On the “God of the Gaps”

The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo

If God exists, he knows all the physical explanations of all the phenomena. From his point of view, there is no “God of the gaps.”

Hence our inability to explain something about the world is no reason to infer that God makes human-style arbitrary choices. In other words, for example, God’s mechanism for creating life would be evolution, of course. Where there are inexplicable-seeming leaps, surely God would know of the explanation. But our ignorance is no argument for theism in itself, of course, any more than any scientific fillings-in of erstwhile gaps in our knowledge is an argument for atheism or scientific materialism.

Even if we had a perfect scientific explanation of everything from the Big Bang, to the universal constants, to the origin of life, to every last evolutionary gap, one might still feel impelled to the conclusion that the explanations themselves seem to be guided by purposes. It is not the random-seeming things in the universe that might reveal divinity, but the awe-inspiringly ordered and comprehensible things.

It is not the random-seeming things in the universe that might reveal divinity, but the awe-inspiringly ordered and comprehensible things.

If we could not state what these purposes were, then this would seem to be mere superstition. But scientists become theists because God’s purposes seem clear: the universal constants permit the existence of spacetime and the coalescence of matter, and in particular stars and planets; certain unlikely chemical facts (we don’t understand them all) are absolutely necessary in order for life to exist; certain incredible evolutionary leaps seem designed to lead life on earth ever onward to greater awareness and knowledge, culminating in man.

It is not the gaps in explanation that would lead one to infer God from the cosmos, if one were inclined to make that inference. It is the fact that the insanely particular natural laws and constants we have discovered indeed have resulted in such a splendid cosmos.

It seems indeed so splendid that the specific laws and constants that explain it all appear to reveal a mind with purposes. That, surely, is the thought that has driven so many people to accept the design argument—not that divine intervention is necessary to fill in the current gaps in our explanations.

The Ancient of Days by William Blake





Please do dive in (politely). I want your reactions!

4 responses to “On the “God of the Gaps””

  1. Seth Finkelstein

    I’d say this post is too ambiguous between what might be termed
    “The God Of The Cosmos”, and let’s call it, “The God Who Wants You To Vote
    Republican”. These are very different concepts. The same sequence of
    three letters being used for both of them, does not mean they are
    identical entities, or have arguments for the former prove the
    existence of the latter. In fact, I’d say if anything, they are opposites.
    The more abstract one gets in order to have Cosmological God, the more
    absurd it becomes that it’s Trump-endorsing God.

    Just to be clear, since this is the Internet,
    “Republican/Trump-endorsing God” is my colorful phrasing for the idea
    of a supposed Supreme Being who sets out detailed human society rules.

    Larry, I’m curious, what’s your personal view on the question of theodicy?
    (i.e. where was God at Auschwitz?). Of course it’s a whole topic of theology.
    I’m asking how you deal with it yourself, in terms of reconciling the issues.

    1. Good Lord, when did I mention “The God Who Wants You To Vote Republican”? But I suppose you mean the God of the Bible versus a deistic God.

      If you find the sort of cosmological and teleological arguments (both are quickly mentioned) in my post persuasive, then this is probably not a God who is not a mere watchmaker god, a deistic god who set the original conditions and then set things to working. The reason I say this is that the purposes we imagine we see in the cosmos are not exhausted in the initial moment of the universe, but extend into the present. If a divinity purposed to move the universe toward land, life, perception, and intelligence, this would be a God with purposes, hence a mind that can change from moment to moment and which might well design things to move things a certain way at a certain time. That’s not a mere deistic God.

      Of course, nothing about a non-deistic God demands that we equate it/him with the Biblical God or a Republican God.

      I hope it’s clear I haven’t actually committed myself to any of this. My point was more “meta,” about people who reject evolution (why??) and people who reject the design argument (on the basis of the “God of the gaps,” which a theist needn’t and shouldn’t rely on).

      My view of theodicy was recently clarified by a re-reading of the Book of Job. This is just one thing I feel I’d have to have a theory about before actually declaring myself a believer. The God of the Hebrews, anyway, is remarkably purpose-driven. He is all about making his people pure, and redeemed through literal animal and food sacrifice, and then of course Christians would say that the divine purpose unfolded further when Jesus redeemed us all without sacrifice—but only if we came into a certain (inherently redemptive) relationship with him. All of history then, as far as the Christian Bible is concerned anyway, seems bent toward bringing all of humanity into communion with God so that, while retaining free will, we freely embrace a cleansing association with a personal God.

      Nothing is more important than that, period—not even life (on earth) itself.

      Once you understand that much, then the rest of it makes a bit more sense. God’s purpose is to have these other souls—not NPCs in a game he plays with himself, but people who think for themselves—in communion with himself. But, for some reason I’m not quite sure I have grasped yet, purity is deeply important to him. This is one of the deepest and most important themes throughout both testaments. Now the problem is that when God granted man free will, and gave him just one job, viz., don’t eat of the Tree of Death (as some call it), or the Tree of Knowledge of How to Be Evil and of Loss of Innocence (as it might more properly be called), of course man bungled it.

      Well, then, why not at least make the world perfectly just, as Job’s three foolish friends imagine it to be, so that man is always rewarded for doing what God wants and punished for what God doesn’t want? Answer: then man is just another kind of slave. Life without random ups and downs, one that is perfectly predictable, would be another kind of slavery; we’d be like rats in a maze. Hence natural evils seem required.

      Even if they weren’t, man-made evils would be, because free will absolutely requires that God not intervene to prevent people from doing evil, and an awful lot of the evil we want to do is evil toward each other.

      A problem that exercises me along the same lines is why God doesn’t reveal himself more clearly, especially to people outside of Abrahamic traditions. And what happened to all those people, the old Canaanites that God said the Israelites had to wipe out mercilessly (mercilessness was a particular injunction in Deuteronomy!). Are they all in Hell? Did they never have a chance? And is that true of Chinese peasants? (But see Romans 2:14.)

      I’m not sure. The God of the Bible seems to find heathen lives rather cheap except when they are saved. Otherwise they seem to be no great loss. That, of course, is not our modern view. I think the lesson of Job is that we cannot guess at God’s purposes and so ultimately we cannot construct a complete theodicy.

  2. Nameless

    An even better question is is why such a God, regardless of His nature, would be so fixated on free will that he allows it to overrule his own omnipotence- especially when a freely made choice can still be influenced without free will being outright compromised? Assuming this is still the Abrahamic God, of course (and that free will even exists in the first place, but that’s another even more complicated question.)

    Either way, there’s the even bigger question of why he would bother creating anything at all. A being that was already perfect and all-sufficient has no real motive to create anything, let alone care about what it created afterwards.

    1. I can’t help you with your “even bigger question.”

      But why fixate on free will? As someone put it in some video I watched, think of God like a video game designer: it would of course be boring and unrewarding to make a game with nothing but perfectly-behaving NPCs. Much more fun to make players who can do stuff on their own, without being controlled from above.

      I think philosophers tend to make God’s omnipotence and omniscience into something monolithic and utterly unconstrained, when divine nature might be much more interesting.

      Obviously we have no way of knowing, short of rationally accepting the Bible (if that is possible), and then making a few inferences from the scanty evidence it provides.

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