I’ve been thinking about the God of the Gaps argument today. Proponents of naturalism (of both the philosophical and methodological stripe) use this argument in an attempt to discredit design theory as a means of explaining the physical world. The argument usually goes something like this: There are many things we formerly did not understand, such as the law of gravitation. We might have been content to sit back and say “We don’t understand gravitation and we never will; God must have done it so there is no sense in inquiring further.” But we were not content to rest in our ignorance, and scientists like Newton kept at it until they discovered the law of gravity. There only seemed to be a gap that we needed to fill with God. Similarly today, we can be assured that science will eventually fill in the remaining gaps of our scientific knowledge. Thus, there is never a need to resort to “God did it” as an explanation for any phenomenon.
Most ID proponents do not insist that a deity must have been the designer. Nevertheless, the God of the Gaps argument is employed against ID by one of two means: (1) We don’t care that you don’t posit a deity as the designer in your theory; we have fathomed your heart of hearts and we know that God (especially the God of the Bible) is really whom you have in mind. (2) Even if we grant that you don’t posit God as the designer, you still posit the act of an agent, which cannot be encompassed by explanations based strictly on mechanical necessity (i.e., the laws of nature) and/or chance. Since science operates only with explanations based on law and/or chance, for purpose of the “gaps” argument, it makes no difference if you posit a non-deity agent, because an “agent of the gaps” is just as much a scientific show stopper as a “God of the gaps.”
The problem with the “God of the Gaps” argument is that it is demonstrably false as a matter of the plain historic record. Consider the law of gravitation from the example I used above. No one can seriously doubt that Isaac Newton was a deeply religious man. Indeed, he saw his work not as the search for knowledge for its own sake, or even for the sake of the practical benefits that would ensue from his discoveries. No, he saw his life’s work as an inquiry into the nature of God’s design in the cosmos. Newton believed “God did it.” So why didn’t this belief bring his scientific inquiries to a screeching halt? After all, that is exactly what the “God of the Gaps” theory predicts should have happened.
Newton did not stop his work for the same reason people work jigsaw puzzles. Millions of jigsaw puzzles are sold every year to people who know beyond the slightest doubt that the overall picture was “designed” and that each of the individual pieces was cut by a designer in such a way as to fit into a unified whole. So what is the fascination of a jigsaw puzzle? At a certain level it seems utterly pointless. Yet, humans appear to have an innate drive to explore puzzles. There is something deeply satisfying about working out how a set of complex and seemingly unrelated pieces fit until an elegant, beautiful and unified whole. The inner drive that motivates my kids to sit on the floor by the tree and put together the puzzle they just got for Christmas, is the same drive that motivated Newton to discover the laws of gravity and Kepler the laws of planetary motion. Newton and Kepler were working on the grandest jigsaw puzzle of all – the jigsaw puzzle of the cosmos. It mattered not one wit to them that before they ever began their inquires God had “painted the picture and carved the pieces of the puzzle” as it were. They were driven to discover how it all fit together.
For this reason ID is not a scientific show stopper because it posits design in the universe. The fact of design means nothing when it comes to continuing to investigating the details of the design – working the puzzle if you like. With respect to every phenomenon we choose to investigate through the scientific method, we can ask what is its function, how can we model it, how does it fit into a unified whole, and can we use it to improve our material condition? These are all jigsaw puzzle type questions, questions we are driven to answer by our innate curiosity about the world in which we live. And at the end of the day it seems to me that it makes little difference in how we approach these questions if we assume the puzzle was made by blind chance and law that came together with such perfection that an illusion of design arises, or if we go one step further and assume the appearance of design gives away the fact of design. The puzzle of how it all fits together and how we can use it remains to be solved.