Thursday, July 11, 2013

Larmer on God of the Gaps reasoning

I'm redating the post on Larmer's essay on God of the Gaps.
I conclude that there is nothing wrong with the reasoning typically involved in “God of the gaps” arguments. The widespread dismissal of such arguments as unworthy of serious consideration is, therefore, unjustified.--Philosopher Robert Larmer.
I am a tad surprised that people haven't picked up on this, since it's a direct attack on one of most often-used arguments in the atheist playbook. I do note that Tom Gilson has picked up on it, however.

22 comments:

w said...

I've always thought of the problem of God-of-the-gaps arguments in terms of a "pessimistic induction."

A thought X could not be explained by natural causes, therefore A concluded God was responsible for X.

B thought Y could not be explained by natural causes, therefore B concluded God was responsible for Y.

C thought Z could not be explained by natural causes, therefore C concluded God was responsible for Z.

As it has turned out historically, however, natural explanations have been found for X, Y, & Z, so the motivation for concluding that God was responsible for X, Y, & Z was undermined.

After the same story being repeated time and time again (e.g. the eye, bacterial flagellum, the immune system, etc., ad infinitum), a pessimisic induction is made:

In the past every (or almost every) specific instance in which it was said that no natural causes could explain event, E, and that God must, necessarily, be the cause, a natural explanation has been found making the invocation of God as a cause turn out to be premature.

Therefore, probably, a natural explanation is possible for any event, E, and the conclusion that God is, necessarily, the cause is premature.

John W. Loftus said...

Christian philosopher W. Christopher Stewart objects to the “god of the gaps” epistemology because, as he says, “natural laws are not independent of God. For the Christian theist, God upholds nature in existence, sustaining it in a providential way.” From his perspective this is true. But his rationale is a bit strange. He says, “To do so is to make religious belief an easy target as the gaps in scientific understanding narrow with each scientific discovery,” in “Religion and Science,” Reason for the Hope Within, ed. Michael Murray (Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub., Co., 1999), p. 321-322. Now why should he be concerned with this unless science truly is leaving less and less room for the supernatural? He’s admitting the evidence does not favor his faith. He’s trying to explain away the evidence. If he still lived in a pre-scientific era before science could explain so much he’d be arguing this is evidence that God exists!

exapologist said...

I agree. See also Larmer's paper in Philosophia Christi on Methodological Naturalism, as well as the following sampling, for a powerful case for the in principle possibility of appeals to intelligence in the sciences:

Moreland, J.P. Christianity and the Nature of Science, 3rd printing (1992), esp. Ch. 6.

-"Creation Science and Methodological Naturalism", in Bauman, Michael, ed., Man and Creation: Perspectives on Science and Theology (1993).

-"Theistic Science and Methodological Naturalism", in Moreland, J.P., ed., The Creation Hypothesis (1994).

-"The Explanatory Relevance of Libertarian Agency as a Model of Theistic Design", in Dembski, William A., ed. Mere Creation: Science, Faith, and Intelligent Design (1998)

Meyer, Stephen C. "The Methodological Equivalence of Design and Descent", in Moreland, ed., The Creation Hypothesis (1994)

Dembski, William. (That's right, I said "Dembski" -- not all is dross in his writings) "On the Very Possibility of Intelligent Design", in Moreland, ed., The Creation Hypothesis (1994)
-"Appendix" in Dembski, Intelligent Design (1999).


Plantinga, Alvin. See his papers on methodological naturalism, the god-of-the-gaps criticism, and his discussions of "Augustinian" vs. "Duhemian" philosophy of science

Ratzsch, Delvin Lee. Nature, Design, and Science (2001).

Reynolds, John Mark. (That's right, I said "John Mark Reynolds". Just because his political blog posts are crazy, it doesn't follow that all is dross in what he has to say). "God of the Gaps", in Dembski, ed. Mere Creation (1998).

Swinburne, Richard. The Existence of God. (haven't read the new 2004 edition) See especially his discussion of personal vs. scientific explanation


Now I don't think all these pieces are right on everything they say, but they *do* make a good prima facie case for the in-principle legitimacy for appeals to intelligence in scientific explanations -- even in terms of an invisible designer. It's not responsible to ignore these arguments if you're aware of them.

Aristotle appealed to God in his scientific explanations. Was he a moonbat for doing so? No.

Theists -- at least sensible theists -- don't appeal to God in explanation by arguing in either of the following ways:

1. I can't think of an explanation for X in terms of natural causes alone; therefore, God is the explanation of X.

2. X is too complex to be produced by natural causes alone; therefore, God is the explanation of X.

Sophisticated theists make neither a blatant appeal to ignorance (as in (1)), nor an inference from mere complexity (as in (2)); they admit that neither is sufficient to justify an appeal to a designer. Rather, they add a further requirement that *X must also have some earmark of intelligence*. Thus, their reasoning is of the following generic form:

3. (i) x can't be explained in terms of naturalistic mechanisms within a a mature science, and (ii) x bears feature F that's known to be caused by intelligent ageny; therefore, probably, x is at least partly explained in terms of intelligent agency.

Different canditates for earmark F have been proposed throughout the centuries:

(a) x has parts that work together to perform a function. (Paley)

(b) x is irreducibly complex (Behe)

(c) x has specified complexity (Geisler & Kirby, Dembski).

These are all legitimate candidates in my book. So I think there's no problem with appeals to God in science, at least in principle. The problem I have is that they all fail *in practice*. For example, with reference to (a)-(c) above: evolution can produce objects whose parts work together to perform a function (so, no-(a)); the examples of irreducible complexity have been demonstrated no to be so on further inspection (cf. Kenneth Miller's stuff); and Ratzsch and Fitelson have shown that (c) admits of counterexamples.

In any case, that's my two cents on this stuff.

exapologist said...

Sorry, that was sloppy, but I just had a minute.

Victor Reppert said...

I have my doubts about the scientific juggernaut closing all the gaps. with respect to explaining consciousness, the progress of science, I think, is actually making things worse instead of better for the naturalists. Science has been going at the brain for quite awhile, but the reduction of consciousness to brain states is no better off than it was 50 years ago. Similarly, we once thought it easy to accept a beginningless physical world, but big bang theory put the kibbosh to that. We used to think science would find determining causes for every event, but quantum mechanics has knocked that out of the water.

Some gaps are closing, and some are widening. There are gaps, and then there are gaps.

stunney said...

A standard, if tired, worn, and false claim made by atheists is that "there is no evidence for the existence of God". If that were literally true, it would be really weird that it was, given the fact that billions of sane people for millenia have been theists of one sort or another. Compare that with the number of people who've had a lifelong belief, say, that there are brothels on the Moon (which is why it's a cheesy place). In other words, the widespread existence of a belief that p is to a large degree a function of the evidence that people think they have for p. As Chesterton put it, people have reasons for belief even if they can't always give you their reasons.

What the atheist means, of course, is simply that there is nothing which they would count as evidence for the existence of God. But people have plenty of evidence for God's existence all the same. There are lots of phenomena, including publicly available phenomena, which are decent reasons for holding that the universe has a theistic creator, thus licensing an abductive inference to the conclusion that theism best explains the data. Abductive inference is typically employed in science, and not least in observationally challenged sciences relating to subjects buried in 'deep time', like cosmological and biological evolution.

More importantly, we theists should face squarely the fact that lots of individual tokens and types of phenomena are much more indicative of the conclusion that we live in a theistic creation than are other phenomena. People don't reason their way to a theistic conclusion by surveying in one giant sweep all of our reality and then exclaiming, "Aha! God exists." It may be true, indeed I think it is true, that God's is an eternal, infinite omnipresence, and not a particular phenomenon. But surely the existence of life, rational minds, moral value, and religious experience is more a signifier of God as far as we're concerned than, say, the existence of McDonald's, even if God's activity is just as necessary for the existence of McDonald's as for the Big Bang and the mental life of world-class physicists?

There is a danger in letting naturalism reign by default. Roughly, this is the mistake that allows naturalism to declare:

When it comes to public knowledge of what the world is like and explaining how it got that way, science is the only game in town. All the other games are fine pastimes, and can be played in private.

Huw Price, a moderate naturalist, explains the basic idea:

…..Won't any view which focuses on the role of (apparently) descriptive language in different areas of discourse want to say that science is special, or primary, in some way? Indeed, what would commitment to naturalism amount to, within this picture, if not something like this? And it is easy to take this as the thought that science (or perhaps some subset of it, such as its observational part) involves genuine descriptions, in contrast to the quasi-description of the other discourses. If we say this, we are committed to a form of noncognitivism, at the expense of functional pluralism. So a functional pluralist needs to resist this move, and yet to deal with the intuition that there is something primary about science.

The philosophical roots of this kind of division of discourse into substantive fact-describing discourse, which is deemed the sole preserve of science, and non-substantive, non-fact, non-describing discourse lie in Hume's enormous and on the whole pernicious influence on Anglophone intellectual life. But theists have taken heart from the revolutionary and effective challenge to the Humean/Quinean hegemony wrought by Saul Kripke's modal semantics, as presented in his celebrated 1970 lectures at Princeton, published later as Naming and Necessity. The key idea of Kripke is that the implicit theory of reference relied on by naturalists is fundamentally mistaken. Kripke argued persuasively that the way language, and hence thought, refers to reality transcends natural world descriptive categories in a number of important and essential ways. Reference and truth thus do not reduce to description of naturalistic entities. Modal properties are not physically detectable entities, and yet both are required by scientific reasoning itself, let alone theology. See also David Chalmers' paper, Materialism and the Metaphysics of Modality for more of that sort of thing.

I think, therefore, that it is neither wise nor necessary for theists to concede the whole world to the naturalist and not treat particular places in it, such as minds, meanings, intentions, free will, morality, aesthetic value, the anthropic cosmological fine-tuning data, the mathematical intelligibility of the physical order, religious experience, etc, as being especially amenable to a theistic inference, and indeed as being more plausibly explained by theism than by evolutionary naturalism. I see, therefore, no reason why, say, the biological DNA code should be ruled out in advance or in principle as being one of these 'special places and things' where the hand of God seems particularly manifest. How can it be ruled out, indeed, given that the universe is finely tuned for our biology, and that our biology is capable of thinking about the Big Bang, quantum gravity theories, and Godel's incompleteness theorems, not to mention morality and Trinitarian theology?

The naturalist impulse is to naturalize everything from the process by which the universe's anthropic fine-tuning is selected, to minds, moral obligations, the meaning of theological statements, and reason itself. It's comforting to think that we can all agree to a Treaty banning Philosophical Naturalism from Intruding Into Science, and all live in a nicely demarcated intellectual village called Methodological Naturalism. But that is an illusion. We see time and time again the attempt to engage in intellectual imperialism, whereby morality, religious belief, intentional thought, love, altruism , etc are 'scientifically revealed' to be 'just' the evolved product of our genetic history, and the special nature of our universe is 'simply' due to a natural observer selection effect expectable in a multiverse. This is not mere insistence on methodological naturalism as an appropriate heuristic procedure in science. It's about hijacking the warrant science rightly enjoys on behalf of philosophical naturalism and its predominantly materialist metaphysics.

In all likelihood, most professional soccer players don't consider divine guidance to be behind the way the color of grass looks green to players with normal eyesight in normal lighting conditions during games. But then, why would anyone imagine that professional soccer players are the go-to experts on such a question? Why, then, would anyone with even a modicum of nous imagine that atmospheric scientists are the go-to folks for determining whether the weather is divinely guided, or to biologists for determining whether living species were intelligently designed by a rational creator? That would be about as sensible as asking plumbers for their professional opinion about God's role in determining water pressure requirements for Manhattan skycrapers. But it doesn't logically follow from the fact that Manhattan plumbers don't ordinarily invoke, nor need to invoke, God when it comes to thinking about and explaining water pressure requirements for plumbing in Manhattan skyscrapers, that naturalism is true. Nor does it follow that there's no evidence that skyscraper plumbing systems were intelligently designed by minds, even though their construction can all be explained physically in terms of physics, chemistry and biology.

But if we on this side don't say no, naturalism simply does not work or is not persuasive at some particular bits of the world—biology rather than skycraper plumbing, intentionality rather than the weather—then we'll be conceding implicitly that the intellectual hegemony which naturalism enjoys is deserved. And the truth of the matter is, it isn't.

Ilíon said...

stunney: "A standard, if tired, worn, and false claim made by atheists is that "there is no evidence for the existence of God". If that were literally true, it would be really weird that it was, given the fact that billions of sane people for millenia have been theists of one sort or another. Compare that with the number of people who've had a lifelong belief, say, that there are brothels on the Moon (which is why it's a cheesy place). In other words, the widespread existence of a belief that p is to a large degree a function of the evidence that people think they have for p. As Chesterton put it, people have reasons for belief even if they can't always give you their reasons. ... "

I seems to me that one cannot *rationally* claim "there is no evidence for the existence of God" while simultaneously saying (admitting) "I couldn't recognize evidence for the existence of God from non-evidence, if there is, in fact any."
I try to explore this idea here

John W. Loftus said...

Isn't it interesting that before the rise of modern science when people could not explain much at all, theists would often utilize the very god of the gaps argument that they now want to distance themselves from? Whatever could not be explained they resorted to: "God did it," or "God explains it." The list of such things is probably endless, from a healing, to the rain, to the birth of a child, to winning a war.

I admit that the the god of the gaps epistemology is a logical failure when used by either side. But if the standard of belief is logical proof, then there isn't much any of us can believe. We're talking about probabilities here. The real question is who must retreat more often to the "merely possible" in order to defend his views.

The fact that Christians have abondoned the god of the gaps defense when they previously used it so often, it a testimony to the fact that the evidence in nature does not support the belief in God. The evidence from nature is that there is no active supernatural being in this world. Now God might exist anyway, but there is no evidence of his activity in our world. That's what Christians have learned to give up by abandoning the god of the gaps defense. Others like me simply say that if there is no evidence of God's activity in our world, then it's likely there is no God (given this information alone). This is a reasonable conclusion to make.

Anonymous said...

John W. Loftus said:

"Isn't it interesting that before the rise of modern science when people could not explain much at all, theists would often utilize the very god of the gaps argument that they now want to distance themselves from?"

[Before the rise of modern science nobody argued: "Because science can't explain exactly ________, it must be God who causes it".]

I have read some ancient writings, but I don't remember that I had found any "God of the Gaps" arguments (gaps arguments, that are trying to be proofs of God's existence). For example, in the Bible there is not even any arguments for God's existence.

"Whatever could not be explained they resorted to: "God did it," or "God explains it." The list of such things is probably endless, from a healing, to the rain, to the birth of a child, to winning a war."

Your examples were not gaps arguments. Winning a war could perhaps be evidence for something, but it is not gaps argument. And birth could also be for example "signal", but it is not "gap". (If parents were very old, or mother was virgin, then perhaps the birth of child could be a gap argument.)

John W. Loftus said...

Oh come on anon. I don't have the time right now to research into all of this, but doesn't the Bible claim God brings the victory in war and defeat if there is sin in the camp; and doesn't the Bible claim God opens and shuts the wombs; and doesn't the Bible give credit to God for the rain whereas droughts are God's punishments; and doesn't the Bible credit God with the rise and fall of kings????

This is all "god of the gaps" type reasoning, and there are surely many more examples of this both in the Bible and also among ancient people.

Do you need further documentation?

Anonymous said...

Bible says that God has made many things. But saying, that God does something is not necessarily gap argument.

I will argue that Bible does not propose gap arguments as a reason for belief that God exists.

Do you need further documentation?

If you disagree, then yes.

BK said...

doesn't the Bible claim God brings the victory in war and defeat if there is sin in the camp; and doesn't the Bible claim God opens and shuts the wombs; and doesn't the Bible give credit to God for the rain whereas droughts are God's punishments; and doesn't the Bible credit God with the rise and fall of kings????

Yes, it does. But as the prior commenter noted, this is not "God of the gaps". Maybe that's the reason you and I don't communicate well. You call something "God of the gaps" when it clearly isn't.

exapologist said...

Addendum to my previous comment in this thread:

I forgot to add another canditate earmark for intelligent design that's recently been introduced to the debate:

(d) x exhibits "counterflow" (cf. Del Ratzch, Nature, Design, and Science)

Hans said...

'I conclude that there is nothing wrong with the reasoning typically involved in “God of the gaps” arguments. The widespread dismissal of such arguments as unworthy of serious consideration is, therefore, unjustified.--Philosopher Robert Larmer.'

Larmer said it. I believe it. That settles it.

jnkslagle said...

I agree with anonymous and bk. The Bible certainly ascribes actions to God, but without necessarily defining those actions as supernatural. For example, the parting of the Red Sea is clearly considered an act of God, but is just as clearly described as the result of a strong east wind which blew all night (Exod. 14:21). Ascribing it to God did not fill a "gap" that the natural processes failed to explain.

anon said...

Stunney,
Come back to telicthoughts.
You're missed.

Bilbo said...

Interesting paper. It would be interesting to quantify the actual number of "God-of-the-gaps" arguments (that take the form: "The cause of x is unknown, therefore God(s) must have caused x") used throughout history.

My guess is not very many.

Bilbo said...

Now that I think about it, I think Newton was guilty of a God-of-the-gaps explanation. Based on the reported story, Newton couldn't offer a natural explanation for the initial position and velocity of the planets, and therefore concluded that God must have been responsibility. This seems to fit the gap explanation perfectly:

1) We don't know why the planets had the initial positions and velocities that they did.

2) Therefore God must have caused them to have their initial positions and velocities.

I think Larmer is mistaken. The fact that Newton already believed in God does not negate the fact that this is a God-of-the-gaps explanation. We have phenomena whose cause we are ignorant of, and therefore conclude that God must be the cause.

B. Prokop said...

What I most dislike about the "God of the Gaps" charge is that it is fundamentally based on imaginary history. I've done some rather extensive reading (admittedly in translation) of the most ancient texts still in existence, such as Gilgamesh, The Theogony, The Mahabharata, etc., as well as examined in situ numerous paleolithic stone circles and standing stones in Britain, and it seems fairly evident to me that "primitive" Man did not first wonder about the universe and then subsequently attribute various phenomena to some deity or deities. Rather the process appears to have been quite the reverse. Man first discovered (or was caused to learn of) the existence of God, and only afterwards explained the workings of nature by His/Her/Their actions.

If anything, what actually occurred in past ages was a "Science of the Gaps". It's long past time we tossed this misbegotten polemical misnomer into the dustbin of history. It is a false, made-up charge by nonbelievers in the mistaken notion that they somehow are scoring a point by using it.

I for one certainly do not believe in any "God of the Gaps" - mine is a "God of the Filled-in Spaces".

BenYachov said...

>This is all "god of the gaps" type reasoning.....

No I'm afraid it's not. You are equivocating between God as the ultimate explanation for Providence & why reality is the way it is with citing God as the impromptu explanation for unknown natural phenomena. The later mechanistic view of reality being properly called god-of-the-gaps.

>I don't have the time right now to research into all of this...

At least you admit your ignorance here if only implicitly so I give you props for that.

David B Marshall said...

Given a gap between what one causative agent can plausibly explain, and what has actually occurred, of course one live possibility is that some other agent is at work. If wind action does not fully explain the Grand Canyon, then water action may reasonably be invoked.

Personally, I'm not sure anything at all has been explained yet, apart from God -- not even John Loftus.

Victor Reppert said...

Shoot. The link is broken.