January 3, 2020

Cliff’s Edge

A cartoon shows two scientists looking at a complicated formula on a blackboard. Amid the numbers, letters, and symbols of the various steps are the words “And then a miracle occurs.” One scientist points to that sentence and says to the other, “I think you should be a bit more explicit here in step two.”

The cartoon makes fun of what has been called “the God of the gaps.” Though understood in variegated and nuanced ways, the idea is that when scientists run into a phenomenon they cannot “explain” (a concept exceedingly more complicated than most people imagine), then God’s mysterious working must be the answer. “Creationists eagerly seek a gap in present-day knowledge or understanding,” wrote Richard Dawkins. “If an apparent gap is found, it is assumed that God, by default, must fill it.”

As usual, that’s a Dawkins’ caricature of creationism and of science itself. The ancient Greeks, those whom we might loosely call the world’s first “scientists,” sought natural phenomena to explain other natural phenomena. In the twelfth century Abelard of Bath argued that in natural philosophy (the precursor to science) we cannot use supernatural causes to explain the workings of the natural world. Even when admitting that he had no clue as to how gravity worked (calling the idea that two bodies influenced each other across the expanse of space “an absurdity”), Isaac Newton never evoked God to scientifically explain this gap in his knowledge, despite being a creationist. What serious scientist involved in research, creationist or not, does what was mocked in that cartoon?

Dawkins also propagates another misconception nestled within “the God of the gaps” notion. Just because science comes up with an “explanation” for a phenomenon doesn’t mean that God is automatically pushed out. It’s a metaphysical, not a scientific, notion that divinity is excluded by default the moment science makes a new “discovery” or devises a new formula. Besides, formulas only describe, not explain. E=mc2 doesn’t teach us why energy equals mass times the speed of light squared. It’s just a succinct description of the phenomenon, not an explanation of it.

Contrary to the “God of the gaps” idea, it’s what we know about the world, not what we don’t (the gaps) that reveals God to us. For example, our better grasp of the complicated biochemical process that forms blood clots doesn’t mean that God had or has nothing to do with it. If anything, our deeper scientific understanding of natural phenomena, in all their complexity and mystery, reveals more about how God works in our world than had been previously understood.

Scripture is clear: God is not only the Creator of the physical world, but also its sustainer (see Heb. 1:3; Acts 17:28; Ps. 104). Meanwhile, a scientific explanation is just that, a “scientific” one, and thus remains limited within its own human-made confines about what it can claim, regardless of what’s beyond those confines. Given the limits of what nature reveals to us, added to self-imposed and often philosophically based presuppositions of science, it’s hard to imagine how science could ever “prove” the workings of God, no matter how obvious those workings.

I titled this piece “The God of the Gap,” singular, to point out a specific gap and, even more specifically, where that gap is. Notice, it was “step two,” not step one, that the cartoon mocked. There’s a good reason, too. How could a scientific formula account for step one without first being explained by something prior to it, which means that it wasn’t step one, after all. In order to be step one, in order to fill that first gap, it would have to be uncaused and eternal, and what else could that be but God?

To get out of that conundrum, some cosmologists, such as Stephen Hawking, argue that the universe arose out of “nothing.” What else? With the exception of an eternally existing God, only “nothing” needs no explanation. And if your science demands the exclusion of the divine anywhere along the line, then “nothing” is the only logical option.

So “nothing” created the universe, or “the God of the gap,” the first gap, did. Take your pick.