"God of the gaps" is a general name for any theological argument that argues for the necessary existence of God as an explanation for some particular phenomenon that challenges the limits of human understanding. In modern times, it has the distinction of being an approach to apologetics more favored by atheists than theists.
An early critic of this form of argument was Henry Drummond, a Christian evangelist and science enthusiast, who objected to it primarily on the grounds that it reduced the all-encompassing glory and power of God, a glory and power capable of encompassing the entire universe, to something large enough only to fit a given hole in our understanding of that universe. Later, the well-known Christian theologian and anti-Nazi activist Dietrich Bonhoeffer added to this critique the observation that the ongoing advance of scientific knowledge was making those "gaps" smaller and smaller, and thus less and less able to hold any reasonable conception of God.
At the same time as such arguments were being increasingly discredited by theologians and believers, they were simultaneously gaining popularity among atheists as being usefully easy to debunk. In the present day, they are particularly favored, for example, by the biological theorist and atheistic polemicist Richard Dawkins. A typical Dawkinsian "God of the gaps" argument begins from the assumption that best argument in favor in belief in God is that only God could have produced the wealth of diversity we see in living creatures, proceeds to demonstrate that science has crafted a plausible, well-supported, naturalistic explanation for the same, and concludes that belief in God is therefore rendered wholly superfluous and unnecessary.
Given how thoroughly "God of the gaps" has been discredited by the best minds on both sides of the debate, it may seem a fool's errand to seek anything worth salvaging within it, and yet I have recently become convinced that there is a core insight hidden in this argument, unappreciated by any of its modern critics. To uncover it, let us start by unpacking the central metaphor. We can picture human knowledge as being solid ground, and the "gaps" in that knowledge as being holes in the ground. Originally, so the story goes, these gaps were huge gaping chasms, and it was easy to imagine God living somewhere down inside them, but now they have shrunk to the size of little ditches, and we can all see for ourselves that there is nothing inside.
Yet, if we wish to be fair to all those medieval theologians, we must acknowledge that it was not actually all these little gaps as we know them today they were contemplating. It was the big gap, the one at the outermost edge of human knowledge. After all, if knowledge is a land mass, it must be an island, it does not extend forever, it has an outside boundary somewhere. At one time, when you contemplated questions like the origin of the species or the motion of the planets, you were traveling to the very edge of human understanding and looking out into the vastness beyond. The fact that such questions seem diminished as mysteries of existence is not just because we are filling in the gaps, but because we have built outwards past the old edges, so that the view out towards the horizon is no longer unobstructed.
Thus, the question becomes: In what kind of knowledge landscape do we find ourselves? Are there an infinite number of mysteries in the universe? Are the limits of possible understanding located an infinite distance away? If so, no matter how far out we extend our framework of knowledge, there will always be an outer perimeter, outside which will remain an space so infinitely big that it might arguably serve well as a divine domicile. Conversely, do we, as the "God of the gaps" criticism implies, live in a bounded knowledge space, a room, so to speak, of large but finite size, containing a countable finitude of things to learn, a space in which even now we have drawn near to its firm boundaries, and in which we merely need to fill in the few small holes that remain? The second option might, in fact, be true, but to assume it given our current state of knowledge requires, in my opinion, a considerable act of faith.
Of course, any metaphor that envisions the limits of knowledge as a fully enclosed space inevitably calls to mind the famous Allegory of the Cave from Plato's Republic. In this extended metaphor, Plato describes the ordinary world as we experience it as no more real than shadows cast upon the wall of an underground cave. No amount of examination of the subterranean world itself brings you any closer to what Plato considers the truly important truths of life. Instead, to gain real wisdom, you must ascend to the surface, where you can finally gaze out across the void of the heavens and perceive the sun, the source of all heat and life (an entity identified by Plato's disciples, the Neoplatonists, as a metaphor for God). Thus, in Plato's view, we perceive God not in the fulfillment of the promises of our ordinary knowledge, but in its absence. We draw closer to God not by extending what we experience as knowledge outward, but by leaving it behind.
Chris Sunami writes the blog “The Pop Culture Philosopher,” and is the author of several books, including the social-justice oriented Christian devotional Hero For Christ. He is married to artist April Sunami, and lives in Columbus, Ohio.
Brian Buchbinder says
In a way your argument is a straw man. There is no necessary connection between non-belief and the positing of a restricted knowledge space. Whether the gaps are “small” and potentially fillable or whether our ignorance will expand along with our knowledge, there is no necessity to fill gaps with speculation rather than curiosity. I much prefer questions to answers, and as has been said by others, progress in material knowledge is not made by experiencing “eureka” but by noting “that’s interesting.”
It’s not because the gaps which convinced medieval theologians of the existence of an entity to which they were already committed to have been filled that theism is forlorn. Theism is unproductive in increasing knowledge. The posit of materialism might or might not have any more metaphysical grounding than that of theism, but it is entirely more productive than the alternative.
Michael Burgess says
Well you have identified the right kind of argument: gaps in the knowledge about physical phenomena can only be filled with reference to other physical phenomena. So we need to establish a ‘gap’ of a radically different kind to hold God.
And this has been the real dramatic shift in perspective that renders both The God of The Gaps argument and yours (God of the Noumenal Gap) rather ineffective and unpersuasive. You neglect to mention that for most of human history both forms of the argument have been blended together: it wasnt just that people thought there were gaps in our knowledge, they thought these were Noumenal (, Platonic, Divine) Gaps – unfilllable with reference to ‘mere’ physical stuff.
Thus there has been two epistemic shifts: 1. the realisation that a lot of “popular theology” rested on pure arguments from ignorance (what you describe as Dawkin’s strawman) and 2. the realisation that even when our intuitions suggested Noumenal Gaps (unfillable by “ordinary explanation”), we were totally mistaken – no such noumenal gaps existed (eg. vitalism is wrong).
Thus Dawkins is quite right and more sophisticated than you’re giving him credit for. It isnt that *merely* religion is epistemically over-valued because it papers over so much ignorance (as we came to discover), it’s also over-valued because it has previously assumed a form to our ignorance, and explanation of it: that we could never know because the gap itself was divine (noumenal, etc.) – and it has been consistently wrong about that.
So not only has the ocean of our ignorance being drying up – to the chagrin of the local priest – but we have been seeing more of this drying in process: we have become more certain that it is all the same kind of stuff. When we thought divine, we found physical. With each Gap that is filled, we fill a little of Plato’s cave.
Peter Hardy says
I think the comments are a bit unfair in associating ‘God of the Gaps’-style explanations with theism in general. Many of us ‘better informed’ theists of today follow Bonhoeffer in seeing the poverty of that approach, both philosophically and spiritually.
I think there is an ‘Atheism of the Gaps’ as well, which overreaches from the state of science and the absence of (certain kinds of) definitive proof of God, as a justification for atheism.
Jay Jeffers says
Hey great post, Chris! I love the move of making the gap about “the outermost edge of human knowledge” (whether that was what it was about all along or is a kind of innovation, I can’t speak to).
One question, though: Would you say a belief that shared the form of the God of the Gaps but differed only in that it appealed to reference to the best explanation (abduction), or something less than “necessary” reasoning, would it not be a God of the Gaps kind of belief? I ask pertaining to a sentence in your opening paragraph:
“’God of the gaps’ is a general name for any theological argument that argues for the necessary existence of God as an explanation for some particular phenomenon that challenges the limits of human understanding.”
I may not be clear where necessity comes in, in other words.
Ryan James says
I think the comments here are missing out on the very neoplatonic idea. For the Hellenistic neoplationists: Plotinus, Iamblichus, Proclus, and (on the Christian, rather than pagan side) Pseudo-Dionysius, the question of there “being” a god is essentially nonsense, since god, or The One, stand above being as the source of all intelligible reality. There is no sense of “Neumenal Gap” because neumena are unknowable, but still intelligibles. The One of the neoplationists technically fills all of intelligible reality and extends beyond as a purely active and simple principle from which everything emenates.
Though I am myself an atheist, I feel the need to correct the ignorance of an extremely rich philosophical tradition. The “gap” argument may very well have a relation to neoplatonism. But neoplatonism doesn’t place god anywhere in or outside of those gaps. But it can be said to be analogously present in “appearance”. For dionysius, for example, all reality is theophany.
The gaps of understanding, so long as those are gaps in what we can understand is still filled with the appearance of the Neoplatonic god. But it is outside of all of this, our finite knowledge and the holes in our knowledge that we can aquire understanding of the One. That’s what Chris is getting at with that comparison, not some Neumenal gap, but the grounding of reality which stands at and outside the limits of what can be known.