November 09, 2014

God of the Gaps

Dear Dr. Craig,

Thank you so much for your site. As an opener, I thought I'd share how much you've impacted my life, and the "random" (quotes intended) road that led me to you. If hope you'll answer my question eventually, which is very important to me. You can feel free to share or not share this story as part of the question, but I think the question works just fine as a stand-alone.

About a year ago, I'd have called myself a believer, but intellectually an agnostic. I'd attended an Ivy League school in the 90s, been taught that science and religion were to be kept separate, and that the books of the Bible were all written centuries after the fact by non-witnesses. I "believed", but if pressed, I'd admit that it was probably a matter of upbringing and Pascal's Wager that kept me in the camp.

I was having a conversation with a believing friend, and mentioned that the New Testament were third century documents. He corrected me, and told me that I should read Bauckham's book on the subject. I said "what the heck," did so, and found it persuasive.

Now, the chronology of what follows is important. It was Christmas, and I asked my Mom to just get me some books off of my Amazon wish list. She sent them to me early because my parents were traveling, and asked that I just put the box on my shelf and open it when my parents arrived for New Years'.

So the box sat, unopened, on my shelf. In the meantime, I told my friend how much I enjoyed Bauckham's book. He told me if I *really* wanted to get into the history, I should read Wright's Resurrection and the Son of God. So, I put it on my wish list. This is while the box is sitting on my shelves.

By now, I'm sure you see where it is going. I opened the box when my parents arrived, and, among a number of books on politics and history, Wright's book was in there. My parents aren't academics or avid readers in Christian literature, so they wouldn't have known to get it for me. I hadn't even heard of the book when the box arrived at our house. It is utterly inexplicable by "normal" means.

In any event, talk about scales falling from my eyes! The book was amazing. Wright's book led to the book about his debate with Crosson, which led to the book about your debate with Crosson, which led to your other debates and podcasts. As an avid high school debater myself, I loved watching your debates, and was impressed by the soundness of your arugments. More to the point, I was impressed by the utter inability of your opponents to rebut them.

I am now not agnostic in any sense of the word, and love the rational basis for my faith. A few days ago, I was tucking my son into bed, and he asked me a question about God. Whereas I might have dodged the question before, I answered that, yes, that was part of God's plan because he loves us. As I did so, I was filled with a warmth and euphoric feeling I'd never felt before. I realized that, possibly for the first time in my life, I'd been filled with the Holy Spirit. How amazing! Thank you so much for helping me down this road. It's been enthralling. Plantinga is next on my reading list!

Now, my question. In watching your debates, I came across your debate with Sean Carroll. What an outstanding performance by the both of you. I think it might be the best debate available on your site. But Carroll made a point in passing that bothers me, and I wonder if you might not flesh it out more for me. It is: How are the teleological argument, and, for that matter, the cosmological argument, not God of the gaps? It seems the argument really is "we don't know how this fine-tuning could occur without God, so it must be God." Or, "we don't know how something came from nothing, so it must be God." I admit, as I think it through, why can't the atheist simply tack on "yet." This does seem like an Ancient Greek saying "we don't know how lightning exists, so it must be Zeus." The correct answer then was simply to tack on a "yet" after "we don't know how lightning exists." I'm certain I'm missing something, but I do find this troubling from an intellectual standpoint.


United States

Thank you for sharing this inspiring story of your journey to faith, Sean! I, too, have found Richard Bauckham’s work to be quite helpful, particularly his “God Crucified,” in Jesus and the God of Israel (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 2008), which I’d commend to our readers. As for N. T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), it is the best development of that third line of evidence for Jesus’ resurrection which I include along with the empty tomb and post-mortem appearances of Jesus, namely, the origin of the disciples’ belief in Jesus’ resurrection, without which the Christian movement would not have come into being. What is most surprising about Wright’s massive book, from my point of view, is how much is left unsaid. He fully unfolds that third line evidence but says very little about those other two independent lines of evidence for Jesus’ resurrection, so that a complete case is all the more compelling.

Let me say as well how impressed I am that your friend and parents should refer you to the work of Christian scholars on these subjects rather than to popular level treatments. It’s a sad fact that not only most unbelievers, but even most Christians, are largely unaware of the body of work of Christian scholars on such subjects. Of course, not everyone is ready to jump in the deep end, as you did, but it’s important that people eventually graduate to reading such work. How great, too, that you have profited from the remarkable Greer-Heard Forums, which have featured exchanges between scholars such as Wright and Crossan or Carroll and me! I am so glad that Plantinga’s work is next on your list and would commend to you his Warranted Christian Belief (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), which I think you will find not only intellectually stimulating and but also spiritually uplifting.

As for your question, we must first ask, what is a God-of-the-gaps argument? It had better not be just any argument which infers God’s existence as the best explanation of some phenomenon. For that would be simply to rule out in advance supernaturalistic explanations, which begs the question in favor of naturalism. To be objectionable, a God-of-the-gaps argument has to be an unprincipled or gratuitous inference to God: “We have no scientific explanation of X; therefore, God did it!” Your illustration of an ancient Greek’s saying, “we don't know how lightning exists, so it must be Zeus” is a good illustration of God-of-the-gaps thinking.

It’s fairly easy, then, to see that the kalam cosmological argument is not a God-of-the-gaps argument. For the scientific evidence is not marshalled to prove the proposition God exists but to support the second premiss that the universe began to exist. Recall what I said in my opening speech:

This is not to make some sort of naïve claim that contemporary cosmology proves the existence of God. There is no God-of-the-gaps reasoning here. Rather I’m saying that contemporary cosmology provides significant evidence in support of premises in philosophical arguments for conclusions having theological significance.

For example, the key premise in the ancient kalam cosmological argument that

2. The universe began to exist.

is a religiously neutral statement which can be found in virtually any contemporary textbook on astronomy and astrophysics. It is obviously susceptible to scientific confirmation or disconfirmation on the basis of the evidence. So, to repeat, one is not employing the evidence of contemporary cosmology to prove the proposition that God exists but to support theologically neutral premises in philosophical arguments for conclusions that have theistic significance.

Since the argument is appealing to scientific evidence to prove, not the existence of God, but the beginning of the universe, it cannot be accused of God-of-the-gaps reasoning. I take this point to be decisive.

With respect to the first premiss of the argument, I’m sure you can see that I in no way argue, “We don't know how something came from nothing, so it must be God.” Rather I present metaphysical arguments and scientific confirmation for the proposition that if something (for example, the universe) comes into being, there must be a cause which has brought that thing into existence. God doesn’t even come into the picture in this defense of the causal premiss of the kalam cosmological argument.

The argument deductively implies that there is a transcendent cause of the universe. Even at this point, it is not inferred that that cause is God. It is only after one has done a conceptual analysis of what it is to be a transcendent cause of the universe that one is able to deduce logically a number of striking properties of this cause: that it is beginningless, uncaused, changeless, immaterial, timeless, spaceless, enormously powerful, and personal. Even at this point, I am content to say that the argument shows, not that God exists, but that a personal Creator of the universe exists.

So it’s no good hurling empty epithets of “God-of-the-gaps!” at this argument. The critic has got to dispute at least one of the premisses.

In fact, I’m inclined to turn the tables at this point and accuse the critic of holding to a naturalism-of-the-gaps. It is he who resists the scientific evidence for the religiously neutral statement that the universe began to exist. Why does he refuse to follow the evidence where it leads? Because of the supernaturalistic conclusion implied by the kalam cosmological argument. His naturalistic faith prevents him from following where the scientific evidence points. He hopes against hope that the scientific evidence will be upended and will restore the eternality of the universe.

What is ironic is that the prospects for such a scientific reversal are growing increasingly dim. In a recent interview George Ellis, one of the world’s most prominent cosmologists, explains that we are at the physical limits of our knowledge.1 We shall never be able to build subatomic colliders bigger than the surface of the Earth or to train our telescopes further into the past because of event horizons. If Ellis is correct, then the faith embodied in naturalism-of-the-gaps is a vain hope.

Now the fine-tuning argument does infer on the basis of scientific evidence to a Designer of the cosmos. Whereas the kalam cosmological argument inferred from the scientific evidence merely that the universe began to exist, in the case of the fine-tuning argument we do have an inference from the evidence directly to a theologically significant conclusion. But that inference is hardly unprincipled or gratuitous. As I explain in the second footnote to my opening speech in the debate,

the key premise in the teleological argument based on the fine-tuning of the universe that

2. The fine-tuning is not due to physical necessity or chance.

is logically equivalent to a conjunction, both of those conjuncts have been argued by scientists on theologically neutral grounds. As stated, (2) is a disjunction, but its logical form is equivalent to (¬p & ¬q).

Premiss (2) is a theologically neutral statement which is true if the fine-tuning is not due to physical necessity and the fine-tuning is not due to chance. Richard Dawkins, no friend of theism, has argued against physical necessity on purely scientific grounds, and Roger Penrose, an agnostic, has similarly argued against chance on a purely scientific basis.

Thus the argument for design as the best explanation is a principled argument based upon eliminating the two competing alternatives of physical necessity and chance.

Moreover, as critics of Intelligent Design have been quick to point out, the argument does not prove the existence of God but merely of a Cosmic Designer. Since the argument says nothing about the moral properties of the Designer, it cannot be said to prove God’s existence in a theologically full sense. The theist will plausibly argue that the probability of God’s existence is considerably higher if a Designer of the cosmos exists, but the argument itself is not a God-of-the-gaps inference.

So I trust you can see that it does a disservice to the argument from fine-tuning to portray it as the simplistic argument “we don't know how this fine-tuning could occur without God, so it must be God.” Rather the argument is that design is a better explanation than the other two alternatives. Of course, by the very nature of the case arguments based on scientific evidence are always provisional and open to revision. That just is the nature of science. But we have a pretty good reasons for agreeing with Dawkins and Penrose that physical necessity and chance are not good explanations. So unless and until design is shown to be even more implausible than those alternatives, it remains the preferred explanation.


[1] “Physicist George Ellis Knocks Physicists for Knocking Philosophy, Falsification, Free Will,” by John Horgan, July 22, 2014, http://blogs.scientificamerican.com.