Tuesday, January 11, 2011

God of the Gaps?!

On an Amazon.com discussion, Intelligent Design was (once again) accused of the "god of the gaps" approach. To this, I responded thus:

Many have responded to this old canard, such as Bill Dembski in The Design Revolution and myself in my forthcoming book, Christian Apologetics. "God of the gaps" just presupposes that naturalism can explain everything; if it faces an explanatory problem, it refuses to consider a non-natural explanation involving original, intelligent causation. That is dismissed as "god of the gaps." It is an air-tight strategy that begs the question in favor of naturalism. Yes, some theistic explanations have failed, but not all. Moreover, many naturalistic explanations have and continue to fail. It cannot account for irreducible complexity or objective moral value, and so on. See JP Moreland, The Recalcitrant Imago Dei.


Fran Szarejko said...

Thanks for taking the lead here!

Jad said...

Does this kind of thinking make naturalism unfalsifiable?

Dr. Polhemus said...

The impasse is not due to a presupposition of naturalism. The problem is that scientists require an explanation that provides testable predictions.

I study cosmology, so I am interested in explanations of how the universe began. Explanations based on materialist theories (particle physics, general relativity, and inflation) provide detailed predictions about the tiny fluctuations in the cosmic microwave background. These predictions have been verified by observations. Therefore, we accept these theories as a good explanation of what happened in the early universe.

I've read the cosmological arguments for the existence of God and arguments that the fine tuning of the physical constants shows an intelligence at work. My question is always the same: What can we predict and check using these divine explanations? The divine explanation predicts that the universe exists and that the physical constants support life, but we already knew that the universe exists and supports life. We can't use those observations as confirmation. We need predictions that are confirmed by later observations.

If deists can make predictions that are confirmed by observations, they can overcome the prejudice of the scientific community. Quantum mechanics violated the deeply held presuppositions of determinism, but the theory was quickly embraced because it made many novel predictions which were verified in experiments.

Perhaps this demand for testable predictions is unfair. Certainly there are true statements that have no testable consequences. If someone asserts that a copy of a precursor to the synoptic gospels was in the Library of Alexandria, I have no way to verify that. The assertion could be true, so it would be unfair for me to argue that it is false simply because it can't be verified. However, it would also be unfair for that person to accuse me of being closed-minded because I don't embrace his assertion.

General relativity, quantum field theory, big bang cosmology, germ theory, evolution, plate tectonics, atomic theory, climate modeling, and other scientific theories have all provided heaps of predictions which have been verified by mountains of observations. Divine explanations have not delivered, so they do don't get to be part of that elite club.

It could be that God exists; certainly some things make more sense if he does. But without predictions we can test, "God exists" is not a statement that can join "E = mc^2" and "All terrestrial life is related" as a scientific fact.

Douglas Groothuis said...

Dr. Polehmus:

This is getting old. ID has specified multiple predictions and falsifications of its own theory. See Stephen Meyers' material in Signature in the Cell as well as Dembski in The Design Revolution. Behe has laid out what would falsify his examples of irreducible complexity. It hasn't been done.

You limit predictions to naturalistic metaphysics, so still beg the question.

ID uses the best explanation method for singular occurrences or forensic reasoning. Again, see Meyer's work on this.

Douglas Groothuis said...

Further, Darwinists such as Richard Dawkins used to taunt design theorists about "junk DNA," saying much of it as vestigial and non-function, left over from previous evolutionary history.

They were wrong. The non-coding regions are functional and necessary, as William Dembski predicted in 1998. Does this count as a falsification of Darwinism?

Here are references to the non-junk nature of DNA from recent literature:

See James A. Shapiro and Richard Sternberg, “Why Repetitive DNA Is Essential to Genome Function,” Biological Review 80 (2005): 227–50; Richard Sternberg, “On the Roles of Repetitive DNA Elements in the Context of a Unified Genomic–Epigenetic System,” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 981 (2002): 154–88; Richard Sternberg and James A. Shapiro, “How Repeated Retroelements Format Genome Function,” Cytogenetic and Genome Research 110 (2005): 108–16. On the role of “junk DNA” in plants especially, see: Feng et al. “Coding DNA repeated throughout intergenic regions of the Arabidopsis thaliana genome: evolutionary footprints of RNA silencing,” Molecular BioSystems, 2009. On the uses of “junk DNA,” see Stephen Meyer, The Signature in the Cell (New York: HarperOne, 2009), pp. 125, 257, 367, 406, 407, 454,

Bob said...

Junk DNA? What do you call it when an amoeba has 200 times more DNA than a human? Either that amoeba really needs all that DNA, or much of it is, y'know, *junk.*

Bob said...

When ID is the scientific consensus, I'll be happy to accept it. So far, that's not the case.

I haven't seen examples of irreducible complexity. Admittedly, there are some where biologists don't have plausible biological pathways, but the burden of proof is on the person who claims irreducibility.

For something like the bacteria flagellum, for which no part can be removed without it breaking, the obvious prior step to consider is the one with one additional protein. Imagine playing backwards a video of the building of an arch. You'd see the arch, and then you'd see the last piece of the scaffolding being added. Same with anything that looks irreducibly complex--the prior state would show the last fragment of (now unneeded) scaffolding.

Douglas Groothuis said...


I don't find much of any argument there.

Bob said...


I'm not quite sure whether your last comment meant "I don't have much argument with what you said" or "I don't see that you have much of an argument." I'll assume that it's the latter.

Have you heard of the c-value enigma? C-value is a proxy for DNA length--it's much easier to weigh DNA (the c-value is the weight) than to count all its base pairs. Check out the chart at the bottom of this page: http://www.genomesize.com/statistics.php

I suppose you could claim that those plants and animals that have long DNA simply need all that DNA--for example, that an onion actually needs 5 times the DNA that a human does. But most observers see a lot of inactive DNA there.

Is there junk DNA in the human genome? I dunno, but there sure seems to be a lot of junk DNA in most other life forms!

Dr. Polhemus said...

Prof. Groothuis,

Thanks for your replies. You second reply is right on target. I'm not qualified to understand the papers you cite, let alone judge their merits. I will take your word that they show that "non-coding regions are functional and necessary, as William Dembski predicted in 1998." That is just the sort of prediction and confirmation that ID needs to be taken seriously. One prediction is a good start. About a hundred more confirmed predictions like that one, and we could start calling it science.

Your first reply highlights several things that are not going to get ID taken seriously. Specifying multiple predictions is great, but those predictions need to be confirmed, like the one above. I haven't seen many examples of confirmed predictions from ID.

Specifying falsifications is something people often say is important, but in my experience scientists don't actually care much. Scientists are very practical and want positive, useable results.

You say that "ID uses the best explanation method for singular occurrences or forensic reasoning." Scientists don't use those methods to judge theories, they want to see predictions confirmed. I'm very sympathetic on this point. My training is in String Theory, which is clearly the best explanation for gravity. However, predicting "things fall" isn't very original. String theory has made only a few new predictions, so it is falling on hard times. ID will suffer the same fate if it doesn't make predictions, even if it is "best" according to forensic reasoning.

I'm not making these points in an effort to argue against ID or promote a particular philosophy of science. I'm just offering my observations of what is required to be taken seriously in science. I make these observations as someone who has given these issues carful consideration because they bear upon me professionally. I do think that the path to credibility laid out by scientists is reasonable. Based on what I've seen, ID is only just beginning down that long road.

You also say that I "limit predictions to naturalistic metaphysics...." I don't think I do this, but perhaps if you explain I can learn something.

david thurman said...

the problem with intelligent design is disembodiment or dualism. Not that secular naturalism is any better but really, dualism of any form is simply Gnostic whether it be immaterial or material. In this culture one tends to support the other in self agreement. It's one of the problems with evolution is that it's used as verification of certain sectors as validating their presuppositions when it's clearly false. Generally natural selection is taken to mean static or independent entities in competition an action in opposition to each other. Is evolution true, absolutely but life and reality manifest of from a deeper order not accidental but unique. God in the gaps fails early Christian thinking and simply is inconsistent with original concepts such as logos.

david thurman said...

ID is simply Modern immaterial Gnosticism arguing with modern material gnositism who cares really, neither are valid to logic or even the the concept logos.

Douglas Groothuis said...

Calling ID gnosticism is bizarre. It attempts to explain contingent physical states on the basis of recognizable patterns that indicate intelligence. How is that anything like Gnosticism, which rejects the worth of the material world?

david thurman said...

"Calling ID gnosticism is bizarre. It attempts to explain contingent physical states on the basis of recognizable patterns that indicate intelligence"

Independent of the patterns? What like a clock maker? how any more gnostic can it it get than that? That by definition is Gnosticism.