The phrase “God of the gaps” was invented by the 19th century theologian Henry Drummond. He was speaking of the things that science could not explain yet, and which, he said, some Christians treated as “gaps which they will fill up with God”. Drummond, and many other Christian theologians and scientists after him, have urged Christians to avoid this temptation and instead to embrace all nature as God’s.
Recently the phrase has been used to counter various apologetic arguments for the existence of God. When a Christian says something like “the fine tuning of the cosmological and physical constants suggests a divine designer,” some atheists will counter that this “God of the gaps” argument ignores the possibility that science will eventually find a naturalistic mechanism that explains the values of those constants as a part of a physical law, as has happened in the past. Some Christian thinkers have agreed that using God to explain any natural phenomenon that has not been explained by a naturalistic mechanism runs the risk of making God “too small” or irrelevant, even leading to a loss in belief in the power or existence of God, who could then become superfluous to our understanding of reality.
If one believes, as I do, that God is the creator of all that is and sustains and maintains our physical world, how does one reconcile this belief with a scientific worldview and still avoid the use of God-of-the-gaps-style arguments?
It’s certainly true that ancient humans who had little to no knowledge of how the world worked inserted mythical gods and other unseen forces to explain things like thunder, illness, rain, etc. That was a true “gods of the gaps” approach to knowledge, but it has been discredited for centuries.
Does this mean science is replacing God, as so many journalists and online pundits loudly proclaim? If not, then what part of the physical universe, the province of scientific discovery, can be used in a theological analysis that points to God without invoking the God-of-the gaps fallacy? The key is in using what we do know about the scientific explanations for mechanisms, rather than what we don’t know. This works because scientific explanations for mechanisms of natural phenomena are not the end of our understanding or curiosity about the world.
When physicists discovered that quantum theory explained the structure of atoms, the activity of electrons, and the existence of discrete lines in electromagnetic emission spectra from distant stars, a large gap in understanding the mechanisms by which light (and other EM radiation) behaves was solved.
But when Max Planck and Niels Bohr were asked about the philosophical meaning of the mysteries revealed by quantum mechanics, they answered that such issues were not of their concern – the science of quantum physics was correct, it worked, and it was up to others to work out the mysterious parts of the theory. And, in fact, further scientific advances, such as the testing of the Bell inequality and the universality of the uncertainty principle, have done nothing to “explain” the mystery, but have simply confirmed the scientific truth of a very strange physical reality.
When Darwin proposed the materialistic theory of evolution, and the Modern Synthesis decisively found the genetic mechanisms by which evolution works, that was considered to be the mechanistic gap-filling explanation for how life got to be the way it is. God was no longer needed to explain life, the argument from rational materialists went.
Evolution in biology provides a wonderful explanation of how life diverged from a primordial living cell, and the mechanism of evolution is extremely useful in understanding how biology works. But that same evolutionary mechanism points to several underlying philosophical mysteries about life. In fact, the mystery of the origin of life owes a good part of its intractability to the reality of evolutionary biochemical mechanisms.
What we have learned about the enormous complexity of life raises philosophical questions that go well beyond the straightforward and logical understanding of the mechanisms of natural selection and mutation of genotypes. Among those questions are those related to purpose. Why is there life, is there a purpose to life, and in particular to conscious, sentient life? What, in fact, is consciousness, who has it, and why? Answering such questions by reference to evolutionary mechanisms (as some try to do) is not good science, and it is also bad philosophy.
The question of the origin of the universe is another example of a gap filled by a scientific mechanism that leaves us with a profound mystery and a pointer to God. Assuming the Big Bang model continues to hold up (as it appears to), the very nature of time, space, matter, and energy has entered the realm of the unknowable at their origins before the Planck time.
So, yes, science can and will continue to fill gaps in knowledge with explanatory mechanisms, and I believe we have no need of what is meant by the worn-out phrase “God of the gaps” when doing Christian apologetics related to scientific knowledge. What we should be doing is using that scientific knowledge to find pointers to the “God of Wisdom”. That God is very real and belief in Him grows stronger with every new discovery. Mechanistic explanations for phenomena are not the end of our knowledge and understanding. There is no question that quantum physics is real and correct, and that it explains many things beyond emissions spectral patterns. But do we fully understand QM as a rational materialistic explanation? No, we do not. Entanglement, the observer effect, and tunneling are philosophically mysterious, and they have profound theological implications. This is not because of any scientific gap – the gaps have been filled. And it is the filling of those gaps that actually point to God, not the gaps themselves.
My favorite example of the God of Wisdom replacing the God of the gaps is Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, which proves (a rare thing in science) that there are some things (in this case, the simultaneous momentum and position of an electron) we can never ever know. This well-established, fundamental cornerstone of modern physics by itself disproves scientism. I believe we will find more such unknowable principles, especially in biology.
My view is that for the past century and more, and as we progress in the future, scientific findings have and will continue to uncover new mechanisms to explain how the world works, and that those new mechanisms will continue (as they have always done) to point to God as the creator and sustainer of the universe. Because, as Lord Kelvin said 120 years ago, “mechanism explains nothing.” And “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 9:10).