Caution: Design Can Be a God-of-the-Gaps

This is the sixth in a series of guest blogs on science, religion, and design by Dr. Ben Clausen of the Geoscience Research Institute, based near the campus of Loma Linda University. The words that follow are his.

These naturalistic explanations for design have their problems, but an appeal to a supernatural being also has its problems as pointed out in the book 36 Arguments for the Existence of God by Goldstein (2010). The design argument can easily degenerate into a god-of-the-gaps argument (McGrath 2014; Luskin 2014): Anything humans can’t explain, must have been by God’s specific intervention.

Before Sir Isaac Newton, God was thought to be directly responsible for making sure the sun rose every morning. Then Newton explained the motion of the sun, moon, and Earth using the laws of gravitation, while still attributing the laws to God’s design. Because of these natural laws, the observation of Halley’s comet in 1682 resulted in a predicted return in 1757; a yet to be observed planet (Neptune) was used to explain what would otherwise be slight gravitational irregularities in the orbit of Uranus. However, equations for a solar system with more than two bodies could not be solved exactly, and perturbations could accumulate and disrupt the order. So Newton felt that God (a god of the gaps) had to occasionally intervene to adjust the orbits because they were unstable and could become chaotic.

Eventually it was found that the perturbations averaged to zero and planetary motions were stable, so that equilibrium in the solar system could be explained without some supernatural intervention. Pierre Simon de Laplace further developed the theory of cosmology and carried naturalistic determinism to the point of saying that the future behavior of the universe is absolutely predictable, given the present position and motion of every particle today. He believed that nature was so well designed, that there was no need for a “god-of-the-gaps”. Tradition has it that Laplace gave his 1798 book, Mécanique Céleste to Napoleon, who said: “M. Laplace, they tell me you have written this large book on the system of the universe, and have never even mentioned its Creator.” LaPlace responded, “Je n’ai pas besoin de cette hypothèse” … “I have no need of that hypothesis.”

Now theists seem comfortable accepting that God works through natural law to keep the solar system working without occasionally intervening in some “supernatural” way not amenable to scientific study. Over time the need for God seemed to decrease and this god-of-the-gaps design argument has fallen into disrepute. Thus, using the design argument as a god-of-the-gaps argument can be dangerous, because further evidence can refute the argument. Intelligent design arguments can do religion a disservice. One who makes a proof for God on the evidence of design today must be prepared for a possible disproof tomorrow.

To be continued. . .

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *