment by Louis Pasteur discredited the idea of spontaneous generation.

Then other scientists began figuring out how complex even ‘simple’ cells are. Today, the picture of the single-celled organisms is radically different. “Each is in effect a veritable micro-miniaturized factory,” writes geneticist Michael Denton, “containing thousands of exquisitely designed pieces of intricate molecular machinery, … far more complicated than any machine built by man and absolutely without parallel in the nonliving world.”

A micro-miniaturized factory, and jam packed with genetic information. We know minds can design factories and produce new information. But could blind forces have managed the job—the first living organism? The notion now seems so hopeless that some atheists have retreated to the idea that life on Earth was first seeded by … space aliens. These include mainstream scientists such as Francis Crick and Richard Dawkins.

So, scientific discoveries collapsed a trusted no-designer explanation for the origin of life, and bolstered the intelligent design explanation.

The so-called god of the gaps … grew.

In the Beginning

Another example. In the 19th century, the smart money in science said we don’t need to explain how the universe came to be because, well, it had always been. But discoveries in physics and astronomy put an end to the idea. Cosmologists now agree that our universe had a beginning.

So, what many thought never happened and didn’t need explaining—the origin of the universe—suddenly cried out for an explanation.

Next scientists uncovered what’s now known as the fine-tuning problem. They discovered that the laws of the universe appear fine-tuned to allow for life. If the strength of gravity, or electromagnetism, or the speed of light—on and on the list goes—if any of these were even a little different, you couldn’t get any atoms beyond hydrogen and helium. You couldn’t get life-essential carbon and water. You couldn’t get stars and moons and planets. You couldn’t get Louis Armstrong singing “what a wonderful world.”

The fine-tuning is so striking that even committed atheists have abandoned ordinary appeals to chance. Instead they say there must be countless universes—a multiverse—and ours is just one of the lucky ones right for life.

Some physicists see the evidence pointing in a different direction. “Intelligent design, as one sees it from a scientific point of view, seems to be quite real,” said Nobel Laureate Charles Townes. “This is a very special universe: it’s remarkable that it came out just this way.”

And this from astrophysicist and Nobel Laureate Arno Penzias: “Astronomy leads us to a unique event, a universe which was created out of nothing, one with the very delicate balance needed to provide exactly the conditions required to permit life, and one which has an underlying (one might say ‘supernatural’) plan.”

So are these physicists “giving up on science,” as some would claim? Not at all. Being open to the possibility of intelligent design isn’t giving up on science or rationality or the experimental method. It’s giving up on the myth of the ever-shrinking god of the gaps. It’s letting the book of nature tell its own story, and following the story—the evidence—wherever it leads.

And being open to the possibility of design doesn’t require that one reflexively assume design every time one doesn’t understand a natural phenomenon. Theists open to the possibility of intelligent design in the natural world are free to hone their methods of scientific detection and hold an explanation for this or that phenomenon provisionally, reassessing the explanation as additional evidence arises. This is in contrast to the dedicated materialist who must always force their god—blind material forces—into the gaps in their knowledge of the natural world.

Voyage and Return

To be sure, scientific investigators keep discovering new ways that material forces cause and shape various things in nature. But atheists don’t own the insight that we live in a world with underlying physical laws. Far from it. The idea was encouraged by the Christian belief that nature is the rational and orderly work of a divine mind, a cosmic law giver. And that faith spurred Christians like Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler to go looking for the underlying laws.

These Christians looked for them. They found them. And in the process, they launched the scientific revolution.

Christians invented modern science. But a later generation discarded science’s fertile theological soil and insisted science trade only in theories that fit materialism, fit atheism. They even redefined science as atheistic.

Harvard geneticist Richard Lewontin frankly admits this. “We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, … in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism,” he writes. He continues:

“It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.”

The most basic of those unsubstantiated stories is the myth of an ever-shrinking god of the gaps. The myth ignores major developments in origin-of-life studies, physics, and astronomy. It ignores the reality that in significant areas, the evidence for intelligent design is not shrinking, but growing.

The renowned NASA astronomer and agnostic Robert Jastrow understood as much. He wrote that for the scientist like himself, “the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance, he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.”

The English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins had it right. “The world is charged with the grandeur of God./ It will flame out, like shining from shook foil.” That shining light has penetrated the telescopes and microscopes of science, and even the eyes and minds of some scientists who would rather not see it.

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9 replies to this post
  1. Thank you for this encouraging article. I am convinced that if we go far enough in our exploration of anything, it will eventually bring us back to the truth – the Truth, that is. However, logical argument seems impotent at times. I was watching a debate recently in which an atheist scientist, when asked what was behind nature, said “probably more nature.” The philosopher debating him could hardly contain his frustration at this conceptual fallacy.

  2. “Each is in effect a veritable micro-miniaturized factory.”

    It’s even more astonishing than that. Science popularizer Arthur C. Clarke once characterized it this way:

    A single cell is not only more complex than an automobile – it’s more complex than the entire automobile industry! (not an exact quote)

  3. I was introduced to the wondrous subject of the “anthropomorphic coincidences” referenced by this article by a book written by Stephen M Barr, a scientist and professor at the University of Delaware who is President of the Society of Catholic Scientists. I believe he has several books that explore the theistic implications of scientific discoveries, but the one I’m reading is “Modern Physics and Ancient Faith.” Whatever your predisposition regarding belief may be it is a fascinating book, written from the perspective of belief. I think that since even most educated people have at best a basic familiarity with the physics of Newton or that predating the 20th century, and because much of the advance of physics since Einstein is often difficult to articulate or comprehend, there is a shallow consideration of the laws of thermodynamics that is thought to lend itself to proof that the universe is random and deterministic. Even if the work of the devout Newton might be put to such ends, ironically that of many a modern scientist, often predisposed to a dogmatic materialism points towards intelligent design and requires the flexible adoption of unproven ideas like the multiverse to allow materialism to persist. To be clear, science continues to work from the periphery because of how little we can know about our universe. However, the empirical confirmation of the theory of general relativity led Einstein from materialism and belief that the universe was random and deterministic to his famous affirmation that he “believed in Spinoza’s God” at least. He was rigorous as a scientist and so accepted that belief against his inclination because he thought it consistent with what he could observe.

  4. “And being open to the possibility of design doesn’t require that one reflexively assume design every time one doesn’t understand a natural phenomenon.”

    Design, when we’re talking about God, does not mean the same thing as when we’re discussing human design of a complex artifact, or even when intelligent design theists use the word. It’s really alluded to in the sentence quoted above. When we don’t understand a natural phenomenon, we still know that it is understandable and keep searching for the explanations. The underlying conviction that the cosmos is comprehensible is the basis for the conviction that there must be a God, and is the reason that modern science, as we know it, took off in a Christianity-informed culture and no other.

  5. The only earth shattering discovery of the last 45 years in physics was the String Theory, a theory, which one noted Yale Professor as more philosophy than fact. In theory, strings (particles that are 1 one billionth the size of an atom) are minute particles whose vibrations determine whether a particle will be space, mass, or energy. The discovery of strings came about from theoretical physics who relied on esoteric mathematics to deduce their existence. Their size prohibits discovery physically. However, Strings rather elegantly tie together or unify both gravity and electromagnetic radiation – something many scientists say is impossible.

  6. Human dignity, religious liberty, and metaphysical knowledge are probably inseparable. There cannot be human reason without free will, and consequently there cannot be physics without metaphysics. In fact there cannot be Newtonian calculus without either of two alternatives: To stick with classical geometry and arithmetic of incommensurable magnitudes as incomplete approximations however far any finite calculation is actually carried through (numerical analysis), or to accept the modern paradox of mathematical continuum (chaos theory). You can have incompleteness or you can have paradox. So the Newtonian physicist has free will. But ultimately the metaphysical impulse probably comes from questioning the negatives of war, death and evil. These somehow hurt human dignity. Hence it is often said that the human being is the only living creature aware of its own mortality, and it is probably this paradoxical awareness that is free will. Biology somehow bridges the gap between physics and metaphysics. Physics is paradox free, but can only be so if metaphysics paradoxically exists.

  7. What you call the “God of the gaps” I simply call the “God of mysteries and wonders.” Angels, too, are a part of creation and I’m not quite ready to drop my childhood beliefs that it is angels, and not simply gravity, that hold the stars and planets floating in space.

  8. Biology and history somehow bridge the gap between physics and metaphysics. The somehow is crucial. The somehow is mystery and wonder. In my personal newthomist opinion Newtonian gravity cannot exist without an angel who bridges the gap between the secondary causes calculated by Newtonian calculus to arbitrary, but still finite, incomplete precision – and God. Gravity is an angel.

    Psalm148 (KJV)
    Praise ye the Lord. Praise ye the Lord from the heavens: praise him in the heights.
    Praise ye him, all his angels: praise ye him, all his hosts.
    Praise ye him, sun and moon: praise him, all ye stars of light.
    Praise him, ye heavens of heavens, and ye waters that be above the heavens.
    Let them praise the name of the Lord: for he commanded, and they were created.
    He hath also stablished them for ever and ever: he hath made a decree which shall not pass.
    Praise the Lord from the earth, ye dragons, and all deeps:
    Fire, and hail; snow, and vapours; stormy wind fulfilling his word:
    Mountains, and all hills; fruitful trees, and all cedars:
    Beasts, and all cattle; creeping things, and flying fowl:
    Kings of the earth, and all people; princes, and all judges of the earth:
    Both young men, and maidens; old men, and children:
    Let them praise the name of the Lord: for his name alone is excellent; his glory is above the earth and heaven.
    He also exalteth the horn of his people, the praise of all his saints; even of the children of Israel, a people near unto him. Praise ye the Lord.

  9. The author completely misses the larger point of the god of the gaps which is in essence, jumping to the conclusion. To say that we have no evidence or understanding of something, therefore it could be God is much different than saying it IS god. No one is giving up on science because we don’t know the answer. On the contrary, where religion is satisfied with saying God did it, science continues to ask questions and find answers that religion cannot predict.

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