Spiral galaxy in Coma Cluster [Courtesy NASA] Jesus' crucifixion, exterior of La Sagrada Familia cathedral, Barcelona, Spain [Photo by DHB, (c) 2011]

Can (or should) God be found in the gaps of scientific knowledge?

David H. Bailey
1 Jan 2017 (c) 2017

Introduction

A large fraction of the writings of creationists and intelligent design proponents can be summarized as a search for phenomena that appear to be outside the realm of what is known or possible in science. The hope is that such features of nature can then be cited as "proof" of God's handiwork. See, for example, Mark Isaak's book, which presents and then addresses, from a scientific point of view, an encyclopedic collection of such claims from the creationist and intelligent design communities: [Isaak2007].

But there are fundamental difficulties with this approach to theology. In fact, this approach even has a name: the "God of the gaps." The main difficulty with this approach is that science is relentlessly expanding its reach, and what one day might be unexplained could be satisfactorily explained, in terms of prosaic natural processes, the next day. Here are just a few of the many historical examples that could be cited:

  1. In medieval times, no one understood how planets and stars could move in their orbits, so angels were thought to guide them in paths along crystal spheres circling the earth. But with the work of Copernicus, Kepler and Newton, the motion of the planets was explainable by the action of gravitation.
  2. Isaac Newton, even though he was the one who first discovered the law of gravitation and applied it to the motion of planets, still thought that a supernatural being was required to periodically adjust orbits. But later French mathematician Pierre Simon Laplace showed that the instabilities that Newton worried about would iron themselves out.
  3. Until the rise of modern biology in the 19th century, a "life force" was thought to be required to animate nonliving matter. But then scientists found how numerous biochemicals could be synthesized from scratch, and today there is no clear-cut delineation between organic and inorganic chemistry (except that organic chemistry generally involves carbon, hydrogen and oxygen, among other elements).

God of the gaps in the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries

The earliest instance where the dangers of placing God in the current unknown of science were clearly expressed is most likely the writings of 19th century scientist-theologian Henry Drummond. In his book The Ascent of Man, he wrote [Drummond1894, pg. 333]:
There are reverent minds who ceaselessly scan the fields of Nature and the books of Science in search of gaps -- gaps which they will fill up with God. As if God lived in the gaps? What view of Nature or of Truth is theirs whose interest in Science is not in what it can explain but in what it cannot, whose quest is ignorance not knowledge, whose daily dread is that the cloud may lift, and who, as darkness melts from this field or from that, begin to tremble for the place of His abode?

In the 20th century, theoretical chemist Charles A. Coulson highlighted these difficulties in several works on theology. In Coulson's view, the "God of the gaps" approach was a vulnerable and unjustified strategy for finding harmony between science and religion. Coulson, like Drummond, taught that God was to be discerned through the ordering and beauty of the world, not hiding the recesses of the unknown or excluded from the rest of nature. Coulson expressed this as follows [Coulson1958, pg. 19]:

This [dichotomy between God and natural science] is a fatal step to take. For it is to assert that you can plant some sort of hedge in the country of the mind to mark the boundary where a transfer of authority takes place. Its error is twofold. First it presupposes a dichotomy of existence which would be tolerable if no scientist were ever a Christian, and no Christian ever a scientist, but which becomes intolerable while there is one single person owning both allegiances. And second it invites "science" to discover new things and thence gradually to take possession of that which "religion" once held.

Additional details on Coulson's views of God can be found in a chapter on Coulson in Alister McGrath's book [McGrath2010].

Concerns about the pitfalls of the God of the gaps approach to science and religion continue to be seen in dialogue from both religious and scientific camps to the present day. Here, for example, is a comment from a 2008 report by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences [NAS2008, pg. 54]:

Both science and religion are weakened by claims that something not yet explained scientifically must be attributed to a supernatural deity. Theologians have pointed out that as scientific knowledge about phenomena that had been previously attributed to to supernatural causes increases, a "god of the gaps" approach can undermine faith. Furthermore, it confuses the roles of science and religion by attributing explanations to one that belong in the domain of another.
Noted biologist and author Kenneth Miller, a Roman Catholic, observed, explained the issue in these terms [NAS2008, pg. 15]:
Creationists inevitably look for God in what science has not explained or in what they claim science cannot explain. Most scientists who are religious look for God in what science does understand and has explained.

Conclusion

For more than 100 years, the "God of the gaps" theology has been recognized as a dead end in the search for harmony between science and religion. Today, as never before, scientific knowledge is progressing at an astounding rate, with tens of thousands of professional scientists publishing hundreds of thousands of articles each year. In this environment, seeking God hidden in the recesses of scientific ignorance is tantamount to theological suicide. Those writers who espouse this approach are doing their readers a disservice.

For addition discussion, see Bible-science, Creationism, Evolution-progress, Fossils, Prehuman-fossils, Big bang theology and Natural law.

References

[See Bibliography].