A sound version of the God in the gaps

Even if we take “God in the gaps” as a fallacy, we dismiss the argument too quickly. There is very often more going on in them than what can be waved off with a catchphrase or quick refutation.

The familiar structure of the sort of argument that gets called God in the gaps would be something like ‘How can you say there is no God? You can’t possibly explain _____________” More formally, the argument seems to be

There must be some explanation for ___________, since it’s there.

There can be no natural explanation for ____________,

Therefore, there is some explanation above or beyond nature, and this is what all call God.

Predictably, the minor premise is attacked. The argument requires that something is unexplainable in principle, but we can’t establish the existence of such a thing by multiplying instances of things actually unexplained. We thought we needed God – i.e. an act of special creation in addition to the general creation- to explain star formation, elemental genesis, the origin of species, etc., but we were wrong. This leaves open the central question whether there is something unexplainable in principle. So how can we being to touch on that question?

Some marvels arise when we don’t know an explanation, but they are of different sorts. The marvel at a magic trick is dispelled when the trick is explained, but the wonder of, say, seeing your two-minute old baby know how to nurse is not the same sort of thing. The difference I’m interested in here is that the first wonder can be repeated on command in front of pretty much anybody; while the second strikes you out of the blue, and you are simultaneously amazed that everyone can’t see it and completely able to understand why they wouldn’t.  This difference seems to be grounded in different ways in which the marvel is seen as integral to the reality of what we are seeing. In seeing the magic trick, no one assumes they are seeing something fundamentally real – no one calls 911 when Copperfield cuts a girl in half or Houdini is underwater for twenty minutes. But the amazement at seeing the child nursing or the night sky or whatever-it-is is a sense that you are seeing the reality of things. During the experience you are flooded with the idea that there is a dazzling and therefore inexplicable reality at the basis of things. Non theists have this experience too, and so it’s not definitive for the God-in-the-gaps argument, but it does move the argument to a more interesting place, since now theists and non-theists are on the same page that there is something inexplicable in principle.

There does, however, seem to be an atheist way to interpret the experience in question. After all, if there is something inexplicable in things, it is false to say that there must be some explanation for ___________, since it’s there. But the argument hides a subtle and significant claim: sc. that if something is in principle inexplicable to us, it is altogether inexplicable. But this claim does not seem to be faithful to the very experience it is trying to explain. The ecstasy of seeing something inexplicable in things is not an awareness of their fundamental irrationality – it is not the chaos and abyss of something that falls outside of reason altogether; though for all that it remains something in principle inexplicable to us. If this is so, we have a good reason to accept the theistic account of the experience over the atheist one.

I stress that, by the very premises of his argument, the theist can give no explanation for the thing – not even “God did it”. God does not enter into the account of the marvel as a being we can ferret out by a causal account. God shows up in the argument as he who is necessary if we are to distinguish what is inexplicable to us from what is wholly irrational. IOW, we’re working from the idea that being is intelligible, and if it is not so to us, then it must be so to another. Without this division, it seems impossible to faithfully account for the experience of a natural marvel. If this is what the supposed “God-in-the-gaps” argument is trying to say, then the argument is sound.

1 Comment

  1. Crude said,

    August 29, 2013 at 10:01 pm

    Mike Gene over at Shadow to Light argues (convincingly, in my opinion) that for all the complaints about the ‘God of the gaps’, that happens to be exactly what many skeptics want.


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